On the way back from a shopping trip during my Midwest vacation my son-in-law pointed to a three- (maybe four) story-high statue of Jesus, his arms outstretched in the direction of Interstate 75.
I learned that the statue had been struck by lightning and caught fire back in the days when Jesus’ hands were raised heavenward, over his head. It was rebuilt with the arms outward rather than upward, but as I looked at it, I thought: I think they discerned the wrong heavenly hint from that bolt.
The statue is just one example of what it’s like to live in the Bible Belt, which stretches from approximately mid-Pennsylvania south through Florida and west through at least Utah.
There is no possibility you can mistake the Bible Belt when you’re there. Just look along any highway. One year while driving on an interstate I saw the towering billboard: Where are you going? Heaven? Or hell?
My answer was pretty much immediate: Well, to be honest, I thought I was on my way to Cincinnati.
The signs are everywhere — You WILL meet God, one proclaimed — perhaps because they’re cheap and permanent, especially if the church that erects it has free use of the property.
The airwaves also are loaded with Christian radio stations. Some feature music but many offer nonstop preaching from a variety of local and/or syndicated providers.
And it’s not just Protestants. One of the stations I picked up was a professional-sounding Catholic station along I-70 where the newscast ended with an item about costumed hucksters in New York City who were assaulting people who didn’t tip them.
“What kind of witness is that, especially for kids who look up to these guys?” the newscaster asked. And I thought: What kind of witness is it for some guy to dress up as Superman in the first place just so he can put the arm on tourists?
I am not sharing these examples to mock Bible-Belt Christians. They are motivated by Scripture, which they believe demands that the Gospel be shared with others.
I just wonder how effective these efforts are. Jesus never loomed over anyone, rarely raised his voice, and spent a lot of time dealing with the needs of those who came to Him. He was the absolute best one-on-one minister there ever was.
This is the kind of witness that most often succeeds, but it can also seem intimidating, which is why we prefer loud to loving. It’s easy to opt for the brash, intimidating, fear-inducing, in-your-face variety that is borderline offensive. That way we can believe we shared the message and that others are to blame for rejecting it. But they often don’t reject the message as much as they reject the method of delivery.
In 1 Kings 19 God appeared to Elijah not in strong winds, earthquake or fire but in a whisper, and the prophet got the message immediately. And when we whisper love or hope or joy or forgiveness to someone they usually get the message really fast, too.
Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, “And So Are You.” He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut.