The great thing about naming this series “Reading…” means that every entry I get to enjoy a little pun of some sort (though obviously some titles produce better puns than others).
That’s a tangent though.
The tract of the week is called The Contract! (coincidentally, the root for both words is tract, which means ‘to draw towards’; I’ll give Chick this: I’m definitely drawn to these little pamphlets), and it’s about two men who are in danger of hell (I know, what a shocker). The first is John Freeman, a down-on-his-luck farmer who makes a deal with the devil in order to turn his fortunes around after an Act of God (hailstones) destroys his crops and leaves him ruinously in debt. The second man is his cousin Bob Goode, who doesn’t truck with all that satanic nonsense.
To make a long story short, John repents on his deathbed and is saved from his Faustian contract, while Bob ends up in hell for eternity because he relied on his works instead of relying on Jesus. There’s a pretty pat lesson about the distinction between works-righteousness and faith-righteousness with John and Bob showing that it’s only too late to repent when you’re dead.
What’s confounding about this story is that it seems to go out of its way to show that works are so unimportant to the kingdom of heaven that John’s life significantly improves after he makes his deal with Mr. B. Fox. He gets his fortune without working for it, the horrible banker who kicked him out when he went looking for a second loan to stay afloat gets fired because of his new money, and he gets a luxurious ten years of life after this moment which by all appearances seems to give him no sense of suffering.
Now, I should say that I have no complaints about the demonstration of grace that’s on display here for John. He makes a bad mistake, and even though he doesn’t suffer for it, God forgives him without any qualms.
I wish I could be that loving.
Nonetheless, the amount of callous disregard for the injustices that are visited upon the surrounding people in this story kind of gets to me. I think it’s telling that the banker gets his comeuppance as part of John’s contract, but it’s not a just situation. Where’s the forgiveness for that jerk whose life is ruined when he loses his job? From his perspective, that’s just as much an Act of God as the hail that ruins John’s crops. Confusing the issue further is the fact that Chick makes it clear the banker’s punishment is a direct consequence of John’s deal with the devil while at the same time indulging in it. Are we supposed to take it that retribution is preferable and just in the absence of grace (since it’s the devil’s justice being done)?
Besides the plight of the wretched banker, we have the case of Bob, who seems to have no major shortcomings other than the fact that his theology centers on works-righteousness, as encapsulated by his adherence to the Ten Commandments. I’m not opposed to the Ten Commandments generally; I think they’re a pretty good set of basic rules. However, I have to question what kind of spiritual education Bob’s received that he’s only gotten as far as the premise of the Law. Does his church only talk about Exodus and Deuteronomy? Moreover, doesn’t this seem to undermine the point that many conservative Christians like to make about the foundational legal nature of the Ten Commandments? Harping on the legalism of your faith strikes me as the wrong way to go about telling people about its grace.
Anyhow, that about wraps up this week’s installment of Chick tracts. I think that the essential point this story makes about grace through faith is a good one, but it feels confounded with so many other messages about the different kinds of suffering that are acceptable depending on the context.