Bumper stickers annoy me. I don’t like being preached to by people whose suspect driving skills cast considerable doubt on their capacity to form a coherent thought, much less communicate one with anything like prudence or insight. My uneasiness is present even when the message is positive and agreeable. Perhaps this dates back to the time when the woman in the Honda Accord with the Christian fish on her bumper cut me off & then, in response to my horn, made a hand gesture inconsistent with her professed faith. Or perhaps the sound-bite mentality troubles me, with its apparent hope that a drive-by message will convert lost souls, Darwinists, or the pro-abortion crowd.
Perhaps you disagree and can relate an anecdote in which great good was done by a bumper sticker you have on your car, but my prejudice remains. I understand that even a wretchedly bad book, film, or homily can reach the most recalcitrant miscreant, but this does nothing to challenge my belief that inferior things are bad, no matter the motive behind their creation or display. And that we should not encourage the use of inferior things. As Flannery O’Connor said about poorly written novels, regardless of how pious and edifying the behavior of their characters, they are not good in themselves and therefore not really edifying. But can’t bad novels be used for good purpose, you might ask, and have a salutary effect, as I noted above? Can’t even the most overused cliché on your car edify the faithful & convert the sinner?
“We have plenty of experience in this world of poor things being used for good purposes,” O’Connor writes, admitting that it is impossible to limit the good that can come from something bad or cliché-ridden. There is an important catch, though. “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.” I believe it best that we, who lack God’s power, try to avoid bad writing and hackneyed phrases and refuse to play the bumper sticker philosophy game so many of our neighbors indulge in. Good taste, after all, is itself a form of witness, and sound training in virtue.
At any rate, let me get to an actual bumper sticker that bugs me. No doubt you’ve all seen this:
Getting along or coexisting with one another is, of course, a worthy goal, which means we are obliged to understand what this might mean. This is even more important when our religious faith is addressed, as the bumper sticker does through its design. There, among numerous other religious symbols, is the cross. If the message offered here is “You religious folk should know the value of peace and harmony, so stop killing or persecuting each other”, I’ll offer my qualified agreement, insisting that we clarify our terms. Of course, this isn’t possible, as the guy with the bumper sticker on his Jetta is doing 45 mph down the road, and is unlikely to engage in any conversation, serious or otherwise. Perhaps I could follow him and, when he gets out of his car, ask him just what he means, but that would be creepy.
Morever, I suspect, fairly or not, that Jetta guy is probably one of those folks who thinks “tolerance”, understood as “Don’t judge anybody” or “Live and let live”, is the most important virtue, or maybe even the only one that matters. I suspect this not just because of the dinner plate in his earlobe and the general look of slackassery on his face. It is kind of that (excuse my judging a book by its ragged cover), but it’s mostly because his other bumper stickers equally annoy by their inanity. You’ve seen them, I’m sure: “Mean People Suck.” “Conservativism is a Mental Disorder.” “Jesus was a Liberal/Hitler was a Conservative.” “I’m Pro Choice and I Vote.” And then there are these:
I kind of feel like running that Jetta off the road to get the guy to answer some questions, but that would be mean, and you know what he thinks about mean people. Though isn’t it mean, not to mention lacking in decorum, to tell people they “suck”? But I do wonder what, or whom, messages like this are for. Just how likely is it that the people who most need to reflect on the virtues required for public life and to change their intolerant ways are going to read “Coexist” and reflect, “That guy is right; I need to change.” And since the people who already agree with what the sentiment is shorthand for already agree with it, aren’t they likely to do little more than nod in knowing approval, and perhaps even begin to think negative things about the foolish rubes who, because they believe in God, are likely sharpening their axes for battle against unbelievers? This sentiment, shorn of the religious imagery, is little more than a truism taking the form of an implied exhortation, and is probably as useful and necessary as telling someone that since the human body requires oxygen, they shouldn’t hold their breath for too long. In other words, No kidding. To add the religious symbols doesn’t significantly alter the message. It aims for more cleverness, perhaps, or offers a challenge, explicit or implicit, to religious believers who believe that their religion alone is “true.”
“If we don’t get along, & coexist with others who are different from us,” you can almost hear Jetta guy thinking, “there’s going to be trouble. Because intolerance and hatred lead to violence.” Well, yes, they sometimes do. But try to take the next step you’re itching to take and claim that religion causes violence when people take it too seriously and we’ll have some problems. At the very least I will ask, perhaps uncharitably, if by advertising these platitudes you are trying to draw attention to yourself and what you consider to be your elevated values and sensibilities, which the unwashed masses of us religious Neanderthals are either too cruel or dim to share. Or maybe you are just following those who think that everything they think is worthy of public broadcast. If so, think again, please. We bloggers already have the market on that. . . .
As for religious believers who witness to their faith and political convictions, I worry that by turning important matters into commercialized slogans you are anesthetizing the very people you want to reach against the truth. Our drive-through mentality does no one a service when extended to witnessing to the gospel. As nasty thoughts flew through my head when Accord lady with the fish on her bumper cut me off, and then flipped me off, I wonder if people like Jetta guy don’t become a little bit more desensitized to our declarations that we’re pro-life and we vote. Some people will claim that the drive-through mentality is our default position these days, that we are programming our brains for less access to complete thoughts and arguments. If that is so, what responsibility do we bear for playing along? For exchanging argument for mere assertion?Share on Facebook