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Roadside Attraction

On Christian billboards.


Quite some time ago, over winter break, two friends and I made a road trip through central Europe. At the time, we were all seminarians living in Rome (only one of us went on to receive Holy Orders). Naturally, we improvised our itinerary and planned on spending as little money as possible. We began by taking an overnight train (standing room only) from Rome to Bolzano in the far north of Italy. Looking back, our trip would have been much easier if there were more signs along the road that provided useful information to strangers. We were less prepared than we had anticipated: the people of the northern reaches of Italy do not speak Italian, but German. None of us knew German, which made communication quite difficult. We also found it incredibly hard to find accommodations because it was deep in the holiday season, just before Epiphany.

Finding food was also quite a task. Most of the towns we drove through were vacation destinations for skiers, booked full. On the second day we drove over the border into Austria, through Innsbruck, and then west into Lichtenstein. We eventually found by chance a lodge of some sort which provided room but no board. In our ignorance, we were forced to wander in search of sustenance until we found what I guessed to be a resort complex, containing an open establishment that was presumably a restaurant; a bar was visible from the vestibule and a young woman came to greet us as we entered. When the three of us asked for a table, I sensed bemusement in the hostess and the bartendress who exchanged unintelligible words in German. At about three in the afternoon, there were no other customers in the place. The motif could most accurately be described as Carlsbad Caverns meets the moloko bar from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. We ended up leaving before long, and before food, to resume our search.

After a few more hours of driving and some breathtaking vistas over Vaduz, the sun set and we began to grow desperate. Finally, in a relatively remote area, we spotted a large, lit building set off from the road. There was no sign telling us what exactly the building was, but it looked enough like a restaurant that we parked the car and walked up the steps to the front door. We entered through the vestibule into a noisy dining room full of crowded tables. A woman walked out of an adjacent kitchen and asked how she might help us. One of my companions awkwardly phrased his question: “Do you have any food?” We were informed that they had noodles. Fine by us.

We sat ourselves at a table in the corner and began to wonder if we had made another mistake. Before long, a man approached us and asked who we were. We told him we were American seminarians living in Rome, on Christmas holiday. He smiled and made the sign of the cross to indicate that he too was Catholic. Another man asked about the cross of Petoskeyite (a rare mineral from Michigan) which one of my companions wore around his neck. He himself had relatives in Michigan. As we conversed, not only noodles but beer and peach schnapps materialized on our table. These strangers whom we met accidentally, on an isolated mountain road, in a strange land, and at an inopportune time shared with us a surprising amount of cheer and rapport on account of the signs we exchanged.

Although we had no small trouble navigating our journey, there was an unmistakable kind of sign that was commonplace along the way: Open-air shrines, religious plaques, and crucifixes were prominent features of many of the Alpine towns we traversed. At the time, I regretted that such a thing was not to be found in the United States. This sentiment of course came from a fair amount of naïveté. In more recent years, I have had the pleasure (and equal displeasure) of driving through much of the southeastern United States. Open displays of Christian piety are numerous, albeit with an unmistakable New World flavor.

Unlike the ornate shrines dotting the eastern Alps, these signs are usually far more rustic: imagine the plain text of John 3:16, emblazoned in red paint on a plywood billboard, standing over a seemingly endless field of corn. Most of these signs are hardly as cliché, however. I could name at least six distinct categories: lessons, notifications, admonitions, exhortations, orations, and icons. Lessons are plain excerpts of sacred scripture like the example mentioned above. Notifications inform us of some revealed truth, such as the gas station notice “christ is the answer.” Admonitions caution us away from evil, as in the Harlem graffiti that reads “OBEY GOD OR BURN.” Exhortations direct or encourage us to do good, like the message “TRUST JESUS.” Orations are written prayers, meant either to lead the reader to pray them as he travels or to bear witness to the one who offered the prayer. Icons are full images of sacred folk art, such as the face of Christ or Our Lady of Guadalupe, and seem to be the rarest type.

Some of these signs are bewildering and appear to be the product of an unsound mind. Consider the plywood sign bolted onto an absurdly modified bicycle:


Other signs might strike one as either histrionic compulsion or a kind of advertisement:

20% OFF

The forthrightness of these messages, however is simply a cultural phenomenon, which is to say that it is a Christian phenomenon. They are not merely Protestant. There are many examples of Catholic messages, from graffiti saying “BECOME A CAThOLIC” to Hail Marys trailing the highway. They are not mere southernisms: books such as Sam Fentress’s Bible Road record photographs of such signs ranging from Connecticut to California, Alaska to Florida. And they are not only rural. It might be fair to say that they are essentially American. Such signs have been a feature of the American landscape since Christ’s message was first brought to America. Near the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, is the former site of the Mohawk village of Ossernenon, where Saint Isaac Jogues and his companions lived, prayed, preached, and were eventually martyred. The caretakers of the shrine continue a practice that Father Jogues began during his captivity there: on each of the trees in and around the village, he would carve a cross and the Holy Name of Jesus. The trees still bear these marks in permanent red fixtures.

Display of the Holy Name is indeed the best instance of Christian signage. It is itself a lesson, an icon, and a prayer. The very sight of the Name may become an exhortation or an admonition in the heart of the traveler who unexpectedly encounters it. The respectful display of the Holy Name is an exorcism, not unlike the sounding of church bells. When accompanied by a cross, it is a reminder of our mission as Christians to imitate Him in all things—even His sacred passion, to which we can join our own pains and burdens. The display of His Name is a dual statement of ownership: that whoever erected it possesses the Truth of the Gospel, and that the Prince of Peace reigns over his land. Yet the most fundamental reality of the sign “JESUS” is analogous to that of all road signs: it signifies something important and imminent. It signifies our Lord, Who is the Alpha and Omega, everywhere and always.

Personally, the signs affect me most in their shamelessness. They all seem to indicate infatuation, and the audacity of their display is probably the best witness to the truth contained in them. At a glance, one understands that whatever the signs mean, they have made a serious impact on someone’s life and are not to be taken lightly. Have those truths impacted us as strongly as their authors, so much so that we cannot help but to wildly demonstrate our convictions in public? One sign goes so far as to ask us outright:

Are You Telling
Anyone About
Jesus Christ?

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Ian Bothur lives in Arizona, where he spends his leisure time studying philosophy and writing music.