Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
I first learned the apocryphal origin story of the ichthus in the 6th grade while attending a private Anglican school in the Middle East. Early Christians, my Religious Education teacher told us, needed a surreptitious way to make contact with one another—to greet one another in the Lord in public without the public’s knowing that the Lord was being invoked. So these early Christians took to stooping and drawing a single curved line in the sand. If their interlocutors were fellow believers, they would lean down and draw another curved line to complete the fish sign, which both parties would regard with silent joy before kicking it away.
The brazen minivan driver who flaunts his plastic ichthus does so without the specter of his own dismemberment looming in his mind. His largest concern with his plastic ichthus is to avoid cutting off nonbelievers for fear of their forever associating his symbol with ignoble driving habits.The transposition of the humble dirt ichthus into the age of the automobile introduces new dimensions to the symbol. No longer are Christians stooping in the dust to initiate forbidden contact with one another via upended parentheses; instead, we are casting prefab signs in shiny plastic, adding adhesive, and sticking them to the butt ends of our cars.
What hubris! If a Roman soldier were to see your forbidden sign of identification with that infamous breakoff Jewish sect, you would have the benefit of already piloting your getaway vehicle. Your speed and mobility permit you to display your sign wantonly before unwitting throngs of pedestrians, your bumper preaching silently at street corners where stoplights have halted your non-getaway. No one even needs to provide the second half of your fish; you’re so unafraid of worldly troubles that you even disallow yourself the option of erasing the sign. What a massive disruption of social order! What an explosion of Christian signage! What a quantity of shiny plastic!
But the transposition also changes the register in which the sign operates. The earlier transaction was shaped by necessity, Christians being under the gun vis-à-vis relentlessly unfriendly principalities and so forth. If you were mistaken about the faith-status of the person watching you draw your half of the fish, you could take refuge in plausible deniability, the fish’s not yet having been formed: “I was chancing a hypothesis about the earth’s having a curvature,” “I was indicating the degree to which my pregnant wife is showing,” “I was trying to draw a straight line but my vertigo is really throwing a wrench into my ‘draw a straight line’ plans,” etc. In this way you might avoid becoming an unwilling planter of the seed of the Church.
Today’s fish glitters under strikingly different conditions. If a person wanted to persecute you for your faith in this country, she would be unable to call the authorities or attempt a citizen’s arrest. Persecution-wise, she’s got a fairly limited toolkit and little-to-no legal recourse. For example, crucifixion is strictly verboten. If our aspiring persecutor were to try to get you crucified, she would actually end up being the one in hot water with the law for having attempted to murder you. Throwing you to the lions is also prohibited. Flogging is probably not going to happen. The persecutor is frankly going to have a pretty hard time doing her thing nowadays. The times have changed; the page has turned; the etc. has etc.
If she desires to do a bit of persecuting and not end up on the wrong end of things, today’s persecutor will need to scale her designs down to the level on which the fish now operates. In olden times—the persecutor’s golden age, a veritable heyday for persecution of all kinds—the ichthus was a charged political symbol and statement. Against Caesar’s banner and coin would be posed this dirt fish, portending the doom of the empire and a coming age under a new king. It was a token of a divine conspiracy. Such a political threat could not be tolerated by the powers-that-were, so efforts were made to quash it through every available means, lions and crosses included. What crazy days those were, a dyed-in-the-wool persecutor might sigh, wistfully.
Today, however, one’s freedom to identify with a faith one prefers is a right protected by the government. Whatever radical political energies exist within Christianity have been filtered via governmental sieve, privatized and sublimated into quasi-political and non-political expressions, and whatever animus against Christianity that existed primarily in the political and civic spheres has been similarly sublimated.
The ichthus hitching a ride on one’s car is a token of belief in a different sphere than the political, though its current sphere does have interfaces with the political. That other sphere is the zone of mutual display, where individuals qualify themselves in the presence of other individuals by their clothes, tastes in art, political beliefs, religious identification, and anything else that might have an identity boosting or conferring function.
For persecution to be directed against the ichthus-emblazoned vehicle’s owner, then, the persecution has to be scaled to this sphere. The persecutor has to go after the ichthus-purveyor in the zone of mutual display. She has to call names, insult intelligence, and so forth. Or, she can start an aluminum fish arms race via appended legs and an inset “DARWIN.” Engaging in this sphere incurs the threat of retaliation, of course, which leads to legless, larger fish with inset words such as “TRUTH” or “JESUS” eating the smaller “DARWIN” fish, and then a further proliferation of similarly derivative and subversive signs on both sides.
In this way a plastic ichthus is an oblique sign of persecution’s having been scaled down. This front in the war of ideas is, thankfully, limited to ideological small-arms fire, putting the psychological self at risk instead of the flesh-and-blood self. The brazen minivan driver who flaunts his plastic ichthus does so without the specter of his own dismemberment looming in his mind. His largest concern with his plastic ichthus is to avoid cutting off nonbelievers for fear of their forever associating his symbol with ignoble driving habits. He need not even bother to create the sign anew each time he wishes to convey his faith to someone; long ago he outsourced that task to someone in a far-off factory for plastic insignia, and so his gesture of communication has reified itself into a bumper-adorning commodity, invisible from the driver’s seat of the van.
Imagine a feuding pagan and Christian in the second century A.D. furiously scribbling in the dirt opposite one another. What blessed, impossible respite from iron nails and animal teeth. Show a temporally unstuck second-century Christian a minivan in a church parking lot on a Sunday morning, and he will marvel at the peaceableness of our epoch. There are no martyrs in our symbol-based conflicts, he might remark as a Christ-claimed sedan goes by, its trunk weighed down with a fisherman’s netful of silver fish. In fact, there are hardly even participants.