Honk if you love Jesus! God is my co-pilot! My boss is a Jewish carpenter! Welcome to the wacky, enthusiastic world of bumper-sticker theology.
Some people say that the first bumper stickers were invented in the 1940s and were advertisements for Rock City, a scenic overlook and roadside attraction in Georgia. We’ve come a long way since then, and now bumper stickers regularly promote political candidates, personal accomplishments, and religious beliefs. In particular, Christian-themed bumper stickers have become particularly well-known.
The earliest use of the term bumper-sticker theology referred specifically to God-talk on actual bumper stickers on automobiles (see sense 1 below). Bumpers are much smaller than billboards, and so for bumper stickers to have a chance of being read by other drivers and by pedestrians in parking lots, the bumper sticker has to contain just a few short, simple words. These constraints have effectively resulted in most bumper stickers being short quips and quick statements without a lot of explanation or detail. Thus on the roads we often see pithy, almost cryptic, slogans such as “Let go and let God” and “Christians aren’t perfect… just forgiven” and “God is my co-pilot.” If you’re a Christian or if you grew up in the church, then you will most likely grasp what these bumper-sticker statements are referring to. But if you’re not a Christian, then you might really wish there was more information about how the bumper sticker reached its confident conclusion.
Unsurprisingly, Christian bumper stickers quickly acquired the stereotype of being too short and too shallow, so Christians began to apply the term “bumper-sticker theology” figuratively to any Christian idea that seemed to lack depth, even if the idea wasn’t from an actual bumper sticker (see senses 2 and 3 below). Nowadays in conversation you can hurl a pretty scathing blow at an idea by saying that it’s “bumper-sticker theology.” Ouch! Don’t forget to love your neighbor, even when you disagree!
Do you have any favorite Christian bumper stickers? My favorites are the ones that include a reference to actual driving. For example: “Do You Follow Jesus This Close?” and “Heading in the Wrong Direction? God Allows U-turns” and “Don’t let the car fool you, my real treasure is in heaven.”
bumper-sticker theology n. See various senses.
1. Pithy theological slogans printed on bumper stickers that Christians affix to their automobiles as a means of promoting Christianity.
Examples: Honk if you love Jesus; Smile, God loves you; Jesus is the answer; God is my co-pilot; Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven; God said it, I believe it, that settles it; My boss is a Jewish carpenter; Don’t let the car fool you, my real treasure is in heaven.
• 1970 New York Times Book Review (25 Jan.) : Father Boyd’s autobiographical As I Live and Breathe surprised me. It looked like 276 pages of sit-ins, civil-rights rallies, underground theater, bishop baiting, Peace Now buttons and bumper sticker theology. 1972 Bimler Pray, Praise, and Hooray 24 : Bumper sticker theology…. Look at all the theology that is read and absorbed on the highways each day through the medium of bumper stickers. Here are just a few I’ve seen recently: Is God in your driver’s seat? One way with Jesus! If you speed, why not sing “Nearer, my God, to thee”? [etc.] 1984 Wedel The Word Today: Sermons for the Second Half of Pentecost 14 : Bumper-sticker theology affirms that “Christ is the answer.” What for? That depends on what the question is. 1987 Hanna The Gypsy Scholar 91 : Our discussion somehow drifted to bumper sticker theology. Most of the students offered thoughtful and intelligent remarks criticizing the proclamation of serious spiritual truths from the bumpers of dirty and rusty cars. One student even pointed to the weak theology of some of those stickers; for an example, the student used the popular sticker that says God said it, I believe it, that settles it. “Even on a brand new shining Cadillac, this is still bad theology,” the angry student said. 1989 Messer Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry 154 : A rich resource has emerged in the bumper sticker theology of Christians on the highways…. “If you love Jesus, tithe. Any fool can honk.” … Christ died for our sins. Let’s not disappoint him.” 2003 Nichols Day by Day Through the Psalms 32 : Not all bumper sticker axioms are to be trusted, but occasionally one finds truth even in that unlikely location. Such is the case with this confessional tidbit frequently seen in that automotive showcase: “I’m not perfect—just forgiven.” … There are some things to be said in favor of that bit of bumper sticker theology. 2008 Schenck What Size are God’s Shoes? Kids, Chaos, and the Spiritual Life 3 : I’m not big on bumper sticker theology—“Honk if you love Jesus” and the like.
2. Any pithy theological statements and slogans that are intended to be memorable and persuasive.
• 1987 Kaiser Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament 179 : One might call this type of teaching “bumper-sticker theology,” for it tries to get the most teaching across in the briefest, most memorable, and most ear and eye attention-getting manner possible. 1994 Kinchlow Plain Bread 171 : I’m not a big fan of bumper sticker theology, but there is a one-liner that sums up this truth. It says, “Christians aren’t perfect. They are just forgiven.” 1995 Shurden Not a Silent People: Controversies That Have Shaped Southern Baptists 104 : “Bumper sticker theology” which is brief, unambiguous, and passionate communicates. It even intimidates. 2000 Kelley, Fitzsimons Understanding Cultural Diversity 48 : Bumper-sticker theology sums up our attitude towards the supernatural: God is my copilot. 2005 Musser, Sutherland War or Words? Interreligious Dialogue As an Instrument of Peace 82 : While those secure in a God-ordained future declare in bumper-sticker theology, “Relax! God is in control,” dispensational leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have placed themselves into the thick of national politics in order to affect policy. 2005 Korieh, Nwokeji, eds. Religion, History, and Politics in Nigeria 257 : Hence, in Winners Chapel’, affirmation messages such as “It is my time to shine,” “My hour of grace will come,” and “It is my time to prosper” abound. This “bumper sticker” theology is most pervasive. 2009 Baker Jesus Is for Liars: A Hypocrite’s Guide to Authenticity 48 : We have to rise higher than slogan spirituality. Can we love God beyond the bumper sticker theology that has taken over today’s Christianity? Popular slogans like “His pain, your gain” and “Bought with a price” and “WWJD?” and all those others probably have a ton of theological truth in them, but the moment they started printing them on T-shirts was the exact moment a lot of us stopped really thinking about their meaning.
3. Theology or theological statements that upon closer examination prove to be simplistic, superficial, inadequate, or unbiblical.
• 1984 Sproul Johnny, Come Home 318 : I promise I won’t give you any bumper-sticker theology. 1996 The Hymn XLVII. 54 : In modern society, it is issues like triviality of text, instant gratification, and “bumper-sticker theology” that contribute to a contemporary pietism. 1998 House, ed. The Christian and American Law 153 : Christians have also been guilty in not moving beyond a bumper-sticker theology to a full-orbed view of God and ultimate meaning. 1999 Grant Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of People and Nations 36 : We want quick change; cheap grace; inspirational platitudes; bumper sticker theology; easy faith. We want Christianity Lite. We want the Nice News, not necessarily the Good News. 2004 Boring, Craddock The People’s New Testament Commentary 521 : Paul is apparently quoting and responding to a series of Corinthian slogans that expressed their reduction of complex issues of faith and life to a kind of bumper-sticker theology. 2004 Seiple Ambassadors of Hope: How Christians Can Respond to the World’s Toughest Problems 188 : This is the world where bumper-sticker theology does not quite tell the entire story: the harshness of the journey, the enormous risk of failure, the hopes and fears of all the years. 2007 Fiala What Would Jesus Really Do? 65 : Bumper-sticker theology is no substitute for the hard work of careful thinking. 2008 Miley Joining Forces: Balancing Masculine and Feminine 181 : I couldn’t bear the casual talk about Jesus, the T-shirt and bumper sticker theology, Jesus yells and Jesus rallies. When people said, “Praise the Lord,” it often sounded flippant to me. 2009 Bird Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message 111 : I am not a big fan of bumper-sticker theology…. I particularly dislike the one “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” While true at one level, it overlooks the crucial ingredient in the Christian life being the renewing power of God working in us through the Spirit. 2010 Fryling The Leadership Ellipse: Shaping How We Lead by Who We Are 84 : I also didn’t like the bumper-sticker theology of “Let go and let God.” That too seemed like a cop-out from serious Christian responsibility. 2010 Wiersbe Let’s Go! The Epistle to the Hebrews for Twenty-First Century Christians 8 : There’s no “bumper-sticker theology” in Hebrews. The writer serves meat and not skim milk. 2011 Case Living Stewardship 38 : There are those who have a problem with what others call “bumper sticker theology” and consider it a “dumbing down” of the biblical message. 2013 Punnett How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God, or Anyone Else for That Matter 26 : “God never gives you more than you can handle” is the kind of bumper sticker theology that, in my experience, hurts as many people as it heals.