What's 2 3/4 by 5 inches and can scare the hell out of you?

Gotta be one of these miniature comic books put out by Chick Publications. You've probably seen them before, maybe picked one up in a phone booth or fast-food joint. Each booklet is about 20 pages long, and makes a pitch for the gospel through a dramatic story told in cartoon format.

You might be generally successful at avoiding gospel tracts, but Chick comics tend to appear under your fingers. "Over 500 million sold world-wide" boasts the homepage at www.chick.com, and at 13 cents each, would-be evangelists can scatter them like confetti. The tracts are available in nearly 100 languages from Afrikaans to Zulu; the home page itself can be read in Chinese, German, or Spanish.

The theology in these tracts is old-time Protestant, proposing that all humans sin, that the just reward of sin is hell, and that even piles of good deeds can't buy a ticket out. Only Jesus' death on the cross could pay that debt. The "Good News" is simple: stop trying to justify yourself, and accept Jesus' free gift. Thus Chick tracts are full of tatooed, stubble-chinned bikers waltzing into heaven after a tearful "sinner's prayer," while prim, self-righteous types who declined Jesus' offer are tossed into the flames. The depths of sin are displayed in lurid, if sometimes clumsy, terms. Two citizens of Noah's wicked pre-flood town have this exchange: "I love drugs. Do you?" "No, incest and murder are my thing."

The force behind Chick Publications is Jack Chick, a WW II veteran who underwent a powerful conversion experience while listening to a revival radio show. Launched from that rocket pad, his work has a revival-tent flavor, and it steps on people's toes, as evidenced by the proliferation of parody sites. In the 1980s, Canada's attorney general called for a countrywide ban on the tracts. Still the comic tracts keep pouring out, and haven't stopped for 36 years.

The tracts are designed to solve a specific problem. Although Jesus commanded his followers to try to convert others to the faith, they hate doing it. It's embarrassing and liable to make people mad at you. But if they can be anonymous--leave a tract on a restaurant table under the tip, or in the back pocket of an airline seat--they'll do it. The whole Chick strategy is to get ordinary Christians to fulfill "the Great Commission" by enabling them to do it in their safety zone. If you've ever picked up a Chick tract, it's likely some shy evangelist left it there in hopes you would.

The Chick folks also know that people won't read a tract full of tiny words, but they will look at cartoons, and these short booklets can be read in 60 seconds. As their ad literature repeatedly insists, dramatic cartoon stories this short are well nigh impossible to resist.

Take, for instance, the tract titled "The Little Princess." On the cover is a little girl in a princess costume, carrying a jack o' lantern full of Halloween candy. But something is wrong--the girl's eyes have dark circles and beads of sweat indicate a fever.

We learn that Heidi is dying, but wants to go trick-or-treating one last time. That evening her brother Josh takes her to a few houses, including the Smiths', where she is given a Chick tract with her candy. (There are about 70 tracts, and they make cameo appearances in each other's stories.) Back in her bed Heidi reads the tract and prays, asking Jesus to be her savior.

Then Heidi has her dad invite the Smiths over, and says, "Dad, remember when you said nobody knows what happens after you die? Well, these people know." Mr. Smith begins, "I'm sure the thought of your daughter dying breaks your heart. Well, God was even more heartbroken when he sent his son from heaven to die on earth." Five minutes later Mrs. Smith tells her, "Heidi...they did it!" They, too, have accepted Jesus.

Later that night a beautiful strong angel lifts Heidi from her wasted body on the bed, and the caption below reads, "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15). In the next panel Heidi is running toward Jesus who kneels and extends to her his nail-scarred hands. "Welcome home, child. You will live in heaven with us forever." In the last panel Josh places Heidi's princess crown on her gravestone and says, "My little sister is in heaven because she trusted Jesus. What about you?"

Okay, yeah, I'm choked up, you wanna make something of it? These Chick folks know what they're doing. They know that a powerfully sentimental story, even one this blatant, can still give you whiplash of the heart. A cartoon story comes across in a way a theological treatise would not.

Chick is described as a professional artist, but the artwork is one of the strangest things about these comics. The quality varies from book to book, but in no case could it be called sophisticated. Facial expressions are the hardest for an artist to depict, and these stories involve extreme emotion, from anguish to rapture. The art isn't quite up to these challenges, with results that can be unintentionally creepy.

Witness the awkward facial contortions of the Davidsons, stars of "Flight 144." An un-squeamish depiction of what happens when you trust in works rather than faith for salvation, this is one of Chick's Top 10 tracts. The Davidsons are a missionary couple who have "built five schools and four hospitals, and fed and clothed thousands of dear natives" in fifty years' service in Africa. Their seatmate on the flight, Ed, has just been released from jail, where he served time for murdering a guy "in a drunken brawl." But as the plane crashes into the ocean it's apparent that the Davidsons believe they have earned heaven through their good works, while Ed, who has undergone a conversion in jail, simply trusts in God's mercy.

An angel pulls the three from their watery grave, taking Ed "to your beautiful mansion in heaven," and the Davidsons to judgment. There God, faceless on a white throne a hundred feet high, tells them good deeds have no bearing on salvation, and since they did not put their trust in Jesus (They didn't? Is this logical? What kind of missionaries are these, anyway?) they are lost. In the final panel giant angels fling the two into an abyss of fire as they scream "YAAAAAH!"

Other tracts critique Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, and other faiths, showing them as inadequate for salvation. Adherents are not personally the subject of attack, though; they're shown as regrettably misguided, not evil, and urged to join the community of Jesus. (Dialogue at the giant white throne: "But I was a very sincere Muslim." "I'm sorry, Abdul, but you were sincerely wrong.")

A tract titled "Love the Jewish People" insists that Israel is God's favored nation, and any power in history who opposed it has been crushed, a danger America now runs because of its pandering for Arab oil. Theological disagreement with Judaism is a small fraction of the message.

Members of other religions are treated with a measure of politeness, but there is one group that can't get no respect: Roman Catholics. According to Chick, the Roman operation was established by Satan solely to cheat Christians of their salvation, by teaching that good works are necessary to salvation. Monks and priests are depicted as loathsome, drunken orgiasts, enslaving simple people through fear and manipulation. The Roman church is the Whore of Babylon and a pope will be the Anti-Christ. The Eucharistic wafer is "the death cookie." Pope John Paul II at a crucifix is praying to "his dead Jesus idol." Catholics plotted the Holocaust. Jesuits killed Abraham Lincoln. On the whole, there just aren't a lot of nice things Chick can think of to say about Catholics.

Rod Dreher, now a columnist for the New York Post, was a Methodist adolescent in rural Louisiana when he ran across Chick tracts. "I thought, Here's a man unafraid to tell it like it is. I liked the lack of nuance and charity, which at that point in my confused teenage life I would have seen as evidence of backsliding."

The teenaged Dreher particularly enjoyed Chick's anti-Catholic literature. "Thinking back on it, it was fun to hate Catholicism. It fit into the general conspiracy-theory views I had developed about the world." But when he took a tract on evolution to a ninth-grade teacher, she demolished its logic and asked him what a smart kid was doing taking his view of the world from "these paranoid little comic books," Dreher says. "I came to see that that whole bloodshot way of seeing the world was in fact a shield against my desperate fear of the unknown."

Dreher concluded that Christianity was either hysteria or "timid, drippy" mainline faith and wanted no part of either. Years later he discovered an alternative, "an ancient church that produced some of the most profound art, architecture and philosophy the world has known, whose priests and laity have often led lives of radical opposition to the world and its values." He became a devout Roman Catholic.

In a world of subtle and high-tech forms of persuasion, there is something refreshingly blunt about these little comics. Stories are vivid and full of sharp contrasts; conclusions are catastrophic or astonishingly blissful. You don't put one down and wonder what it was hinting at. Chick comics don't beat around the bush. How could they? Your eternal soul is at stake.

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