I am very much aware of the Great Commission. I memorized it in Sunday school when I was about eight years old, at a time when the King James version was still in vogue and children still memorized Bible verses:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20).
However, I drive 120 miles round trip between work and home every day, allowing me ample time to ponder such questions as how best to share the Good News. In the process, I have come to deplore the manner in which the Great Commission is obeyed on Interstate 95 as it traverses the Bible Belt in rural North Carolina.
Small fundamentalist churches dot the landscape where I live. Many of them have clever signs that remind me of the various reasons I am bound for Hell; I generally respond with an Episcopalian smirk. However, I was never aware of actual billboards on the major highways until they began to proliferate two or three years ago.
I became painfully aware of the impression made by these messages from the Christian Right when my husband and I hosted a British cross-country cyclist for a couple of nights through an organization called Warm Showers. Shortly after entering our home, this young Mancunian, Graham Schultz, started berating American Christians–especially Southern ones–in language not at all befitting a complete stranger gorging himself on his second bowl of my delectable three-meat, three-bean chili. He sneered about churches on every street corner and even expressed distrust of church groups that had offered him food and water along the Transamerica Bicycle Trail; “What do they want from me?” he asked with a sneer. Nonplussed by his brazen antagonism (and by his assumption that we would share it), I never asked him about the root of his prejudices. I did, however, make sure my Book of Common Prayer–with 1989 hymnal—was in plain view on the mantelpiece.
Although Graham’s venomous words surprised me, I would expect that religion-haters such as he would be at least amused or offended by the billboards I pass daily. But what about those who have no thoughts about religion? Wouldn’t we want to find them trying out a seat in our increasingly empty pews? More important still, what about those who are seeking comfort, healing, or peace? What of those who need a spiritual home, those who are actively searching for God, or those who know only that they are looking for something they cannot find? Are these really the messages Christians–among whose numbers I count myself–want to convey?
Some of the billboards, I admit, preach a little more love and a little less hellfire and brimstone to those stuck in their $35,000 vehicles moving at 65+ mph on the highway–if not exactly the highway to heaven. They are, unfortunately, few and far between, and even they send mixed messages about the appeal of Christianity to the inhabitants of a hurting world.
Perhaps even more disturbing to me than the militant proselytizing of these billboards is the image they paint of Christians. First, they suggest that Christians are all uneducated bumpkins who disavow science and leave their brains at the door when they enter Biology 101. Further, if more subtly, they imply that matters of faith are verifiable by the most simplistic form of evidentialist apologetics. And finally . . . Well, are Christians so ridiculous and are their sacraments so empty that there is really a need for Baptism24seven.com? On I-95 South?