Monday, November 5, 2007

Paris, Illinois

Friends: Biking through the Bible Belt I have been barraged by non-stop proselytizing, none of it though by the decent and kindly folk who have taken an interest in me. Not a single conversation diverted to the subject of religion, not even to ask if I was a believer or had been saved or if Allah was my lord. Rather, the proselytizing has come in the fairly benign form of advertising on the message boards in front of just about each of the many, many churches lining the roads I've been riding, giving sermon titles and other pronouncements.

Religion is easily the most predominant industry in these parts. Like any business, they need customers, and as any good businessman knows, it is important to advertise and to promote whatever he might be selling. The churches rival the fast food franchises with all their message boards trying to lure buyers with bargains (Whoppers 2 for $3) or some new product (Spicey Chicken Sandwich $1) or news (McRib Is Back). Some churches merely use their message boards to announce the times of their services or mention a rummage sale, but most offer much more, trying to turn heads and entice them into becoming a customer. The less imaginative merely post some verse from the Bible, but many strain to be clever and witty, not only to capture the attention and stir the thought of someone passing by, but also to make them think, "Hey, whoever came up with that could be fun and could perhaps be the pastor or congregation for me."

There is lots of competition out there, and the churches well know it. Some of the postings are stodgy, old-school, generic, tired, recycled cliches little more interesting than the Bible verses, but others are most contemporary keeping up with the lingo of the times, such as, "Not all answers can be found at google." Many are meant to give a chuckle, some combining humor with a sting--See you Sunday, unless you have something better to do." Some are wacky enough to qualify for a David Letterman Top Ten List--"Went to see Dad, back to see you later--Jesus." Many refer to that Jesus fellow--"Got Jesus? It's Hell without him," "Jesus--The equal opportunity saver," "Be an organ donor, give your heart to Jesus."

Some give warning--"Pray now or pay later," or threaten--"Life has many choices. Eternity has two. What is yours?" Some scold--"Quit griping about your church. If it was perfect you couldn't belong." Some rhyme--"Where God guides, He provides." Some speak of crime--"Sin carried far enough becomes its own punishment." Some advise--"Go out on a limb, that's where the fruit is." Some pose questions--"Where will you be if Christ comes today?," "Do you spend your time loving others or judging others?" Some are seasonal--"The best Ghost is the Holy Ghost." Some are double entendres,"Are you helping with the harvest?" Some ask hot, burning questions--"Is Hell real?" Some are libelous--"Try our Sundays, they're better than Baskin-Robbins." Some are provocative--"It takes guts to be a sinner." Some are definitive--"God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Some are inspiring--"A mighty fortress is our God." Some are Swedenbourgian--"Faith goes where eyes can't see." Some are puzzling--"Does temperance grow on your tree?"

One church felt the need to respond to AA's 12-step program--"The steps to happiness are the church steps." Some give mathematical formulas--"God's arithmetic--love, joy and peace multiply when you divide with others." Some advise where to look--"Feeling Down? Look Upward," "Keep looking up, God is looking down." And there are plenty of general advice--"Feed your faith and doubt will starve to death," "If a sibling of Christ has a problem, don't gossip, pray." Some offer words of consolation--"There is no problem when you have the answer," "Real peace comes from being in God's will." In rain-starved North Carolina one church simply announced, "Praying for rain." Another was more specific--"Let us pray for lots of gentle rain."

My travels coincided with Pastor Appreciation Week, so I had a minimal reprieve from the barrage that week, as many churches opted to put "We Appreciate Our Pastor" or "Thank You Pastor So and So" on their message board. There were so many churches along one road in eastern Kentucky, one every four or five miles, there was a special road sign warning there was a turn-off to a church ahead. I was never far from the religious tenor of the Belt. One town's welcome said, "Attend a church of your choice and be square all week and come 'round on Sunday." Businesses that posted their hours didn't simply say "Closed on Sunday," but might say, "Closed to give thanks."

With many churches under construction or expansion, religion is clearly a hearty growth industry. Besides the many simple, humble one-room school house-type churches, there were the occasional magnificent Taj Mahal edifices, often on a hill, surrounded by vast parking lots and sprawling, meticulously manicured lawns. They looked so nice that parishioners might have to remove their shoes before entering. I kept hoping I'd encounter some church or some message board pronouncement so enticing at service time, that I would be drawn within and might discover a Sam Kinnison of a preacher, the deceased screaming comedian who got his start on the preaching circuit. There was clearly a lot of talent drawn to the profession.

I might not have paid so much attention to the church message boards if I had had bumper stickers to occupy my thought and to be on the alert for, but they have become an extreme rarity. They were once virtual standard issue, providing a continual stream of amusement and insight into what were the issues of the day. Back in the era of the bumper sticker, when it was rare to see a vehicle without at least one to let all know what was important to its owner and what that owner thought was amusing, owning a car almost had some justification. One felt the need, if not obligation, to put some bumper sticker that spoke his mind on his vehicle. Mentioning a clever bumper sticker was a frequent topic of conversation and stand-up routines. The demise of bumper stickers might be partially blamed on answering machines, as their cute messages seemed to suck a lot of creativity from those who composed bumper stickers.

The passing of the bumper sticker is another sad fact of our homogenizing world and the crushing of individuality, as well as the fear that prevails. Some would say it is an indication that people no longer care enough about anything to make an issue of it, not even to express pride in their child the honor student or that they have a baby or an alien on board. The decline of the bumper sticker might be traced to the sticker, "My student can beat up your honor student." It said all about the violent and vengeful nature of our times, and reflected the fear people have to mention anything they care about lest it push someone's ignite button. In this trigger-happy society it doesn't take much to set off someone sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic listening to the bile of radio talk shows with hosts and callers venting their rage. A simmering and stewing driver trapped in traffic staring at a bumper sticker promoting something abhorrent to him, whether it simply be the call letters of a radio station he associates with evil, or something innocuous as "Keep your laws off my body," might turn him crazed, especially if that vehicle was a tad slow to respond to a light turning green or might have earlier slipped in front of him.

There are related reasons for the demise of the bumper sticker. One is that bumper stickers make it easy to identify and track down a motorist. Since anyone can be involved in a mishap they'd prefer not to have to be held accountable for, it is best to remain as anonymous as one can. Another reason is there are all too many who regard their automobile as a sacred object and wouldn't dream of desecrating it with a stuck-on object, even one that said, "Pray Now or Pay Later."

In all the miles I have biked the past month and thousands of vehicles who have wagged their rears in my face there was one that hearkened back to the good 'ol days of bumper sticker mania. Its brave and defiant driver had adorned her car with stickers approving gay rights and disapproving of war and one that read "Vegetarians Taste Better." The car belonged to my friend Stephanie in Winston-Salem. Her husband Lyndon's van was sticker-free, however. And he said he always felt like slumping low whenever he had to drive Stephanie's car, as he feared anyone seeing him would question his masculinity.

Later, George

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