The Tailgate Exegete

Tailgate Exegesis is an emerging academic discipline, though its study is somewhat geographically constrained. Scholars from the east coast are not likely to find as many specimens for study in their own area, as are the residents of any of the states that border Mexico. In fact, the closer you get to Mexico, in geography or in terms of the connections with Mexico possessed by the residents of a given city, the more likely you are to find opportunities for Tailgate Exegesis. The following tailgate, with its identifying label of “Guanajuato, Mex.”, reveals just such a Mexican Connection:

Custom conundrum

Now let’s get exegetical.

The first you’ll probably notice is that the whole thing is poorly drawn, and with no understanding of perspective or of the relative sizes proper to the objects and people depicted. However, resist the impulse to dismiss the artist as a hack: the presence of Jesus in the image (identifiable by his usual iconographic accoutrements of a beard, dolorous facial expression, and what appears to be a squashed lobster but is really a crown of thorns) requires that we not interpret the image literally and materialistically. Rather, a spiritual interpretation is required.

Let’s start with Jesus, then, as reading the image from right to left seems more likely than doing it from left to right. We proceed from the first principle—Jesus—and end with the hoochie mama, who represents the soul of the believer (the word “soul” being feminine in gender in Spanish, among many other languages). Jesus is shown encased in a 9-sided prism. Bizarre, yes, but easily explained by the Tailgate Exegete. The most obvious reason compelling the artist to depict the Lord in this way comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Also alluded to is Exodus 33:21-23, where God reveals his glory to Moses—but only partially:

21: And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
22: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:
23: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

So the first motivation for a cloudy, prism-bound Jesus is the fact that in this life we are able to know him only imperfectly. But this is not all the tailgate artist had in mind when he airbrushed our Savior in a prism: by so doing he enlists the philosophical backing of Plato, while simultaneously superseding him. In the Timaeus Plato set forth his theory of the five regular solids: the tetrahedron, cube (or hexahedron), octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. These correspond to the five elements theorized by Plato to constitute all of material reality. According to Plato’s thinking, the tetrahedron naturally corresponded to Fire, since it was the sharpest of the five solids, and fire penetrated and divided the other elements. The Jesus prism is also sharp, alluding to Plato’s incisive tetrahedron. But our artist goes beyond Plato—far beyond. For the fire of our tailgate mural is holy fire, and instead of a tetrahedron, we have here a nonohedron (I have no idea how to say “nine-sided hedron”). Take that, Plato.

Note too that the point of the prism pierces the word “Guanajuato”, indicating either that the Gospel has pierced the soul of the residents of that place, or that the preaching of the Word has caused divisions amongst them. A thorny enigma, to be sure: but the artist has given us a clue. The seven sparkles surrounding the prism and the word “Guanajuato” recall the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (see Isaiah 11:2-3). Therefore we may be confident that Guanajuato, Mex., has experienced the blessings of Christ rather than having been rent apart by his gospel.

The road surrounding the prism is instructive of the transformative power of Christ: to the right of the prism, the roadway appears to be oriented vertically, rather than horizontally; but on the left it takes on a more horizontal look. Again, this is no amateurish flub: it represents a spiritual truth. Knowledge of Christ smooths and normalizes the road of life, which appears to defy the laws of physics otherwise. We know that the truck (or its driver) has experienced Christ’s blessing, by the four gleaming rays shooting from the prism into the bed of the truck. This also indicates that the owner of the real truck treats it in a totemistic fashion, subsuming his own identity into the substance of the vehicle. Painting a picture of your truck on your truck is kind of like getting a tattoo of your own face. Kinda weird . . . But getting back to all seriousness, the gleaming rays also suggest two-by-fours, which probably hints at the truck owner’s occupation in construction.

We come at last to the woman in the river. No image could more powerfully communicate the truths of Baptism. The immersion involved in the baptismal rite, of course, is symbolic of the believer’s death to sin, but at the same time, water gives life, and the river locus suggests freshness and ever-renewal. As mentioned earlier, the woman in the river iconographically represents the “alma” or soul of the believer, and is depicted in bikini bottoms and a see-through half-wife-beater undershirt not to arouse lust in the viewer, but to remind the viewer that he/she, as a member of the Church, is the Bride of Christ. If wet T-shirt contests arouse your desire, the artist seems to say, this is how (in a manner of speaking) Christ sees you: with desire. The most famous poetic parallel in English is probably John Donne’s sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” which ends with what is essentially a call for spiritual rape:

Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The complexity of the image lies not only in the hermeneutical challenges posed by the iconography, but also in their chronological relationship. The baptismal scene’s placement at the end of the sequence may be more logical prior to the blessings indicated by the truck-bed beams. However, the beams may represent the prevenient grace that necessarily must precede baptism. This is certainly an area ripe for further research.

To sum up, then, this tailgate is a (possibly) non-linear spiritual Bildungsroman of the immigrant worker.

Happy Fourth of July,


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