Culture At Large

A theology of billboards

Tamara Hill Murphy

Three years ago my family moved to Austin, Texas. Our very first spring we got a front row seat to the effects of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, a legacy of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson. In a place known for heat and drought, springtime in Texas kicks off a wildflower parade up and down the state’s medians and roadways. Johnson’s concern about the increasing number of billboards crowding out the natural beauty of her home state energized her to become the first president’s wife to actively campaign for legislative action.

A recent NPR story described the new battle Texans are fighting against the billboard lobby’s request to heighten signs. It makes sense for political figures to discuss the use of public spaces, but what if it also became a Christian conversation?    

Writing on the theology of culture, James K.A. Smith reframes our perception of public spaces as liturgical structures that actually shape our community’s thoughts and affections. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith refers to billboards as part of a “wider web of practices and rituals associated with consumer capitalism.” What Lady Bird Johnson hoped to achieve by limiting the built environment (billboards) and cultivating the natural environment (wildflowers) speaks at least one truth: beauty is worth fighting for. In a decade of unrelenting national anxiety, the First Lady placed her bets on beauty. "Ugliness is so grim," she said. "A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions."

It makes sense for political figures to discuss the use of public spaces, but what if it also became a Christian conversation?

The purpose of liturgy for the church congregation is to rehearse together the creative and redemptive work of Father, Son and Spirit in the world and to remember our rightful response of worship and mission. In the parallel view of cultural liturgies, public spaces present us with something larger than the individual and promote a particular community response, be it noble or demeaning. Pastor and author Eric Jacobsen describes this contrast: “The availability of places where we are invited to stop and enjoy our rest provides a tacit reminder of what is important. If these places invite us to stay because we are consumers or producers, we will learn to see ourselves as valuable only insofar as we contribute to the economy. If our public spaces are ugly or inconvenient, we learn tacitly that our value as human beings is minimal.”

Unfortunately, Christians have often added to the spread of ugliness, using billboards as 14-foot-high pulpits to threaten motorists with certain condemnation. On our cross-country drive to Texas three summers ago, my family lost count of the number of billboards warning us that hell is real and God is mad. Maybe someday we’ll discover someone benefitted from that message, but I fear that it is just more visual pollution where beauty could have been offered.

Last month a campaign called Art Everywhere used the abundance of public space meant for commercial advertising as a canvas to display great American art. The goal of the initiative is to provide millions of people who commute each day across the United States a chance to encounter beauty in public spaces. In a summer with a level of national and global tension not unlike 1965, I can’t think of a more Christian way to offer hope and human value than this sort of celebration of beauty. Can you?

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