I encountered my first Chick comic at Pine Hill Hunting Camp near Alpena, Michigan. I was a boy, evenings were slow, and somebody had left the thing lying around. It was an amusing little booklet entitled “This Was Your Life.” It pictured the postmortem agonies of some unsaved “everyman” as his life was replayed on a huge celestial screen. Reading it didn’t exactly change my life, but it did introduce me to the work of Jack Chick, a commercial artist turned cartoon evangelist.
The next Chick booklet I discovered was “A Demon’s Nightmare,” in which Satan commissions two of his minions to keep a young man from getting saved and living for Christ. Most of the tract dwells on their machinations, but of course they slip up and the guy ends up as a red-hot evangelist. Satan then decrees that for every soul their chap leads to salvation, they will be sent one level lower into “the pit.” They ended up having to dig new levels. It was exciting stuff.
Over the next few years I bumped into a few more of Chick’s little books. They were cutely drawn with simple but amusing story lines. They were fun. But even then, I would never have given one to an unsaved friend. The problem wasn’t that Chick presented the gospel. The problem was that he mixed a little bit of gospel with a barge load of weirdness.
Don’t get me wrong. The weirdness was part of the allure. It was always fun to see what quirky thing Chick would come up with next. One booklet was a supposedly factual account of a group of Russian soldiers who found Noah’s ark, only to be executed by Communists when they returned to Moscow. Another posited that the Roman Catholic Church had created Islam, Communism, and Nazism. Oh, and it also engineered the assassinations of both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
Chick got weirder as time went on. By the end of the 1970s he had begun to feature the fabricated testimonies of Johnny Todd and Alberto Rivera. Todd claimed to have been saved from Satanism. He insisted that JFK was still alive. He was in a position to know, he said, because he had been Kennedy’s personal warlock. Rivera was supposedly an escaped Jesuit priest with inside information that the Catholic Church was working to spread homosexuality and abortion. It later turned out that Rivera was wanted in at least two states, and Todd was eventually imprisoned for rape and died in a mental institution.
Who couldn’t love stuff like that?
By the time Todd and Rivera came along, Chick had begun to produce full-sized comic books. The two phonies appeared in several of larger publications. After the two were exposed as imposters, Chick continued to defend them and to feature them. That wasn’t just bizarre, it was downright creepy.
But Chick Tracts became more popular than ever. While I’ve never seen any of the sales data, I do know that plenty of fundamental Baptist churches had the little booklets in their tract racks. Chick publications were especially popular in King James Only churches.
True to form, Chick developed his own eccentric defense of King James Onlyism. He posited a Satanic conspiracy involving intertestamental Jews, an Alexandrian cult, the Emperor Constantine (whom Chick labeled as the first pope), Ignatius Loyola, Westcott and Hort, and Jesuit secret agents who finagled posts as Bible professors in Christian schools so they could train an entire generation of Protestant ministers to doubt the King James Bible.
The grotesque can be amusing, but after a while it begins to pall, especially when it takes itself seriously. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d stopped reading Chick’s stuff. It wasn’t funny anymore. It wasn’t even clever. It was just boring. I realized that Chick had nothing to say. Just as you can only watch so many magicians pull a rabbit out of a hat, you can only read so many Chick comics. Beyond that point, tedium sets in.
That tedium underlines what I think was the main problem with Jack Chick’s approach. It wasn’t that it was absurd. It wasn’t that it was schmaltzy. It wasn’t that it was shallow. To be sure, it was all of those, but the real problem was even worse. It was that Chick’s approach confused Christianity with amusement. It tried to make the faith-once-delivered into a form of entertainment, in the worst sense of that word.
Here’s a rule: you can’t make Christianity amusing without making it trivial. You can’t use it for entertainment without debasing it. And Chick did debase it.
I’m not saying that nobody ever benefitted from a Chick tract. I’m not suggesting that nobody ever got saved after reading one. But I’m not going to buy a donkey just because God used one to speak to Balaam.
This week came word that Jack Chick had died. He was ninety-two years old. He leaves behind him a legacy of hundreds of smartly-drawn but ill-informed cartoon publications. His life stands as a testimony to the work that one man can build if he has a maximum of energy, a modicum of talent, and a minimum of discernment.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
The Day Is Past and Gone
John Leland (1754–1841)
The day is past and gone,
The evening shades appear;
O may we all remember well
The night of death is near.
We lay our garments by,
Upon our beds to rest;
So death will soon disrobe us all
Of what we’ve here possessed.
Lord, keep us safe this night,
Secure from all our fears;
May angels guard us while we sleep,
Till morning light appears.
And when we early rise,
And view the unwearied sun,
May we set out to win the prize,
And after glory run.
And when our days are past,
And we from time remove,
O may we in thy bosom rest,
The bosom of thy love.