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William Drenttel

Signs of Religion in the American South



Photo: Michael Brenner, 2005.

Some months ago, we designed a CD package for Luaka Bop, the music label of Yale Evelev and David Byrne. Jim White Presents Music from "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" is the soundtrack for a documentary by the British director, Andrew Douglas, which opened in New York City last week. (It previously aired in the U.K. on BBC4.) Wrong-Eyed Jesus struck a chord with me, and long since finishing the CD I've been thinking about how little I understand the American South. At one point in his narration of a road trip through the South, Jim White notes, "In a rough, raw world like this, you don't have the choices or the opportunities to look for solace. You gotta look under the rocks and stones." But I kept seeing the signs, and all those statues of Jesus.

You've come here looking for some sort of essential truth about the South or some spiritual relevation. And you're not going to find it, unless by accident or grace. These people know about it. I guess they have what Flannery O'Connor calls the "wise blood." The blood rules them. They don't rule the blood. You want to know the secrets of the South, you gotta get it in your blood. And you ain't going to get a transfusion from a bloodbank for it.
— Jim White in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus"


I live in a country where religion has become not only a matter of faith, but increasingly the foundation for malevolent politics — ugly hostilities over abortion, what's on television, whether Darwin can be taught in schools, and who gets named to the Supreme Court. Here in New England, we wear our history on our sleeves; our poorest, most rural areas are still full of colonial architecture and stone walls and covered bridges. Our churches have white chapboard steeples, and (artificial) candles illuminate the windows. We are private about our religion, and its public display — at least on the surface — is generally dignified and historic.


Yet the South is so different. In a BBC interview, Andrew Douglas says that a character in a jail nails the theme of the documentary: "When you're young, you're either in the bars or you're in the church. There's no middle ground." There's a restaurant in the film called "Sheffield's Where Jesus is Lord Catfish Eat All You Can Truck Stop Diner." In The New York Times review of the film, Stephen Holden notes that, "The soundtrack amounts to a partial dictionary of alt-country, ...descended from the primeval sounds that the critic Greil Marcus has called the music of 'the old, weird America.'" (And don't miss the album that inspired the movie: Jim White's The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus!)

I love the small town. It's not even a half-mile across the whole town. Very small. This way over here we have the church. Over here we have a truck stop. Over here we have the juke joint. Back behind me we have the prison. It's your typical Southern town. Some people go to church. Some don't. It's just one of those small towns.
— The Mayor, Ferriday, Louisiana in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus"


Andrew Douglas refers to this north-south-east-west geography as the "Stations of the Cross." At every "station," though, is a sign, a plaque, a statue, a monument signifying faith. Jesus's name is invoked in the landscape to name beauty salons, to say this homeowner is a believer, and to give direction to non-believers. The typography of the used-car lot — Car Lot Gothic, if you will — is frequently encountered, as is the multi-colored calligraphy of the amateur sign. The typography of faith in the South has its own look, distinct from the "Stop the Plant" signs in my part of the country. In the South, it's not enough to name things: there is always a message, a sermon, a small bit of poetry.

Searching through Flickr, these religious signs are everywhere. There is even a church sign generator. (Type in "Jesus Loves Design Observer" as a test.) These signs are not like the item we blogged last May about "the most coordinated — and frightening — retail signage program in the world" in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. These signs are also not like the typographic vernacular found in British store-fronts (well-documented in Herbert Spencer's Typographica), nor do they relate to the urban typographic findings of Ed Fella. In the South, these signs are about talking with God: taking private, personal experiences and making them public — in the most literal sense of the word, publicizing them.

While pondering these issues, I came across an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education Review by Timothy Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University who spent a year visiting roadside religious attractions in America. His new book, Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, explores this same terrain: "...it is precisely in their marginality that [roadside religious spectacles] open avenues for exploring themes and issues that are central to American life, such as pilgrimage, the nostalgia for lost origins, the desire to re-create sacred time and space, creativity as religious devotion, apocalypticism, spectacle, exile, and the relation between religious vision and social marginality."

The truth of the matter was that stories were everything. And everything was stories. Everyone told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know how they believed the world worked — the right way and the way that was not so right.
— Harry Crews in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus"


Six months of thinking about these religious signs has not taken me very far: I still do not understand this iteration of the South (there are obviously other Souths), nor do I fully appreciate the inclination of so many of its inhabitants to visualize their religion in such explicit ways. What I appreciated in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" was the lack of cynicism — a genuine interest in the people who live in these towns, sing these songs, make these signs. Timothy Beal says it well. "And so I find myself compelled to peek over the fences of cynicism and ironic detachment, fences that too often enclose my daily commute through this world, in hopes of catching a glimpse of something of the substance of faith."
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Comments (28)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

You understand more than you think. The south is the south- youre talking to transplanted Texan (in NY/NJ). THere are quite a few of us here, and weirder that you surmise. My mother opens Billy Graham's "prison letters" for a living for Christ sake! I should be the singing the sad song, my friend. Oy vey.

btw- forgotten tracks, Monk/ Coltrane CD coming out next week
felix sockwell
07.26.05 at 10:46

Further proof that this outright statement of religion is a southern thing: The Hold Land Experience. This has been in the news lately because it's essentially a Christian amusement park, but it has been granted non-profit status.

This kind of approach to religious expression is also seen in Christian t-shirts (that's some of the less 'obvious' stuff) and all other kinds of witness wear (everyone remember WWJD? This, like everything else, has now been repurposed into Livestrong-style wrist bands).

These kinds of topics are of particular interest to me because my parents are both ministers. These signs aren't exclusive to the south, however. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I saw these church signs every day. It would strike me odd that the authors of the more 'severe' signs could actually think these were effective, but i can't say that it does in light of what's happening in the world.
Andrew Twigg
07.26.05 at 11:14

Perhaps it boils down simply enough to being advertising. No one faults a taco stand for putting a sign out front that reads "Tacos Half Off". So why shouldn't a church advertise their own savings?(so to speak)

(Now when a taco stand offers tacos AND jesus in bold letters across their store front, well maybe that's more a matter of celebration, than proclamation. Or maybe it targets a certain demographic, in which case we're right back to advertising.)

A few months ago I went to a Six Flags park in the south unintentionally the same day as a large Christian youth festival. I saw a 20-something woman wearing a red t-shirt emblazoned with the name Jesus Christ written out in the Coca-Cola script. I doubt she saw the real message there. In fact I would bet even the "designer" of that shirt had no idea he/she was reducing Christianity to nothing but a mass-produced product for commercial consumption. I prefer Diet-Jesus... too many calories in the Classic.

At the end of the day, it remains (hopefully) a matter of personal choice. Are you buying what they're selling?
josh berta
07.26.05 at 01:00

I have to agree that seeing the name of Jesus re-created in the Coca-Cola script, or some other religion/pop culture hybrid cheapens the sacred. I live in Charlotte, NC and I am well aware of churches that try to send out messages that they feel will grab people's attention. It seems to put churches on the same level as sleazy car dealerships where the goal is to just get you to come in the doors. So many people are not Christian simply because of other Christians.

To me, that's disheartening.
joey ellis
07.26.05 at 01:54

William, this is the most fruitless post to date on this web site.

For starters, in your slideshow, you showcase signs that only exist from a website. If you are going to whine about signage, at least show real signs.

You also start your essay out with "I live in a country where religion has become not only a matter of faith..."

A question for you - when has religion ever not been a matter of faith? The definition of religion is 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman power.' That is also the definition of faith.

And as ugly as it is, at least we as Americans have the opportunity to share the same land with those who are compelled to make signs about their religion in peace. We could live in a theocratic society like Iraq or Afghanistan, at which point we'd have no where to escape from the insanity of religious zealots. I despise all those church signs as much as the next guy, but I also have the freedom to move as far away from it as possible.

If you have spent six months thinking about church signs, your design work life must leave something to be desired... As an Atheist, and a ten year refugee from the South, I understand the ugliness of Christianity in the South, but if you are going to write about it, at least say something worth reading, and try to construct a better thesis on which to base your design-related post.
g
07.26.05 at 02:40

g,

Bill's statement that begins, "I live in a country where religion has become not only a matter of faith..." does not dispute that religion is a matter of faith (obviously), but adds that in addition to that it has become the foundation for other things as well.

Also, I'd point out that he doesn't seem to "despise them as much as the next guy" (which I think, but I'm not sure, you're implying) but is simply fascinated by this case of private conviction finding a graphic form of public expression.
Michael Bierut
07.26.05 at 02:49

For the record, the signs in the slideshow are all real. The signs I believe G is referring to, those from churchsigngenerator.com, are photos of signs in the real world sent in by visitors to that site.
Don
07.26.05 at 03:16

"The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see."
-The Message, Hebrews 11.

Dictionary.com says, in one definition, that faith is... "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence."

So does the fact that the "product" being advertised isn't necessarily a tangible, buyable sort of product change how we can measure the advertisement?

Or is bad design just bad design? Where's the breaking point between bad, and so bad it's amusingly great?

Does the fact that non-designers are creating these signs matter? Should we take that into account?

and one last thought:
Why must Christ always be judged by the actions of the imperfect Christians who love him for the mere fact that they are imperfect and yet worthy of his love? A dichotomy I cannot explain. But I will say that there's a humility in the expression of those "bad designs," in the faith of the "little people" that I can't help but admire.
allijack
07.26.05 at 03:50

Wow. There's a lot for someone to think about here.

Like the fact that faith is always the foundation of politics, even if that faith is faith in Enlightened ideals of freedom; or the fact that the people fighting against abortion, no matter how wrong-headed you may think they are, think that people defending abortion (i.e. you) are defending legalized murder; or the fact that there really is a lot of crap on television; or the fact that it does matter who is appointed to sit on the Supreme Court.

It's nice to hear, though, that the rural poor in the blue states have colonial architecture, covered bridges and stone walls to brighten their lives, but I'm not sure why "dignified" and "historic" public displays of faith are any better than let's go ahead and say "Southern" displays of faith, as you suggest. (On this point, spend a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina sometime: take in the dignity of some of the oldest churches, and buildings, in these United States...)

In both of your cases, however, I take it you are referencing some kind of Protestant service. Catholics, we can admit, have a different sense of pageantry and pomp. But we can probably also admit that there are a few Protestant churches in certain densely urban neighborhoods in the blue states (Harlem, Chicago's South side, etc.) that boast an entirely different kind "dignity" with its own rich history.

Then again, there are undoubtedly all kinds of interesting and eccentric people all over this country. (Perhaps less so in insular, affluent Northern suburbs?)

On a merely academic note, quoting your quote from the Chronicle - though one of us should probably read the book - on the "marginality" of roadside religion ... Let's remember that the "margin" here is in fact mainstream, indeed main street; hence the current regime...

And we should also remember that wacky signage shows up all over the place - North, South; rural, urban, what have you... And it isn't all the work of non-designers...

It is all however undoubtedly the work of people who haven't bothered to really think about what they are doing, to think, for example, about their potential audience or about the limits of their own cushy and comfortable perspective, etc. etc.

Nice slide show. And nice plug for the Byrne piece. I'll look for it.

boris
07.26.05 at 08:23

> Six months of thinking about these religious signs has not taken me very far: I still do not understand this iteration of the South (there are obviously other Souths), nor do I fully appreciate the inclination of so many of its inhabitants to visualize their religion in such explicit ways.

Bill, perhaps you're being held captive by your own intelligence; you're describing something akin to a regional "accent".

As a young Catholic, I understood that religion was something personal and not to be publicly broadcast. After Ash Wednesday services, our foreheads were clean as soon as we got home. Imagine my shock on moving to New York City and seeing day-long smudges on numerous foreheads each Ash Wednesday — even at the office or in restaurants.

Timothy Beal quotes aside (really, it's lovely), it seems perfectly natural for there to be regional differences in the expression of faith (I won't bring up "the substance of faith — too potentially dangerous). Some Christians handle snakes, others sit together quietly; some practice celibacy, others polygamy. And contrary to your religion/faith mashup, in my mind it's perfectly logical to separate them where religion is the expression of the internal state known as faith.

p.s.
Your slide show has a couple images from W.C. Rice's Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama. That there's folk art — a whole other thing all together — designed, but not design.
m. kingsley
07.27.05 at 02:29

The idea that all states outside the South are normal, and that the South is an aberration, is profoundly culturo-centric.

I resent the tone of the discussion that makes southerners sound like some kind of insect that can be examined by Northern analysts with a bit of distaste, and a much larger dose of smugness.

I notice that one of the signs in the slide show is marked "location unknown," but when I googled the area code, it turned out to be located in Colorado.

Anyway, I have seen similar signs at fundamentalist churches throughout the U.S., not just in the South.

Further, the North has no monopoly on churches that shy from Public Display of Religion. Note that there are plenty of laced-up Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the South that would find putting quips on their church signs about as appealing as speaking in tongues and handling snakes. I am one of them.

Moreover, it is incredibly distasteful, tacky, and ridiculous when non-Southerners act as though they are experts on the South because they have been to Charleston or Florida once or twice, and also have consumed a lifetime of negative stereotypes about southerners from TV, movies, and print media.

Non-southerners are not often aware of this, because southerners are by and large incredibly restrained and polite people, much loath to point out directly these attitudes to those that hold them.

Betsy Kane
07.28.05 at 11:44

Betsy Kane, the point of this post was not to make smug asides about the "South," but to look at one distinct aspect of how religion is visualized in some places in the South. Yes, there are signs like these elsewhere in America (like the one from Colorado that you pointed out). But there is also something particular about the degree to which such signs are more prevalent in the South than, say, the Northeast, where I live. As M. Kingsley notes, "it seems perfectly natural for there to be regional differences in the expression of faith."

Lastly, I noted that there are "other" Souths in order to NOT suggest that the South is only what is shown in these photos (or in the film by Andrew Douglas). Lastly, the point of the Timothy Beal quote was precisely that outsiders shouldn't cynically be experts, or to stereotype what they doesn't understand. "And so I find myself compelled to peek over the fences of cynicism and ironic detachment, fences that too often enclose my daily commute..."

I suspect you might be ouraged by the South visualized in the film by Andrew Douglas. My comment, to repeat, is "What I appreciated in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" was the lack of cynicism — a genuine interest in the people who live in these towns, sing these songs, make these signs." I learned something. I don't think this makes me an expert, though, and I certainly was not trying to be a tacky non-Southerner by suggesting that this is what the South is like.
William Drenttel
07.28.05 at 06:02

Bill—I'm glad Betsy relieved me of any reason to dwell on the regional bigotries in your post; it' going to be almost two weeks before I'll be a resident of North Carolina so any indignation I could feel isn't as personal as hers. I'm tempted to respond to the class bigotry inherent in this but instead I feel like I should just offer some personal advice:

Man, you gotta get out more. Seriously; go places that aren't full of people just like you. Do things that attract someone whose kids don't go to the same school as yours. Notice that there is a world out there and it's full of all sorts of people.

The idea that this is somehow particularly Southern is laughable. If in your youth you had wandered the —what is it? Five miles?—over to Santa Ana, you'd have seen signs like the ones that seem to surprise you so much. Half of them would have been in Spanish but you'd have seen plenty in English as well. Now there'd be several Asian languages. (My favorite on Seventeenth Street was "God's Car Wash. We just work here.") There's a slightly more staid and unctuous version on a church four blocks from my current house in Ventura, California and plenty more around town and in neighboring Oxnard; there's no region of this state where I haven't seen them. (When I lived in the Oakwood ghetto in Venice, California there were similar signs but storefront churches have been driven out by gentrifying architects by now.) I can't cite addresses (nor chapter and verse) but I'll bet big bucks that New York City has plenty of them (and in many languages.)

Try thinking of some parallel visual declarations and see how your post looks. If someone wrote about seeing photos of the Castro district (because God know that nobody we know would actually go there) and commented that at home in Utah people don't put up signs about their sex lives, declaring it all "only in San Francisco," he'd be laughed at.

Many people live in communities where it's thought to be rather rude to make political declarations at social or business gatherings but you spent some time on stage at the last AIGA conference denouncing Bush. You saw the world threatened and you saw a need for a call to action against it. Now think about how you'd feel if you thought you knew about not just the world but the universe. You had the opportunity to save people from not just four or eight years of a mistake and the resulting destruction but from eternal error and infinite destruction. Maybe then you'd "appreciate the inclination of so many. . . to visualize their religion in such explicit ways."

I am politically and religiously as unlike the authors of these signs as you are but what mystifies me is that they seem to surprise you.

Josh—It's funny. If someone wrote about various logo parodies on this site we'd be subjected to claims that they were brilliant criticisms of late capitalist corporate hegemony but when someone wears a tee shirt that implicitly makes a fairly sophisticated argument that popular culture is trivial and the commercial images that dominate our lives should be replaced by something of cosmic importance you put people in quotation marks and claim they are unknowingly "reducing Christianity to nothing but a mass-produced product for commercial consumption." What's up with that?

(Back in the late '60s when "Things go better with Christ" bumper stickers first started appearing, I almost had a neighbor convinced to put "Join the Popesy Generation" on his car.)
Gunnar Swanson
07.29.05 at 11:44

i think betsy's primary thought here was that she found the notion of yet another essay about the south written from the viewpoint of "oh, hey, look: weird" as offputting. as a southerner transplanted to the north, i agree. it gets old quickly.

public displays of religion aren't uncommon at all. low-cost pre-fab signage isn't uncommon. nor are poor populations looking to express their faith. and none of this, as you stated, is tied geographically to the south.

this essay is actually about one northerner's inability to understand how poor country people could express their faith in such tacky ways. but at least you sort of said that.
pk
07.29.05 at 11:47

This post is inspired by a documentary and a soundtrack. I would urge everyone to see and listen to these before accusing me of regional bigotry. The quotes are by Southerners about the South, and the stories in the lyrics of the soundtrack are by Southerners about the South. There is nothing snide or bigoted about these stories: they are just particular stories about a particular region with a particular culture and history. (They also do not reflect the modernity of the South, nor the diversity of the South.)

It is not my culture or history. But I have been in every state in the South, and to suggest that there is nothing particular or special or different about the South is laughable. The Northeast is not where I grew up either, and Yankee culture (one of only many cultures within the history and heritage of the Northeast) still confounds me.

As Gunnar knows, I grew up in Orange County, California. Hence, his suggestion that I travel five miles over to Santa Ana (from my hometown of Tustin). I know Santa Ana well, having also lived there. It is, in fact, different than Tustin. It is also different from Newport Beach and Garden Grove (today with a substantial Vietnamese population). Orange County is the home of the first drive-in church (later named the Crystal Cathedral and designed by Philip Johnson); the evangelicalism of this area is familiar to me as well, since this was my first church.

There are undoubtedly many interesting church signs in Orange County, but there is not a truck stop called "Sheffield's Where Jesus is Lord Catfish Eat All You Can Truck Stop Diner." Perhaps because catfish are not native to the area. (I did commercial catfish fishing with my grandfather in western Minnesota: I never saw a truck stop named like this there either.)

I was born in Minnesota and can recognize that accent from the movie Fargo anywhere. It's funny in the movie. It's also accurate — it always reminds me of my grandmother.
William Drenttel
07.29.05 at 11:58

Gunnar-

Thanks for bringing a new perspective to the Jesus Christ Coca Cola logo. I suppose the way you interpret it as a "fairly sophisticated argument that popular culture is trivial and the commercial images that dominate our lives should be replaced by something of cosmic importance," is valid. But I doubt it's implicit, as you claim. Heady theological statements don't really sell t-shirts.

No one I was with that day who saw that shirt interpreted it that way. And I dare say we're a pretty smart bunch.

I'd like to suggest that both interpretations are valid.

But I'll also put forth that if I had stopped that woman and asked her about her shirt she would have said something along the lines of: "It's cool, isn't it? It's, like, the coke logo, but it says jesus christ instead. I love coke and I love jesus, so it's, like, cool that they're together."

If I'm wrong, then I owe you a Coke.

(I was about to post this comment when I thought I should google the JC/CC T-shirt and see what comes up. Look here for it, and the description: "The perfect match for those who love Coca Cola and Jesus Christ!" Indeed!)
Josh Berta
07.30.05 at 02:42

I'm sorry, but I just have to jump in here on the Jesus/Coke thing. This goes back to the '70s. (Gunnar already mentioned the "Things Go Better with Christ" reference.) With the Jesus-Coca-Cola logo, the complete thought was "Jesus Christ -- He's the Real Thing". In fact, I recall when I was a kid the older youth group in my church singing the Coke jingle with "Christ" inserted where Coke would go (He's the Real Thing, Christ is...etc.).It was a fairly unsophisticated co-opting of pop culture (pun intended). However theologically shallow it may be, however, there was a definite thought and reasoning behind it.
Daniel Green
07.30.05 at 08:54

"The quotes are by Southerners about the South, and the stories in the lyrics of the soundtrack are by Southerners about the South. There is nothing snide or bigoted about these stories"

That's assuming that Southerners haven't been as well-trained as anyone to believe stereotypes about themselves. Stupid, lowly, backward, underdeveloped, having funny accents that may be made use of in comedic settings -- believe me, we have internalized these notions about us as well as anybody has.

"I suspect you might be ouraged by the South visualized in the film by Andrew Douglas"
Undoubtedly.

"What I appreciated in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" was the lack of cynicism — a genuine interest in the people who live in these towns, sing these songs, make these signs."

Yes, any southerner is OK, as long as s/he comprises a non-threatening folk hero type -- the oppressed son of a sharecropper who sings the Delta Blues, simple people in country churches who proclaim their faith with stirring innocence, non-ironic drivers of old pick-up trucks.

The most charming thing about us is our total lack of irony. (Add "irony" emoticon here)

I quote from a review on Amazon: "Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus is a thought-provoking road trip through the American south - a world of churches; prison; coalmines; truck stops; juke joints; swamps; and mountains."

Now ain't that charming.

You might be surprised how many other things are down here. No one of my acquaintance is in prison; am I a real Southerner? My grandmother, born in 1906 on a strawberry farm in Tennessee, attended Vanderbilt, Stetson, and the University of Chicago; am I still a real Southerner? I grew up in eastern North Carolina, but never tied tobacco. Do I still qualify as a Southerner? Or does southern culture only consist in all those anthropological curiosities that seem so compelling to documentary film-makers from the Outside?

"There is nothing snide or bigoted about these stories" (stated regarding the film)

On the contrary, I submit that the very compilation of a select, outdated, and non-representative set of examples is profoundly snide and bigoted. Come down here and show me where the damned juke joints are, if there's so many of 'em.
Betsy Kane
07.30.05 at 10:20

This is all leading into a rather interesting area of regional culture, stereotype and the right to be involved in or comment on same.

Recently, I did a piece for FontShop's Font 004 on the subject of "community" so I've had done some thinking about both the inclusionary and exlusionary aspects of the word.

We all identify ourselves with a series of expanding and overlapping communities which are defined by various characteristics separating "us" from "them". These definitions, which are stereotypes, join us together. But that we all belong to different types of communities (racial, regional, sexual, educational, professional, etc.) is what expands our relationships with other people, and gives us a vast amount of commonality.

So, as a Canadian, I do say "eh", I am polite, I usually wait for walk signals at street corners, sometimes I wear a toque, and I know a lot about snow. Not all Canadians do this, and there are a lot of Canadian characteristics that I don't have (I hate hockey, for instance). Similarly, due to my involvement in other communities, I am diverse; as we all are.

So we're all diverse, but we're also all connected to small groups by sterotypical behaviour.

The problems arise when we start being observed from the outside. To a new community this is exciting: our uniqueness is noticed and recognized. But after the tenth, hundredth or millionth time we grow tired of being observed through the characteristics that once defined us and often we actively reject those characteristics.

Could this be why regional culture is endangered? Because the more outsiders look at us, the less we want to be associated with the things that once defined us?

And, when our communal culture has become so diluted by time, rejection, and intercultural mixing, isn't it funny that often there is an underground vein of "pure" regionalism which is celebrated in very stereotypical ways and is open only to the "true" members of that community?

It's all about inclusion and exclusion, and often commentary from within is more acceptable than commentary from outside. This causes uncomfortable problems, leading to who is allowed to talk about what, and how much a part of a culture you have to be before you can legitimately comment upon that culture. Does this lead to prescribed introspection, or a sort of fascist control of curiousity? Or is it a call to sensitivity and a reprimand of assumption?

...

One last thing, speaking of commentary from within a community, Mark Kingsley sent me a link to "Poor, White and Pissed" by Joe Bageant. Definitely worth the read, as I believe he addresses most of us here.

marian bantjes
07.30.05 at 02:47

One little thing that hasn't really been brought up yet is that the message of religion, in this case a particular flavour of evangelical Christianity, is such an uncomfortable one that it tends to overwhelm or at least deeply overshadow any attempt to discuss the medium in terms of design only.

The message is "you are fatally flawed and the only way to escape a literal eternal hell is to believe like I do." Even when the message is communicated in a very Nice, Cute or Clever way, it is still the same message. It seems to me that no matter how committed & comforatable a non-christian you are that message is going to be offensive, disturbing and/or annoying.

An extreme example: I have never come across any serious criticism or discussion of the design merits or lack thereof of a militant Islamist website.

I'm not saying that it is impossible to address the communication design of evangelical Christianity (and I think Mr Drenttel did a good & enjoyable job with this post), but it is important to be aware of the offence of the message & its emotional & subconscious effects when doing so.
Jeff Gill
07.30.05 at 06:26

Reading these comments I feel more insular than most, having spent my entire life in the American northeast (assuming you consider Ohio part of the northeast.) My biggest exposure to the south was a course called "The South in American Literature" in the mid-seventies at the University of Cincinnati. Lots of William Faulker, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, all of whom seem to me to have painted an image of the south not inconsistent with "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus."

I've read Betsy Kane's and Gunnar Swanson's comments with interest. Would they say that regionalism is no longer a relevant force in American culture? Or was it as much an invention 75 years ago?
Michael Bierut
08.01.05 at 12:48

Michael — Insular? Northeast?
How far is Cincinnati from Kentucky?
m. kingsley
08.01.05 at 02:16

Regional and local differences are not wholly irrelevant but class differences create greater gulfs in our society. It is caricatured regionalism combined with a lack of recognition of the widespread nature of supposed regional traits that sticks in my craw.

I've lived fifty of my fifty-three years in California so I'm hardly an expert on every corner of the world. I was happy to see the Vietnamese gangsters from my old home town pull guns on the snots from Newport Beach during a drug deal in the finale of last year's The O.C., declaring "We're doing this the Garden Grove way." Regionalism doesn't even seem to stretch across a single county out here.

Various places in Southern California might as well be different countries in some ways but I admit to having been somewhat surprised to find northern Minnesota culturally so strange. (Most people assumed the winter weather would be the thing that would have put us off but it was no problem.) But it does seem like sweeping statements about the South (or the Midwest or East Coast states) are so imprecise as to be generally useless—akin to declarations about European taste or Asian religion.

I've never lived in the South but the truck comes in less than a week. North Carolina may have some things in common with Mississippi and not with Pennsylvania or Oregon but I doubt the comic book version of Southerness is of great value. Ask me later.
Gunnar Swanson
08.01.05 at 07:08

Would they say that regionalism is no longer a relevant force in American culture?

well...things in my own hometown of kingsort, tennessee have changed drastically.

my brother reports that there's a sizeable indian and spanish-speaking population. hip hop culure is just as important there as it is here in chicago, not to mention hipsters from brooklyn generating clones as easily there as anywhere else. gwen stefani's "hollaback girl" is pretty huge with mom's senior french students. my brother buys his son's clothes at the gap.

but there's still the exchange place where mom teaches traditional basketweaving, there are still canning seminars, and the town still boats an inordinate number of churches.

so i'd say kind of yes, kind of no.

still no starbucks, though.
pk
08.01.05 at 11:03

All my life I've listened to somebody somewhere disagree about something,thats freedom...if you don't curse,drink,dope,prostitute,etc.,you still must live in and around such,thats freedom..even if you believe you came from a monkey that evolved from a tadpole,thats freedom...if you want to listen to someone praying,then you don't have to,thats freedom..but in the near future,if you don't die first,you'll be begging for prayer,anywhere you can find it,thats freedom!!
sandie medlin
08.10.05 at 01:00

I've always been interested in these things as well, and here are a few selected photographs from a tour of the "deep south" (I'm originally from NC) a couple years ago:
http://www.cedartreedesign.com/photo/folkart.htm

I recently learned that W.C. Rice, the white signmaker pictured in a wheelchair, has since died, but his wife Marzell (sp?) still will show people around the property.
mark
08.12.05 at 03:06

If you dig that stuff Mark, then take a trip to visit Rev. Dennis just outside Vicksburg, Mississippi. He loves visitors and parting his company isn't an easy task. So make sure you schedule plenty of time for the tour:

http://ucmmuseum.com/rev_dennis_trailer.htm
BlueStreak
08.12.05 at 05:46

"I live in a country where religion has become not only a matter of faith, but increasingly the foundation for malevolent politics — ugly hostilities over abortion, what's on television, whether Darwin can be taught in schools, and who gets named to the Supreme Court."

I think here lies the rub: You obviously are predisposed to an adversarial relationship with the type of Christianity you are dissecting in the blog post. Those true believers (I do not count myself as one of them) would certainly disagree with your regard about the malevolent nature of their intent.

I'm not sure the signage in the slideshow lives up to this premise. I don't see an overabundance of hate in those signs.
EMD
03.22.10 at 12:35


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ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

A collection of religious signage from the American South.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Drenttel is a designer and publisher, and editorial director of Design Observer. He is a partner at Winterhouse, a design consultancy focused on social change, online media and educational institutions, and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY William Drenttel

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 2
Allworth Press, 1997

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

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