So today, on the way home from a marathon day of planning classes and drafting course documents, I passed a church sign that said “Jesus knows the way. Follow Him!” And now, normally, I’m indifferent to church signs. They’re an interesting part of culture that is sometimes hokey, sometimes mildly offensive, most of the time blandly informative (like every other marquee). The recent trend to use church signs as a vehicle for pithy sayings has been noted, and usually they just get a sort of groaning smile. The same reaction as corny jokes. Because most of the time that’s what they turn out to be: bad puns, corny jokes, or passive-aggressive guilt trips. I’m not sure where my example falls on the spectrum: kind of a vague sort of double meaning, dependent upon the nominative and religious denotations of follow.
Regardless, I usually extend church signs like this the same sort of grace that I extend to a cheesy sense of humor. It’s worth a laugh and a smile and a groan; in one sense it’s nice to laugh at them, not in derision, but honestly, because it’s a humble sort of laughter. I tend to reserve my laughter for things like satire and cynicism, and it’s refreshing to look at a thing itself and laugh instead of looking through it. Church signs seem to fall in that category pretty often.
So, I don’t usually go in for the cheap shot of criticizing church signs. After all, they’re a marquee. It’s pretty hard to say anything convicting or enlightening in such a small space. But this one caught my attention because it fits pretty well into this idea I’ve been pondering, which is this: theology and philosophy are exercises in the precision of language. In order for physics and chemistry to work (as in yield useful, consistent results) the math must be right, but theology is different. In order for it to yield useful, consistent results, the language has to be right. The words have to precise, the definitions have to be definite. There’s room for paradox, but not vagueness.
And I know it’s just a church sign. I realize that, so I’m just using it as an example, I’m not starting a crusade or anything. But this particular sign is a really good example of the right word gone missing; and in its place is a wrong word. Because if there’s one thing that sets Christianity apart from other monotheistic religions, it’s the nature of Jesus Christ. And he did not know the way—he was the way. There have been lots of prophets throughout all religions, but not many men who claimed to be God incarnate. Prophets know the way to God. God in the flesh is the way to God.
And that’s a pretty dang important distinction. Jesus came preaching “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Not “I know the way, I’ve found the truth, and I’ve seen the light.” The first are radical statements made by a man who should be either killed or worshiped: perhaps both. The second are the lyrics to a 60’s Lite Rock song.