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On Fish Wars and a “Drive-By Culture”

Vancouver Island is not a place known for being a hotbed of some of the “culture wars” that take place south of the border. As far as I’ve been able to tell in one year, it is a very post-Christian environment with a whole bunch of eclectic spiritualities from quasi-paganism to charismatic Christianity to the garden variety unreflective secularism that you see anywhere else in the modern west. Having said all that, I’ve been surprised to notice that the “fish wars” seem to have a small but noticeable presence over here.

Once upon a time, way back when the world was young, I, too, was the owner of a Jesus fish and displayed it, if not proudly, then optimistically on the back of my Honda Civic. Looking back, I don’t know that I thought much about what my fish might communicate to those that observed it or, more importantly, how it communicated whatever message it is supposed convey. Did I think that people would look at my fish and find their hearts warmed by my obvious good will and concern for them? Was I hoping they would breathlessly run up to me in a parking lot and plead with me to explain the significance of my Jesus fish or inquire as to whether or not they could attend my church? Would they angrily confront me, thus giving me an opportunity to demonstrate my unparalleled skill in apologetics, not to mention my obvious humility and willingness to “suffer” for my faith? Well, whatever I may or may not have expected, we sold the car and that was the last that time a fish of any kind made an appearance on a vehicle of mine.

Since then, I have watched with a combination of amusement and irritation at the proliferation of Jesus fish and the cottage-industry that has developed as a “response” to the them (see picture on the side). Last week, as I was enjoying a beautiful motorcycle ride along the ocean on my day off, I couldn’t help but be irritated by the visual pollution of these fish as they passed my view on the highways and byways. Even though the fish are still relatively infrequent sightings around here, once or twice is enough to annoy.

One one level, of course, it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that symbols like these annoy me. If my (highly informal and selective) research is to be believed, annoying and antagonizing people seems to be the chief purpose of these cultural artifacts—a purpose that is achieved with alarming regularity. And I have never been particularly overjoyed to discover myself responding precisely as the marketers would have me respond!

On another level, though, I think that all people who even pretend to be interested in some of the bigger questions in life or even something resembling intelligent cultural discourse ought to be annoyed and offended by what the fishes represent. They symbolize a tragically common and almost completely useless approach to how we think and talk about complicated issues.

In a culture where everything from coffee to hamburgers to banking to pharmacy pick-up is available in a drive-through format, the fishes fit right in. With a minimum of effort or personal investment, we stake our claim. We substitute a symbol for a conversation.  Instead of taking the time to actually get to know people who think differently than us and having respectful dialogue with them about issues that matter deeply to us, we slap a fish or bumper sticker on our vehicles and (defensively) make our “positions” known to all who drive by. It is a pre-emptive strike in the realm of worldviews.

Yesterday I preached a sermon on James 2:1-13. As I read through the book of James throughout the week I was struck once again by how little James thinks of outward professions of faith that are not accompanied by action. Throughout the book I heard him saying, “Don’t tell me what you believe, show me.” Of course in a world drowning in cheap words that are easily reproduced and transmitted, we desperately need people who are willing to live out the truth of what they believe, who love their neighbours first and speak about their beliefs later.

But yesterday I wondered if James might update or slightly modify his message  if presented with the fish phenomenon (Jesus, Darwin, or any other kind).  Maybe he would say something like, “Don’t show me what you believe, tell me. Don’t pretend that a fish on your car accomplishes anything other than irritating people and making somebody rich. Let’s sit down and have a conversation. What are your hopes? Your fears? What are the questions that you think Jesus (or Darwin, or the ‘Truth fish,’ or the devil, or ‘Sushi’) is the answer for? What do think is the best way to communicate this to your neighbours?”

In a drive-by/drive-through/advertising-saturated culture like ours, the fish-on-a-bumper approach to sharing our beliefs fits right in. And this is precisely why, as Christians, we should be most averse to adopting it. We follow one who took time to be with people, to tell stories, to ask questions, to meet needs, to tell some more stories, to ask some more questions… Rather than mimicking the methods of the inattentive, easily-distracted, image/brand-obsessed, reactionary culture of which we are a part, our approach to our neighbours ought to look a lot more like the one we claim to be representing.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think the fish, like the cars themselves, have to do with staking out one’s identity. They do, in that sense, symbolize high concerns.

    I met a homeless woman last month on early in the morning on a beach. She lived in her old van and found places to park it wherever she could. That night she had parked by the beach on the Monterey Peninsula. Her van was covered with symbols, either painted on the van or stuck on. Many contained “in-your-face” political messages. She was, in contrast, very mild, soft-spoken and soft-hearted. I think she may have hoped the symbols would keep bad things away.

    I have never placed a sticker or emblem on my cars. I want to be invisible.

    There is a place in the desert here where a hundred years ago, or so, a man engraved political and philosophical sayings on rocks where he lived in isolation. They irritate many people who hike far out into the desert to see them. Some people find his sayings repulsively conservative, others find them repulsively liberal and anti-religious. I just find the presence of these symbols in the middle of nowhere fascinating. I see in them, as I do in the fish, an attempt to set down a stake in life and the universe. The sayings may not last forever; someone may get mad and deface them.

    September 7, 2009
  2. Larry S #


    I liked this sentence of yours: ‘ They irritate many people who hike far out into the desert to see them.’ It got me imagining people choosing to go out on a hike just to be offended by the guy’s sayings. Strikes me as an interesting statement about human nature 🙂

    September 7, 2009
  3. Paul Johnston #

    ….On another level, though, I think that all people who even pretend to be interested in some of the bigger questions in life or even something resembling intelligent cultural discourse ought to be annoyed and offended by what the fishes represent. They symbolize a tragically common and almost completely useless approach to how we think and talk about complicated issues….

    Ouch! Don’t agree with this one, brother.

    Iconic imagery is a powerful tool. It reminds us of the truth. It convicts us. Not everyone can articulate coherent, intelligent opinions. That does not make their conviction any less true.

    Don’t let the satarists have their way with you. Turn off the television.

    September 8, 2009
    • “Iconic imagery” like the picture above? Perhaps the odd soul exists out there who has found themselves convicted by looking at a Jesus fish. I’ve never met one. I have met people who find them annoying/arrogant/confusing/distasteful. Is the “iconic imagery” still doing its job when it’s making people think less of Christians/Christianity?

      I’m not saying everyone has to be a super-apologist. I am saying that we need to be willing to have conversations with our neighbours that go beyond bumper-sticker discourse. Everyone can share their lives and their stories with others. Everyone can have a conversation respectfully and humbly. Presumably even the fish-displayers would have to say something if someone asked them, “So what does the fish mean?”

      Don’t let the satarists have their way with you. Turn off the television.

      I have no idea what this sentence refers to or what it might mean. Maybe I need a picture :).

      September 8, 2009
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I just read the” final apologetic”. I love you ya freakin heretic! 🙂

    September 8, 2009
    • Thank you—from one heretic to another.

      September 8, 2009
  5. “Iconic imagery is a powerful tool. It reminds us of the truth”

    Maybe. But there is far more examples where it causes hate, fear, and deconstruction.

    September 8, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Okay, Okay, guilty as charged. 🙂 Sloppy commentary on my part.

    What I meant, in a particular order….but not neccessarily particular to the “Jesus Fish”…

    1. Imagery, can be a powerful means of communication. Rather than being lazy and inarticulate, it can inform and inspire,particularly among the many who find nuanced debate overwhelming,( over my head) confusing, (crap! both points of view seem convincing, I think my opinion ultimately depends on which point of view I hear last) and annoying (my head hurts! information overload, won’t somebody please shut up!!)

    2. Cultural mediums that distort, demean or otherwise mock Christian imagery are best ignored. (My personal preference would be to hoof said mediums in the proverbial nutsack until they shut the f up. Sadly, I suspect, such a response might be considered a little less than Christian.)

    3. Sit alone quietly in your bedroom and read your favourite apologetic for 15 minutes. Blog about what you encounter.

    4. Kneel alone quietly in your bedroom for 15 minutes and look only at the image of a cruciformed Christ. Blog about what you encounter.

    September 10, 2009
    • 5. Sit alone quietly in your bedroom and look at a Jesus fish or a “Christian” bumper sticker. Let me know what you encounter.

      I absolutely agree that imagery can be and is a powerful means of communication—I’m no iconoclast. The blog post was about a specific image and the effect it has come to have in a specific culture.

      September 11, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Not to me, as I read your post you were, in specific, giving creedence to those who distort and mock the image and insulting the intentions of those who might be using it in a Godly way. Sadly without exploring what those Godly intentions might be.

    Nowhere do I read a history of or affirmation of the value(s) expressed in the image or even the hint that using this image is anything other than, “tragically common and completely useless,…substituting a symbol for a conversation.”

    My point was that sometimes a symbol is a conversation and a powerful one at that.

    I like what Ken said about “staking identities” and “high concerns”.

    For me similar “fish” symbols speak of the Apostles and remind me that I and millions and millions of others have been and continue to be, a part of that communal legacy.

    If some fools want to distort that sensibility within in me by slandering it’s image; fuck ’em, that’s not going to happen. I walk away.

    What I won’t do is make apologies for people who slander the good intentions of those people who are attempting, however simply, to affirm their Christian identity.

    As for your invitation, I find it obnoxious.

    September 11, 2009
    • Yes, you’re right Paul. I did not conduct an exhaustive survey of the motives and intentions of every person who displays a fish on their car, nor did I delve into the history of the symbolism the fish conveys (of which I am aware). This is a blog post, not a systematic treatise about the theological significance of images or any other topic you feel that I ought to have covered. I felt (and continue to feel) that these bumper fishes (not just the Jesus ones, remember) are symbolic of a degraded form of cultural discourse. That’s what the post was about.

      If you find this obnoxious, offensive, foolish, or any of the other wonderful adjectives you mentioned above, there’s not much more I can say. As for the “invitation” that so offends you, I’m sort of at a loss. It just seemed like apples to apples to me. I wasn’t talking about images of a cruciform Jesus. I was talking about fishes on bumpers. If you want to interpret this post as me being anti-imagery you’re certainly free to do that. I’m not sure how many different ways I can say it to convince you otherwise.

      September 11, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    I’m sorry, Ryan. I expect a lot of you, probably too much.

    I don’t wish to respond to the particulars in your last post or for that matter continue to dialogue on this thread. An arguement isn’t worth ill will.

    Do know, aside from your last invitation, that my dissapointment wasn’t directed at you primarily but rather with cultural discourse that mocks the nature and being of the Lord our God.

    I am sure I have made that point…(ya think), ad nauseum.

    I’ll try to do better.


    September 12, 2009
  9. Jesse Chisholm #

    Thought you might like to know of this (sort of) addition to the Fish Wars that I stumbled across:

    Logo of the Fish-BOL group:

    Home page of the Fish-BOL group


    March 26, 2011
  10. Tom #

    That was the best article I’ve ever read. Just kidding, it was another stupid rant.

    August 29, 2019

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