Jack Chick scared the Hell out of me. Or at least he tried to.
The California-born cartoonist died this week at the age of 92. Chick gained fame through the publication of Christian-themed cartoon tracts that were distributed throughout the 1970s and continue today.
As a youth I would find Chick tracts among the other literature on a table in our church vestibule. Seeking anything to distract me from the tedium of a church service, I gravitated to the tiny comic books. The stories inside were not tales of superheroes or comic animals, however.
Chick advocated a stern form of Protestant evangelicalism. He denounced evolution, rock music, and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as tools of the devil. He also was virulently anti-Catholic, anti-science, and apparently convinced that black-robed Satanists lurked around every corner.
Jack Chick’s most popular tract remains This Was Your Life, the tale of a man who dies and is subjected by his angelic escort to a movie screening of all his sins and misdeeds. After reliving his wicked life, he is cast into Hell by a vengeful God, who sits upon a throne like a faceless Zeus.
This Was Your Life tormented me for years. The fact that every secret evil would be revealed in Technicolor for all of Heaven to see terrified me. The God that Jack Chick showed to me – and all his readers – was the Angry God of Jonathan Edwards, poised to wreak justice and vengeance upon those who dared cross Him.
As an adult I still have an ironic fondness for Chick tracts. The artwork and tone-deaf mockery of pop culture have become amusing where they once were frightening. But his theology is rooted in a mistrust of all things not middle-class white America. There is no room for mercy in Chick’s version of Christianity. You are with him, or you are quite possibly a devil-worshipper.
There is also no room for intellectualism in the Gospel according to Chick. Many of his tracts mock “science” as a tool of the Devil to distract poor Christians from blindly following Chick’s conception of Jesus. His crusade for a King James English-only Bible is nothing short of ignorant:
There has to be one language for that Book, so you can cross-reference something in the New Testament to something in the Old. Otherwise, everybody would have to know Hebrew, and everybody would have to know Greek.
In one fell swoop, Chick condemns not only the 1600 years of Christianity that came before the King James Version, he condemns the very authors of the Gospels, who shamefully enough, apparently knew Greek.
To his credit, Jack Chick reached millions of people with his methods, using low art toward a higher purpose. But Chick’s version of nativist religion is a particularly American form of prideful ignorance that has left many Protestants confused and ill-informed.
Understanding Christianity – particularly that which the very first followers of Christ believed – means understanding history and cultural context. It also means following a God of mercy, not anger. To be sure, God’s mercy doesn’t demand a theology degree. But neither does it demand we close our minds to honest questions.
May God grant Jack Chick mercy, even if he saw little use for it.
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