I was following a truck yesterday that had a decal on the rear window, similar to what I've seen before: the #3 with a halo hovering above the number. I'm not a fan of NASCAR, but just about anyone can piece together the meaning of the symbol: Dale Earnhardt Sr. is in heaven.
Several questions came to mind, the first being: why would anyone want to put a sticker like that on their truck? Is the driver making a theological claim? Probably not. Is he a devoted fan of Mr. Earnhardt? Probably so. But, the man is dead. Why continue to conjure up the memory of the racecar driver? Is it because he can no longer watch his favorite driver on Sundays? Since Mr. Earnhardt died tragically due to a rather harmless looking crash during a race (everyone says they've seen much worse), is the truck driver having a hard time finding closure? Is he still grieving over the death of a celebrity he probably didn't know and perhaps never met? Even so, why assume Mr. Earnhardt is in heaven (if that's what the halo suggests)? Wasn't the notorious NASCAR driver known to be "hell on wheels"? Wouldn't it be truer to Earnhardt's memory to have the number of his racecar attended by a pitchfork and flames? Some might say, "How horrible. Why would you even suggest such a thing. The man's dead after all."
Then it dawned on me. The driver of this particular truck with the #3 and halo decal on the window is making a theological claim. For some reason, he believes Dale Earnhardt Sr. is in heaven because he was a great NASCAR driver.
But, there are two problems with the decal.
First, the truck driver is pretending like he knew the dead man. (Why do we do that? Why do we act like we know intimately the people we see on television or in the movies? We call them by their first name. We talk about them as if they were just as important to us as any other friend or family member--even though we've never met them. Think about it. Just because we see their faces on an electronic screen--perhaps every day--we pretend as if we know them. As if they would recognize us in public. As if they care about what we think, or how we live, or what we drive, or what we'd put on the back windows of our trucks. At best this is a peculiarly common behavior. At worst this is delusional. Who do we think we're fooling?)
Second, the decal is pretentious on so many levels. Was Mr. Earnhardt an angel? Even though he's a dead man, does he currently live in a place called "heaven"? (And many would dare to ask, is there even such a place?) If heaven does exist, how does one get there? Who decides? How will any of us know before we die if it exists much less who makes it there? Something so serious--we're talking about death here--seems trivial when compared to the banality of a number and a halo.
At that very moment, with all of these questions buzzing through my head, I wondered what music the truck driver was playing. Staring at the decal, the truck, the driver, I imagined Greg Allman's song blasting through the speakers, "I'm no angel."
I love that song, even though I'm not a fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr.