Reading Fat Cats

There’s an unfortunate undercurrent in white American evangelicalism of claiming that capitalism is synonymous with the gospel, or at least endorsed by it.  That’s part of the reason that Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium made such a splash a few months back, with his criticism of capitalist systems as inherently unbalanced in favor of those who already have power.

Bill O’Reilly, in promoting his recent book, Killing Jesus, argued that Jesus’ message of radical upheaval of systems that fail to care for the socially disenfranchised was only a metaphorical exhortation, meant to inspire people to individual holiness.  Here’s a clip where he says something to that effect in a debate with a theology professor from Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss:

I’ve shared that interview before here, but I think it does a good job of illustrating my point for reviewing this week’s Chick tract, Fat Cats.

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That passage from Isaiah’s traditionally taken to be a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. It doesn’t have anything to do with a Second Coming. I guess that’s why this guy’s only a preacher and not a pastor. (Image credit:

You’d think with a title like that, this would be some kind of polemic against the corruption found in people who serve Mammon, but it’s actually an anti-Catholic, anti-Communist rant instead.

The story follows Juan, a passionate man who wants to join the People’s Army to revolt against the corrupt leaders of some vaguely South American country.  Juan’s wife Maria encourages him to talk to her father, who’s a Protestant pastor preacher, before he goes to join the rebellion in the hopes that her father will be able to persuade Juan to avoid getting involved with the revolutionaries and their leader Carlos.  Maria’s father makes his case and presents Juan with the gospel (again, much to Juan’s exasperation) claiming that all people in power are the same, and if the revolution succeeds then things really won’t change for the people on the ground in vaguely South American country.  That’s not a bad point, and I even agree that something radical besides people grasping for power needs to happen, but Maria’s father’s argument essentially says that people should do absolutely nothing if there is an unjust system in place.

It’s more of the tired old Calvinism that Chick is steeped in, claiming that any human effort is doomed to fail because of utter depravity, though because this is a tract, none of that technical language is offered here (Chick always likes to stick to simple arguments based on Bible verses which he takes as self evidently authoritative, ignorant of how his belief in that authority doesn’t make it automatically authoritative for everyone in his audience).

Anyway, Juan ignores Maria’s father’s dire warnings and goes to join Carlos’s revolution.  In camp, he meets a Jesuit priest, Father Dominic.  Dominic is using his Jesuit connections to provide the resistance with weapons and supplies (remember, Catholicism spawned communism!).  We’re also told that Dominic was trained from a young age to use Liberation Theology and socialism in tandem to help do God’s work (that sounds kind of cool, although I should probably assume that what Chick means by Liberation Theology isn’t the same thing as what I understand of liberation theology).

Of course, the revolution proceeds as planned, and Carlos assumes power.  Father Dominic is revealed to be a double-crossing snake who executes Protestants for being heretics (it’s vaguely South American country, so I guess Chick figures the Hispanic people he’s portraying would be cool with a Spanish Inquisition redux).  Juan’s family is killed, and Juan shortly follows when he turns on Carlos and Dominic (understandable since they totally betrayed him first).  In the afterlife, God sends Juan to hell because he didn’t accept Jesus, so he’s eternally separated from his family.

Once again, Chick shows that his god’s an utter monster.

The epilogue shows that Carlos and Dominic end up becoming exactly like the previous regime, starting the cycle of violent revolution all over again.

Perhaps the most irksome part of this story is that Chick presents a false dichotomy where it’s impossible for Juan to be a follower of Christ while he’s also working to improve the lot of people in his country.  Yes, he follows Carlos as his revolutionary leader, but Juan’s desire to make lives better at his own personal cost (because what isn’t more costly than putting yourself in danger by directly opposing a corrupt power structure) is Christian to the core, whether he accepts Jesus or not.  It’s disingenuous to suggest that a person who fights for a revolutionary cause can’t have a deep faith in Jesus that follows white American evangelical lines (unless we assume that Chick’s faith is wrapped up in a political agenda that isn’t really that interested in improving the world for everyone; see the O’Reilly clip above).  Ultimately, I think the point that this tract does make is that people who are interested in taking and maintaining power for themselves can be found in any sort of ideological movement, but for whatever reason, Chick focuses on a particular fictional revolution that features a coalition of Catholics and communists as though only these groups are ever in a position where they’re trying to wrest power from other people.

Reading A Demon’s Nightmare

It should come as no surprise by this point that a major theme in Chick’s tracts is that the devil is out to derail as many people as possible from looking into the whole Jesus thing.  More specifically, in Chick world it’s not just the devil who’s out to keep everyone away from Christ, but his entire army of demon servants who have nothing better to do than spend their time following an individual around invisibly all the time, speaking things into people’s ears to try to keep them from thinking about God.  The motivation for this seems to run along the lines of “Misery loves company.”

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Satan’s minions convince the kid’s parents that they’re socially ruined because of their son’s personal decision. (Image credit:

In A Demon’s Nightmare we get to see a pair of rather incompetent demons working frantically to try to keep the kid they’re assigned to from first becoming a Christian, and then becoming an effective evangelist (because in Chick world, it is a Christian’s ability to rake in souls that makes them valuable).  They don’t succeed, despite numerous attempts to distract the kid from first hearing the gospel and then to keep him from getting connected with people in a “Bible-believing church” (Chick’s code for a church belonging to the white evangelical subculture).  The demon’s fail at every turn, but their ultimate failure comes about because they decide to take a night off (if only they had known better than to take a Wednesday night off, which evangelicals know is actually Second Sunday).  The kid goes on to become a missionary in south Asia, and thousands of people convert because of him, which means our two protagonists, as their punishment for being lazy and, y’know, evil, have to dig new deeper levels of hell to accommodate where Satan has sent them.

As a tract, it’s not terribly exciting.  You get the usual jabs at modern American culture apparently being so hostile to Christianity that the kid’s parents are horrified that he’s developed a form of faith, and his friends think he’s a total square because he’s a Christian now (and getting initiated into the club completely changes your personality in a single afternoon), and then he finds a community of like-minded individuals and lives happily ever after.  From the very start, there’s no real tension that the demons will succeed here, which is unusual because Chick typically likes to mix it up to show that even you could go to hell because of something really stupid.  Honestly, this tract’s worst offense is just being kind of boring.

Now, the idea that underlies this story is one that I’ve criticized before in other tracts, and that’s the idea that Satan is a real supernatural entity who is out to destroy our chances at going to heaven.  I don’t believe that the devil is real (instead, he’s the creation of a couple thousand years of mixing and matching some figures who are discussed in the Bible with some medieval cosmological ideas and John Milton’s Paradise Lost), and I think he’s a very insidious idea that evangelical subculture has used to create a certain ideological paranoia in members of the club.

Satan as a concept is a difficult one to grasp, because the central point of his mythology is that he rebelled against God, failed, and is now being punished eternally for his rebellion.  Despite that punishment, he still has power and agency within the world to turn people away from God (or tempt them away, depending on how Calvinist your particular theological framework is).  Satan has a multitude of tools at his disposal, including all the aspects of the fallen world.  Despite being in hell, he’s also the prince of our world.  Satan’s favorite tactic is deception (Prince of Lies and all that), which he employs subtly and imperceptibly to ensnare anyone who isn’t constantly vigilant of the corrupting influence of the world.

It’s kind of head spinny with the contradictions you have to hold in your mind about the character of Satan in order for him to make sense.  At one point back when I was still steeped in evangelicalism, I explained to a friend that I thought of Satan as a force that was so powerful that he nearly succeeded in overthrowing God, even though God has infinite power.  We’ll ignore the fact that if you construct God as being infinitely powerful, then any opposition, no matter how powerful, if it’s still finite, has no chance of succeeding.  The finite and the infinite just can’t be compared except to say that one ends and the other doesn’t.

I was spouting nonsense.

Of course, I’ve reconstructed my theology since then to incorporate the idea that God probably isn’t omnipotent, simply because the exercise of force contradicts God’s central characteristic of love.  With that idea in mind, it becomes less problematic to suggest that Satan is powerful and works within the world, but I still don’t buy that he’s real.

Think for a second what it means to believe in something that can never be proven, to think there is an invisible aggressor always looking over you, trying to push you away from goodness, and you are completely and utterly helpless to detect his influence on you.  You have to be afraid of this bogeyman all the time.  Everyone you meet might be working for him and not even realize they’ve been compromised.  You might be helping him and not even know it.

There is no way to know for sure.

So what does a person do when they live under that assumption?  As ludicrous as it sounds to an outsider, it’s not a hypothetical for many people within evangelical subculture.  Within the subculture, the only answer that’s offered for avoiding Satan’s deceptions is an adamant adherence to what the Bible teaches.  The Word of God can show us the straight and narrow path to freedom from this hidden oppressor, and all we have to do is cling to it with everything we have.

The only problem, and this is one that’s hard to see when you’re on the inside of this system, is that we don’t know for certain what the Bible teaches.  Parts of it contradict other parts.  God comes off as a bully sometimes, even though we’re supposed to believe his central aspect is love.  Paul’s writings about issues within the early church is inconsistent sometimes, with him giving contradictory advice to two different groups.  What do we do with that stuff?

My answer is you find a hermeneutic that doesn’t result in total theological breakdown when you inevitably see the contradictions.

“But then you’ll be deceived!” evangelicals say when this solution is proposed.  It was said to me when I broke from the anti-gay position of evangelicalism (the first issue that I really couldn’t stomach in good conscience).  I was told that my decision to affirm marriage equality and argue that homosexuality isn’t categorically condemned in the Bible had come about because I’d been deceived by Satan.  I had let the world influence me in ways that were not holy, and I was putting myself in a spiritually perilous position.

That hurt.

The idea of the devil hurts.

If there’s an invisible enemy always out to get us, and our only option is to accept a set of beliefs that don’t fully make sense and engender animosity between us and others who don’t hold those same beliefs, then the God who lies at the center of that system is a cruel monster with a cruel pet who can pick us off anytime he likes, because we can’t know what he’s doing.  It’s a universe more in line with Lovecraft than Christ.

I prefer Christ, thank you very much.  And that’s why I don’t believe in the devil.

Reading Humbug!

I am very fond of the story of A Christmas Carol.

I’ve never actually read the book, but the story has been adapted for the screen so many times that it’s easily recognizable.  Ebenezer Scrooge is a horrible, usurious miser who pinches every penny he can get his hands on and despises the festivities surrounding Christmas because he sees it all as an excuse to try to get him to spend his own hard earned money.  Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, died many years previous, and on the night of Christmas Eve Scrooge is visited by Jacob’s tortured ghost.  Jacob explains the cause of his suffering, and warns Scrooge that he’s to be visited by three more ghosts.  Scrooge is forced to relive Christmases in his past, observing how he became a cold, pitiless man, watch the Christmas events of London the following morning, seeing how he’s almost universally despised and ridiculed, and then look on as he sees a Christmas of the future where his death occasions no sadness in anyone.  Following all these visitations, Scrooge has a conversion experience and vows to keep the spirit of Christmas the whole year long.  He cancels numerous debts, raises his clerk Bob Cratchit’s salary, and keeps his word for the rest of his life.

Now I don’t care who you are, that’s a good story.

So why the heck did Jack Chick decide that there needed to be a Chick tract version?

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Scrooge’s conversion comes about because of lots of prayer–and a tract that Bob gives him on Christmas Eve. I see what you did there, Chick. (Image credit:

Humbug! takes the story of A Christmas Carol and recasts it as a peculiarly evangelical take on the tale.  Where the original has explicitly real ghosts, Chick’s version reduces Scrooge’s visitations to a mere dream.  It’s not Jacob Marley’s visage that greets Scrooge at his door, but a horn and goatee sporting devil.  The agents in Scrooge’s conversion are Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, who pray for him overnight.

Now, aside from these differences, I’ll say that it’s still a pretty good retelling of the story (just with more explicit Jesus).  Chick’s art, which I usually find rather coarse, fits well in this setting (I might be inclined to forgive the art simply because I rather liked the Robert Zemeckis adaptation from a few years back, because he fully embraced the fact that people in Victorian London would have been rather ugly).  I even like one bit of theology that Chick includes here (well, the first half of it anyway): it’s scandalous that God would incarnate as a human, what with all of our flaws.  Chick goes on to espouse some stuff about utter depravity that I just can’t truck with, but that bit about the utter scandal of Christ’s incarnation does get to me.

Of course, that’s more because of a really good Advent meditation I read on Richard Beck’s blog the other day about just that very topic.  Check it out if you’d like some exposure to a bit of theology that has some love crafted into it.

Anyway, back to the story at hand.

My biggest complaint with this tract, and it may be moot considering that the point of the tract is to make the conversion story explicit, is that I think the conversion in the original is already breathtakingly good.  Scrooge has a truly divine revelation about the course of his life, and he immediately sets about making amends.  The fact that it’s framed as a ghost story is incidental to me; it still shows a person discovering and reveling in the love that Christ models for us, even if he’s not explicitly mentioned (again, I’ve not read the novella, so I can’t confirm how much the Christian angle plays into Dickens’s original).  Here in Humbug!, I can’t help but feel that Chick’s eliminating the ghosts and reshaping the narrative around Bob and Tim’s prayers because of some deep-seated feeling that it would be dishonest to suggest that ghosts are a real part of his theological outlook (the devil’s manifestation on the door knocker is totally okay though).  I can respect that from a perspective of not wanting to mislead readers in what he believes, but it diminishes the story!

I also can’t help feeling like there’s something off in this presentation of A Christmas Carol as it relates to the social justice that’s so integral to the story’s power.  Scrooge goes from being the worst kind of miser to being exceedingly generous with his wealth, and part of the benefit for everyone is that their quality of life is improved by Scrooge’s buying into the idea of communal responsibility.  Contrast that with Chick’s version of the gospel, which focuses almost exclusively on how Scrooge’s conversion means that he’s not going to hell.  Yes, he’s helping the poor and needy, which is wonderful and what God expects him to do as part of his repentance, but the big deal here is that Scrooge will go to heaven.  The possibility of eternal damnation is a bugbear that raises its head in Jacob’s visitation to Scrooge, but as the story progresses, that becomes less of a concern as the damage that Scrooge has done to the people around him takes center stage.  Scrooge’s ultimate punishment, if he fails to change his ways, is highlighted as the fact that no one will mourn him when he dies.  He’s doomed to being a drain on the community.  The eternal torment hangs there in the background, I suppose, but Scrooge’s conversion comes about because he realizes he’s already suffering in the absence of love.

Anyhow, if you’re looking to indulge in a particular version of A Christmas Carol as we draw closer to Christmas, give this one a pass.  It’s short, saccharine, and they took all the good bits out.

Merry Christmas.

Chick, Jesus Camp, and the Pope

The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Pope Francis has been making a lot of splashes in the Christian community recently with his attempts at implementing a more social justice oriented theology within the Catholic Church.  About a month ago, he published an apostolic exhortation entitled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that’s been getting a lot of attention for its heavy criticism of capitalism.  It’s a gigantic document, and I’ve just barely scratched it, but I’ve been reading through it, mostly because I’ve been endlessly impressed with Francis since he took office.

The quote I’ve listed above comes early on, and it deals with the attitude Francis thinks Christians should take in their evangelism work.  What struck me most was the idea that we should have a certain zeal going about our work, but we must remember the goal is not to make enemies of people who don’t agree with our message.

It’s a sobering reminder, especially for myself.

See, I’ve been mulling over my own spiritual journey for the past few weeks, and its begun to dawn on me that I’ve been feeling particularly bitter towards the white evangelical subculture that I’ve come from.  It’s hard not to when I’ve spent so much time thinking over problems with the theology of the subculture recently.

I don’t want to be bitter.

When it comes down to it, I’m indebted to a lot of people who identify as evangelical for bringing me to where I am in my faith (had I not had the communal experience that evangelicalism offered when I was in college, I likely would have continued on in life as a somewhat unhappy atheist), and that’s nothing to laugh at.

It’s just so hard not to be bitter when I read things like Chick tracts where evangelical fundamentalism gets boiled down to its most severe, and most baldly xenophobic, forms.  It gets worse when I see things like Jesus Camp.

I rented this movie on the recommendation of a friend after some extensive discussion of our spiritual journeys.  It’s a documentary that follows three children immersed in fundamentalist charismatic church communities who go to a week long summer camp that’s devoted to teaching children how to do evangelism.

It’s a very hard film to watch, with scenes of children red-faced and weeping as adults tell them how their lives are consumed by sin and that they need to repent if they ever want to be effective in God’s Kingdom.  The entire affair is highly politicized with scenes from the camp and related activities showing the children being taught about abortion, homosexuality, and other issues that are important to Christian conservatives.  The attitude of the lessons is that these children must become soldiers in God’s army so that they can take America back from secular liberalism (the events depicted in the film happened in 2005 at the height of George W. Bush’s presidency).  It’s a really troubling thing to consider, because while I accept that religion will influence a person’s politics, I find it abhorrent that children, who almost invariably are not yet mature enough to develop their own opinions about complicated issues, should be indoctrinated into the political thinking of their parents through religious education (I won’t speak to the theology of this community, though regular readers can guess that I think it’s highly problematic).

At the same time that I get upset thinking about what this community is doing with its children, I’ve also been having to remind myself (constantly) that this film only reflects a single community in a very specific part of evangelicism (the charismatic branch of the Church).  Because of that, it’s not fair to translate everything these people do to the entirety of the subculture.

It’s really hard to fight that impulse to be unfair towards evangelicism.

Before I came across that passage in the Evangelii Gaudium, I was considering a Chick tract for this week called Creator or Liar?.  It’s a pretty uninspired propositional tract that hits the high points in the evangelical interpretation of the Bible, citing the literal reading of the creation stories in Genesis, moving on through the patriarchs’ histories to Jesus.  I was planning to write a post where I poked at the problematic interpretation of Old Testament passages as being literal foretellings of Christ’s specific appearance, but the more I thought over it, the more I realized that I’m just not theologically qualified to make that kind of criticism, and my motivation for doing so would be more to make fun than to offer a legitimate discussion of a theological stance.  As much as I like being funny, and Chick tracts offer a good opportunity for making jokes, I just don’t want to become mean-spirited in my critique.

If my thoughts seem a bit disjointed, it’s because I’ve been composing this post in fits and bursts over the course of a week.  I’d like to have some kind of big summation here, but that doesn’t really seem to be in order.  All I can say is that I think Pope Francis is right when he says that Christians should not seek to make enemies in trying to share the gospel.  That goes for evangelicals trying to use their interpretation of it to shape the world into something they are comfortable with, and that goes for me trying to counter that movement in some small way.

Reading Earthman

So, last week I took a look at a brand new tract that Chick’s released about how Catholicism is secretly idol worship of the World Trade Center (or something), and this week I’m taking a look at an older tract that Chick’s just put back into print (it’s displayed on the website almost as prominently as the new tract).

Earthman is actually a very straightforward presentation of something we who hail from evangelical circles call the bridge illustration.  There are other names for the model depending on what visual metaphor you use to structure it, but universally its a way of organizing the essential pitch of the gospel.  The fact that I’m describing a way of presenting the gospel as a pitch should be the first alarm bell.

The essential point of the bridge illustration is to break down the gospel into a series of bullet points that are best summed up by four broad ideas: God’s Purpose, Man’s Problem, God’s Remedy, and Man’s Response.  The way I recall the bridge, you start by explaining God’s purpose, which is that he created humanity to enjoy eternal and overabundant life (each point is accompanied by a verse to highlight that this is what the Bible tells us, so it’s totally reliable; since I’ve left behind proof-texting as a method of theological discernment, I no longer have the relevant verses memorized).  You follow that up with Man’s problem, which is where you give the account of the creation story in Genesis 2-3 (for our purposes, it’s best to ignore the separate creation story given in Genesis 1) and explain that because of Adam’s original sin (this is a model that only works within an Augustinian theological framework) all of humanity is fallen and incapable of having fellowship with God because we’re no longer perfect and therefore can’t be in his presence (it helps to have a Calvinist bent too).  Once that’s been explained, you go on to talk about God’s Remedy, which is Jesus.  The wrap up is Man’s Response, where you explain that all a person needs to take advantage of this very special offer from God is accept Jesus as your lord and savior.

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That’s what he said. (Image credit:

That’s the essential idea as I remember it, anyway.  Earthman focuses mostly on the creation story, though there are hints of all the parts of the bridge embedded in the fringes of the central narrative.  It starts off with an anti-evolution volley that involves citing a book which was published by Chick publications (I checked, and it’s definitely not a comic book this time, but not much else recommends it as a credible source of information; also, I came across a customer review that described the book as “full of ammunition for those skeptical about evolution”; I wasn’t aware that ammunition was what we were looking for in the ongoing discussion of the objective Truth–this is probably fodder for a post all its own) and suggesting that the tract itself may soon be banned from public schools, making the uncomfortable proposition that what we’re about to read is intended as something you should give to school age children.  This is alarming because what follows is apparently a very prettily illustrated rehash of John Milton’s Bible fanfiction, Paradise Lost.

By the way, I dearly love Paradise Lost, but elements of that work of fiction have seeped into the popular consciousness about what’s going on in Genesis, mostly in the form of the story about Lucifer becoming Satan and inhabiting the serpent in order to tempt Eve (Satan is not a figure in the text, nor is it implied that he’s represented by the serpent; in fact, this interpretation isn’t even supported later within Scripture).

As an English teacher, I’d love to be able to teach Paradise Lost, but I would never suggest that its contents supersede a science textbook the way that Chick implies here.

See, this whole thing just gets more and more frustrating as I continue to think about it, because Chick’s trying to be so blasted literal in reading the second creation story (despite referring to details that aren’t even in that account), but in doing so he’s highlighting the absurdity of a literal reading.  It’s a shame, because I really like the creation story.  I think it provides us with an excellent metaphorical explanation for the state of human nature (that we are both created in the Imago Dei and we are extremely poor reflections of it, such that we need God’s intercession to help us better fulfill our purpose of reflecting his character) and it’s a wonderfully compact introduction to the idea of Christ’s necessity.  Reducing it to a pretty picture book about a genetically perfect superman and his wife (who for some reason is depicted wearing make up; total literalism fail, Chick) whom God kicks out of his house because he’s angry with them just feels like an insult to the purpose of the text.

Also, evil vegetarian Cain:

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God rejected the vegetables because he actually hates Vegans; also, since Adam screwed everything up, God’s totally cool with killing animals for food now, and in fact encourages it. (Image credit:

Reading Twin Towers

Happy December!

So, Chick just published a new tract, which is cause for great rejoicing because it’s trippy as all get out.  Seriously, this one starts with a story of high adventure and naval warfare where the Pope is at the helm of a ship that’s under constant attack from enemies of the Catholic Church who lob bombs and books and tracts at it, and how the ship gets magically repaired by the power of the Twin Towers.

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My favorite image from this tract is the Pope at the helm of the ship, decked out in full ceremonial garb. It’s just so delightfully absurd. (Image credit:

No, not the ones that were destroyed in New York twelve years ago by terrorists.  If that’s what you were thinking I wouldn’t blame you, but no, these Twin Towers have absolutely nothing to do with that significant historical event that utterly changed the face of American political discourse.  Obviously, Chick has no interest in that event for this tract, because it’s not specifically anti-Muslim, although after reading stuff like Mama’s Girls, I was really expecting there to be some weird conspiracy connection.

But no, there is none of that kookery in this tract.  It’s just anti-Catholic kookery instead.

So this tract, called Twin Towers, is a generic “the Catholic Church is an evil deceptive institution founded by the devil” screed.  The two towers referenced in the title refer to the Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary and its doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine consumed during the administration of the Eucharist really becomes the body and blood of Christ).  These are common elements of Chick’s anti-Catholic literature, and he tends to gloss over the finer points of both doctrines so they are more easily represented as institutionalized idolatry.  As a Protestant, I honestly can’t comment very much on the theology of Mary’s veneration or transubstantiation (I believe that Mary was equally fallen with the rest of humanity and that the Eucharist, while a significant spiritual exercise, is symbolic in nature), but I seriously doubt that Chick has a credible understanding of the doctrines either, especially when these tracts are so openly hostile to a different faith tradition that still claims the divinity of Jesus.

One final note I want to touch on with this new tract is that Chick’s quick to explain that Jesus hates the Catholic Church because of the Book of Revelation.  Revelation is a fantastic book, not only because of its surreal imagery, but also because it’s an apocalypse.  This book was written as a polemic against the Roman Empire, and the device for conveying the author’s criticism of Rome came through as an end-of-the-world narrative where Babylon, an ancient former oppressor, stood in for the contemporary oppressor.  I’ll give Chick credit for recognizing that a lot of Revelation is a direct attack on Rome, but he’s just so far off base interpreting Rome to mean the Roman Catholic Church that was established as a state institution with Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in the early fourth century.  The writer of Revelation was railing against the excesses of a decadent society that didn’t care for the poor and sick, that indulged in material excess for the privileged few at the expense of all others, that really persecuted Christians (read: killed them).  These are societal ills, not ecclesiastic ones, and if the current institution of the Catholic Church indulges in some of these things (any large scale institution is vulnerable to corruption) then that is relevant only so far as it’s an organization made up of people, with all the fallibility of anything that people create and maintain.

As always, if you have comments or thoughts to contribute (even if you disagree with me, so long as it’s civil) I want to hear about it below.

Reading The Mad Machine

I’ve lost track of how many Chick tracts I’ve looked at in this series so far, but with each one that I look at, I find more and more of the same underlying problems and fears.  I suppose that’s a testament to the power of fear, considering Chick’s clearly hung up on the same fears in more or less all of the tracts that I’ve read.

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Take a look at the caption at the bottom of this panel. Reminds me a bit of Chick tracts. (Image credit:

The one for this week is called The Mad Machine, and it takes a look at the stressors of adult life.  Like most of Chick’s work, this one’s meant to be a little humorous, but with an undertone of urgency about the fact that the world really sucks.  There’s nothing really resembling a story here, but a series of one or two panel jokes about the ways that the ‘secular world’ struggles to deal with all the problems of modern living.

We get the usual jabs at education, science, and social issues that are a lot more complex than extreme conservative perspectives would like to suggest, but the most salient issue that Chick attacks here is the one of psychotherapy.

(Full disclosure: I work at a special education school that relies heavily on a behavioral therapeutic model for treating our students’ disabilities.)

There’s an odd thread in conservative evangelicalism that assumes psychological problems are illusory manifestations of sinful behavior.  To put it another way, people with mental illness are not really mentally ill, but just wallowing in their sin.  I’ll say that I do think there’s such a thing as failing to take responsibility for your own actions, but mental illness doesn’t work like that.  Chick goes to great lengths in this tract to poke fun at people who rely on medication in order to function normally, and it’s just hurtful and insensitive.  It betrays an ignorance of the role neurology plays in treating psychosis, which is necessary to overlook in order to be able to write off the field of psychology as obsessed with Freudian psychoanalysis (a practice that’s been long discredited in the psychology community as unscientific and unverifiable in its efficacy for therapy).

Really, all Chick does here is try to suggest that psychiatrists, like all people who’ve been exposed to higher learning in the secular world, are disingenuous cads who don’t really believe in what they’re peddling, but use it as a way of covering up for their own dissatisfaction with the state of things.  If I had to hazard a guess, I might say that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle, since Chick’s entire modus operandi is offering a solution to the ills of the world while emphasizing religious practices that benefit the tract business (instilling guilt and fear that Christians are not doing enough to witness to non-Christians and that the consequences are eternal conscious torment for everyone who doesn’t accept that witness).  I have to suppose that Chick at least believes what he’s saying, which puts him a step above his secular straw men, but I can’t help feeling that he’s being disingenuous about his motivations.

Update: In a bit of total serendipity, Richard Beck also posted about mental illness this morning (yay!).  It’s a far more compassionate piece looking at the problem of America’s nonexistent safety net for people with mental illness.  Go check it out.

Reading Boo!

So Halloween is this Thursday (hurray!), and I thought that it would be timely to take a look at one of the Chick tracts surrounding that silliest of holidays.

This week’s tract is called Boo! and it has nothing to do with either of these lovely people:


Boo! (Image credit:

Boo! (Image credit:

Aren’t they cute?

Getting back to the subject at hand, our tract gives the story of a Halloween party gone horribly wrong followed by a guy and his pastor talking about Satan.

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I know I hate it when I forget to bring my chainsaw to my birthday party. (Image credit:

The scene opens on Camp Basil Bub (clearly we’re dealing with Canadians who really love their Italian food) where a nameless guy is telling his nameless friend about the great deal that he got for renting out the entire campground for $50.  I mention that these two guys are nameless because it’s not important (spoiler alert: they die along with everyone else at this Halloween party).  At least in giving us a horror story about mass murder and ritual sacrifice, Chick understands that no one cares about the jerks who are going to be our ritual sacrifice (I’ve probably seen Cabin in the Woods too many times now) for this tract.

Of course, as with any party that involves high schoolers and sacrificing cats, Satan has to show up with a pumpkin on his head to terrorize everyone, saying that he’d rather have human sacrifices than feline ones.  In the confusion someone manages to call the cops, who show up and discover that they’re facing the devil (also, these cops have a bizarre dialect that seems like a mash-up of Irish colloquialisms and Southern drawl; really weird for Canadians), which leads them to abandon all hope and run for their lives.  Satan gets bored with the party (it ended at midnight, how lame is that?) and decides to go cruising into town for more mayhem, but he gets driven away by a kid who’s spending the evening praying at his church.

After Satan heads for the hills, the boy and his pastor sit down to talk about why Halloween’s just an awful thing that no one should celebrate ever.

The reality of it is that Halloween’s a holiday with a very complicated past.  There’s no real consensus over whether it has its origins in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (as suggested by Chick) or it’s an originally Christian (take that, Chick!) holiday developed as part of the celebration of the saints (All Hallows’ Day, which falls on November 1, leaving October 31 with the moniker All Hallows’ Eve).  Of course, the theory of Christian origin has the holiday beginning as part of the Catholic liturgical calendar, so maybe in Chick-world it doesn’t matter because either way Halloween was created by Satan.

Of course, that’s the point of all this scaremongering.  Chick wants us to fear Satanism in its myriad forms (read: anything that’s not Chick’s brand of Christianity), and that’s best done by raising the specter of cat killing cults and teenagers who engage in witchcraft.

The tract wraps up with the standard altar call that Chick always ends his tracts with, but the way he phrases it here is kind of hilarious:

If you believe Jesus died for your sins… and receive Him as your personal Saviour, you will be saved (from hell).

I love the parenthetical “from hell” that’s added to the end, just in case the reader has failed to understand exactly what’s at stake.  “If you don’t accept Jesus, you’re going to hell!  Accept him so you can be saved!  From hell!  Did I mention you should be afraid of hell?  Because you should.  It’s hell.  Literally.”

I saw a video recently about a pastor who was having his kid stay home with him on Halloween so they could hand out tracts to trick-or-treaters (his son was pretty young, definitely still single-digits age-wise).  The guy spins this as something amazing and awesome that he’s doing with his kid as a way to share the gospel.  Except that, you know, he’s teaching his kid that the way to share the gospel with people is to just give them something that someone else wrote (without telling them) instead of actually getting to know these folks who come to his doorstep looking to do something celebratory as a community.

That’s all largely a tangent from the main point of this post, but I thought it bore mentioning.  Have a happy Halloween, everyone.

Reading Mama’s Girls

Up to this point in my ongoing critique of Chick tracts, I’ve been careful to avoid any of the tracts that directly attack other non-Protestant religions.  I consider myself a Protestant, and that’s the faith tradition that I’m most well-versed in, so when it comes to Chick’s anti-Catholicism or anti-Islam tracts, I feel like I’m a little bit in over my head (mostly because refuting Chick’s claims with facts would take some serious research on my part, and as I was always fond of saying in undergrad, I hate doing research).  Keeping that in mind, I’m going to jump into a doozy of one today.

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There’s a lot more tract after these panels, but I can’t go on. It just seems pointless to make a reasoned argument against someone who uses a comic book as the foundation of their case. (Image credit:

So this week’s tract is called Mama’s Girls, and it doesn’t tell a story so much as explain some Chick-world history wherein Catholicism was founded by Satan and is (secretly, of course) the driving force behind several religious and ideological movements that have threatened True Christianity.  The metaphor Chick chooses to employ in this tract is taken from an image that John uses in Revelation to describe Babylon (a common stand-in in Jewish literature following the Babylonian Exile for whatever oppressive force the author actually wanted to rail against–in this case it was the Roman Empire), where he characterizes it as a prostitute who has written on her head “The Mother of Prostitutes.”  Chick takes this passage and decides that it’s appropriate to personify the Roman Catholic Church as a whore who has numerous (female) children who are also all destructive and dangerous to Christianity.

I should stop here and point out that it’s seriously problematic to personify anything you find systematically dangerous as a seductive female.  I know that Chick’s just running with the image from Revelation, but that’s a literary convention from two thousand years ago.  In our present time, I don’t think it’s necessary or appropriate to perpetuate tropes like the seductive female as part of any kind of social commentary.  Chick obviously disagrees with me.

Anyway, after some expository panels that explain how the Catholic Church was founded by Satan following Jesus’ crucifixion as a way of countering the burgeoning Christian movement (I’m no early Church historian, but I’m pretty sure the sponsoring of the Church by Constantine, while theologically complicated, was not an event that really impeded the spread of the gospel of Jesus) we’re introduced to Catholicism’s “firstborn,” Islam.

No, I don’t know how Islam is supposed to have been secretly established by a Catholic conspiracy to help them take control of Jerusalem away from Jews and Christians.  Perhaps if I were to read what’s surely a highly respected, peer-reviewed scholarly text like the one that’s referenced in the footnotes of this tract I could better understand the argument here (no, actually it’s a comic book that Chick Publications put out themselves).

You know what?  I’m done.  I don’t think any criticism I could offer about factual inaccuracies in this tract will top this single salient point: where I’ve been operating under the assumption for months now that when I saw those footnotes in Chick tracts where they referenced their own publications, it was always at least a book that attempted to look like it was based in serious research, I have now found that actually those are just comic books the company produces.  Yeah, I can’t go anywhere else with that.  I think it’s time I wrap this feature up and move on to something else.

Nah, I’m gonna keep working with the Chick tracts, but now I’m going to laugh a lot more while I’m doing it.  See you next time.

Reading It’s Not Your Fault

I always feel conflicted when I come across a Chick tract that includes some ideas that I agree with.  On the one hand, I feel like I need to re-examine these ideas to make sure they’re not the sort that I’ve held on to simply because I haven’t yet taken the time to consider the implications of those positions within my larger theological framework.  On the other hand, Jesus loves everyone, and even though I find a lot that’s objectionable in Chick’s oeuvre I have to remember that the people who publish this stuff profess to love Jesus; there is common ground between us, and it should be sought out.

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These are Ralph’s old foster parents. Clearly they’re not fit to raise children with faces like those. Also, do some foster homes really have names? (Image credit:

So when I read through It’s Not Your Fault, I thought, “This is actually a pretty compassionate tract.”  Yeah, it resolves things in a way that’s kind of absurd, but generally I can agree with the message about Jesus wanting to heal all wounds, especially those left by abusers.

So the basic plot is that a young boy, Ralph, is removed from the foster home where he lives by Child Protective Services after his roommate turns up dead of an apparent suicide and the police enact an investigation of the home.  Ralph shows signs of being abused, and his new foster mother tries to help him deal with the trauma by telling him about her own experiences as a missionary during the Rwandan Genocide.

As a side note, Chick can’t resist this opportunity to jab at the United Nations for their poor response to that incident, although I think the messages are a little confused when you criticize an agency that you fear will one day take over the world for refraining from interfering in a sovereign country’s internal politics.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Carpenter, the foster mother, explains how she was so angry at the men who killed her husband and friends, tortured her, and raped her that she spent months having nightmares about the experience.  She fantasized about torturing and killing them, which is an entirely reasonable response following that kind of trauma.  Then Mrs. Carpenter explains that her nightmares stopped after she realized that she was supposed to forgive her abusers, and that this is what Ralph needs to do in order to heal from his trauma as well.

Okay, let’s break this down a little bit, since there are parts of this that I agree with, and parts that I don’t.

Forgiving your abusers is definitely something that I believe Christ encourages us to do.  Even wishing them well in a capacity that doesn’t enable them to commit further abuses strikes me as loving above and beyond what the typical human response would be.  But Mrs. Carpenter ignores one very major distinction between her own story and her exhortations to Ralph to forgive the judge who’s been raping him: Ralph is still threatened by his abuser.

Mrs. Carpenter’s story is a sad one, and I’ll say that I think Chick handles it with a delicacy that I’ve come not to expect in these tracts.  But she should be aware that it’s unhelpful to suggest that a child who’s still a ward of the state and therefore vulnerable to further harm by this judge be willing to forgive him.  Healing doesn’t happen on a set timetable, but it is callous to talk about forgiveness when further harm is still a possibility.  Until Ralph is safely out of the judge’s reach, this kind of talk won’t be helpful.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Carpenter throws in the obligatory Chick tract coda about going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus, and explains that abusers go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus too, which I think means she’s implying that even though God wants us to forgive those who hurt us, they’ll still get punished in the end because they probably aren’t Christians anyway.

And that’s exactly what happens with Ralph and the judge; he accepts Christ, and then the next morning he gets a phone call from a friend saying that the judge suddenly died of a heart attack the previous night.  Chick even includes a little proof text about those who trouble you being judged to stick home the implication that Jesus did Ralph a solid and killed the judge for him.

Okay, so maybe there’s more troublesome stuff in this tract than I realized, but it’s not the worst one that I’ve ever read.  Chick does give abuse victims some dignity, although I wonder if the story would have played out the same if the scenario involved a battered wife and her abusive husband.  I’ll have to dig through the archives and see if there’s a story in that vein sometime.