Thursday, July 23, 2015

Graphic Doubt: The Disruption of Faith in Comic Books and Graphic Literature

On April 17th, 2015, I attended the Upper Midwest Regional Conference of the American Academy of Religion.  During this event, I presented the following paper about faith and doubt in comic books.  Essentially, I sat in a room with respectable religious scholars and professors and talked about comic books for twenty minutes or so.

And of course they selected me to go first.  Which wasn't intimidating at all for someone who was pretty much the least educated person in the room.

Anyway, if you've followed Wednesday Theology for the past year or so you will recognize a lot of these themes.  Doubt has, in a way, become my main message, my strongest expression of my faith, and comic books have facilitated that expression and exploration.  So, I hope you enjoy the following.  I hope you appreciate the proper citations.

But why do this?  Why go to the trouble to write such a thing and present it to only a select few?  Well, this is pretty much an example of the culmination of everything Wednesday Theology strives to be: a legitimation, scholarly or otherwise, of the exploration of the intersection of theology and comic books.

Plus, it also gives me a sense of purpose to my life.

Graphic Doubt: The Disruption of Faith in Comic Books and Graphic Literature

If you will allow me to appropriate a cliché movie quote, doubt, for lack of a better word, is good. That thought, though, runs counter to most popular Christian teaching, especially in evangelical circles, where doubt is portrayed as the enemy of faith. Such a disruption of an individual's faith is often frowned upon, discouraged, or even viewed as a grievous sin. Expectedly, many Christian narratives follow the path of unbelief to belief. The heathen converts to Christianity and lives happily ever after, assured of his or her faith and never to doubt again.

However, real life rarely follows this simple path, for doubt is natural and even necessary for a growing, engaged faith. A faith unencountered by doubt is not faith at all, but certainty. Narratives not directly pandered toward Christian audiences provide a greater tendency to address such doubt that faithful people and characters may confront. In this instance, the realm of comic books, those juxtapositions of words and pictures, alternatively called graphic novels or graphic literature in a pretentious attempt to legitimize the format as worthy of sophisticated discussion and study, those comic books, provide several examples of characters of faith experiencing a disruption of that faith. Remarkably, these examples do not view this disruption in a necessarily negative light.

The idea that believers can look favorably upon their doubt is not unheard of in modern Christianity. Though the champions of certainty are far more vocal, those that wish to foster doubt and dismantle certainty are also speaking up. Peter Rollins wrote a book about certainty entitled The Idolatry of God. In this work he voices his opinion that we should acknowledge the rather obvious idea that we do not know everything. “When we accept our unknowing and brokenness,” he writes, “we are not weakening our faith, we are boldly expressing it. It is our faith that brings us into this place of accepting humility and acknowledging our limits.”1 Admitting that we do not know might just prove more faithful than systematically defending every aspect of our faith.

If we are going to talk about disruptions of faith in comic books and graphic novels, we might as well start with the work that helped popularize the term “graphic novel.” In 1976, comic book creator and legend Will Eisner published A Contract with God. The book contains several short stories, with the tale baring the book's title following the life of a pious man named Frimme Hersh.

Frimme Hersh is certain of the conditions of his relationship with God. As long as he remains true and devout, God will bless him. But one day, for seemingly no discernible reason, Hersh's young daughter falls ill and dies. In the midst of a raging thunderstrom, Hersh shouts to the sky, “If God requires that men honor their agreements...then is not GOD, ALSO, so obligated??”2 As lightning flashes, Frimme Hersh doubts.

Is this not a reflection of our own engagement with the Divine? No matter how deeply we believe that if we obey God he will bless us and if we disobey him he will curse us, the actual occurrences in our lives may make us wonder if God is even paying attention. God has blessed me when I have been at my worst. And all manner of troubles have befallen me when I thought I had actually been doing pretty well behaving like a good little Christian.

The real amazing thing is that Hersh lasted so long in life before his certainty began to crack. Ultimately there was no easy, clear answer for the tragedy that befell him and caused him to doubt his certain contract with God. Likewise, there was no easy answer for the tragedy that inspired Eisner to write A Contract with God. The author's own daughter died from leukemia, an event that understandably disrupted his own faith. A Contract with God became an expression of this doubt. In an introduction to the book, Eisner writes of Frimme Hersh, “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.”3

Now, the typical response to this heartbreaking story is the act of theodicy, or finding a way to excuse God for allowing evil to happen. Theodicy is an attempt to maintain our certainty that God does fulfill his covenants, contracts, and obligations, despite all the apparent evidences to the contrary. The book of Job in the Bible provides examples of the arrogance of theodicy. Greg Boyd writes, “Job’s friends were chastised precisely because they tried to remain certain about their beliefs in the face of evidence against them.”4 Along those lines, John D. Caputo calls all instances of theodicy obscenities.5 Theodicy is an obscenity against God, for how dare we attempt to excuse God of his behavior? And it is an obscenity against those who are experiencing real hurt and pain that we heartlessly minimize in order to maintain the certainty of our beliefs about God.

Doubt, though, does not always come in such a dramatic fashion, like what Frimme Hersh experienced. In Blankets, a graphic memoir, Craig Thompson recounts his exploration of faith and love while growing up in rural Wisconsin. Unlike sudden moment of crippling doubt in A Contract with God, Thompson slowly encountered a series of troubling questions and doubts that incrementally chipped away at the fundamentalist certainty instilled in him by his family and his church.

An early example of Thompson's questioning occurs in an elementary Sunday School class discussing how everyone would praise and worship God in Heaven. The teacher provides the typical notion that such worship is limited almost exclusively to singing. This unnerves Thompson, for he does not sing well or is otherwise musically inclined. His real passion, though, what some might call his God given talent, is art. “But I don't like to sing. Couldn't I praise God with my drawings?” he asks. The teacher dismisses his concern. “I mean, come on, Craig,” she replies, “How can you praise God with drawings?”6 The young Thompson began to question the propositional paradigm that religions impose on their adherents. He did not fit perfectly into that mold, not that any of us really do. Most people simply brush such concerns aside, but in Thompson his questions only festered as he grew. Periodically, he would voice such questions only to be quickly shut down by others asserting the correctness of their certainty.

Eventually it was the Bible itself that crippled his faith. The human element of the Bible, that it was written by humans over a long period of time, and that it reflected such a growth process, proved irreconcilable with Thompson's previous instruction that Scripture was God's exact and perfect word.7 The simplistic certainty in the Bible that his church taught now failed to answer, or even address, this pressing revelation of his.

For an example, Thompson writes about the comments actually included in his Bible. "Leafing through the pages,” he says, “I marveled at the 'OR's - footnotes referencing questionable vocabulary - gracing nearly every page of the Bible. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament in 'koine' Greek. Both languages create challenges in translation. I like 'OR's. Doubt is reassuring."8 For most people such doubt is not so reassuring, at least not at first. The pillars of certainty must come crumbling down beforehand, and that can prove quite the traumatic event.
Author Sharon L. Baker recounts her own, and similar, encounter with the Bible causing a dramatic disruption of her faith. “Learning Greek, Hebrew, and basic hermeneutical skills made me realize that I had been so wrong about so much. My whole belief system came crashing down around me, and I wandered around in the rubble, kicking at the broken pieces of my absolute certainty.”9

Near the close of Blankets, Craig Thompson comments on the unsettled, even paradoxical nature of his faith, or lack thereof. He knows the loss of his beliefs would greatly upset his parents. “But,”he says, “I can't deny my lack of faith, either. I still believe in God; the teachings of Jesus even, but the rest of Christianity...its Bible, its churches, its dogma – only sets up boundaries between people and cultures. It denies the beauty of being human, and it ignores all these gaps that need to be filled in by the individual.”10 Religious certainty creates an all or nothing scenario, allowing no room for ambiguity, or even questioning. Throughout his life, Craig Thompson brought his doubts, concerns, and questions to leaders in his church and religious life. Instead of lending an empathetic ear or joining Thompson in his journey of struggle, they quickly dismissed him. It takes great courage, and even great faith, to voice doubt like Thompson did.

Once again, the concerns within Blankets about the Bible, church, and religion are impressively echoed in the writings of contemporary religious thinkers. Peter Rollins champions the idea that we are lost, broken, and depressed, and that we do not know how to fix this condition. More importantly, he argues that religion cannot fully fix these issues, and we should not expect it to provide such answers. Instead, Christianity should help us acknowledge and confront our hurt, rather than attempt to escape it. Rollins writes his in his book Insurrection, “I would love to see churches take seriously the idea that mystery, unknowing, brokenness, doubt, and mourning should be expressed in the very structure of the church itself. Religion is a system that gives us a sense of being right, of having the answers and knowing how to stay on the right team. I want to see churches that break religion open through the sermons, music, and prayers; churches that bring us face-to-face with the truth of our unknowing and pain.”11

While A Contract with God and Blankets personal, subdued tales, the potential of the comic book medium is not limited to expressing real life instances of doubt. A medium most well known for the larger than life antics of superheroes in capes and tights seems ideal for fantastic and incredible tales of the Divine. One such incredible tale centers on the notion of God doubting God.

In the six issue miniseries Punk Rock Jesus, writer and artist Sean Murphy crafts a tale in the not too distant future where a media conglomerate manages to clone Jesus. The company then proceeds to raise the cloned Jesus on a reality television show. The endeavor is not without controversy, and a militant, fundamentalist, Christian group known as the New American Christians, or NAC, soon stages violent attacks on the island compound where the show is filmed. Early on, the group declares they are “messengers of the Lord” and nothing will stop them.12. The certainty of this group reflects Sharon L. Baker's fears that religious certainly paves the way for religious violence. In her book Executing God, she writes, “I'm extremely concerned about religious violence; I am worried about the thousands upon thousands of people injured, massacred, or otherwise abused by violence committed in the name of some God or some theological 'certainty.'”13

For Baker, the detrimental result of certainty is not merely a shallow and stagnant faith. Instead, she feels such religious certainty inspires religious violence. Certainty allows for no wiggle room. It is rigid and unwavering, but also rather fragile, requiring vigilant defense.

While certain Christian groups object to the show, many more Christians ardently watch the show. Despite objections from a scientist on staff, the producer of the show insists that the cloned Jesus, named Chris, be instilled with the religious certainty of the show's audience. “Many of our viewers are fundamentalists and would be uncomfortable with their savior learning about science and evolution,” he explains.14 Chris initially embraces this certainty of belief forced upon him, but eventually the world around him begins to crack. After facing some of the tragic events life can offer, Chris begins to question both this God he is supposed to be as well as the culture that has shaped expectations on how a clone of Jesus should behave.
In a rapid fit of rebellion, the now teenage Chris consumes as much previously banned content as possible. He becomes obsessed with viewpoints that counter everything he has been raised to believe. The clone of Jesus forsakes Christianity, becomes an atheist, and escapes his reality television show to join a punk rock band. Not only does he abandon his religion, he attacks it and strives to undermine it. Chris deliberately antagonizes his critics, goading them into increasingly violent and erratic behavior. It's all part of my plan,” he explains. “Fundamentalists like the NAC are destroying their own religion. Because of their bad example, many Christians are stepping back.”15

At one point, Chris' bodyguard, Tom, recounts to Chris his past as a violent foot soldier in the Irish Republican Army. Chris says that religion made Tom that way and that Chris' radical atheism will stop that. Tom, however, counters, “Blind idealism did this to me. And it's doing it to you.”16 Certainty of unbelief can be just as damaging and hurtful as the certainty of belief. Performatively, there's little difference between secular authoritarianism and religious authoritarianism.

The blind idealism of religious certainty twists and corrupts faith. It can lead us to violence. It can lead us to willful ignorance in the face of simple facts or common sense. However, certainty is appealing because it is clean and comforting, while faith, true faith that encounters, wrestles, and struggles with doubt can be an unwieldy, scary mess. But, it is also a beautiful mess.

Stories and narratives of popular Christian culture reassure audiences that the certainty of their belief is correct. But perhaps believers would be better served by engaging narratives, like these examples from comic books, that acknowledge and address the doubts of the faithful. Perhaps then, they might just be better equipped to cope with the inevitable disruptions of their own faith whenever and however they should occur. For, as Greg Boyd says in his aptly titled book Benefit of the Doubt, It’s not a faith centered on right beliefs and pious language. And it’s certainly not a faith that focuses on feeling secure and worthwhile by convincing ourselves that we’re right. It’s rather a faith grounded in authenticity that is therefore unwilling to sweep questions, doubts, and complaints under a pious rug to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance. It’s a faith that is not afraid of going to the mat with God.17

1Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (New York: Howard Books, 2012), 156.
2Will Eisner, The Contract with God Trilogy, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 25.
3Eisner, xvi.
4Gregory A. Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), kindle location 1762.
5John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2006), kindle location 5073.
6Craig Thompson, Blankets (Marietta, GA, Top Shelf Productions, 2003), 137.
7Ibid., 548-550.
8Ibid., 526.
9Sharon L. Baker, Executing God: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About Salvation and the Cross (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 1.
10Thompson, 532-533.
11Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human, To Doubt, Divine (New York: Howard Books, 2011), kindle location 2424.
12Sean Gordon Murphy, Punk Rock Jesus #2 (DC Comics, October, 2012), 6.
13Baker, 4.
14Murphy, Punk Rock Jesus #2, 8.
15Murphy, Punk Rock Jesus #5 (DC Comics, January, 2013), 18.
16Ibid., 25.
17Boyd, kindle location 1383.

No comments:

Post a Comment