Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Jack Chick Considered

Jack Chick, the creator of more than 250 of the world's most infamous evangelistic tracts, reportedly died in his sleep last Sunday night. He was 92.

Even if you've never heard of Jack Chick, you're probably familiar with his work. Over the past 50 years, his company has printed an estimated 800 million of his comics, little pamphlets about the size of a Tijuana bible. They're frequently found in bus stations, Laundromats and other public areas where people are bored and will kill a minute or two reading a religious tract if there's nothing else to do.

The tracts are not known for their sensitivity, nor for their accuracy. On both fronts they make InfoWars seem as down-to-earth as a Ken Burns documentary.

Once you have read a few of his comics, you will begin to understand that Chick saw the world in very stark terms. In his view, the road to hell is not only broad, it also has frequent on-ramps in places like rock music, Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, public school, trick-or-treating, and even the Bible if it's not the approved 1611 King James Version.

Judging by his tracts, the only people Jack Chick considered to be decent were fundamentalist Christians like himself. They dress nicely, act and speak respectfully, and unflaggingly labor to tell people important truths that they don't want to hear, in order to keep those people out of hell. They overcome earthly obstacles no matter how sorely they're put upon, and they persevere and tell you that you need to ask Jesus to forgive your sins.

Non-Christians, on the other hand, are foul-mouthed, vulgar and often treacherous. Their faces are misshapen and angular, their teeth are crooked, and their mouths are twisted perpetually into grotesque sneers. They are nervous or angry and brittle, and explode whenever they hear someone mention Jesus. It's impossible to be ambivalent about Christianity, according to Chick. You either embrace it or you hate it with a passion.

Other things to know as you navigate this strange world: The truth is out there. It's just suppressed by a vast conspiracy aided and abetted by scientists, educators, the courts, liberals and the newspapers. The wicked always bray “Haw haw” like an infernal donkey when they laugh; and the most evil organization of all isn't the NFL. It's the Catholic Church, which over the years has created communism, your local Masonic lodge, the Ku Klux Klan and even Islam.

For all that they have offended and inspired mockery, Chick tracts also have gathered a perverse fandom. One of them even inspired a full-length movie adaptation. As a whole they reached the point years ago that they have become iconic pieces of religious Americana. His comics are so obnoxious, so over-the-top offensive, that they're like a joke he didn't know how to stop.

Except to Chick, it wasn't a joke. He was completely serious. He honestly believed that “true Christianity” was under siege by Catholicism, by secularism, by science and by falsified Scriptures. He saw himself and others who thought like him as the only guardians of an endangered truth.

Chick had some interesting beliefs, to put it mildly, the sort that forces you to take sides. The Southern Poverty Law Center includes Chick Publications on its list of hate groups, and the Christian Booksellers Association in 1981 considered expelling him from its ranks. (He withdrew his membership first.)

To Chick and his supporters, the angry reactions and denunciations his work received only justified their sense that he was right and was being hated wrongly by the people he was trying to rescue; while his inability or refusal to see how hurtful his tracts were only justified the beliefs of his critics that Chick was small-minded and hateful.

The divide left two groups of people, each convinced of the moral, spiritual and intellectual inferiority of the other. Given the potency of religious beliefs, difference of belief over his tracts and whether they had a place in evangelism was enough to sunder relationships within some churches. In many ways it parallels the partisan divide in American politics today.

In March 2004, Catholic Answers published an article by Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist and evangelist who met Chick at the world premier of the movie “The Light of the World.” Akin, a self-professed fan of Chick's work because of the bizarre fascination it elicits, recalls spotting Chick and wanting to debate him on his theology or even to goad him into disowning the conspiracy theories in his tracts.

But then he had an interesting, Christlike thought: “I decided that, if it was Chick, the most charitable thing I could do was simply be nice to him and chat,” he wrote.

What follows in Akin's article is one of the most thoroughly human and down-to-earth conversations imaginable. For perhaps a half-hour or more, the two men talked about writing, about illustration and art styles, about tracts and even about some of Chick's more outrageous conspiracy theories.

The article doesn't leave readers with the impression that the two men became friends, or that Chick suddenly disavowed a lifetime of conspiracy thinking and anti-Catholic sentiment. But it does suggest that the two men left one another a little more aware of their common humanity and perhaps even a little more inclined to view one another sympathetically. That divide, which to some might see impossible to cross, had been bridged, however tenuously, through the simple act of talking and listening to one another.

“Chick came across as a kind, gentle old man,” Akin wrote. "He was nothing but polite. He smiled. He laughed. Unlike the characters in his comic books, he didn’t say 'Haw! Haw!' when he laughed. From meeting him one would never suspect him to be the most infamous broadcaster of hate and paranoia in the Christian comic book world.”

Make no mistake: The overriding arc of Jack Chick's faith was one of fear. He was afraid of Catholics. He was afraid of music. He was afraid of gays and lesbians. He was afraid of Bible translations other than the King James Version. He was afraid of other religions. He was afraid of progress. He was afraid of Halloween, of evolution, and probably of Christmas too.

Behind all these things he saw the dark hand of a satanic conspiracy that had overtaken the entire world except for him and a few others, and that constantly threatened even them. At the age of 90, he apparently believed that the Catholic Church was monitoring him and even had plans for his assassination.

A faith that leads us to the summit of fear and then stops there, is not a faith that is reaching its potential; and I admit, I like to think that Chick is going to feel a little abashed to discover that God's grace is wider and different from what he imagined. But a faith that lets us feel better than somebody else isn't much of a faith either. It's not enough to save anyone.

I rather recall the question a teacher of the law once posed to Jesus about what was necessary to be saved. After Jesus answered, he told his interrogator the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a wounded man was saved by somebody he hated more than anyone else in the world.

The message of that parable is one that his ancient audience needed to hear; it's one that Jack Chick needed to hear; and it's one that we would benefit from today, in these times of division between supporters of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Donald Trump.

The person you hate the most also happens to be the person you need.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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