Church Signs Across America
by Steve and Pam Paulson
Overlook, 162 pages, $19.95
Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape
by Sam Fentress
David & Charles, 159 pages, $29.99
I will always remember the day I discovered the concept of irony—not the word; that would come much later. But when I did learn the word, a smile of recognition spread across my face and an image came to my mind.
I was perhaps six or seven years old. It was a hot summer’s day in Birmingham, Alabama, and I was making my more-or-less daily pilgrimage to Snappy’s Service Station to get a Coke. A new Chevron emporium stood nearby, but its Cokes came only from a modern coin-operated machine. At Snappy’s you had to fish them out of a big red waist-high cooler with a sliding glass door on top, and then you had to pay at the register, but it was worth it because the drinks often were slightly slushy with ice. My friends and I scorned the modern machines.
But as I approached Snappy’s on my banana-seated red bike, my mood of anticipation was suddenly broken, and I braked to a quick stop. There in front of the station a car had crashed into a light post—and, to judge from the condition of the car’s front end, had done so at a significant rate of speed. No one was in the car or nearby, nor, as I watched, did any ambulance or police car turn up, so perhaps the accident had happened some time earlier. The only movement at the scene came from the rectangular plate dangling by a single bolt from the front of the car, swaying a little in the hot breeze. It read GOD IS MY CO-PILOT.
Aside from the discovery of irony, I had also learned how much meaning can be crammed into just a few words, at least if the circumstances are right. And it is a belief in the power of brevity that underlies the strange activities described in two new books of photographs: Church Signs Across America by Steve and Pam Paulson and Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape by Sam Fentress. Both books are entertaining and occasionally quite funny, but when I put them down I was surprised to discover how sad I had just become. I think there was just too much irony.
To judge by the content of these books, church signs are more likely to strive for humor than ones put up by individuals. That may have something to do with the fact that many churches come with signboards, and those boards have to be filled up—so why not fill them with something funny? Plus a church can seem a little uncared for if the sign isn’t changed once in a while. So not all the signs photographically collected by the Paulsons suggest that great care was taken in their making. After you look through a few dozen of them, though, you start noticing patterns, and one of the pleasures of perusing Church Signs Across America is the organizational game you can end up playing. So herewith are my core principles of categorization:
Religious or Nonreligious: There are 162 photographs in the Paulsons’ book, and roughly a fourth of them have no religious content whatsoever. Some defy my taxonomic skills, either because they’re on the borderline (PLAN AHEAD—IT WAS NOT RAINING WHEN NOAH BUILT THE ARK has a biblical reference but no necessary spiritual meaning) or because they’re incomprehensible: What does CHECK UP BEFORE YOU CHECK OUT mean? Did it get transplanted from the dentist’s office? To judge from these signs, Americans have two primary shortcomings: We talk too much, and we don’t smile enough. There are many variations on these themes: A CLOSED MOUTH GATHERS NO FOOT, for instance, and IF SOMEONE IS WITHOUT A SMILE, GIVE THEM YOURS. But variety is the spice of church-sign life. We also get financial advice (A BUDGET HELPS US TO LIVE BELOW OUR YEARNINGS), assistance in child-rearing (ONE WAY TO MAKE CHILDREN MISERABLE IS TO GIVE THEM EVERYTHING THEY WANT!), and general guidance for relationships (BEST WAY TO HAVE THE LAST WORD: APOLOGIZE). As I reflect on the wisdom dispensed in these nugget-size units, I wonder whether such signs fairly represent the teaching that goes on in their churches, or whether they are evangelistic ploys based on the principle that you begin by giving people something helpfully nonthreatening and then, once you’ve caught their interest, hit them with the gospel. Alas, there’s no way to tell. But it’s interesting to note that, if the Paulsons’ book is a reliable guide, you’re just as likely to get a vague moral uplift from an Assembly of God or a Southern Baptist church as from a Unitarian or an Episcopal one.
Humorous or Serious: Most of the signs want to be funny, though in varying ways. The humor tends to be pretty genial, with far too much reliance on bad puns, but sarcasm and even plain bitterness make their appearances. The pastor of the Wesleyan church in Smyrna, Delaware, must have struggled through one too many stewardship campaigns by the time he made the sign reading TITHE IF YOU LOVE JESUS! ANYONE CAN HONK! I wonder what kinds of sermons you hear in the First Assembly of God of Valdosta, Georgia, which proudly bears the message ETERNITY: SMOKING OR NONSMOKING. And I have to admire the person who has simply had enough of the whole pithy-saying enterprise: SIGN BROKEN—MESSAGE INSIDE THIS SUNDAY.
Biblical or Nonbiblical: I was surprised to see that in the whole of the Paulsons’ book only a half-dozen signs were composed of Bible verses—including one church in Corinth, Kentucky, which cut the Gordian knot of ever-changing signage by erecting a permanent red-brick diptych with the Ten Commandments engraved on it. (Here we stand, we can do no other.) The Paulsons do show us a few vague biblical references, like the one that reads DON’T GIVE UP! MOSES WAS ONCE A BASKET CASE!—a message that assumes a little more biblical literacy than seems to me warranted. But, in general, the sign makers shy away from the Bible. I wonder if the Paulsons’ collection is representative in this respect: Did they not bother to record many biblical signs because they wished to highlight human, um, creativity?
Positive or Negative: Perhaps some subdividing is called for here, since the positive messages can be words of encouragement, reassurance, or exhortation, while the negative ones can take the form of warning or blunt threat. Though, again, there is the occasional sarcasm (WHAT PART OF “THOU SHALT NOT” DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?), the negativity tends to be pretty earnest and preoccupied with the likelihood of the Second Coming; the encouragement and exhortation are likewise earnest but in a more lighthearted you-can-do-it kind of way.
Reading through Church Signs Across America, I found myself asking which of these churches I would attend if I had to decide on the basis of the signs alone—omitting, since I am a Protestant, the Catholic ones, though not without regret, since the only sayings of great Christians in the whole book are found on Catholic churches. (I must say that LORD, MAKE ME AN INSTRUMENT OF YOUR PEACE and OUR HEARTS ARE RESTLESS UNTIL THEY FIND THEIR REST IN YOU look a little funny in all caps.) In general I was more attracted to the negative ones. Their pugnaciousness suggests a certain indifference to public opinion that is, or at least can be, commendable in a Christian community. Plus, I know that I would never, ever attend a church that had used its sign space to encourage me to smile more often. But, despite my Eeyorish inclination, I could not suppress a grin at one of the saccharine ones: IF GOD HAD A REFRIGERATOR, YOUR PICTURE WOULD BE ON IT.
If the church signs can seem perfunctory at times, the religious signs in barbershop windows—or on the blank brick walls of garages, barns, or even private houses—don’t need to be there. No one would miss them if they were absent, which yields them a fierce immediacy. The people who create them are probably a little too intense for humor: You hope not to end up waiting in line with one of them at the DMV, and you don’t want one to take the stool next to yours at the local diner.
This urgency gives a tense energy to all these signs, even the seemingly casual and funny ones. It’s nearly palpable, the sign makers’ fear that we will pass by, at speed, focused on other things—worldly things that keep God far from our minds—and their conviction that only something exceptionally vivid has a chance of catching our attention. It’s the visual equivalent of shouting. Flannery O’Connor once defended her own methods of fiction writing by saying that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large startling figures.” These signs are like that, and, indeed, the title of one of O’Connor’s most famous stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” is borrowed from a billboard encouraging people to drive safely.
The photographs by Sam Fentress powerfully capture this intensity. Bible Road is a very different book from Church Signs Across America, in large part because the Paulsons stood in front of a lot of signs and took snapshots of them, whereas Fentress is a gifted artist whose photographs embrace the varying moods and textures of the many distinctly American scenes he portrays. (Several of these photographs first appeared in the October 2001 issue of First Things.)
“JESUS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD” reads one of the messages Fentress captures. In fluorescent lighting exactly like that on a cheap motel—there’s even a slightly tilted bright yellow star in one corner—the image is set in the evening sky, wrapped in the deep purple of the last moments of dusk. (The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.) Fentress’ pictures are often in just this way sympathetic with their subjects: They cooperate with and even accentuate the mood of the signs themselves. When the message is blunt and stark, so too is the photograph. Here’s what Fentress saw in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1985, on a rented lit-from-within sign with black letters stuck on:
JESUS SAID YE MUST BE
BORN AGAIN JOHN 3-7
AREA SIZE RUG SALE
A simple straightforward message from a simple straightforward world. Fentress shot it with black-and-white film and allowed the sign to fill nearly the whole frame.
In contrast to the Paulsons’ church signs, Fentress’ images—on buses, on the signs of interstate-exit truck stops, on telephone poles, on flat rocks, on almost anything—are overwhelmingly biblical, as his title suggests. Even where they are not direct quotations, they refer to biblical events or teachings, or they name the names of God, or—as on a carefully but amateurishly hand-painted message planted on a roadside in Prattville, Alabama—they just say READ THE BIBLE.
The simplicity intensifies the urgency: Sometimes you get the sense that people could write only a few words, or even one word, before being taken hostage by criminals, or dying of some strange blood disease, or suffering abduction by aliens. Someone has spray-painted on a stainless-steel electrical box, “God says, Faith Without Work Dead”—this distinctive medium allows the use of non-capital letters, though it would have been nice if the painter had been attentive to certain other matters, like the distinction between “work” and “works.” Elsewhere we see a flat stone outcrop on an Alaskan roadside bearing in white paint or chalk the single name JESUS. On the facing page there’s another slab of rock, this one somewhere in Harlem, with shakier and much smaller lettering: OBEY GOD OR BURN it reads, and the writer, with the precision of the insane, has ended the sentence with a neat white period.
Signs like this are created and then left to find such audiences as they may. They are not meant to be revised or erased. Others are scarcely less permanent: An old barn covered with fading Bible verses could be painted over and remessaged, but that’s not likely. Looking at the signs that Fentress captures, one gets the sense that their makers decided to say the single most important thing they could think of and leave it at that. A notable exception to this rule is a house in Winchester, Missouri, that Fentress photographed four times in 1987 and 1988. Though the scene hardly varies—it’s one end of the aluminum-sided house, with two rectangular windows over two garage doors—signs of changing seasons are visible: A barbecue grill appears in one photo; a big stack of firewood in another.
And in each photograph there’s a different message, displayed in foot-high black letters affixed to the siding: IF SINGLE, DON’T ACT LIKE YOU’RE MARRIED. IF MARRIED, DON’T ACT LIKE YOU’RE SINGLE; then IF YOU’RE NOT TOTALLY SAVED, YOU ARE TOTALLY LOST. READ JOHN CHAPTER 3; then ALCOHOL, DRUGS, SEX AND SUICIDE ONLY ADD TO YOUR TROUBLES. JESUS IS THE ONLY ANSWER; and finally LORD, GIVE ME COURAGE TO PART WITH WHAT I HOLD DEAR, IF IT SEPARATES ME FROM YOU.
I stared at the page with these four messages for a long time before I realized that someone had turned the side of his house into a vast analogue to a blog. Like a blog, this house records a person’s thoughts, whether those thoughts are directed toward the author or toward the audience; as on a blog, the recorded thoughts are available for anyone to read who happens to pass by. One difference between this inscribed house and the average blog is that the house inscriber knows that “you’re” has an apostrophe and can spell “separates.” But an even bigger difference is that a blog retains all its previous posts, while this technology demands that each new entry eliminate its predecessors. Sam Fentress’ photos help remedy that deficiency, but one does not learn from Fentress how often the message was changed. Maybe these four messages are but a tiny selection; maybe the message was renewed daily and over the course of weeks or months covered all the categories I listed earlier in my inventory of church signs: exhortation, reassurance, warning, threat. . . . I wouldn’t expect many laughs, though.
Thinking about what I have called the urgency of these messages—even the ridiculous jokes on the church signs suggest a clown’s insistence, a look-at-me pleading—I am inclined to reconsider something I said at the outset of this essay. Maybe it’s not “a belief in the power of brevity” prompting these signs. Maybe it’s a panicky recognition that sometimes brevity is all you get: Tell us the meaning of life in no more than ten words. If brevity is the soul of wit, perhaps desperation is the soul of brevity.
The people who write apocalyptic or consoling or hortatory messages on their houses and barns, or nail them to their fence posts, might well tell you stories, long stories if they had any opportunity at all to do so. They would weave for you tales of God’s wrath or love, and of how their lives were transformed by the very knowledge that they now are pleased to share with you.
But they never get that chance. So they shout at us and draw large startling figures for us as we speed by. The writers stay put, or at least their signs do, while we zoom through town, nearly unrecognizable blurs who may not have sense enough to ask the only question that really matters: What must I do to be saved?
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.