Thursday, August 28, 2014

Daring to Address God: Confronting the Negligent Deity in Graphic Literature

The following is a paper originally presented on November 2, 2012 at Dordt College for The Christian Evasion of Popular Culture Conference.

This is what I sometimes do.  For fun.

Daring to Address God: Confronting the Negligent Deity in Graphic Literature


Mitch Alfson

The Christian Evasion of Popular Culture Conference

Dordt College

Sioux Center, IA

Nov. 1-3, 2012

Mainstream Christianity and its authoritative institutions usually maintain an antagonistic relationship with popular culture. Christianity's responses, typically, are either to evade or condemn instances of pop culture. When the pop culture touches on religious issues, condemnation is the dominate approach. The exceptions to this pattern are the media pandered directly to a Christian audience, which Christians unflinchingly embrace as much as they unflinchingly disregard other media without any critical examination.

Barry Taylor addresses this rise, or perhaps return, of the religious in popular culture in his book Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy. He defines the titular concept of entertainment theology as “simply ideas about God that emerge outside of previously legitimized environments and structures of mediation.”1 Movies, television, novels, and graphic literature all explore religious and theological ideas without the oversight of traditional religious authorities. While these authorities may worry about such unfiltered theological discourse and advise Christians avoid it, they need to realize that people are talking about God, and more and more they are doing it outside of the church.

Religious topics in popular culture is not a new concept, though. Brennan Manning wrote, “Troubadours have always been more important and influential than theologians and bishops.”2 Most people far more easily remember a catchy lyric or intriguing story plot than the dry words of a preacher or writings of a theologian. As popular culture moved away from the reigns of the church, it became more unrestrained and profane. However, in this postmodern world, creators infuse this irreverent pop culture with deep theological contemplation. “The binary oppositions of sacred versus profane that attended modernity no longer suffice,” says Taylor.3
Indeed, popular culture has become the prevailing language for both religious and non-religious discussion. How many pastors frequently utilize scenes from movies or television shows as anecdotal illustrations in their ministry? People speak pop culture, and they increasingly speak it with little to no distinction between sacred and profane. Again, Taylor opines that pop culture is the language of the world and entertainment theology is how the world speaks of God. “Everything is being filtered through the media spectrum, everything is entertainment, in that it comes to us via interactive technology and media outlets, whether from a bookstore or from the World Wide Web. Theology, 'God-talk,' as Phyllis Tickle so aptly puts it, is taking place alongside all the other issues of life, in the mediated environment of a globally connected society.”4
Graphic literature, more popularly known as comic books or graphic novels, forms a small part of popular culture, albeit with increasing influence, that frequently addresses theological concepts in such a way that Christianity cannot afford to ignore for much longer. While it may appear as a niche medium, graphic literature is helping shape the larger pop cultural landscape, including pop culture's approach to religion. Following the popularity of books exploring philosophical themes in works of popular culture, authors have begun exploring the spiritual side of comic books and have recently published books with titles like The Gospel According to Superheroes, Holy Superheroes! Exploring the Sacred in Comics, Graphic Novels, and Film, Our Gods Wear Spandex, and Who Needs a Superhero? Finding Virtue, Vice, and What's Holy in Comics. Noticeably, all these titles focus on the superhero genre. For many people, especially those with only a cursory familiarity with graphic literature, the superhero genre presents the whole of the graphic literature medium. While superheroes are the most prominent and public face of the medium, a variety of other literary genres inhabit the graphic landscape.

Superhero stories do frequently address religious themes, with interpretations of Superman as a messianic figure providing a primary example. In a way, though, the popularity of superheroes limits them. They are owned by well established publishing companies which are in turn owned by multinational conglomerates like Warner Bros or Disney. Often popular superheroes are a brand to be marketed and sold rather than characters with which to tell compelling, even dangerous, stories. Few stories are more dangerous than religious stories.

Independent or less popularly mainstream titles in graphic literature can possess the freedom to engage in more sensitive topics. Compared to many other forms of popular entertainment, the direct audience for graphic literature is small. Non-superhero graphic literature holds an even smaller audience and can more easily fit through the cracks of censorship, both in terms of obscenity and respecting religious sensitivities.
But the offensiveness of the content of popular culture should not dissuade Christians from engaging it. Barry Taylor writes, “If we place too much emphasis on refuting the content, we might miss the opportunity to engage with and address those who are obviously seeking to put some kind of framework, however vague, on 'the divine.'”5 Graphic literature is talking about the divine, sometimes with great excitement and enthusiasm. Though it may often exhibit a negative view of God, the medium still enthusiastically speaks of God and to God. Instead of seeing this as an attempt to lead the sheep astray or an outright attack on their faith, Christians should view it as an opportunity to talk about God with these creators and readers and engage in an equally enthusiastic discussion about the divine.

Possibly the most frequent theological theme in graphic literature, and perhaps in all of popular culture, lies with the problem of evil and suffering. Superheroes often deal with evil, but they typically stop the evil and right the wrongs. In more independent, non-superhero stories, Superman cannot come and save the day. Instead, the only one that can provide rescue is God, but often, just like in the real world, he does not. Or, at least it appears that he does not.
The problem of evil arises from the beliefs that God is all good and all powerful. If God possesses both these attributes, then how can evil exist in the world? One of the harsh facts of life is that evil does exist and it must be acknowledged. Daniel L. Migliore writes, “As that which opposes the will of God and distorts the good creation, evil is neither illusion nor mere appearance nor a gradually disappearing force in the world. All theories that deny the reality of evil or minimize its power have been exposed as fantastic and worthless by the horrors of late modernity.”6
Instead of denying evil, one feels compelled to accept it, but try to explain how or why God would allow the presence of such evil. The usual cliché Christian answers to this problem fall along the lines of explaining it all as part of the bigger picture or for the greater good. These unhelpful answers can be considered as explaining God's possibly questionable behavior when it comes to the presence of evil. In response to these suggestions, David Burrell retorts, “And what could be more pretentious than attempting to 'justify the ways of God to us,' as the venture of theodicy has classically been described?”7
Christians tend to point to the Old Testament book of Job as a biblical answer to the problem of evil. Burrell says otherwise in Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering. Burrell argues that the point of Job is not to find the answers to Job's suffering, but Job's insistence on addressing God directly about the situation. While his friends offer plenty of reasons for his hardship, Job refuses to relent until God agrees to confront him. “Job is commended in the end,” says Burrell, “because he dared to address the creator-God; his interlocutors are castigated for purporting to speak knowingly about that One.”8

Likewise, overly certain church answers to suffering prove unsatisfying. Yet to demand a direct confrontation with God sounds hostile, irreverent, and even blasphemous. Maybe it is, but it also sounds honest. This honest and potentially antagonistic course is the route taken up in many instances of popular culture and particularly in graphic literature.
Will Eisner was one of the great pioneers in the graphic literature medium. In 1976 he published a work which many remember as coining the now popular term “graphic novel.” His book, A Contract with God, was a collection of several short stories told in graphic form. The first story, providing the book's title, followed the story of a devout Jewish man named Frimme Hersh. Hersh strives to faithfully fulfill all his requirements to his covenant with the Divine. Despite all of his piety, tragedy still falls upon Hersh and his young daughter suddenly dies.
Though a well standing member of his religious community, the grieving father does not seek comfort from his elders or teachers. Instead, one night Frimme dares to confront God. In a dramatic image, the grieving man, illuminated by flashes of lighting in a driving thunderstorm, shouts to the Lord, “If God requires that men honor their agreements...then is not GOD, ALSO, so obligated??”9 Hersh feels that he has fulfilled all his obligations, but with the death of his daughter it is God who is in breach of their contract. This certainly sounds like a damning indictment of the Divine, yet even in its blasphemy it feels like a far more honest engagement with God than simply and complacently accepting the idea that the death of his daughter is for the greater good.
This incident harkens back to Burrell's view of Job. If Hersh is in a covenant with God, then he should be able to speak candidly to God about this tragedy. “Indeed,” says Burrell of Job, “precisely because he sees himself standing in a relationship, however unequal, he does not hesitate to address God directly.” He then quotes from the tenth chapter of Job, “'Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me...Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me.'”10
The story of Frimme Hersh takes on new, deeper meaning when one learns of Will Eisner's inspiration for writing the story. Eisner's own young daughter died from leukemia eight years before the story was printed. The writer identified closely with Frimme Hersh and said, “his anguish was mine. His argument with God was also mine. I exorcised my rage at a deity that I believed violated my faith and deprived my lovely 16-year-old child of her life at the very flowering of it.”11 Some men might write theology or hymns or poems to express their feelings about and towards God. Will Eisner wrote a graphic novel, a pop cultural testament revered to this day.
Like Eisner, and like Job, Hersh never really receives a satisfying answer for why such suffering occurred in his life. But according to Burrell that's not the point of the story of Job or the point of such a reaction to the problem of evil. “Speaking about something veers toward explaining,” says Burrell, “while speaking to someone can engage both in a relationship of exchange open to yet other forms of understanding. Indeed, what is most telling, structurally, in the book of Job is that the creator-God does answer Job's extended complaints. Yet those looking for an explanation will find themselves scrutinizing what the voice from the whirlwind says, while the dynamic of the unfolding relationship should lead us to what is most startling of all: that God responded to him.”12

Another prominent piece of graphic literature also dealt with a man's ardent quest to confront God. Beginning in 1995, Preacher ran 66 issues before wrapping up its main storyline. The brainchild of writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, Preacher follows the story of a disillusioned preacher named Jesse Custer who seeks to literally find God and hold him accountable for all of his actions and inactions.
If the angry response to God in A Contract with God borders on blasphemous, Preacher unquestionably and gleefully dives into a sea of perverse sacrilege and irreverence. Jesse Custer finds himself possessed by a supernatural entity called Genesis, a being so powerful that even Almighty God is afraid of it. As a result of this threat, God abandons heaven and is hiding somewhere on Earth. Custer takes it upon himself to hunt down God and hold him accountable for deserting his creation. Says Custer, “You know what? I'm gonna go lookin' for him. I don't care how long it takes or where I have to go. I'm gonna find him. An' I'm gonna make him tell his people what he's done.”13
Mike Grimshaw, in his essay “On Preacher (Or, the Death of God in Pictures),” summarizes, “The religious core of Preacher is the theme of humanity abandoned by God.”14 Both in this specific instance of God fleeing Genesis, as well as the fallen state of the world in general, this graphic work presents God as absent at best and willfully negligent at worst. A plethora of colorful villains populate Preacher, but God reigns as the ultimate villain of the story, the worst offender against humanity. “I'm lookin' for the Lord,” explains Custer, “'cause I figure he's deserted his creation. I aim to bring him to book for that little transgression: to confront him and hear his answer to that charge. He has a obligation to do right by the world he's made an' the folks he's peopled it with. He quits an' runs, he ain't facin' up to his responsibilities.”15
“In Preacher,” says Grimshaw, “Ennis suggests that horror, leakage, disruption, and suffering occur because God has abandoned his responsibilities. The horror occurs not because of God's existence (or otherwise), but rather because of the willful inaction of God.”16 Over the course of 66 issues Jesse Custer and his companions embark on wild, ridiculous adventures in their quest to find God and hold him accountable for these horrors. In a climactic encounter, the preacher finally catches up to God and lodges his complaint against him. “The creation cannot make demands of its creator...!” objects God. Custer passionately replies, “Then the creator shouldn't piss on his creation.”17 This confrontational response to God stands in contrast to the typically sanitized views of God Christians hold that develop into theodicies.
Perhaps such unquestioned complacency towards God is more irreverent than any blasphemous statements Jesse Custer directly addresses him with. David Burrell suggests that for the book of Job, “...its primary function in the Hebrew canon may well be to correct 'mechanical' readings of the Deuteronomy that remain heedless of the graceful divine initiative the covenant embodies. Here, of course, the target is not theologians so much as religious leaders, epitomized in Job's companions, who invariably attempt to channel God's generous initiative into manageable patterns.”18 In the face of tragedy, Christians, like Job's friends, tend to toe the line and insist it is all part of God's plan which they can somehow perceive and understand. Job, like popular culture, concedes the situation does not make sense and seeks to address God directly, pleading and even demanding for some sort of response.

Popular culture grants an outlet for the questions and ideas nearly all have, but many feel inappropriate to express in traditional arenas of religious discourse. In pop culture religious ideas are presented without being subjected to and stifled by the etiquette of the church. Sometimes we have to come to a place of extreme irreverence, even blasphemy, before we'll dare talk to God as if he's actually there. In moments of anger and rage, like those expressed by Frimme Hersh and Jesse Custer, we witness how loss of fear and trepidation of upsetting or offending God enables approach with unfiltered honesty. The so-called “blasphemies” of popular culture are perhaps the most honest prayers heard by Heaven.
The question inevitably arises about the relevance or significance of stories produced in a relatively obscure medium. Many Christians have probably never heard of Preacher. Grimshaw states that “while Preacher may be relatively unknown to scholars inside the academy, it is big news to those on the outside.”19 Preacher stands as an important work of modern graphic literature, and in recent years such influential graphic works have found ways to reach much larger audiences.
While the primary audience for graphic literature may not seem large, the audience for adaptations of graphic literature properties is unquestionably huge. The summer of 2012 alone showed the masses are eager for exposure to the superheroric adventures of the Avengers, Batman, and Spider-Man. The Avengers grossed 1.5 billion dollars worldwide at the box office, emerging as the third highest grossing movie of all time.20 While comic book movies mostly come from the superhero genre, their success makes cinematic adaptations of some of the more independent, theologically minded graphic works imaginable. Christianity would be far better off to engage the themes in graphic literature like A Contract with God and Preacher on the printed page before they reach the silver screen, a mass audience, and evasion becomes no longer possible.

1Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 104.
2Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 1990), 96.
3Taylor, 103.
4Taylor, 86.
5Taylor, 1958.
6Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding:An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 118.
7David Burrell, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 13
8Burrell, 123.
9Will Eisner, The Contract with God Trilogy, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 25.
10Burrell, 31.
11Eisner, xvi.
12Burrell, 124.
13Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, Preacher #4 (DC Comics, Jul. 1995), 15.
14Mike Grimshaw, “On Preacher (Or, the Death of God in Pictures),” in Graven Images:Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, ed. A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer, 149-165 (New York: Continuum, 2010), 153.
15Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, Preacher #5 (DC Comics, Aug. 1995), 19.
16Grimshaw, 159.
17Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, Preacher #49 (DC Comics, May 1999), 11.
18Burrell, 126.
19Grimshaw, 150.
20“Marvel's The Avengers,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed October 10, 2012).

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