Thursday, June 6, 2013

Christianity, Counterculture, and Comics

The other week I made an impulse buy at my local comic book shop. Those of you who know me well may not think this is surprising, but actually I usually hold a pretty strict shopping list when it comes to physical, individual issues. This is both due to financial and time restraints. The cost of buying comics seems to grow in an inverse relationship with the amount of free time I have to read my purchases. To illustrate the seriousness of the situation, I don't even include any Batman titles on my regular reading list (unless, of course, it is written by Grant Morrison).

But that day I saw on the shelf an issue of Occupy Comics about the Occupy movement and the financial crisis and bailouts that spurred it. Now, you, dear reader, likely have your own opinions on this social/political occurrence. I don't really care about that. What I was really interested in was the fact that this issue contains an essay by Alan Moore (of Watchmen fame and self proclaimed wizard who is not to be trifled with) about the history of comics as counterculture and a medium of protest.

Moore traces the history of graphic literature (as we know I refer to the format) and its counterculture tendencies from its approximate inception with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Apparently on the back of pyramid stones some masons would inscribe sarcastic depictions of the Pharaohs and the gods, parodying the rulers and the establishment.

The essay traces art and political cartoons throughout history and cultures, perhaps picking up more immediate relevance in the era of newspaper comic strips. Moore points out that even from the beginning, newspaper comics (and later comic books) were deemed illegitimate literature for the impaired and uneducated; the dregs of society. This impression may have partly been due to (and even reinforced) the trend of early comics to showcase class struggles and the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. The Yellow Kid and the "Depression wish-fulfillment fantasy" of Little Orphan Annie provide just a few examples.

Of course, later in the 60's and 70's comics as counterculture become extremely evident in the rise of underground comix by the likes of R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman (the latter actually contributing some art to this issue).

But what does this have to do with Wednesday Theology? It seems like I ask that question quite often. What does this history and inherent tendency of the graphic literature format to provide an outlet, a voice, and means of oppositional expression and protest to the powers at be and current state of society have to do with Christianity?

Everything. At least, potentially everything.

For at its core Christianity is a protest against the ways of this world. The words Jesus spoke of love and forgiveness run so counter to our worldly ideals of success and gain,whether financial, political, or societal, that true Christianity is a counterculture expression.

We run into some problems with this idea, though, especially in America where many believe the country is a "Christian nation" or needs to be reclaimed as such or that one of the main tenets of American evangelicalism is to take America back for God. Whatever that means.

Seriously. When are we taking America back to when it was for God? Back before women could vote? Back when blacks were slaves? When did this godly period of American society supposedly take place?

Despite this questioning, some Christians still champion for some sort of Christian takeover of the American government. This would be a horrible scenario. First of all, what type of Christianity would be in charge of the government that would make everything in the nation so perfect? Well, Protestant evangelical, of course. But what kind of evangelical? Really, go to any city of even moderate size and count how many evangelical churches exist. And do they all get along with each other? Of course not! Most congregations within a single church have immense trouble just getting along with themselves. So it is asinine to assume that your specifically particular type of Christianity would assume and hold power in the event of some sort of Christian American theocracy.

So when another from of Christianity takes command, woe to you. Woe to us all! For state and faith are now one and should you disagree with either you are both a traitor and a heretic.

When the state and religion collude, it is always to the detriment of the religion. Christianity may gain worldly power, but it will lose spiritual integrity. The primary goal of the faith state will be to preserve its physical power and worldly control. The religion may collapse but the government will still hold power. If the government collapses, then both the government (obviously) and the religion are out of power. So in this wonderful "Christian Nation" the Christian aspect of it will inevitably be corrupted.

And what good would a Christian nation even do? Would it force the populace to convert to Christianity for its own good? Would we soon have an American Inquisition? Is that what Jesus would have us do? Sorry, was that too 90's of a reference for you?

Jesus didn't send us out to exclaim 'convert or die.' He sent us out to love. He sent us out to love with a ridiculous, illogical, absurd love with no respect for race, creed, gender, political, or social boundaries. This is a love that is deemed subversive by both the powers of hell and the powers of the world.

The great dilemma for Christians, especially in regards to culture, is that we are not of the world yet we are still in the world, and how do we balance that? Of course we should try to improve our society, but that doesn't mean becoming so entwined with the governing bodies that we lose the ability to challenge them (and ourselves) when they go astray. As my seminary professor always said, "It's hard to raise a fist of protest against the state when it's got you wrapped up in a big ol' bear hug."

This is where graphic literature as counterculture comes into play with regards to theology and Christianity. Like other organizations of social protest, Christian groups could easily employ the medium of comics and graphic literature to spread their subversive message. Only this would be the subversive message of Christ's love.
I hope, if nothing else, that with this blog I have shown that creators are pumping a plethora of religious and theological content into modern graphic literature. Much of that content is actually counterculture, but counter to the culture of established and organized Christianity. So, for a lover of great comic books, it is really a good thing that we don't live in a theocracy. Do you think a "Christian Nation" would allow the publication of graphic works such as Preacher or even more recent fare like Pax Romana and Punk Rock Jesus?

Maybe this is an indication of just how tightly American Christianity is already embraced by the state. Perhaps a foray into Christian counterculture comics needs to begin with subversive messages aimed at itself. I think the love taught by Jesus can be just as subversive toward organized Christianity as it can be toward any other group. 
Maybe, just maybe, we can use comics, the favored medium of the dregs of society, to express and spread this subversion.

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