Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What Makes a Comic Book "Christian"?
(or any other thing for that matter)

Note: This is massively long, but worth the time, I hope.

This is reposted from a discussion on my Christian Comic Arts Society page.

The original post by me...
I'm curious because I've had this discussion with pastors and youth pastors starting from way back years ago when I worked as a music buyer in a Christian bookstore. Of course, back then the discussion was about Christian music. What made it Christian?

The distributor?
The words?
The attitude of the artist's heart and his or her faith?
Was DC Talk Christian and Bruce Cockburn not?

Now I ask the same thing of Christian comics. What makes them Christian?

Is it that they're advertised and marketed as such?
Is it that they're published by Christian publishers?
Is it that they're blatantly evangelistic?
Or can mainstream comics written by Christians like Chuck Dixon and Roland Mann be included?
It is the attitude of the writer and/or artist's heart and faith?

I figure that this group, if any, would be able to help hammer this out.

Personally, I'm a bit more liberal in my definition. (I must be to write for the Gene Simmons line at IDW, right, and particularly to write a book called Gene Simmons Dominatrix, or to be hard at work on so many horror-tinged books at the moment.)

But I feel that almost any story, no matter the language or content (to a large degree) can be a story of redemption. Taking my cues from the Bible, it seems that almost no subject is taboo, from revenge, bloody wars, genocide, sex, incest, you name it. It's all in there, and I'm hoping that gives us earthly creators a grace-filled free reign to tackle almost any subject redemptively. I guess that's my definition at the heart. If it's a genuine redemptive story, it can be called a Christian one, because that's what Christ came to do, redeem.

The response by Greg...
The definition is difficult because we have hard bought freedom from the Son of Man.

As man we naturally drift towards definite rules, for what reason I don't know. It is has virtually destroyed every aspect of beauty on this planet, we have to tame EVERYTHING. What is right and what is wrong is important but we waste so much time on absolute right and absolute wrong that we rarely reflect God's model of righteousness: what He does is what is right.

It is frustrating because we want it to be spelled out for us. However, it like the freedom He bought us assures nothing because for every problem there is a different solution.

In 1 Corinthians Paul basically explains further that for some men eating meat sacrificed to idols was sinful (because those men believed a spiritual connection to exist between the meat and the idols) but to others (who just liked meat and truly believed in one God, it wasn't).

There is only one rule that is implied and often missed by most believers: it is sinful to encourage sinfulness in other men, even indirectly.

I.e. if my father is an alcoholic, I'm not ordering a drink in front of him. Regardless of my religious freedom to do so.

So to answer your question: nothing is "Christian" except believers, and anything we create is "but rags compared to the glory of the Lord."

There is only what is acceptable and unacceptable. If anything anyone does can (in an extreme and outright manner since we are so easily prone to sin) encourage sinfulness, such as nudity, I really don't think it is defensible as "acceptable" material.

Violence is defensibly acceptable because the Lord acted violently in appropriate times, we have to follow His example.

I really think it is a tool of the enemy to engage man in creating non-existant boundries that can really hinder his ability to follow the Lord.

If your in to Metal and love the Lord, this dynamic is ALL ToO PRESENT.

The response by Robert...
This is a great topic to discuss. I'm definitely more conservative than what a lot of other artists think about this issue. The following is an essay I wrote last year on this very issue.

Christian Comics and the Proclamation of the Gospel
By Robert Flores

“But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” —1 Thessalonians 2:4

As I look around the Christian pop-culture scene, I am concerned that Jesus has been taking a back seat to much of what we call Christian pop-culture, particularly Christian comics and Christian music. I look at the Christian music industry as a forerunner to Christian comics (something I am very much a part of and of which is very dear to my heart) and I see the places where I don’t want Christian comics to turn. This essay is concerned primarily with how Christian comics can be more effective in changing people’s lives for Christ. I will be discussing the erroneous position that Christian comics without Jesus are just as effective as Christian comics WITH Jesus in them. I will be using some references to Christian music and novels and I will be emphasizing the gospel of Christ. I will be touching on the definition of a Christian comic and the call that God has placed on each of our lives, as artists. I’m writing this essay for the purpose of advocating a straightforward approach to making Christian comics, by putting Christ at the center of all we create. So, now that you know where I am headed, let’s begin.

Many Christian artists, both musicians and visual artists, promote the idea that to win the world over for Christ, one must produce a piece of artwork that waters down the fact that it has anything to do at all about Jesus Christ. Terms like “symbolism” and “allegory” and “metaphor” are thrown around a lot to give validity to this idea. These types of stories are used to force-feed an audience something that is not the gospel. Why would any Christian artist or writer create a story with the intention of watering down the gospel? In hopes of changing people’s hearts for Christ? The gospel of Christ is the only thing that will change people’s hearts towards Him! Any Christian artist, who thinks in terms of equating the gospel with symbolic stories of Christ, is setting himself up for defeat if he thinks that it can change a single person’s life for eternity. It is ONLY the gospel of Christ that can regenerate a heart.

I want to try to define some terms before we get too deep into this essay. For a comic to be truly “Christian” it must emphasize and glorify Christ. I am not talking about stories with solely evangelistic bents to them, but stories in which Christ is at the very center of. Christian comics make no pretense that their stories are anything other than being about Jesus of Nazareth. Christian comics, like true Christian music, do not try to hide Jesus behind subtleties and metaphors and symbolism. They are overtly Christian. How this is accomplished is by preaching the gospel, which entails the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Christian comics hinges on the person of Christ and that gospel.

So, what kind of content makes a comic Christian? If you look up the word “Christian” in any standard Webster’s Dictionary, you will find these definitions: 1.) a person professing belief in Jesus as the Christ, or, in the religion based on the teachings of Jesus. noun. 1.) of Jesus Christ or his teachings. adjective. 2.) of or professing the religion based on these teachings. adjective. 3.) having the qualities demonstrated and taught by Jesus Christ, as love , kindness, humility, etc. adjective. So, to state the obvious, a “Christian” comic would exemplify any of those meanings. Notice that the definition doesn’t divorce Jesus’ teachings from Jesus Himself.

If one were to create a Buddhist comic, would its subject matter not contain either: a) Buddha himself or b) Buddha’s teachings? If the reader had difficulty in identifying either of those elements, could that comic truly be called a “Buddhist comic”? Likewise, you cannot take Jesus or His teachings out of the center of things and call it a Christian comic. Now, let me clarify what I am saying. When I advocate Christ at the center of stories, I do not mean JUST visual depictions of Him. What I am promoting are Christian protagonists that have Jesus at the very center of their lives. He is the source of their strength and their hope and their joy, no matter where a story takes them—kind of like our own Christian lives.

I am interested in promoting Christian comics that will make a genuine difference in people’s spiritual lives. Incidentally, those are the only kind of Christian comics that exist, based on the definition of “Christian comics”. If a Christian comic is not making a difference in people’s lives, then it is not Christian. If it IS making a difference in people’s lives then it is Christian. If you, as a Christian artist, want to be effective, then the gospel of Christ HAS to be apparent in your work. Remember that equation in school? If A=B and B=C, then A=C? Here’s the Christian comics equivalent: To be Christian is to be effective (A=B). To be effective is to preach the gospel (B=C). Therefore, to be Christian is to preach the gospel (A=C). That goes for our Christian lives as well as for our Christian comics.

As one can probably tell, I am an artist that advocates pure, overt Christian art, specifically with an emphasis on Christ and His gospel. I spent much of my life apart from Christ and I cannot waste any more time emphasizing anything other than Him in my art. Art, for me, is an act of worship, no different than if I were singing praises to Him in church. My singing praises to God in church isn’t done with subtleties. So, my question is, why should my art be?

At this point, it would be well to note a small, but important difference: There are comics that are done by Christians and there are comics that have Christian content. People think that “comics with Christian content” and “comics done by Christians” are the same thing. They are not. A comic done by a Christian is not necessarily Christian in content. But a comic with Christian content done by an atheist, could be called a legitimate Christian comic. The Lord of the Rings would be considered a “story done by a Christian”, not a “Christian story.” It is an important distinction, for if a Christian artist is downplaying Christ in a comic, it can no longer be called “Christian” in content, but is simply a “comic done by a Christian”. If a Christian artist wants to emphasize Christ in a comic it is a true Christian comic, or, a “comic with Christian content”. The same could be said about Christian music: there is music done by Christians (which is the bulk of so-called “Christian music”) and there is music with Christian content (which will affect people’s lives). For it is only in Christian content, which emphasizes the gospel of Christ, that lives can be changed. Any content that is NOT the gospel of Christ would be impotent to do so.

Someone may say, “Well Christian comics don’t have to have “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” on every page!” Of course a Christian comic doesn’t have to have “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” on every page! But, at the same time, if I have to search long and hard to find a single reference to Jesus in a 32-page comic, there is something wrong. It’s bad enough that I have to wade through 4 or 5 “Christian” songs on the radio to hear the word “God” or “Jesus” or “Savior”. If I, as a Christian reader, am having difficulty finding references to Jesus in a Christian comic, then doesn’t that presume that the rest of the world would have that same difficulty, if not more? How can it change someone’s life for eternity when they can’t even see the God-part in it?

Now, I know that there are people that can find Christian meanings in pretty much ANY story, ANY song, ANY piece of art. Am I saying that those personal meanings are invalid? Of course not. If that art benefits you in your Christian life, that’s great. My objection to this position, though, is that if one starts looking for Christian meanings in EVERY book and EVERY song and EVERY movie, where will one draw the line? Could one find Christian meanings in Marilyn Manson or Eminem or Black Sabbath? Do you see what a ridiculous position this is, if it is taken to the extreme? You either have to let it all in or draw the line somewhere. And, if you are drawing the line somewhere, where is that line?

There are, however, a lot of stories that have themes of redemption and self-sacrifice and love, that do not take a lot of stretching to see Christian meanings in them. What about those stories? Are they worthless? Any story could be good and still be void of Christ. Themes of victory and self-sacrifice are great, but, when divorced from Christ, are quite helpless to change someone’s life. Is the world really connecting these good themes of redemption and self-sacrifice with Jesus? We Christians shouldn’t be relying on these types of stories for evangelism and we shouldn’t be promoting these stories as substitutes for the gospel and we shouldn’t be thinking that these stories have a 100% chance of changing a person’s life towards God, because they don’t. As talented as J.R.R. Tolkien was, how many people have actually come to know Christ as Savior because of The Lord of the Rings? The subtle-Christian art enthusiasts would say “multitudes”, but the truth is is that no one really knows. It is, in fact, a THEORY that subtle-Christian works of art, like The Lord of the Rings, can reach someone for Christ. “There is no other name under heaven by which men are saved”. If the audience cannot even identify that one Name, then there is no hope. Christ HAS to be preached openly if a Christian comic is to effect change and produce fruit.

I am not saying that gospel-less stories are worthless or that good stories are powerless, but that those stories are worthless or powerless in actually making a person born-again. Works like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are not worthless as works of art, but how effective those stories really are is a question only God can answer. God never commissioned us to preach subtleties to the world. He told us to preach the gospel. Many Christian artists have lost sight of that fact, and then they get disappointed when God doesn’t use their stories to lead someone to Christ.

So, are “stories done by Christians” without any merit? Nothing is without no merit, but only God knows how He is working in people’s lives. God can work through anything, but He most certainly work through what He has commissioned us to do: preach the gospel. I wouldn’t even be devoting a lot of time to this subject of “stories done by Christians are just as valid as Christian stories”, if I didn’t see so many Christian artists running after this erroneous thinking. That is the problem. Overt Christian art, with the gospel as its center, has been supplanted by subtle “stories done by Christians”.

Call me naïve, but I do think that overt Christian comics can have a huge impact on the world, not because it is such a great medium or that it has cool art, but because it can preach the Truth of Christ, which, in turn, will change the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we Christians have that Truth! Should we be putting that Truth under a bushel? Christian comics are comics that glorify Christ overtly. Non-Christian comics are comics that do not glorify Christ, or, are comics that glorify Him covertly, inadvertently or by accident. Do you see that there is almost no difference between subtle Christian comics and non-Christian comics?

And still, people will find no fault with subtle Christian comics. They often will equate “subtle Christian comics” with “planting seeds”. I’m certainly not against planting seeds. I’m against the kind of seed being planted. So, what is the seed that we are to be planting? It’s the Word (Matthew 13:23). The engrafted Word can save people’s souls (James 1:21). The Word is the incorruptible seed (1 Peter 1:23). There are no other seeds capable of that. People tend to think that the seed represents any truth (i.e. subtle Christian themes), and that those truths are saving truths. That is not the case. There are many truths, but only one saving Truth: the gospel of Christ. For example, anyone can believe that 2+2=4 (a truth statement), but that truth won’t make him born-again! Likewise, the seeds that should be planted should only be that one saving Truth. A good seed always leads to good fruit. If subtle Christian comics are not producing fruit (i.e. making people born-again, increasing God’s Kingdom, etc.), then people need to stop planting that seed and start planting “the Word” which brings forth fruit a hundredfold.

I want to talk a little about secular and Christian work. I work in a secular workplace as a graphic designer. I don’t design “Christian” catalogs, I design secular catalogs that are designed to sell products. But when I get home at night, I put on my other hat of Christian artist (the thing I was born to be) and I produce art for the God of the universe. There is nothing wrong with using one’s talents in the world, but if ALL an artist does is “art done by a Christian”, I think there is a problem. Everything we do in life cannot be Christian in content. I don’t have a lot of control of making everything I do overtly Christian, but the one part that I do have control over—my art—why wouldn’t I want people to see Christ in it?

There are also some Christian artists who just want to do good wholesome comics and that’s fine. But there is a colossal difference between a good, wholesome comic and a Christian comic. A good, wholesome comic doesn’t have to get around to talking about Jesus and a Christian comic does. Wholesome comics are not Christian comics! That’s like calling “Americans” “Christians” or “Intelligent Design” believers “Christians”. Some may be, but they are not interchangeable terms!

Briefly, I want to touch on forcing a story to be Christian. Should Jesus ever be “forced” into a story to make it “Christian”? No. Jesus should never be forced into a story. Jesus and His gospel should be the VERY FOUNDATION of your Christian stories. He should be there at the very beginning of a story and then should be built up from there. “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

Subtle Christian art just doesn’t seem to be producing fruit, whether it is comics or music. It is a well-known fact that most Christian bands get their start in churches, and, right away, run to the secular market in hopes of bringing people to the Lord. They have the misplaced hope that if they remove from their songs the words “Jesus” or “God” or “Lord” and replace them with pronouns like “He”, “You” or “Him” that the world will be saved. How erroneous! Out of all the thousands of songs on the radio, how is a listener to know the difference between a “You” referring to Jesus and a “you” referring to someone’s girlfriend? Normally “Context” would be the answer to this question, but, unfortunately, the content of the context of most Christian songs are so subtle that that really doesn’t help either.

Are Christians really deceived into this type of thinking that their justification of not saying “Jesus” is to win people to Him? Or, are today’s Christian artists really and honestly afraid of offending people away from Jesus? James 4:4 says “ . . .know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” If you, as a Christian artist, are determined to win people to Christ, while not offending them, I have news for you: you are chasing after the wind. YOU CANNOT WIN PEOPLE TO CHRIST WITHOUT OFFENDING THEM! The whole point of the gospel was to show people that they are sinners in need of a Savior, and, in fact, that they have a Savior in Jesus. Take the gospel out of Christian comics, music or art, and I assure you that no lives will be touched for Christ.

As I witness today’s Christian pop-culture, artists have taken just the good things of what they wanted from Jesus—His sacrifice, His love, His teachings and have left Jesus completely out of it; and preachers behind the pulpit have done no differently. Is it any wonder why there is no revival going on America today? Is it any wonder why people are confused as to what the gospel is or what they are even to be preaching to the world? Is it any wonder why “Christian” comics are not as effective as they should be? Jesus is the fullest and most perfect expression of those themes of “sacrifice” and “honor” and “redemption”. Can an artist really blame an audience for “not getting it” when Jesus is hidden under so much symbolic baggage?

I get the feeling that many Christian artists out there (perhaps some who are even reading this essay) ALREADY know that they should be placing the gospel at the center of their stories. They have no more need to be convinced of that fact; they realize that. But, they are concerned that the gospel, perhaps, will shortchange their creativity. Or, perhaps, they think that the gospel isn’t as exciting or interesting as many other thousands of topics to make artwork about. I want to address this thinking by saying: look at the history of western art. How many times has Jesus been the theme of paintings and of sculptures and of poetry and of prose? And, yet, His gospel continues to inspire artists today, leading them to create artworks based on His life and teachings. Either artists are terribly unoriginal, or, the gospel is something that cannot be contained. The gospel is indeed, a fountain of ideas and creativity. It doesn’t stifle creativity—it enhances it. It doesn’t short-change artists on ideas—it gives them MORE ideas to work with. The gospel is an eternal source of inspiration, because the gospel itself is eternal. Written by the hand of God, before the foundation of the world, and made real by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ gospel is THE source for creativity. The gospel didn’t shortchange my life and it hasn’t shortchanged any other Christian’s life in history—it gave life more abundantly. What subject matter could be more exciting or potent than that?

The older I get, the more I realize that I have very little time to tell people about Christ and the more I do art I realize that I have very little faith in the audience to “connect the dots”. In today’s fast-paced society, does any reader really care about studying symbols and searching out the meanings of such things? I cannot keep hoping that the audience will. I can’t beat around the bush anymore. I have to cut to the chase: “JESUS IS LORD”. I can’t rely on symbolism or metaphor to get that message through to the audience any faster. And, when you think about it, is that “in-your-face” method any different than how Paul preached? Until I see multitudes of people turning to Christ, due to the subtle-Christian art being produced today, I’d rather follow Paul’s example of preaching the gospel.

In closing, I want to mention that the hope that I have in the gospel changing people’s lives outweighs all my other hopes. When this supernatural, eternal, transcendent gospel is preached, in any medium, an artist is dealing with something that works 100% of the time. It is a sword and it is guaranteed to pierce someone’s life. It will either draw them closer TO God or push them further away FROM God. When preaching with “stories done by Christians”, an artist is just dealing with theory—an unproven theory. I don’t know about you, Christian artist, but I would rather increase my odds of changing someone’s life with what I KNOW works—the gospel of Christ.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” —Romans 1:16

The response by Greg...
I found this very interesting but I'd like to point out a few things you should really consider.

1. You call for a direct approach because that is the only effective method. This does two things. First it ignores that much of Christ's teaching was parable. It implies that there is one method all the time. You cite Paul as that example. But Paul wasn't "always in your face." Paul spoke in a highly contextual manner although it was always truth he preached.

2. You say here that "you can not win people to the Lord without offending them." I'm sorry, but you can't win people to the Lord - period.

No Christian can bring someone else to the Lord. Our mission has less to do with accomplishing salvation because we have no power to save. Our mission has more to do with faithful obedience to God and love for man that leads to the constant expression of the Gospel in our lives and from our mouths. We preach because we are told to but it is only to His glory that anyone is saved. None has any part in salvation than the author of our faith.

3. Your "hat" should ALWAYS be on. We can live a life that is always Christian in content. Because anything we do we can do the glory of the Lord. That isn't always preaching or putting Christ's face on a product. Consider Bach:

He composed music that is practically unsurmountable. Every sonata and fugue is of the utmost quality. Keep in mind that his 9-5 was writing cantata's for church every Sunday. Probably also one of the most prolific composers in history. But his music had something different. Even the calligraphy was painstakingly drawn. But what made him different than his contemporaries was that instead of the name of the church written at the bottom of each tabulature, these words were written: For the Glory of God.

Every piece. It was never for his glory, and during his time, he had none. It was for the Glory of God. He gave his best to the Lord and those words are common on the tongues of historians who discuss his work. Everyone knows what he stood for.

That is what the Lord wants from your work, regardless of what it is. Your best for His glory.

But let me say this about your essay. I love your willingness to portray the message. The Lord is proud of men like you.

My response to all of that...
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I tend to take the side that Christian is a noun, not an adjective. As such there is no Christian music (I like to call it "so-called Christian music"), only music. No Christian comics, only comics. No Christian books, only books.

I like the point about our work being for the glory of God, as Bach demonstrated. I firmly believe that's our line in the sand, not whether or not our work is evangelistic in tone. If it is created to bring glory to God, then while people disagree with our content or our willingness to take risks in storytelling, they can't argue with our intent to glorify God.

To me this is what makes so much "so-called Christian art" distinctly NON-Christian from the get go. How much of it is created for marketing rather than to glorify God? To meet a market niche rather than creation as an act of worship?

We've turned "Christian" (as an adjective, bleh!) into a marketing word because we've created a subculture within Christendom to sell stuff to.

As for storytelling, Christ was liberal with his stories. They rarely featured religious protagonists, and when they did, rarely in a good light. I'd say never, but I know there are probably a few parables I can't remember at the moment. They simply were the stories of average people. Farmers, vineyard owners, servants, etc.

That's why I love the writing of Flannery O'Connor so much. She told stories about the salt of the earth people being themselves and let the reader glean any religious subtext for themselves. She didn't spell things out. "For him who has ears to hear."

Sadly, I think the need to spell out analogies, stories, songs, and dumb them down to the lowest common denominator among the churched (mind you, I didn't say Christians per se), is killing the freedom for Christians who are artists to create.

Apparently there are fewer with "ears to hear" than we think because nothing can be picked up by a Christian (as a marketing term again) publisher unless it is explained to death so as to kill the artfulness of it or fits some sort of religious stereotype.

I've spoken to many writers and artists who live in fear that if they include something "offensive" or honestly questioning or doubting or revengeful or heartbroken rather than showing how following Christ solves all our problems and makes us shiny happy people, or creates something specifically for the purpose of (typically boomer-focused) logical progression evangelism, then they are basically disowned by their church family as worst, or treated as some sort of back-sliding heathen at best for their willingness to let their art show the truth. I think any quick read through the Psalms will find more than enough revenge songs, doubting songs, angry songs, hurting songs, songs with no easy answers, songs that would honestly cause someone to question faith more than seek it. And if that was acceptable for the Bible, why is it not acceptable for the church? I mean, honestly, the Bible is my guideline for storytelling, and if God saw fit to include it in Scripture, then it must be okay for Christians to write about it too. That includes: violence, human sacrifice, sexual love, nudity, incest, revenge, betrayal, self sacrifice, redemption, etc. The list goes one. (I've long held that to do a fair movie version of the Bible AS WRITTEN, if would have to be NC-17 at best.) Now, if the reason is just to see how far we can go, what we can get away with, we're already wrong before we begin. But if the reason is to glorify God, then those are all fair game. The point is the motive, not the content, regardless of how much it might upset your grandma or your pastor or your buddy from church. (Unless you're specifically looking to write for the Christian market, then you must cowtow to the market rules.)

And on that note, I read a book by Mike Yaconelli (sp?) in which he addressed the idea of offending others. He said that his language, smoking or drinking was only offensive to the church, not the world, and that it never caused anyone outside the church to question following Christ, or caused anyone inside the church to question their salvation, only his.

I think he captures the heart of that argument that is thrown up about content quite well. If we become stumbling blocks to people's faith, then we should watch out. But if we only cause them to question ours, as long as our hope is in Christ and not the religious status quo, then we're still truckin' along on solid ground.

Granted, this is just my understanding from seeking God's truth through Scripture on this matter, and as a fallen creature redeemed by grace, I reserve the right to be wrong, but still wrapped in grace.

Greg's response...

Good stuff. But really --Christian is a verb: those who FOLLOW Christ Jesus.

I have to say, God has made you with passion towards its subject.

Your argument about nc-17 made me think about God's sanctioned genocide (city-cide) of Jericho and Sodom and Gomorrah.

We forget, most pastor's skip over it, that the Lord demanded the Jews to annihilate a whole city. Women and children included.

Gives me chills.

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