Sensuous Curmudgeon, a fun anti-Creationism site, had an article I saw today about Chick Tracts. I wanted to talk about them today and why I think they’re important to a discussion of Christianity, and also why I think they sell well enough to keep a toxic Christian in chiropractic visits.
Apparently the dude who makes Chick Tracts, Jack Chick, is like 90 years old and not doing too well; he goes to a chiropractor (I guess prayer doesn’t work that well?) and complains about how sore he is all the time (I guess he wasn’t that well-designed after all?). I feel the same way hearing about his age and complaints that someone would feel upon realizing that children born around 9/11 are now in middle school or that Prince’s song “1999” could have been legally buying its own liquor for many years now or that baby girls named after Ariel from The Little Mermaid are now having their own daughters and probably naming them Anna or Elsa. I’ve gotten another sudden reminder that the years progress, life goes on, and it hits me in the face sometimes when it happens. I’m not sure I’m ready for a world that doesn’t have Jack Chick in it anymore.
I ran into his tracts many years ago, when they were a lot more popular than they are now. It’s weird to run into Christians who’ve never seen them, let’s just put it that way, because evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of a certain age are well-familiar with these little bitty comic books. They shared quite a few features besides their size with Tijuana Bibles, which are small-sized, cheaply-made pornographic comic books popular during the 1930s and 1940s. The link’s not totally worksafe, but if you can visit there safely then feel free to peruse them and you’ll quickly notice some similarities in the lurid illustrations, skimpy storylines, and bizarre instances of racism and sexism. Jack Chick’s age puts him firmly in the age group to have tangled with these little books, and I can’t wait for some serious scholar to put the work into establishing his tracts as the spiritual successors of Tijuana Bibles.
Jack Chick’s theology tends toward the overly-simplistic literalist/inerrant bullshit and Satanic Panic we see so often out of older fundies: Young Earth Creationism, dinosaurs and humans living together, a real Great Flood, and threats of chaos and mayhem if people don’t buy into all of it just like he does. There’s not a conspiracy theory too wild for him–he’s way into super-secret Catholic clubs too. He’s really big on threats of Hell and clearly doesn’t quite believe anything he says about his god’s love. And he is really really really into the idea of demons and Satanists. Like, to a really disturbing degree. They’re behind pretty much all the terrible things in the world as far as he’s concerned: science, roleplaying games, Catholicism, Islam, Wicca, rock music, multiculturalism, and women’s rights. People can’t do a damned thing by themselves without a demon over their shoulders leering at them and pushing them around.
Reading his tracts is like stepping into a Bizarro universe populated with angels and devils. These little books are where he lets himself freely roam a world that looks exactly like what fundagelical Christianity says it should look like–a world where prayers work, where witchcraft is real, and where non-believers get their just punishment and believers get their just reward. Minor details like humanity and compassion take a back seat to making sure you believe the right things and say the right words. Atheists are always portrayed as horrible, awful people. Gay men are the very worst caricatures imaginable–barely-human pedophiles and rapists who are almost as obsessed with sex as Jack Chick himself is. Catholics are all absolutely evil and possibly murderers to boot. Rock stars are all possessed by demons. Puppy-kicking bad guys guffaw at others’ misfortunes with a hearty “HAW! HAW! HAW!” Higher education is simply not to be trusted at all. Serious business meetings take place between robed, hooded evildoers about how to get one person’s soul into Hell–a lurid, obscene place of fire and torture and pain and unending death.
Jack Chick totally takes for granted that every party line his brand of Christianity teaches is absolutely and literally true to the nth degree, and in his work he can punish every single person who refuses to buy into his vision–and his god, by wild coincidence, absolutely agrees with and endorses every single one of his ideas.
Every single booklet, after spending time condemning everybody under the sun who isn’t just like Jack Chick, ends with a hokey “sinner’s prayer” admonishing the reader to say the magic spell to escape an eternity of punitive torture. It definitely always feels out of place after reading the comic that had preceded it. It’s like a late-night infomercial–painting a horrifying picture to create an imaginary need, then offering a super-simple solution to fulfill that need and set the reader’s mind at ease again. It’s all simple pandering and fearmongering, nothing more, but it probably works sometimes.
The comic books he put out in the late 80s-ish were more of the same–regular-sized full-color affairs with heroic men running around fixing problems and saving souls, or shocking exposés of the TRUTH behind the Roman Catholic Church–and they also ended with the same magic incantation and exhortation. I once attended a party ten years ago where a guest had brought over a number of these comic books, and reading them was like revisiting my late teen years. (It would have shocked me to know, when I was Christian, that evil non-Christian parties might involve people laying stomach-down on a floor and reading kitschy comic books together with microbrews in hand.) Alas, they weren’t nearly as interesting as I’d thought they were at the time, being rather simplistic and gullible and pushing sketchy and dodgy theology onto uninformed minds. It was a little weird to imagine someone thinking their storylines were plausible representations of reality. Batman at least was fiction and it knew it was. Whoever made these, I sensed, thought he was telling the straight-up truth.
Reading these comics as a Christian, however, came at a cost. I’m still a bit embarrassed that I parroted something in them to an atheist who took my word for it in college (the same guy who’d been so shocked at “the Blind Men and the Elephant” apologetics trick I used to rationalize away the Resurrection myth’s contradictions, for longtime readers) and he went and repeated it on a college radio show he did. The information was technically correct, but only very barely so; I don’t even remember exactly what it was, something about Nazis and the Catholic Church, but it had an impact on me that he’d repeated it because by that time I’d already accidentally learned that the information I’d blithely passed on to him wasn’t quite correct. I didn’t even know he’d said it, much less that he even did a radio show, till the college newspaper reprinted some stuff about the episode and that was part of the recap.
Now I had a big problem because honesty is and was very important to me. Even though it’d been done innocently, I’d said something to someone that wasn’t quite true and he’d believed me because he knew I was honest. I didn’t know what to do. That moment was a real turning point for me.
I don’t remember what I did in response. I’d like to think I fessed up, but in reality I probably just avoided the whole thing and resolved to be much more careful in the future. Though nothing came of what he said on his show or what was printed in the college newspaper and neither of us got flack for it, his radio show is what made me realize I had to quit taking Christian claims on blind faith and had to stop repeating stories I hadn’t personally verified. And yes, I did learn at that point that not everything Christians repeated was objectively true and that we had, as a group, a bit of a problem with repeating stuff we hadn’t verified as objectively true. So I guess I have Jack Chick and his comics to thank for planting one of the seeds that grew into my deconversion.
It’s no coincidence that Biff, my preacher ex-husband, credits one of these tracts, Someone Loves Me, with helping to convert him to Christianity. He ran across that tract in (IIRC) a bathroom at college and kept it for many years, counting it as one of his prized trinkets. I personally found it awful even as a Christian–heartless and foul, and running counter to Jack Chick’s own stated theology–and I’m not the only one who still does find its ideas offensive and repulsive. The story is about a very abused little boy who dies of cold, internal injuries, and starvation in a box. Because a Christian witnesses to him in the nick of time and makes him aware that Jesus loves him, an angel carries his spirit to heaven after his death. It’s an absolutely awful message, an absolutely awful theology, and an absolutely awful story, but it’s quite emotionally combative and devastating if you’re not skilled in critical thinking and not used to defending yourself against religious abuse and blatant predation and manipulation.
Despite their many shortcomings, these little booklets were still ubiquitous back in those days. There was a time when it didn’t seem like I could go into a public bathroom or visit a bookstore or library without finding one of them tucked away somewhere discreet. For a while they were also popular with shitlord Christians as giveaways on Halloween instead of candy and as tips at restaurants instead of money, though to his credit Biff didn’t do those last two things. Instead he loved leaving them around for others to find–he bought as many of them as he could afford to use them as evangelism tools. Despite their ever-present nature, though, I didn’t often run into anybody who’d converted as a result of reading one of these tracts–or any tract for that matter. I think Biff was the only one. The scattershot nature of this sort of evangelism, the hateful doctrines preached in these tracts, and their utter lack of personal connection all but guaranteed that only the least capable or most vulnerable minds would fall for these tracts’ blandishments. I’ll let you guess which of those Biff was.* But they did preach well to the choir.
One reason I’m bringing all of this up now is to say that I’m just in shock that Jack Chick is still alive. It’s like hearing that a veteran of the Civil War is still alive. He belongs to a much earlier time, a much wilder and woolier era when Christian bigots could say the stuff he says and more or less get away with it uncontested. The dissenters against what he was doing were almost all secular people, and they tended to focus on particular tracts rather than what he was doing as a whole. Dark Dungeons, one of his most (in)famous tracts, got a lot of negative attention from gamers especially. It is called on TVTropes an Accidental Aesop because it teaches a lesson Mr. Chick likely didn’t intend to teach–namely that getting into roleplaying games would teach people real witchcraft, which on the face of it sounds pretty cool but which is obviously untrue. Dark Dungeons has been snarked and parodied all over the place–here’s an MST3K treatment of it that makes me laugh every time I read it, and other tracts have been adapted into a Call of Cthulhu mythos as well, telling readers to say a magic incantation so that the Old Ones will devour them first (sparing them the madness to follow), and another lost to the mists of my hard-drive crash making Mr. Chick’s favorite apologetics mistake, Pascal’s Wager, around Greek paganism–sending Christians to Hades for not believing in Zeus. It’s really heady stuff, and it’s just a shame that Mr. Chick diligently attacks sites that put up or create such terrific and devastating parodies of his work.
The second reason I bring it up today is because Sensuous Curmudgeon makes a very damned fine point and one that hadn’t ever occurred to me before: for some reason, hardcore fundagelicals don’t tend to talk about Jack Chick. I think he embarrasses them like he did me after that radio-show kerfluffle. I think his rabidly anti-gay, anti-science, anti-sex, anti-women, anti-everything-but-the-party-line ideas deeply embarrass most Christians in the same way that the Westboro nutbars embarrass most Christians. There’ll be a few equally nutty Christians who respond to and admire this stuff, but the vast majority don’t agree with him and only tolerate him because technically–but only barely so–he’s on the same team they are. I don’t think, as SC does, that they avoid discussing him because he’s competition, but rather because they’re not sure what to do with him as a bedmate.
Therein lies the problem.
It shouldn’t be falling to non-Christians to debunk and expose Jack Chick’s mistakes. Christians shouldn’t be quietly tolerating someone as obviously wrong and nasty as Jack Chick is and letting him just say this stuff without challenging him on every single point. The fact that someone like him can be out there polluting the waters of Christianity with his blather without a hint or a whisper of dissent from his tribe speaks volumes to me. I do not suggest he be stifled. Oh no. If he can find a soapbox to preach from, then let him preach! We need to hear what he says in his out-loud voice. We need him talking, because that is how we identify people like him. It’s a lot harder to identify hypocrites and awful people when they mutter among each other. Instead I suggest he be challenged and disagreed with, loudly and fervently and often, because he and Christians like him are doing incredible amounts of damage to Christianity and making it that much harder to achieve peace between Christians and the increasing numbers of non-Christians.
I think Christians are very frightened of speaking out against people like Jack Chick–or Mark Driscoll–or any of the other awful Christians out there–because of a culture of silence that’s grown up around the religion in general and in evangelicalism especially. They recognize that sometimes such people convert non-Christians and they don’t want to risk impeding those conversions. I’d ask in turn what kind of Christian results from these people’s efforts. I know what kind of Christian Biff was–and he was exactly the sort of Christian that Jack Chick would consider perfect and ideal: hateful, bigoted, sexist, racist, violent, controlling, paternalistic, science-denying, and dishonest. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the stated reason Biff gave me for his own lucrative habit of lying-for-Jesus was to convert people, and he got downright angry with me for threatening to expose his lies, telling me I’d be stepping in the way of people’s conversions. I’d be impeding the Kingdom and muzzling the oxen, he said, if I spoke up. Did I just want people to go to Hell or something? And I see Christians silence each other constantly when someone dares to speak out against a Christian behaving badly. The tribe jumps on that poor brave little soul with both feet! About the worst thing one Christian can call another at this point isn’t “hateful.” It’s “divisive.” The word is used to shut people up, and it works marvelously.
That culture of silence is a big part of why people get alienated from religion, and for good reason. Honesty is not valued and neither is truth, in a culture of silence. Winning at all costs is what matters. Dominance is what matters. A Christian whose tactics appear to be successfully converting people (even if they really aren’t–appearance matters quite a bit as well) is more or less immune to criticism from the tribe no matter how dishonest, shady, underhanded, and cruel those tactics are.
And that’s why Jack Chick still makes money selling his tracts.
In the end, I guess when I run into a Christian who loves Chick Tracts un-ironically and thinks they’re wonderful, that tells me all I need to know about what kind of person I’m talking to. The opinion comes along with a whole series of nested beliefs, all of which are going to be repugnant to me and make for a dishonest and unkind person to be around.
We’re going to talk a little more next time about one of the abusive proselytization tactics Jack Chick displays in the blog post SC discusses, and I certainly hope to see you there.