The billboards are relentless on this highway that cuts through the heart of our country (Missouri, that is: a heart slightly off-center, like yours and mine, regulating the pulses of South and North, West and East). You can see them at great distances on the gentle terrain, rising in precise intervals like crucifixes along the via appia after an insurrection. You can read them in bunchesand inevitably, you will. As with those cruel Roman advertisements of old, we can’t bring ourselves to look away. They’re here to tell us something.
Lion’s Den Adult Superstore (Exit now!)
Love All Your Babies, Born and Unborn (Our Lady implores you!)
I once despised billboards. My city boasts, I’m told, the densest urban concentration of them in the country. They hover above tire stores and preschools, beside main thoroughfares and residential shortcuts. On the freeways leading out of town, they proliferate, towering above the tallest stands of roadside pine. More than once I’ve prayed for a new order of stylites to arise and anchor themselves to these unholy pillars, in public penance for our consumerist sins.
Life Without Parole for Cannabis? (The governor ignores our petitions!)
God is FOR You (His kingdom is not of this world.)
At some point I begin, in good academic fashion, to nuance or “complicate” my position. My impressions might be mistaken, but it seems to me that billboards lend themselves to weightier concerns than other forms of advertising. A higher proportion of them seem devoted to statements of What Matterswhether religious or political or vaguely ethical (as with the widespread “Pass It On” campaign)than to the crude dynamics of buying and selling. Perhaps the stability and durability of the medium attracts deeper convictions. Four-hundred square-feet of canvas demand more commitment than thirty seconds of television or an online banner that will not survive the clicker’s two-second attention span. As Missouri’s great asphalt artery flows on, I gain more confidence in my theory. Along this stretch of I-70, at least, outdoor advertisements give equal time to the ephemeral and the eternal.
Passions Adult Couples Store (Your relationship subsists in pleasure.)
God’s Definition of Marriage (Or does it subsist in something more?)
Future historians will have an embarrassment of material to sift throughI both envy and pity their task. Will any of them bother to investigate our billboards? Will it be feasible for them to do so? Our books and periodicals will find their way into libraries, as will, presumably, servers full of blogs and email correspondence. But our billboards will have been repurposed as feed bags or truck-bed liners, or left to collect bird droppings behind unused barns. And without the billboards, I fear, it will be more difficult for our chroniclers to step back several dozen steps and perceive the contours of a perennial conflict, spelled out in size-900 font.
Casinos Create Opportunity (Our souls are restless . . . )
God Knew My Soul Before I Was Born (Until . . . )
In church the day before my long drive home, we heard it said that this child would be a sign of contradiction, the rising and falling of many in Israel (Luke 2:34). A stubborn old mystic had seen it coming, this enduring competition of truthsthis ultimatum that has woven itself permanently into the canvas of human history. It may not come into full view on any of the legion of TV channels that allow us to self-segregate into demographic niches; it may remain only partially visible in the Internet’s innumerable salons of the like-minded. For the road-faring population of the heartland, however, it’s on full display every day.
Drew Denton is a doctoral candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist in his local parish.