This is a long post so here is the short version. It is my contention that Chick Tracts (for those familiar with them) are not actually evangelistic tracts. Rather they are fan service created for consumption of and support by their real target– Conservative Evangelical Christians.
One channel I like to watch on the Web is “Comic Tropes.” I used to collect comic books. Even though I stopped years ago, I have fond memories of my collecting and reading days, and film studios turning comic books into motion pictures has kept a lot of those fond memories current.
A Comic Tropes broadcast I recently watched was on “Chick Tracts.” For those who don’t know, Jack Chick (1924-2016) founded a tract publishing house that still produces mini black and white comic books as evangelistic tracts. The work is very revivalistic and fundamentalist in tone. I was raised in a church that would describe itself as Fundamentalist and Separatist. Chick Tracts were not used in that church, however. But when I went to Cedarville College (now Cedarville University) I attended a church that had a large display of Chick Tracts that one could pick up and share with friends (or enemies I suppose).
At the time I found them interesting, at least as a concept. They were essentially little morality plays in comic form– a bit like the radio plays, “Unshackled.” Unlike “Unshackled,” that tended to be grounded in real stories of people at the Pacific Garden Mission, the Chick Tracts tended to be rather “over-the-top” with stories that were often over-simplified, over-dramatized and unrealistic. However, as one who collected comics, I was well-aware that unrealistic over-dramatization is a pretty common feature in this form of media, and so I did not really let that bother me. I would put a few of them, with some other tracts, in my Bible when I would go over to Ohio Veterans Children’s Home. The kids would rummage through my stuff to read or collect… and some would take the Chick Tracts. Fine.
But I was having some problems with these tracts. One of the ones I had trouble with was the one on Evolution. Reading it, I realized that the primary message to those who believe in Evolution is— insult. <Evolutionists are insane or stupid. You should stop being an insane or stupid evolutionist.> I could not see how the message could possibly be effective to anyone. While I am solidly in the “Design Theory” side of the Cosmogeny spectrum, I could not see any transformative value to insulting people of a different view. I did not see how anyone could possibly read that tract and say, “Wow. I never knew that my beliefs were so messed up. I need to follow God, and stop thinking that my ancestors were monkeys!” If anything, I suspected that people who were evolutionists would be thoroughly turned off not only by the lack of good argument to change beliefs, but also be turned off by the tone of the comics.
Another one that I had trouble with was one on Catholicism. The tract was essentially the comic adaptation of the teachings of Alberto Rivera (1935-1997). These teachings were quite controversial and polemic in nature. Essentially, according to the tract, pretty much all of evils of the 20th century were directly the result of the intentional machinations of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church (with an added little sideslap at the Orthodox faiths as well). Back then, my experience with Catholicism was pretty limited. Presently living in a country that is over 80% Catholic has increased my education immensely. But as I was reading the tract I quickly noted a trend. The tract would make a lot of outlandish claims that I had not heard before, and then would add a more mundane fact that I knew was actually true. When I started checking the footnotes on the tract— what do you think I found? I suspect you guessed it— the fairly mundane and ambivalent facts were properly footnoted to show veracity to the claims while NO footnotes were given to the more outrageous (and “damning”) claims. Again, I could hardly see who would be swayed by such a comic. I just can’t imagine any thoughtful Catholic thinking, “Oh wow! I have been part of the Whore of Babylon! I must leave it and start attending the church of the fine people who are printing these tracts.” In fact, it had a bit of an opposite effect on me. The poor documentation and deceptive footnoting made me wonder if the Catholic Church might not be so bad of a group after all. In this sense, it is kind of the same as my reaction to the anti-Masonic literature of the 19th century, and the Illuminati conspiracy-mongers of the 20th century. In effect, if a person screams loudly about evil “over there” without justifying the claims, one must wonder if the evil is in the one screaming.
On Comics Tropes, a Chick Tract was presented that I don’t recall reading. Apparently, it is one of only a few that they no longer publish. I can understand why they stopped publishing it. While it was again the typical over-the-top morality play, the underlying plot was absolutely horrible on pretty much every level. The title of the tract is “Lisa.” Lisa is actual the daughter of a man who sexually molests her. Somehow, the secret of this man’s behavior becomes known to people in the neighborhood. A neighbor (a medical doctor I think) says to the man that he knows what the man is doing to his daughter. The doctor goes on to give words of wisdom. The man should seek forgiveness from God and stop behaving this way. The man prays to God and asks forgiveness, and goes home to happily tell his wife and his daughter that he will never be a pedophilic, incestuous rapist ever again.
I hope I don’t need to tell you what is wrong with this story. It is actually what has been wrong with, oh so many, churches in the 20th century. Someone does something horrible in church (or out of church and then comes into the church with a story of God’s forgiveness). The church then asks the person to confess, ask forgiveness from God, and then covers things up. In this tract, the doctor:
- Did not call the police
- Did not help the man get counseling or even group support (or even get accountability structures in place).
- Did not ensure that the daughter is protected from the man’s relapse
- Did not (as far as the story shows at least) indicate that there was any follow-up and ensuring of honest remorse and determination to change.
Maybe 50 years ago someone could read that tract and see a positive message. Maybe. but I know that I saw problems with a number of the Chick Tracts 35 years ago, and I was an insider (semi-Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian). Today, I am not sure that anyone could read “Lisa” without picking up the message of the church as a place to cover-up evil under the cloud of false repentance and remorse. When I think of this story, I am reminded of so many preachers, priests, and missionaries, who knew how to play the game so as to continue doing evil away from police scrutiny. I am reminded of a few years back when Pat Robertson was trying to build support to get a woman on deathrow for murder to have her sentence commuted because she had prayed to receive Christ (as if, again, seeking forgiveness from God should remove one from punishment from civil authorities). Sheer madness.
Anyway, maybe you can see the video from Comic Tropes.
The host describes himself as a person who is “basically good” without being religious. Before one starts quoting Romans 3, note that he is not saying that he is sinless. He is just saying that he has many qualities that religious and secular ethicists would describe as commendable. I don’t have any reason to dispute this claim. As such, he would appear to be exactly the type of person that the tract “Lisa” was written for. That is because the tract doesn’t actually focus on the pedophilia, the incest, and the rape. The doctor makes it clear that the type of sin is not the key, but just that each person has some sort of sin. And the man in the tract emphasizes that he has been “basically a good person” at least until stressors in his life led to him falling to temptation in one specific area. So the host on this Youtube Channel is a great person to test the tract out… to see if the message resonates with a “basically good but imperfect” person.
The reaction was pretty much the opposite of what the tracts purport to seek— repentance and revival. But I think that this is not really the purpose of the tract. I think it is fan service:
“Fan service, fanservice, or service cut is material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience.”
Think about it for a moment. The audience are conservative Protestant Christians. They are the ones that actually gets the tracts from the publisher and the ones that actually provide funding to keep the presses rolling.
- Insulting Evolutionists would normally do little to change the mind of evolutionists, but it provides a certain comfort to Creationist Christians who have felt marginalized in schools and academia.
- Throwing around poorly justified accusations at Catholics is unlikely to be very persuasive to Catholics, but helps non-Catholic Christians fell good that their denominations broke away from one of the major ancient branches of Christianity.
Getting back to the tract “Lisa,” this seems to me to be very much about fan service. After all, the pedophilia and such was pretty tangential to the story. The man’s doctor friend could have said, “I am aware that you misrepresent your income in your federal tax report” or “I see that you fail to keep your lawn trimmed according to local zoning laws.” But by having a non-Christian who rapes his own daughter allows the primary audience (Conservative Evangelical Protestants) to say, “Well it is so good that we are Christians unlike those perverts— those non-Christian incestuous pedophiles.” Unfortunately however, since the writer did not take into account that the seriousness of the sin necessitates a change to the overall plot (it can no longer simply be a simplified story of conversion), the message becomes extremely confused.
There is a place for fan service I suppose. But Chick Tracts are promoted as evangelistic tools… and I have personally seen no evidence that they serve that purpose. I expect that there have been a few people who may have responded positively to their message, but I believe that many have also been turned off to that message. One can’t simply say, “Oh, we just give the message, it is the Holy Spirit who changes the heart.” While salvation is a work of God and not man, our role is not simply neutral, or neutral and positive. We can give the message of God in a way that makes Christianity seem odious to outsiders.
Fan service has its place, but not so much for evangelism to those who are not fans. So if you, as a Christian, want to see “God’s Not Dead,” based on a Christian urban legend I recall hearing back over 35 years ago, that is fine. But don’t bring any non-Christian who has taken an actual philosophy class and knows what philosophy professors really claim and not claim.