A seminary professor once spent a semester ingraining in us the importance of understanding complex theological platforms. Then, he graded us on how well we were able to clearly summarize it for people who didn’t spend three years going into debt studying theology.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann and Karl Barth in 140 characters or less (this was before the 2017 Twitter update), and extra points to anyone who explained and summarized well their life’s work. Being the very “online” millennial I am, I loved this assignment.
I am sure Barth turned in his grave as I chose emojis to represent Church Dogmatics, but the idea of sharing a snippet someone could read quickly and succinctly made me hopeful for this career I was choosing while slowly realizing “not that kind of Baptist!” would be a large part of my personal liturgy.
Since the summer of 2020, I have driven from Washington, D.C. to Fripp, South Carolina, with my fiance Nick. He grew up going to the island with his family, and I have had the privilege of also falling in love with the island.
The drive typically takes nine hours, and now in my third year of making this trek and in my own anecdotal research, I have categorized the genre of billboards we see on Highway 95 into three main genres.
First, we have the alliterative lawyer advertisements that assure you that this lawyer, while clever with their name, can also win your case from paternity testing to on-the-job injuries.
Each time I see one of those, I remind Nick, a lawyer, that he is missing out on this market. Alas, he shakes his head, and we continue our discussion of where we will stop for lunch.
The second are terrible puns for a roadside attraction I am surprised still exists called South of the Border.
Every 10 or so miles, we are reminded that this “attraction” has boiled Mexican culture down to a giant sombrero and a reptile lagoon.
The third and least imaginative genre of billboard we encounter on this drive contains fire and brimstone messaging.
Billboards with nary a scripture reference tell us to “REPENT!” or to get saved before we leave this earth, reminding motorists how hot it is in hell.
A subcategory within this “billboard theology” contains ads about “wellness” centers for pregnant women. They feature pictures of babies and bold letters that say, “This is PROOF of God” — as if the proof of God extended as far as an infant.
How often do you see these billboards while on family trips or solo drives?
I think it is easy to dismiss them and their words when we drive past, laughing off the proclamations because they do not reflect our personal theology.
But if we believe that words hold power or that a picture is worth a thousand of them, would we continue to brush off or laugh at these hellfire and brimstone advertisements?
On this last trip down 95, I asked Nick if, for argument’s sake, a billboard would change a person’s mind about Christianity or God, what would it need to say?
Immediately, I began to think about those systematic theology tweets, trying to sum up my argument in 140 characters per board.
Before I could share my ideas like, “Won’t She do it?” and “And this is evidence of God” with a picture of an avocado, Nick said, “I love you.”
I looked over and told him that I too loved him, but he clarified that that is what the billboard would say from both God and Christians. He was arguing that love is the center of what we are supposed to believe and to teach God is.
In 140 characters or less, there it was. The summation of the character of God and, thus, what the character of Christians ought to be.
In a world where words of hate fill the pages of policy, billboards and the airwaves, I hope you are reminded that in the midst of dogmatics and complex belief systems, the simple divine message among it all is, “I love you” echoing into our reality.