When I was in the University, not too many years ago, there was this man, we called him the Sin Sign Dude. He would come around every six months or so and spend a few days wandering about the open spaces of our campus carrying a very tall sign. In two columns running most of the way down its length, the sign listed a multitude of activities counted by Scripture (at least, in the Sin Sign Dude's reading of it) as sinful, ending at the bottom with an assurance (if there were any doubt) that the engagers of these acts would burn in Hell. To further make the point, "Hell" was written all the way across the sign, in a fiery tapestry of red and orange squiggles. The two columns were divided into blocks, each block having a different background color and slightly different lettering, accommodating the variable length of the condemnatory words filling that block.

Some blocks of space on the sign were taken up by common condemnations -- "Abortionists," "Sodomists," "Adulterers" -- but some seemed somewhat more.... out there. "Sports fans" was one headscratcher, "Pet lovers" another. Here was a singular interpretation of the book from which the set of sins was supposed to have been drawn. The prohibitions on the sign revealed, after all, the kind of interpretation which would especially yield the items on the list that did not seem to square with the lifestyles of most of the Christians we knew. We had some acquaintances amongst us who were fervently dogmatic in their theological attachments, and yet who owned beloved pets, were nuts for sports, and even bought the occasional lottery ticket. We supposed that these were condemned for possibly distracting from the all-exhausting demand of directing all love to God. Maybe sports fans, especially, was meant to bring to mind football fans, with their Sunday games yanking them away from Sabbath prayers. And maybe pet lovers was simply aimed at practitioners of household bestiality, though this loose interpretation would, quixotically, not condemn people having sex with wild animals, or with livestock, and let's face it, that is probably the more common bestiality scenario. Did the part condemning "New-agers" cover old Buddhists? And did the condemnation of "Witches" mean those who actually summoned and manipulated dark magic, or did it cover Goth teenage girls who wore too much black and got together in small groups to perform candle-lighting ceremonies. The sign found space as well to condemn "Gamblers" and "Money lover$$$," "Weekend-only churchgoers" and "Papists" (but not, we noticed, "Rapists," prompting my compadres to develop a still-running joke about how the only difference between a Papist and a Rapist is 'that little leg on the "R"')....

The Sin Sign Dude was genial enough, willing to entertain debate with anyone willing to speak with him, and resolute in every position adverted on the sign. His knowledge of Biblical verse and Church history seemed encyclopedic. I never asked nor knew what he did for a living, or whether his sign-carrying activities somehow garnered a livable income. He was not nattily dressed, always clean shaven and in a shirt and tie as I recall, but never a jacket. My impression, from a dim awareness that he routinely haunted other campuses nearby, was that he had a sort of self-imposed tour schedule, going from one college campus to another over a carefully planned route, eventually coming back to the ones he'd been at before. My friends would take some amusement in deconstructing the conceit of carrying such a sign, of being so certain of not only the correctness of the book from which the list of sins was drawn, but of a very particular and unpopular interpretation of it. And, we contemplated, was it possible that the strength of belief required to subject oneself to all the burdens that come with this sign-carrying activity must lend itself to this being a more correct interpretation of the book (if not of the reality beyond the book)? But his demeanor, at least, was never one of gloating, never betraying the slightest hint of that sense so often seen where the condemner simply wishes you to know how glad they'll be to 'watch you sinners writhing in Hell.' The Sin Sign Dude did seem to genuinely wish to "save" us. One girl I knew thought he might be an angel, come to test us, in disguise.

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