As I was driving to school this morning, I passed a trashcan at the end of a driveway. Painted on the side in bold, haphazard lettering was this:
I love Jesus!
It was a large green can, the type that our local government distributes to residents. It obviously awaited the garbage truck; it will stop, lift the can high, and dump its contents into the back of the truck. The truck’s mechanical jaw looks like someone cross-bred a cobra and alligator, and the resulting offspring is this robotic devise that carries away our filth.
There were other things painted on the sides of this particular can, but driving 40 mph on a busy road isn’t conducive to reading graffiti. So what stuck in my brain was I love Jesus!
Being the type who analyzes everything, I tried to find a starting place for analyzing this, but was stumped. What I finally found was this:
Graffiti is an honest expression of the artist’s heart and mind at a particular moment.
It’s usually anonymous. So it can be honest. Brutally honest. Obscenely honest.
Even if it’s a deliberate lie, intended to slander or damage, there’s still a truth here, a truth about the teller.
It’s an honest picture of the writer’s character.
Think about these two examples:
One: Derek loves Cynthia 4ever, spray painted while Derek is cheating on Cynthia, for example. Does Derek feel the need to declare his fidelity as a way of denying his infidelity? Or is he attempting to guilt trip Cynthia into staying with him, even when she learns of his infidelity? Or trying to tell her “I’ll always love you. That other girl? She means nothing to me! Really!”?
Two: Someone is labeled with a smutty term on a bathroom stall door. Even if she/he is behaving in an objectionable way, this filth is designed to slander or damage another person’s reputation. Doesn’t this say something about the graffiti writer’s character? A person who spreads gossip and slander has a heart-issue, not just a potty mouth issue.
It takes those words (or image) and rips it out of one context, and puts it into a new context, one where it doesn’t belong and looks out of place, thus drawing attention to the ideas.
I love Jesus on a trash can?
- Is that an illustration of the whited sepulchres image Jesus applies to the Pharisees?
- A statement of the hypocrisy of declared Christians whose lives are filled with filth?
- A testimony to Christ’s power to transform even the trashiest of people into artistic creations of life?
- A declaration of the need to rid ourselves of all filth and sinful tendencies in our own lives, much like a trashcan takes the garbage from our homes?
- Or a simple statement of newly-discovered or rediscovered faith and love?
Recently, I read Chang Rae Lee’s novel On Such a Full Sea. It’s almost undefinable. Is a literary novel? A post apocalyptic dystopian? An unconventional romance? A statement about American angst over Chinese influence on the American culture? Proof that one can write a thoughtful novel (from a first person plural point of view, no less) and still have an engaging plot?
It revolves around Fan, a young Chinese woman from B-Mor (the post-apocalyptic name for Baltimore, now repopulated by fish-raising descendants of Chinese immigrants). She leaves the city, her job, her family, everything to find out the fate of her missing boyfriend, Reg.
Somehow her disappearance captures the collective imagination of the confined B-Mor dwellers. In their structured, protected, and highly regulated lives, forever in an inferior class to the white “charter city” inhabitants, Fan’s decision to leave is unnerving.
They become obsessed with Fan and Reg. Suddenly, almost overnight, pictures of the couple are painted on buildings. Graffiti is spray painted everywhere:
Long live Reg and Fan!
I love Reg!
Fan and Reg forever!
The authorities try to suppress this, of course. But to no avail. The graffiti doesn’t belong in their world. (Whose image does belong on the side of a brick building?) Ripped from the conventional place for artistic expression (a canvas, perhaps, or doodled beside class notes), it draws attention to Fan’s unprecedented action—and fuels an artistic rebellion.
Suddenly, paintings of other subjects appear on shop buildings. One graffiti artist paints an image; the offended building owner paints over it; the artist repaints the image the next day. The building owner gives up.
Soon others join in, adding their own images to the original one, and the work evolves into an elaborate countryside scene. A collaborative effort, never ending and ever evolving.
Whatever emotion is captured by the graffiti may not last, of course. It doesn’t in Lee’s book. The B-Mor inhabitants eventually come to a new normal; the feverish intensity of the graffiti lessens but the affect of Fan’s disappearance lingers, changing how the people view their work and place in society.
Derek may not love Cynthia 4ever. He may move on and have a healthy relationship with another woman.
The person who trashed another person’s reputation on a bathroom stall door may regret the action and may want to make amends.
The person who wrote I love Jesus on a trashcan may fall out of love with Jesus, regaining it later or walking away from faith entirely.
I hope not. I hope that they always feel that enthusiastic about Jesus. I hope that even as faith flickers, almost snuffed out—I hope that he remembers that simple declaration of love and seeks to ignite that passion once more.