I wondered this, because I never dreamed I would see the day that any portion of the American Church would attribute scriptures dedicated to the description of the Messiah as also descriptive of an American political leader. I wondered because I am firmly convinced that aesthetics matter and have shaped the church, as it exists, worships and practices now, and will continue to form the church moving forward. I wondered because I believe that signs like this contribute to that formation. I wondered because this billboard represents an instantiation of the theological commitments and imaginations of a segment of the Church in the United States, a segment that through the installation of this billboard is seeking to form the theological commitments and imaginations of others using an aesthetic means of persuasion. I wondered because this is the aesthetic employed toward something like evangelistic or apologetic ends. It is a public invitation toward a certain mode of perception; to see and perceive the world in the same way as those that created the image on the billboard. I wondered because it is also the assertion that those who do not perceive the world similarly perceive the world incorrectly.
I also wondered this because this billboard is not the first of its kind. As an example, a billboard akin to the one above was erected outside of St. Louis in November of 2018. It featured a photo of Donald Trump speaking. In the top right were the words “Make the Gospel Great Again” to the left of an image of the American flag with a cross behind it. In large letters across the bottom of the image were the words “‘The Word became flesh…’ –John 1:14.” This of course also seems blasphemous, sacrilegious and heretical on its face to me. So in the face of these extreme aesthetic texts, and myriad less extreme ones, I am ultimately left wondering, what am I, and what are we to make of brothers and sisters in Christ who would post such things on the roadside of America’s byways?
I believe the best answers to these questions such as these are aesthetic. By that I mean that the best answers to these questions are not rooted in rational processes of decision making, but are more fundamentally rooted in what visual culture scholar David Morgan calls the, “sensuous, imagined, embodied experience of meaning…” In other words, a person or group does not spontaneously decide to erect one of these signs. That work is the result of a process that has shaped their perceptions, loves and affections through their practices, habits and communities. You go through the trouble of paying for and erecting a sign such as this because you love something so much, that you feel compelled to share it with the world around you. You can see a glimpse of this in in the way the group “Make the Gospel Great Again” clarified their intended message for the their billboard outside of St. Louis. They wrote on their Facebook page,
Our billboard IS NOT equating Jesus with President Donald Trump. Salvation comes only from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not any man. But God does send his messengers to us, and just as King David liberated the faithful in his day, President Trump is doing this today through his protection of the unborn, defense of our land against foreign invaders and standing up for Israel. He surrounds himself with champions for Christian Rights –Mike Pence, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh…. how is this not the “word become flesh” for Americans?
Whether you agree or disagree with their framing of the Gospel and its fundamental cultural manifestations in America, I would argue we must recognize their love for that framing of the Gospel and those cultural manifestations. They are expressing a perception of the Gospel and its cultural expressions that is as clear to them as the nose on their face. It is these perceptions of the cultural outflows of the Gospel that shape their perception of Trump’s political undertakings as an expression of “the word become flesh,” and it is the same perceptions that inspired them to post that message on a billboard for all St. Louis to see.
If our perception is formed over time by our affections and the practices, ideas and people that we love, then we must recognize that our perception is not rational. The way we perceive the world has been and is being shape by these loves and affections. They represent the sieve through which we filter, understand and interpret the world around us. Our loves and affections filter the words we hear, the cultural, political, religious and institutional expressions we see, and the emotions we feel and makes meaning out of them. To be sure, we bring our rationality to bear on these loves and affections, and we are by no means solely irrational creatures; however, we are also not solely rational creatures either, and are as, if not more, shaped by these aesthetic processes as we are shaped by rational ones. It is because of this that I believe that we must be consistently mindful of the aesthetic forces working to shape our loves and affections and ultimately our perceptions toward the preferred ends of creators of the texts that embody those forces. This is particularly true of Christians as we endeavor to bring our loves and affections in line with the love, grace, justice and mercy of God, particularly as they are articulated and embodied in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I would also argue, in the shadow of these billboards, that our vigilance of the aesthetic processes forming us should not be let down inside the walls of the Church.
Church is designed to form us through aesthetic processes. This is a part of what worship and liturgies do. Author David Foster Wallace provides a pithy account of the manner in which worship forms us. He writes,
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship... is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough...Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified in myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more selective about what you see and how you measure value without being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
When we consistently participate in the local church as a community of faith, we are engaging in a process of formation where we are ideally formed through the ministry of the Holy Spirt by the scriptures and the worship and the teaching and the fellowship toward Kingdom ends. We are formed to embody and enact the love, grace, justice and mercy of God in and for the world that God loves. I say ideally, because we can be, and perhaps are often malformed by the same processes because a church is also a community of sinners who are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. I would argue that the erection of these billboards represents an aesthetic expression of a particular set of malformations. These are loves, affections and perceptions formed and reinforced through worship, teaching and fellowship; through the repeated liturgical practices and habits repeated week after week.
When I was a teenager growing up in the church, I was taught to be suspicious of the culture in which we were embedded. I was taught not to listen to secular music, or go to the wrong types of movies, or watch the wrong types of television shows. In short I was taught to regulate my consumption of the media. We were taught axiomatically, “Garbage in, Garbage out.” While I recognize that, particularly as Christians, the tenor of our interactions with the broader culture is far more complex and nuanced than expressed in that axiom, it at least describes the aesthetic nature of those interactions. I would also argue that it applies not only to the culture outside of the church but inside of the church as well (though we must also recognize that the imagined wall between the two is far more permeable than many might be comfortable with). In both instances, we must come to recognize the aesthetic efforts underway to claim our loves and affections. We must come to recognize that, in the words of the Canadian Indie band Fast Romantics, “Everybody Is Trying to Steal Your Heart.”
 David Morgan, “Protestant Visual Piety and the Aesthetics of American Mass Culture,” in Mediating Religion, ed. Jolyon Mitchell and Sophia Marriage, (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 107.
 Alexis Zotos, “‘Make the Gospel Great Again’: Large Billboard of Trump Removed in North County,” KMOV.com, 11/9/18, Accessed 9/21/21, https://www.kmov.com/news/make-the-gospel-great-again-large-billboard-of-trump-removed-in-north-county/article_538f78d0-e0a9-11e8-b68e-4735053c1e10.html.
 David Foster Wallace, “Plain Old Untrendy Troubles and Emotions,” The Guardian, September 20, 2008, 2, referenced in James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 22.