Christian kitsch: tools for conversion?

Do you have a "Jesus fish" on your car, and if so, why?

That question is explored by blogger Fred Clark at Patheos, who writes about "witnessing tools" and Christian Evangelicalism.Jesus Fish He says that witnessing to the faith is taught to Evangelical Christians from a very young age, and then explores some of the pop-culture-esque ways that this mission is carried out. He believes that many of these methods, from t-shirts to billboards to the ubiqitous "Jesus fish" serve more as tribal indicators advancing an us-them agenda rather than true invitations to the explore the Christian faith: 


Many of the people affixing Jesus-fish to their cars tell themselves that this, too, is a witnessing tool. I don’t understand how that’s supposed to work. I can’t imagine any likely scenario in which a car-fish could function as a witnessing tool. A fish or an evangelistic bumper sticker can’t serve as a conversation-starter with the driver of the car behind you because neither of you is really in a position to chat. You can communicate only via the crude semaphore of the highway — the horn, the high-beams, the wave, the hand, the finger — and that lacks an adequate vocabulary for communicating the gospel.

I’m opposed to car-fish and Christian bumper stickers in principle. As a general rule, any one of us is more likely to create a negative impression than a positive one for the driver behind us. The light turns yellow and we have to decide, very quickly, whether to accelerate or brake. Either way, we risk annoying the person behind us. Race through the intersection with a Jesus-fish on your car and the driver behind you might think, “Oh, look, the Christian runs red lights.” Come to a stop and they might think, “Oh, great, I could’ve got through the light if I weren’t stuck behind this slowpoke Christian.” We’re all subject to moments of inattention behind the wheel and it seems wrong for Jesus to have the share the blame for our driving.

Mainly, though, car-fish aren’t really intended for witnessing. They’re not witnessing tools, they are tribal symbols. The Jesus-fish on a car is not an invitation, but a declaration of tribal allegiance. It’s a signal that the driver of this car is an “Us” rather than a “Them.” And that Us-Them symbolism has far more to do with conflict than with any attempt at conversion.

Mary Night LightAdmittedly, this type of thing is not as common in the Catholic tradition; I remember being a bit creeped out as a teenager when some overzealous peer would try to pass out WWJD paraphernalia or the like during confirmation classes. But there are nonetheless many who are attracted to these bumper stickers, t-shirts, and booklets. Are there Catholic equivalents, perhaps plastic rosary beads, Blessed Virgin night-lights, or even icons? What is the purpose, to invite someone in for a conversation, to mark one's own identity, or simply to surround oneself with markers of faith? Do you see external markers of faith as weapons in the culture war, or as signs of personal devotion? Is there something different about adhering a "Jesus fish" to your car versus placing a small image of your favorite saint in your home? 

Read the full post here (h/t to Andrew Sullivan). 

Michael J. O'Loughlin


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Anne Chapman
7 years 4 months ago
This is relevant to the discussion on another post about the revival of ''external markers'' for Catholics - such as the mandate of meatless Fridays by the bishops in the UK.  What is the point - really and honestly?  ''Tribal identity'' - the tribe being Roman Catholic - more than anything else?  And if so, if it is to label ''us'' as ''differen''t than ''them'', what purpose is achieved?
ed gleason
7 years 4 months ago
Here is my story about car/bumper markers. My wife, as a member placed, a Grandmothers For Peace sticker on our car. I parked in an especially crowded neighbor hood in San Francisco. When I returned there was a big note on my windshield.
"You may be a @#$%@ peacenik but you are a @(*&%# lousy parker who took up two (*$%^#  spaces'. Not good evangelizing for peace!!
7 years 4 months ago
 I believe the best witnessing tool to our Catholic Christian faith is the random acts of kindness we practice everyday anyplace.  And articles,  such as holy pictures, rosary beads and medals are reminders for myself alone.
Joseph Kalwinski
7 years 4 months ago
What a silly article! I live in the South where fish symbols on cars are ubiquitous and as far as I know the tribal argument has never been advanced by anyone down here. It simply functions as an invitation to belief. Are we to criticize any exterior symbol of our faith because it is a PC violation? What nonsense!
Bill Mazzella
7 years 4 months ago
Displaying the papal coat of arms or a miter or vestment would be tribal. Peace symbols are nice but there is something about pushing one's agenda that can irritate. The worst is the "support our troops" which seems innocent but it is not. Certainly anyone who is risking her life for you should be admired the slogan is abused by fostering war and many times with policeman, supporting brutality. Most galling perhaps is the pushing of that one issue a certain brand of Christian seems to like the most.

Yet witness is most powerful when it is helping the needing, the sick and the downtrodden who many times are the target of these campaigns. 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
I think that you're too young, Michael, to remember the tribalism of th 1950s Catholics.  We all had St. Christopher statues in our cars - every Catholic that I knew had at least one.  I think in our cars we even had statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. 

I think that these icons were not only to identify ourselves as Catholic, but also to offer extra protection while driving.

Much as a pooh-poohed these things as superstitious and tribal, somehow it is a comfort to me to have a little Franciscan cross with me when I venture out on long road trips.

I don't know what it all means.  For years I didn't know what that fish on peoples' cars meant.  I still am not sure.  I'm curious about what "Evangelism" is all about.  Jim Wallis at Sojourners gives a pretty good representation, and it looks to me to be an authentic face of Christianity.  I'd like to know more.
Jim McCrea
7 years 4 months ago
Lest we forget pre V2 Catholic auto kitsch, boyz and gurlzz:
“I don't care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car
Through all trials and tribulations,
We will travel every nation,
With my plastic Jesus I'll go far.
I don't care if it's dark or scary
Long as I have magnetic Mary
Ridin' on the dashboard of my car
I feel I'm protected amply
I've got the whole damn Holy Family
Riding on the dashboard of my car
You can buy a Sweet Madonna
Dressed in rhinestones sitting on a
Pedestal of abalone shell
Goin' ninety, I'm not wary
'Cause I've got my Virgin Mary
Guaranteeing I won't go to Hell
I don't care if it bumps or jostles
Long as I got the Twelve Apostles
Bolted to the dashboard of my car
Don't I have a pious mess
Such a crowd of holiness
Strung across the dashboard of my car”
And on and on and on -
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
Brett, why do you think it's "liberals" who look down their noses at religious symbols?

I hear that a lot on this blog, liberals this and conservatives that.  Some of the most liberal people I know live and work amongst the poor (ARE the poor) and carry religious icons themselves.  And I suspect most of us here can call ourselves the "working classes".

I guess I'm just tired of these blanket statements and labels.  They are not helpful and they are not true.  None of them.  Even the ones I make.  Can't we get over this?
Tom Maher
7 years 4 months ago
This article gives one the impression that religious expression in public is somehow bad and should be stopped.  But why?  Why should people mind about someone else 's visible or public religious expression?

But many do mind. 
The underlying concern here is Christians with religious convictions may demonstrate that they are more numerous than many people would like to think.  A visible Christian presence would increase Christian influence on society , culture and politics. Many see increased Christian influence as a threat that should be marginalized to protect their own interests and influences on society.  

Christianity in general will always be seen as a threat to someone's interests in a multi-cultural scoiety. But Christians do have political and social interests.   Christians and their ideas should not be unseen and unheard of as if Christians do not exist. 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
"Christianity in general will always be seen as a threat to someone's interests in a multi-cultural scoiety."

Isn't this a distortion of "Christianity" itself, though?
Leo Zanchettin
7 years 4 months ago
I've never taken these car-fish icons too seriously. If people want to show some external markers about their faith, that's part of their right as American citizens. I don't think, either, that many of them look at them as witnessing tools. Tribal markers does seem to get closer to the truth. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I have my own car-mounted tribal marker. Four of my children are on the autism spectrum, and my vanity license plate sports the autism puzzle-piece logo. ( I am not trying to evangelize people to an autism lifestyle. Neither am I trying to set myself apart. But I can tell you that whenever I see another car with a similar license plate, or a magnet or sticker with that logo, I feel a little bit better. "Yes," I think. "There goes someone else who is going through some of the stuff that my family is going through. There's someone who 'gets it,' someone with whom I have something very important in common." It's a tribal marker, but it's not an us-versus-them marker. It doesn't look down on those families who do not have to deal with the challenges that we face. It is simply an identifier, telling me that we're not as alone as we can sometimes think we are.

I wouldn't be surprised to find a number of car-fish people who feel similarly. Not all evangelicals are judgmental culture-warriors, just as not all Catholics think that every word from the mouth of the pope is divine revelation.
Thomas Piatak
7 years 4 months ago
Thanks, Mr. Zanchettin, for a most thoughtful post.
Tom Maher
7 years 4 months ago
Beth Cioffoletti (# 13) 

Any group can be seen as being a threat to other groups and be punished or strongly disapproved of for their prceived threats that are not real or substantial.

Having a fish symbol on a car is not a substantial cause for concern but it is being made into a real big deal, out of all proportions.  Evangelicals are under attack. 

Some ?????????????????????????????? ?e?x?a?m?p?l?e?s?? ??i?n? ???? ?h?i?s?t?o?r???????????y: ????
The classic example is the massive and systematic extermination of Jews in Europe  in the 1930s and  1940s.  The Jews were falsely blamed for Germany's defeat in World War I and ?f?o?r? ?u?n?d??e??r?m?i?n?i?n?g? ?????????????????????????t?h?e? ????state.

Christians as a group have historically been seen by other groups and even other Christians as a threat.   Christ was preceived as a threat to the state and was executed.  So were John the Baptist and other to the present. Catholics were a threat to King Henry VIII and the? Reformation and ?were persecuted.

Today for little or no reason  Evagelicals are a threat to other  groups and are being fiercely attacked and disapproved of in the media.
7 years 4 months ago
"When it comes to really tacky "witnessing tools,"  fundiegelicals have a long way to go to catch up with katlicks!"

You sure spend a lot of time attacking and name-calling people who you disagree with!
Elaine Tannesen
7 years 4 months ago
I have found that an overwhelming number of those that call themselves ''christian'', especially in public life, espouse policies and have private lives that are the very opposite of the teachings of Jesus, the Compassionate One.  They have made a mockery of His teachings of love and mercy and still call themselves ''christian''.   I refuse to wear or display any symbol that will associate me with these people.  They seem to me to be not so much on the defensive but on the attack, the attack on any who do not agree with them.  True followers of Jesus do not need these symbols to further their agenda.  They invite others to join them by their lives of love and humility.
7 years 4 months ago
Well-written and thought-provoking, Mr. Zanchettin.
Jim McCrea
7 years 4 months ago
Not all Catholic kitsch is/was limited to autos.

What about those saccharine madonnas positioned in an up-ended bathtub (!!!!) prominently dug into the front yard?

And then there is the statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's basilica that is dressed up like a little doll on (I think) his feast day? 

When it comes to really tacky "witnessing tools,"  fundiegelicals have a long way to go to catch up with katlicks!
Dale Rodrigue
7 years 4 months ago
I like the Jesus fish better than the Darwin fish that has feet. 
Paul Nielsen
7 years 4 months ago
Surprised no one has mentioned Betty Spackman's A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch.


The latest from america

Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019