Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
When I was in seventh grade, study hall period before lunch offered me three choices: do homework, pass notes, or read Chick tracts. I attended a Christian school and my study hall teacher was committed to ensuring her students’ salvation. She understood that the young people of the day were weary of the “Romans Road” approach. Instead, she cleverly planted Jack Chick’s infamous evangelistic comics at the front of the room and invited us to take a gander at them if we felt like it—no pressure. She was at least 65 years old, but she took great care to show that she was In Touch With the Youths.
By junior high, my faith was a distinctive element of my identity. I accepted Christ at an early age and was actively involved in discipleship. So during study hall, sometimes I chose homework. Sometimes I chose passing notes. But Chick tracts were the real temptation. I was fairly sheltered from the outside world, and I, like Eve, desired the knowledge of good and evil. I found my opportunity in those rectangular booklets—black, white, and bright.
It was a strange education, one I probably would’ve rejected if I’d had other means to acquire such knowledge. But I was steeped in the evangelical subculture and suspicious of any kind of understanding that wasn’t presented in an overtly Christian context. I was afraid, and Jack Chick’s tracts validated and magnified my fears.
Through them I absorbed absurdities about Islam, Catholicism, and Dungeons and Dragons. Chick tracts presented sordid details about homosexuality, venereal disease, and demons. I learned about witchcraft, astral projection, and that when you die, an angel projects your life on a giant screen just outside of heaven, after which a faceless God quotes Scripture to direct you to either heaven or hell. This particular discovery gave me new reason to restrict my behavior; not only did my sin displease God, but it would also embarrass me someday.Jack Chick’s tracts don’t challenge readers to love their neighbors, but instead, provide a refuge for those who want to bunker down in fear.
Each Chick tract follows the same basic pattern: a heinous form of evil is exposed as perilous, the protagonist either falls prey to this evil or narrowly escapes, and in the conclusion, the reader is directly addressed as the Gospel is presented. Most Chick tracts are specifically designed to reach a particular audience, and the range is wide. Muslims, Catholics, witches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Halloween enthusiasts, drug addicts, Communists, doctrinally conflicted believers, climate change activists—the list goes on and on. Each tract’s narrative is always melodramatic and accompanied by exaggerated drawings, and the whole business is a bit campy. Still, Chick’s website boasts that his tracts have been “equipping evangelism for over fifty years.”
An evangelist’s intended audience is always the non-Christian, and the goal is conversion to belief in Christ. Yet in my memory, it was I, a believer, who found the tracts most compelling. As I got older, I came to realize why: these comics were caricatures, both literally and figuratively, and most unbelievers would find them unrealistic. Chick’s villains were so exaggerated, they weren’t believable. Most truckers don’t believe that Jesus was a “sissy.” Homosexuality isn’t typically the result of abuse. And most notably, demons don’t “pack warehouses” with “low-grade condoms.” Chick’s representation of the world eventually ceased to be frightening to me, and instead became almost comical in its hysteria.
The gospel, which literally translates as “good news,” is the foundation of evangelism. But both committed and casual readers of Chick tracts might easily overlook the good news tucked into the back of the comics. They’d likely be distracted by pages and pages of reasons to panic—or, for more worldly readers, reasons to roll their eyes.
In Chick’s world, Satanic forces have a firm grip on the globe—they’re unlimited in their rule, exultant in their victorious attack on humanity. The only chance of rescue from this demonic tyranny is to escape from the world, first spiritually, then physically. There’s no hope of redeeming the Earth and no good found in the created universe. There’s also painfully little love for the sinner. There’s little patience, little kindness, and little rejoicing in the truth. The tracts don’t challenge readers to love their neighbors, but instead, provide a refuge for those who want to bunker down in fear.
Even the medium invites a kind of cowardice; purveyors of the tracts are able to assuage their consciences without actually engaging their targets. They perform due diligence in warning those headed for destruction without having to muster up the courage to face mockery, confusion, or worse yet, awkwardness.
Ironically, fear tends to build false confidence, tempting us to believe that courage means refusing criticism and abandoning accountability. In contrast, the call of Jesus is not one of abandoning our lives, but ourselves. We’re commanded to deny our own comforts, our own panic, our own suffering. We trust God is redeeming us right where we are, however frightening our surroundings may be. We believe the darkness will rise but that it will not overcome the light. We are to stand in the very midst of evil without dread or dismay. Our courage comes, not from the hope that God will rescue us out of the world, but from the reality that He is among us even now.
A few days ago, Jack Chick met the God he spent his whole life anxiously serving. I wonder if he was forced to stand just outside heaven and watch his life play out on the big screen. I wonder if he learned exactly where his tracts went, who picked them up, and what they learned.
Surely some of those readers laughed, amused by the fear-mongering illustrations and absurd caricatures. Others, I’m sure, were provoked to consider their own salvation and consider whether the gospel presented in the final pages was enough to save them from the horrors illuminated in the preceding pages. I wonder if Chick saw me as a child, my eyes wide open in the dark, desperately hoping the rattle outside my window was the wind and not a witch, simultaneously sure that the faceless God could rescue me and worried that He wouldn’t.
There’s a lot to fear and loathe in this world. The message of Jesus is that He has already faced the terrifying, the paralyzing, and the grotesque to save us. What’s horrifying in this world is only half of the story. We need not be grim, for there is much to hope for and much to praise.
When Jack Chick died, I hope he heard the roar of heaven swallowing up every fear. I hope he heard Christ’s victorious laughter. I hope he entered into the fullness of joy.
Image via Shane Schaetzel.
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