Billboarding Faith

Zach posted an intriguing blog about billboarding the other day. While growing up, he did not feel the need nor cultural pressure to advertise his faith through bless-ed threads. Only now, as an atheist, is he making use of ideological branding to share his views.

I share the younger years indifference to outward marketing of my “faith.” To be fair, I did not take my faith very seriously so any displays of religious affection would never have even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I started following Jesus at age 17 that I felt emboldened to make sure everyone knew I was a Christian. T-shirts (including the “Lord’s Gym” shirt Zach mentioned,) bracelets, necklaces, wallets, patches, car emblems, car stickers, guitar case stickers, hats, sweatshirts, and the ultimate self-branding: tattoos. Thankfully, I was smart enough to get good-looking tattoos independent of hyper-evangelical memes.

The situation changed as I became more aware of how such in-your-face “witnessing” came across to others—even other Christians. I admire people who are bold and open about their faith. But I admire those who are free to share because it is a part of who they are and they use genuine interactions and situations to show what their faith means and provide solid commentary when appropriate. The Gospel does need to be told; but so often it’s told very poorly because of awful theology or communication. Billboarding and branding usually exhibit both.

I don’t wear Christian shirts anymore (except one from my seminary, DTS, which says “Hallelujah” in Hebrew—I mean, come on, that’s cool.) I don’t wear bracelets period. I took the Jesus fish emblem off of my guitar pick guard. Why? Because I don’t want to be lumped together with every other person who has those things. Let’s be honest: a lot of people have fishes on their car who are awful drivers and show no respect for anyone else on the road. History is replete with examples of people who call themselves Christians yet act like monsters. I don’t want such an easy association to be made with me (I’ll screw up my witness to others by myself, thank-you-very-much.)

On the other side of the discussion, just because someone wears the WWJD bracelet doesn’t mean they are so easily categorized, either. The trouble with branding is that it conveys things beyond one’s control. Even in close, lengthy, detailed conversation people can get the wrong impression. Billboarding just makes it that much more difficult to be clear.

Zach mentioned his son’s bib with “Damn Atheist” embroidered on it. Like Zach, I get the joke and in private it’s relatively harmless. But Christians aren’t the only ones who have public image obstacles; atheists come in all shapes and sizes and colors and don’t always agree on everything. To brand oneself is one thing. To brand someone who can neither live up to nor fail to live up to the branding is another. We want our kids to think for themselves! However right we think we are, we don’t do any service to our kids by stunting their intellectual growth. Not only that, we set ourselves up for parental anguish if we over-anxiously set an intellectual course from which they could later diverge.

And lastly, evangelicalism and company have done a terrible job with branding anyway. As a fan of good comedy, sharp design, and well-thought expression, I think Christian shirts and stickers suck (www.randomshirts.com being a notable exception to the rule.)

Billboarding

So, I have a lot of “atheist” T-shirts. My wife calls them “billboards.” In a way, I suppose they are. But I didn’t grow up wearing religion on my (literal) sleeves; as a young Christian kid, I don’t think I can recall even a single shirt or hat or jacket patch that in any way proclaimed my religious identity. Part of that may have been the tight-lipped and conservative Germanic culture of my hometown, Cincinnati, or it may have been my family’s rather conservative theology. We were a Matthew 6:6 family, without a doubt.

When I got to high school, I saw a different perspective. Further out from the urban center (such as it was), the culture was still overwhelmingly Christian, but it was also much more public about its religiosity. Several of my classmates had “Lord’s Gym” shirts in regular rotation, and there were annual shirts promoting a local Christian youth theater group that were quite popular. Though I was a willing and, at times, enthusiastic participant in this culture, I never adopted the uniform. My clothes were, almost uniformly, branding-free.

That changed in college. As most students do in that context, I sought to explore my own individuality. I became heavily interested in designing my own T-shirt logos, and with the advent of inkjet printing, I was able to control all aspects of production as well. Soon, nearly every shirt I owned was branded in some way, whether a quote from a favorite movie (most likely Army of Darkness), a purloined image (for a while, a photo of the founder of a local mattress factory), or a novel design (a stylized gas gauge). But none of these were religious in nature, oddly enough.

Once I became involved in the freethought community, things changed a bit. I suppose I resisted for a while, but once I became personally involved with local organizations, I began to feel pride at being associated with the branding, whether it was amateurish or professional-grade. It really began to represent a significant and cherished part of my life, and suddenly I didn’t mind being a billboard anymore. Now I’m in a somewhat similar situation as I was in college – nearly every T-shirt now has some kind of freethought or atheist logo or message.

There’s still an unknown for me, however. How appropriate is billboarding for the next generation? By which I mean, it’s all well and good for me to parade around with my infidelity on my sleeve, but what about for my kid? Soon after he was born, we received a gift from some atheist friends near Tulsa, who sent (among other things) a bib emblazoned with their atheist group’s logo, and the slogan, “Damn Atheist!” The joke’s cute and all, and the bib is actually quite well-made (we use it all the time), but it sure drove my still-Christian mother up the wall when she saw it for the first time. I’m thinking that we’ll probably keep the baby billboarding to a minimum until he’s old enough to choose his own clothes for himself. Then he’ll take the same interesting journey as his father.