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.