By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 8, 2014
A number of summers ago, retirees Steve and Pam Paulson were driving around when they hit on an idea for what would become their first book: A volume of photographs of churches and their signs, which variously bear reverent and witty messages.
I picked up Church Signs Across America a few years ago on the strength of its cover photograph: A picture of the sign outside a Lutheran church that reads, “Free trip to heaven — details inside.” (This is a message from Ascension Lutheran Church, the sign from which appears on the cover and title page, although the church’s location does not seem to be stated anywhere in the book.)
This 2006 book loitered around my house for many many months, but I didn’t get around to flipping through it until I was seized by an impulse to declutter last week. I found it to be surprisingly tepid.
First, a note about the format. This is a photography book first, last and always. By far the longest passage of text assembled by the authors, their editors or the publisher appears in the indicia. (“All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted…except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review…”)
Each page in Church Signs Across America displays two pictures. The top one shows the church building — typically, the main entrance or the street elevation. The bottom one shows the church sign (which is occasionally visible and even legible in the top shot). Beneath the second photograph are arrayed a cross, the name of the town in which the church is located, the name of the state in which the town is located and the page number.
The book begins with the Bridlewood Chapel of Ozark, Ala. (“Give to God what is right, not what is left!”), and ends on page 162 with First Presbyterian Church of Cheyenne, Wyo. (“Again, love one another”). The book features at least one church from each state in the union.
Some of the signs provide nondenominational guidance. “A good angle to approach any problem is the try-angle,” advises the sign of an unnamed church in Scottsburg, Ind. “Find a place in your heart for the lonely,” prompts a Catholic church’s sign in Philadelphia. “The tongue weighs almost nothing but few can hold it,” a Methodist church sign in Wytheville, Va., reminds us.
There are some more doctrinaire inspirational messages. “Lord, make us instruments of your peace and love,” requests a Methodist church sign in Santa Rosa, N.M., echoing St. Francis. “As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men,” declares a Baptist sign in Princeton, W.Va., citing Galatians.
And there’s plenty of humor. The book features puns (many of the son/sun variety: “Is the son in your eye?” in Fairmont, Minn.; “Exposure to the son may prevent burning” in Las Vegas), jokey warnings about the afterlife (“You may party in hell but you will be the barbque” [sic] in Jennings, La.) and various forms of wordplay (“Prepare for summer. Get prayer conditioned,” in Boonville, Mo.; “CH CH — Whats [sic] missing? U R,” in Joliet, Ill.).
The photographs are generally crisp and clear, and it’s interesting to compare the rural facilities to the urban ones, and the warm-weather structures to the cold-weather edifices.
Alas, when taken in all at once, the images and the text of the signs just aren’t that entertaining. The pious messages come to seem a bit boring, and the cheeky ones start to blend together.
Church Signs Across America is a great gift for fervent Christians. Others, however, won’t find it to be quite as engrossing.