Colin Patrick Ennen
Alternative Theologies: Parables for a Modern World
Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not exactly the Bible Belt. Maybe the “Eee, it’s all bright out here, bro” belt, or the “For the 346th time in 2018, a family traveling through the city has had their car stolen” belt. (Seriously, if you’re coming through, maybe sleep in your car in the hotel parking lot.) We’re also that place you go if you want to drive drunk and never actually get in any trouble with the law.
And yet, drive around in my neck of the woods, the Westside, called by one radio car commercial “The Affordable Side of Town,” and there’s no escaping a certain sticker, a circle enclosing a stylized S, meant to mimic the bend of a river. Well, that makes sense, you might say, given that the church this adhesive advertises was built mere yards from the banks of the Rio Grande. Problem is, at least for me, why the fudge would someone put a sticker advertising a church on their car at all? (Oh, and the river fails, utterly, to curve anywhere nearby in the manner depicted, though we’re all used to religion making shit up, aren’t we?)
The sticker represents the sole mega-church in Albuquerque’s northwest quadrant, tucked against the bosque that lines the Rio Grande, across a little street from some inexpensive eateries. I hesitate to use its name, ignorant of how litigious these clowns might be, but its safe to say it begins with that S and is named after a common plant in the region. What connection that plant has to Jesus Christ I can’t say. In fact, bunches of the plant are often used in smudging ceremonies, about the most pagan thing I can think of outside of human sacrifice. (Which, incidentally, is really what got Christianity kicking, isn’t it?) The mega-church is stucco and glass, angular and ugly, surrounded by a vast parking lot. Come by this place at the wrong time Sunday mornings and it’s hello traffic, usually managed poorly by one or two of the ten cops hanging around the intersection. And all those cars, or most of them anyway, stream in and out bedecked with at least one of the stylized-S stickers. Some sport two or three. (One time I saw a car boasting one each from this church and a Catholic joint down the road. What?)
This puzzled and irritated me for ages, still does to an extent. But then I remembered I’d long seen the fake-chrome Jesus fish decals on cars from here to Florida. There are also the stickers depicting a silhouette manger scene, meant to remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I see NOTW stickers, on which the T is a cross; these, associated somehow with good old Tim Tebow, signify that JC is Not Of This World. A lot of times all these can be found on one automobile, scattered about on windows and bumpers.
Alright, so what? I mean, bumper stickers and window adhesives have been around for decades, and while some are asinine, others are quite clever. “Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?” is one of my favorites of all time. And it’s not like I don’t do some promotion myself; my car sports a Boston Red Sox logo, a Texas A&M decal, and a Star Trek adornment (it’s a Jesus fish with warp nacelles coming off the fins and the word TREK in the fish’s body). Other folks have told us for years to Free Tibet, or to listen to 94Rock. There are folks out there who bedazzle their automobiles with corporate logos like they were NASCAR drivers, while some like to remember places they’ve visited with simple, understated black capital letters on white ovals. Think OBX.
But what is it that bugs me so much about the church stickers?
For one thing, I struggle to fathom their purpose. Maybe they’re meant to get drivers out of speeding tickets? “Can’t cite me, officer, I go to this church.” I’d propose they’re intended to deter car burglars except not a few of these stickers are found on nice vehicles. Most likely they’re tribal markers, right? That’s the best, most generous option I can come up with. In my story for the Alternative Theologies anthology I imagine they serve as quick indicators to the deciders where the car owners will end up after death.
For another thing—and here it finally comes in handy having gone to mass growing up and attending a Catholic high school—didn’t the big fella himself say something about all this?
Pretty much, yeah. Of course, there are different translations, but the gist is the same in each sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Here’s the English Standard Version, chosen at random from all those available:
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
That’s Jesus talking there, people. Sounds to me like old Mr. Son of God wouldn’t actually be too keen on ostentatious piety. Then again, it’s not like American Christians are known for listening to him much in the first place. That’s kind of the point of this whole anthology, I think.
Look around, though, and we see that this phenomenon, making use of simple logos and slogans to proclaim a message, has become prevalent beyond religion, hasn’t it? It seems to be a form of virtue signaling, that tribal marking again, and now that I’ve begun to notice I can’t not. To say it’s a right-wing thing only would be fallacious, of course, and yet it seems they’re most prolific, most shameless about the practice.
I can’t say when it started exactly. Possibly with GW Bush and his pals all constantly sticking American flags on the lapels of their suits. Do you remember around the same time when Terrorist Hunting License stickers started to show up on pickup truck windows? Then the flags started migrating from poles and politician’s clothing to car windows, often more than one or colossal. I could mention the propagation of armed services decorations since 9/11—COMBAT VETERAN is something I don’t think I ever saw before about the mid-2000’s—however this matter veers into the arena of military worship, and that’s a whole other hornet’s nest altogether. On the other hand, having served briefly myself I’ve seen just how Republican the armed services are. And I can’t tell you how often such stickers are paired with others of a less innocuous nature.
NRA logos have been around a while, as have anti-abortion messages, but this all seems to have picked up pace as sides have staked out their ground ever more forcefully. Think of the Don’t Tread on Me flags, or their more sinister-feeling MOΛΩN ΛABE cousins. (“Come and take them” in Greek, meaning their guns.) We’re told “Homeland Security is a Citizen With a Gun” and “You can’t spell LIBERALISM without the L-I-E-S.” A couple of years ago I started noticing the profusion of Punisher logos (the Marvel Comics vigilante) on cars, or those perverted American flags wherein all but a single blue stripe is gray. Blue Lives Matter my ass.
Remember those Obummer stickers from back before a deranged Dorito took the oath of office? Labels suggesting that a certain presidential candidate should be locked up? And then there are the complaints about the liberal media.
What does it all mean, really? Well, as much as the stickers are pushing a message, they’re telling us about the person who placed them there. They represent an ideal the car owner would like us to think he or she embodies. At their most innocent, the decorations are pleas for understanding: “Look, here’s what I care about, what I enjoy, what I think defines me.” So much easier than actually talking to another human being.
Some, on the other hand, betray a need to be envied, or feared, or even just respected.
Which brings up the very valid question of whether the signals sent are accurate or not—we’ve all known folks who claim to be devout yet who also disobey upward of four commandments daily, after all. And the pro-gun messages, especially those implying threats or poking fun at folks less comfortable with gun culture, aren’t these, in essence, attempts to hide some weakness or insecurity?
Is that cynical? Only if I’m wrong.
But I’m curious, too, how widespread it is, this proliferation of simplistic virtue signaling. I don’t recall seeing much when in England last summer, on cars or elsewhere. Nor did Massachusetts shortly thereafter seem to be suffering from near the level we do here in Albuquerque. Are the people here really all that different? Well, yes, though I hardly think an epidemic of turn-signal allergies translates to higher levels of car-sticker messaging.
Such was the jazz floating around in my head and in my geography when I saw the call for submissions regarding the proposed Alternative Theologies title, and I knew almost at once what would be the subject of my story. Sure, it’s a little snobby, but Christianity can take it, don’t you think? Anyway, I saw it as an opportunity, to work through frustrations and confusions, for me and others. Because sometimes writing is as much about catharsis as it is getting published and scoring the supermodel. Wait, what?
But in the name of dread Cthulhu, don’t get me started about the compact SUV in the Wal-Mart parking lot, sporting an insane conglomeration of right-wing stickers—everything from pro-gun to anti-immigrant—and decorations celebrating Star Trek. How that person’s brain doesn’t explode from cognitive dissonance must be a medical miracle.
More About Colin
Colin Patrick Ennen writes from the high-altitude desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico, amid frequent interruptions from his dog, Shylock. (Yes, he’s a pretentious Shakespeare nerd.) This is his second appearance in a B Cubed title, having also been seen in Writers Resist and The Coil. Someday he may actually finish a novel he starts.