When you’re raised in the church, one of the things you pick up on is this idea that you are eventually going to be expected to “witness” to people. Some churches are bigger on this than others. I was done with the church by the time I was old enough for it to really be an issue, but as a kid, it worried me. I was worried that, when I was old enough, somebody was going to expect me to do it. And I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to. And I was worried that would make me a bad Christian.
Witnessing could be called, cynically, “bothering people for Christ.” Really it’s kind of like selling Girl Scout cookies, which I loathed and was dreadfully bad at. Some church people do it by walking down the street and knocking on random doors, most people start with their inner circle of family and friends and move out from there. Maybe you have a special event, like a concert, luring people to one place so then you can give them the cookie pitch.
In this context the “cookie pitch” is known as an altar call, and it was common at church events aimed at young people — summer camps and concerts and whatnot. The altar call was not only for people to go up and be “saved” for the first time, it was also for people to go up and get all emotional over “rededicating their lives to Christ.” Which is, basically, the same emotional experience as conversion, only directed at something you already supposedly believe. It’s like, “Well, I came in here believing this, but now I really believe it! I’m on fire with believing it! Hallelujia!”
There’s a predatory aspect to witnessing culture. Like, if you make a new friend, and you tell a church person about it, they’ll ask “oh, is she a Christian?” And if she’s not, you’re supposed to see what you can do about getting her to come to church with you. You’re supposed to go through your day always on the lookout for opportunities to witness to people. Like a shark looking for prey.
One of the more terrifying ideas — especially to a kid — that floats around evangelical Christian churches is the idea that if you fail to “save” a friend or family member that you have literally condemned them to an eternity in hell. I wasn’t inclined to believe this, exactly, but it was on the (long) list of things that kind of worried me. Maybe, just to be on the safe side, it was better to make sure everyone you cared about was a Christian? Then you wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Some people in the church went a bit further than that. You didn’t just have to make sure people were Christians, you had to make sure they were the right sort of Christian. Catholics were out, and maybe Quakers? It was hard to tell. I mostly picked this up from extra-doctrinal stuff: things people said, plus random things that floated around church culture, like Chick tracts.
Oh, Jack Chick, you evil, crazy man.
If there is, in fact, a Jesus more or less as portrayed in the New Testament, and he does, in fact, judge people according to their deeds at the end of time, you’d best hope he’s more merciful than the version of him you portray in your little horror books.
Earlier generations had their understanding of Christianity warped by Dante and Milton, with engravings by Albrecht Durer.
By the late 1970s it was being warped by Jack Chick and Spire Comics.
As an adult, I can sort of appreciate the works of Jack Chick as being truly fracked up outsider art. But as a kid, nothing terrified me more than the remote possibility that his hideous, dark and mean-spirited little fables might have a grain of truth to them.
If Chick’s vision of God was correct, it meant that I could not feel confident assuming that, if I was wrong about something, but acting in good faith with compassion and mercy, God would understand. Instead, I was right back there in children’s church, worrying that I had to get every tiny thing exactly precisely right or burn in hell for all eternity.
The Gospel According to Jack Chick is a crazy, paranoid nightmare. Everything that isn’t certified spiritually correct — according to his own narrow and arbitrary version of correct — is literally demonic.
Evolution is demonic, homosexuality is demonic, rock and roll is demonic, lack of school prayer is demonic, the mainstream press is demonic. D&D players literally summon demons, the Pope is a demon, Catholics worship demons, Halloween involves summoning demons, Muslims worship demons. Demons, demons everywhere.
It seems like it should be easy — even for a worried little Christian girl like I was — to just say, “oh, clearly, this guys is nuts, why should anyone listen to him?” And it was easy for me to suspect he was wrong. But it wasn’t easy for me to feel sure that he was wrong.
(Note: an emerging theme, perhaps, this is partly because it is difficult for me to feel entirely sure of anything.)
One problem is human nature. It seems to me that we are kind of naturally superstitious, by which I mean, if somebody tells us something, no matter how crazy, a little part of us considers that it might be true. Maybe. How do you know for sure?
So, we’re kind of cautious and fearful that way. I suspect it’s the dark side of our pattern-seeking instinct. It seems to take a lot of ammo — a lot of hard evidence, a lot of logical thought, and even a certain amount of raw guts — to fight against that tendency. To disbelieve a superstition. To break mirrors, make friends with black cats, and to recognize that Jack Chick has no more authority or knowledge than that guy on the corner of Westlake and Pine who’s always yelling at the pigeons and trying to hand people the receipts he pulls out of his pants.
Another problem is that Chick has a publishing industry. You know, his crazy rantings are actually printed and stuff. That lends them a legitimacy, especially to kids who haven’t yet realized that all it takes to get something printed is money.
But for me, the biggest problem was that I couldn’t seem to get firm confirmation of his nutitude from the adults around me.
It wasn’t that they supported his ideas — not at all. It was that they implicitly took them as a serious part of the conversation. They didn’t confidently say, “he’s a nutcase and his view of Christianity is 100 percent wrong top to bottom.” They said something more like, “well, that’s a little extreme, what we believe is…”
Thinking back, it seems to me that Christians — even reasonable and logical Christians like my parents — were intensely reluctant to call absolute bullshit on the rantings of anyone else out there who called themselves a Christian. Maybe they thought it was rude, like calling bullshit on a relative?
Or maybe they thought, “well, it’s a weird and garbled version of the message, but at least the message is getting out there.”
Based on other things my fellow churchgoers had to say, I suspect this is actually a fairly common view. It would explain why, on the one hand, you get Christians who are upset at being lumped in with people like Jack Chick because, they insist, they’re not like that at all. But, on the other hand, you don’t often get Christians forcefully denouncing the likes of Jack Chick either. There’s a tendency among churchgoers to think that anything that “brings people to Christ” is overall a good thing, even if it involves lies and emotional manipulation.
The problem with this view is that Chickism is not, in fact, the message.
If you consider the message to be what Jesus taught, that is.
Chickism has some of the same language and metaphors, which can make it seem like the same message if you’re not paying attention. Chickists believe that people achieve salvation through Jesus and Christians believe that people achieve salvation through Jesus.
But Chickist salvation is entirely metaphysical, there’s no ethics or enlightenment involved. There’s kind of an implication that saying the magic words (“The Sinner’s Prayer”) will make you not be a baby-eating devil-worshipper anymore, but in most Chick stories that’s kind of beside the point. The reason you say the magic words isn’t to make yourself a better person while you live, it’s to appease the terrifying Lovecraftian Elder God that dominates the Chickean universe and is just looking for an excuse to torment you for all eternity after you die.
This is, simply, a terrible interpretation of the text.
Jesus says a lot of things in the New Testament, and most of them are about following God in terms of how you should live your life and how you should treat other people. In Matthew, when he gives an illustration of what will get you the “depart into the pit reserved for the devil and his angels” speech at the end of time, it is, in no uncertain terms, treating other people badly. And his examples of treating people badly are mundane sins like mistreating prisoners and not feeding the hungry.
Think about right wing fundamentalists for a moment.
They are “saved” in Chickist terms. They have said the magic words, and they believe in the magic words.
(One of the odd implied tenets of Chickism is the self-referential importance of believing in Chickism. Chickism is anti-universalist to an extreme degree, where even allowing for the possibility that there might be more than one path to salvation is itself a damnable offense. In other words, it’s not only important to be a Chickist and not a Catholic, it is vitally important to believe that Catholics are necessarily damned. In other other words, the Chick god is not merciful, and if you follow him you will not show mercy either.)
They are Christians, in terms of their identity. They are the loudest and most apparent voice in our society laying a claim to what it means to be Christian. But they aren’t doing anything that Jesus said to do. The opposite, rather.
In times past, maybe they would have split off from the main church and called themselves something different. Or maybe an official church entity would have called them heretics. But they are Protestants and don’t always have an official church structure. And when they do have one, it’s somebody like the Southern Baptists, and they’re actually out there leading the charge into the Chickian nightmare realm.
So they have been allowed, in the popular culture and within the church, to shift the definition of what it means to be a Christian. They call themselves Christians and everybody says, “Okay, then. That’s what Christians are.”
But I don’t want to call them Christians. It’s certainly not what I ever believed. I detest the thought that anybody out there could suspect that, even as a child, I embraced the perverse Chickian doctrine. The reason it worried me so is that I knew I could never follow it. If that was truly the path to salvation, I was already damned. Chick tracts instilled in me a sickening existentialist dread. I called the works of Jack Chick his “gospel” — I was being tongue in cheek, “gospel” actually means “good news.”
I know I’m not the final arbiter of these things — I can’t tell you for a hard and certain fact that the dreadful Chickian hell god does not, in fact, rule the universe. But I can tell you this also, no Chickian knows for a hard and certain fact that he does.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. It took me years to figure out that second part — to be certain that not only did I not know, but nobody else did, either.
As a kid, all I knew was that those little tracts scared the hell out of me.