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. 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.
Admittedly, 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?
Michael J. O'Loughlin