There is an interstate that runs in pretty much a straight line all the way across South Dakota?Interstate 90. It is as unending as it is uninteresting, at least if you are interested in scenery beyond vast tracts of farmland. This half-day trip is only slightly superior to driving across Kansas, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse or small out of the way town.
However, there is one curiously ubiquitous sight along I-90 that seems to accent the passing time like the mile markers whizzing by: billboards for a place called Wall Drug.
Wall Drug is really just a tiny tourist trap near the edge of western South Dakota that, aside from having passable donuts and a plastic egg dispensing machine next to the cement replicas of various dinosaurs, has nothing more going for it than its innumerable billboards. From the moment you enter South Dakota and during your entire time on I-90, signs for this rather unspectacular stop accost you. The sheer amount of billboards one encounters can become exhausting, and the advertising has become a bit of a kitsch phenomenon. There were even billboards for it in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
There is another billboard I come across fairly frequently whenever I return to Kansas City. It?s an advertisement for a church and?in similar kitschy fashion?uses a cross as the ?T? in its name. My wife and I both groan as we see it, wondering how such a meaningful symbol can become lost in the visual noise of the obvious.
The obvious is something we all struggle with when communicating anything. But there seems to be a particular danger when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel. There is a tendency to rely on the obvious so much that it becomes old hat?a ready made slogan that we shout to avoid having to deal with deeper things.
The term ?obvious? is interesting etymologically; it comes from the Latin obvium?itself from the phrase ob viam?which essentially means ?in the way.? The idea is that the obvious is something one encounters in the regular course of things, ?in the way? of normal life. In other words, there is nothing remarkable, nothing transcendent here, nothing more than a billboard on the highway that whizzes by and is forgotten.[quote]When an idea is treated with such mundanity, a powerful symbol like a cross can become just as throw-away as an ad for ice-cold water at a tourist trap.[/quote]
When an idea is treated with such mundanity, a powerful symbol like a cross can become just as throw-away as an ad for ice-cold water at a tourist trap. And while I do not doubt people?s intentions, is that really the kind of message we want to communicate? Is the obvious the best garb to tell others about the truth that we believe to be the deepest part of reality?
The struggle, then, is to not be content with the obvious, to go beyond the idea one encounters ?in the way? and instead communicate truth with depth and meaning. So how do we get off the interstate and avoid the billboards? How do we venture onto the back roads that lead to the places that we really remember?
If the obvious is encountered ?in the way,? then it stands to reason that the end of the obvious is found off the path in deeper grasses. The obvious is often the result of a rather lazy materialism in which we approach and interpret the world on its most superficial terms, the literal level of sense. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but art is meant to not only capture and re-present reality, but in some sense to peer beneath the surface and draw out the colors and threads that bind any one thing to the rest of reality.
To avoid the obvious, one must pull back the veil of what is immediately ?in the way? and search for the more fundamental truth of the idea, the spark that vivifies the concept deep down. Most often this will be a very simple, very basic notion?a word or a phrase that captures the essence of the idea to be communicated. The connection may not be immediately obvious. But we are, after all, trying to find the end of the obvious.
Once the idea has been purged of its surface meaning (say, the sermon series title) and purified down to one core concept, you can begin to rebuild. Consider the deeper idea to be a foundation upon which to build back to your original idea or even a patch of cloth onto which other threads can be woven. Look for connections from that core idea with other things that are not immediately related to the desired end result; this will help you to find ideas that still relate to where you want to go without being obvious, clich?d, or the same thing you always do.[quote]Don?t be afraid of ambiguity; a little bit of mystery is not a bad thing.[/quote]
Finally, begin to bring the whole process back to your original idea. Bring those threads built upon the deeper idea into contact with the original idea, making sure they have some relation. Don?t be afraid of ambiguity; a little bit of mystery is not a bad thing. The deeper the connections you can build from the original idea to the core concept, the richer your creations will be and the more substance they will contain.[quote]If you can make people think for even a moment, you have succeeded.[/quote]
If you can make people think for even a moment, you have succeeded.
The obvious leaves no room for contemplation; it simply is what it is and leaves it there. Its end (i.e., purpose) is to pacify the intellect, requiring nothing more than mere perception. Going beyond the obvious asks for more from the perceiver, beckoning him into a deeper contact with the creation. In the same way the sensible world points to a reality beyond itself, to the One who brought it into being. In a twist of irony, this should be the ?obvious? import of what we perceive; it is actually a travesty (and perhaps a bit sacrilegious, if I may be so bold) that we utilize that same creation in the obvious ways we do. For rather than allowing creation to point us to God, we end up pointing it back at itself.
The end of the obvious thus lies back at the beginning, the point where we decide if our ideas will remain shackled to the ground or allowed to take flight and transcend the medium of their communication. Ultimately we are either building more billboards along the highway or tramping off for higher, undiscovered country.
If anything, that much should be obvious.