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."