Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape by Sam Fentress (David and Charles, 2007)
I GREW UP outside Portage, Ohio, on an acre with corn fields on three sides and the county highway on the fourth. On our disused barn was a painted advertisement: CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST. The enduring letters on the creviced, deteriorating wood appealed to me as a design-hungry teenager, and the huge words (even when they became only half legible as sections of the wall fell in) made our place easy to find. But the sign felt like more than an interesting (and useful) antique. It was part of the strangely moving if often crude scenery: the waiting fields, the stark billboards, the many churches, the hopeful and despairing trailer parks—everything I couldn’t get enough of riding my bike among and looking at.
In Sam Fentress’s collection of photographs, Bible Road, I came across one of an abandoned barn painted with interlaced sentences about Jesus Christ, love, repentance, and belief. It might have been the barn of my old backyard, only with the New Testament words I was constantly hearing and seeing back then. Looking at the photograph, I realized what had been most wrenching to me about the American landscape. America isn’t just there, isn’t just a place to live in, enjoy, exploit, decorate, and it isn’t fundamentally a container of tradition either. It’s an arena of dreams and exhortations, in which advertising sits companionably beside evangelical messages, a place existing more in the future than in the present or past. As in The Great Gatsby, it can easily be a stage, even for those of us who are suspicious of material and social ambitions: spiritual ambitions commonly stand in for or combine with these. In Europe, God calls to saints. In America, God calls to everyone.
Fentress, an architectural photographer, started documenting roadside signs in 1979 (several of his photos appeared in Image issue 16) and drew on travels in forty-nine states. He shows a variety of media and messages, many distinctly American. In the Southwest, for instance, mural art and cartoons compete with European painting and sculpture as influences on public images of the Virgin Mary. When she is flat, bright, and with little hint of elusiveness or sorrow, she is the counterpart of the new, confrontational Protestant Jesus. (One hand-drawn sign in Bible Road spoofs the Uncle Sam army recruitment poster: JESUS WANT’S YOU [sic].)
Most of the messages, however, are words alone, and evince the deeply scriptural character of American religion. The Hebrew yahweh elohim (“God is Lord”), scrawled on the pillar of an overpass, is a haunting token of the venerability of our preference for words as a link to the divine. As is often the case in Fentress’s photos, the luminousness is echoing, empty, and the evidence of ordinary activities sparse. It feels as if the truck passing near yahweh elohim is the only vehicle for miles and, in itself, has a spiritual mission. God is un-embodied, just the Word, yet fills the land with power and destiny. The barrenness and at the same time the purposefulness of the road and whatever borders it are a constant theme, as messages rise from the scruffy yards of struggling small towns, from ugly commercial strips, from distressed or distressingly neat farmland, and—in a favorite instance for me—from the poison-green lawn and spotless prefab wall of an Ohio chemical plant. Other nations have had the idea that this world is only a hard road that leads into another. We have actually built and lived that idea.
We have done this in some startlingly literal ways. My father, a professor at Bowling Green State University, often fought with the Ohio legislature over their—to him, laughable—spending preference for highways over education: they were just paying for people to move on and get out more easily. But of course education is a parallel American obsession, as I and many of my classmates proved. We decamped to out-of-state universities, and then to far-flung and unlikely careers. I found myself doing investigative journalism in post-apartheid South Africa and translating the Roman novel Satyricon at the same time. Another Bowling Green High School alumna was running a hotel in Central Africa when last I heard. An alumnus was heading the advertising division of a well-known multinational. It isn’t alienation from the religious strivings of our past; it’s integral to them.
A photographer’s particular interests—in what best shows emotion, character, and ideology—invite thinking about the why as well as the what in a spiritual culture. Why are we Americans so abstract, so rhetorical, so striving, and so aggressive in our religion—and in so much else?
I remember some of the conversations we primary school pupils had during recess. Who among us had “taken the Lord’s name in vain,” said “Goddamn” or just “God” and was therefore irrevocably headed for hell? But what if older children had led us to sin in that way, before we understood the cost? Opinion was divided, but all were nervous, and the nervousness was well motivated. One girl’s Sunday school teacher had played for the class a tape recording of hideous shrieks and reported that these were the voices of souls in hell. Some of us expressed skepticism about the recording as documentary evidence, but said there could be no question about hell itself. We were so driven to vindicate this message that—this horrifies me today—once at a slumber party, we crept to the phone after midnight, got numbers at random out of the directory, and made a survey of salvation in Wood County. Tellingly, the Christians we contacted were bemused but not angry. We reached a Muslim who was hurt and bewildered at our smug forecast for his eternal future. How could we just assume that we alone possessed the truth, he pleaded? We were merciless: the truth was simply the truth, and he must accept it or suffer the consequences.
But through those years, and even on that night, I was secretly fighting to believe, and at fourteen I left the Methodist Church. It was only much later, among Christians who didn’t judge or pressure me, that my experiences of loss and survival, community needs and individual purpose, could yield a sense of grace. As a Quaker, I have met many fellow refugees from mainline Christianity, people whose early chances of recognizing God were wasted or destroyed by the same age-old contest between outward authority and inner integrity, which seems futile for religious aims except in desperate cases—of hopelessness, of helplessness, of isolation. “This person was once in a bad enough state to be susceptible to such an approach,” I think whenever I’m the target of particularly clumsy proselytizing.
But the aura of desperate cases in many of the Fentress photos makes me more sympathetic toward the people who brought me up, and toward mainline believers generally. Christianity truly (and often literally) comes from the ground up in America. When I look at these images, I think of how, in Europe, sources of personal authority—without which people cannot stay sane—tend to be in some degree attached to the land: they are ancestral homes, and families and groups of friends and careers that never move. Personal authority in America often comes from religion, and though we attach it to the land in some ingenious ways—this book covers only a few of the physical ways—it can all seem rather arbitrary. The American habit of summoning authority from practically nowhere may go a long way toward explaining the headiness, the insistence of the summons. And summoning from nowhere naturally appeals to those who have nothing.
In Fentress’s photos, American Christians cry out wherever and however they can: through blocks of concrete in a field, for example, one word spray-painted on each block, or through hand-lettered plywood nailed on trees. On a bicycle, which appears to be packed with a homeless person’s possessions, hangs a sign with a Bible citation and a warning. On the back of one of those slightly bowed, walking stick figures that mark pedestrian crossings, someone has stenciled a cross. A battered car with painted exhortations on its sides has a full-size wooden cross riveted to its top.
Christians may place religious messages on the signs for their businesses—Fentress shows a number of instances. Perhaps they do so less from a wish to exploit the marketplace’s religious sympathies than from a belief that livelihood comes from God and must in turn serve God: no piece of property, least of all one that supports a Christian family, should be spared in spreading the Good News. In any case, evangelical friends tell me that a believer must endure the jeers of the cynical at his public testimony. But the popular notion that humorlessness clings to this tough-mindedness is certainly not borne out by this book. On an auto body shop sign, PRAISE THE LORD, ANYWAY! reverberates merrily on the homiletics of old tracts and old gravestones. For its Pauline theological reach, I like GLORIFIED BODIES COLLISION REPAIR CENTER.
Most of all, I like the neon signs declaring Jesus to be the light of the world. In one example (in Lampe, Missouri, no less), the play on “light” is only part of a well-thought-out joke: at first glance, the wedge shape, the vivid colors, and especially the glowing yellow star made me think of an old-fashioned motel or diner sign; then I realized that no physical facility is being advertised. But the sign does signal a destination where rest and nourishment can be found. There is even, in the star, a symbol of the long journey to Jesus. The image spoke to me of the deep resourcefulness and liveliness of Christianity in America.
—Reviewed by Sarah Ruden
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.