Saturday, November 06, 2010

Religious tracts in the form of comics make pretty lousy treats

This past Halloween was the first time I had been in the same city as my nieces during this particular holiday since they were born. Halloween is a really big deal in their household, and is really more of a season like Christmas rather than a single holiday.

And as with Christmas, on the climactic day, much of their extended family gathers at their house for a big dinner, the main course of which is their mother’s “Halloweenies” (just hotdogs, with a seasonal name) and mummy dogs (hotdogs wrapped in Pilsbury croissant roll dough and baked), plus some sort of green sherbet punch, and cupcakes with gummy worms and so on.

Some of their other relations come over, they all get dressed up in their costumes (a gargoyle and a butterfly this year) and then, accompanied by a troupe of adults and their Shih Tzu, they go trick-or-tricking en masse, while one of their grandmothers stays at their house to pass out candy.

When they return, candy gorging commences, with a whole lot of running around and being loud, buzzed on sugar.

When my youngest niece, who is currently about five and a half, set her purple plastic jack o’lantern-shaped bucket of candy down near me, and I peeked in to see what she got. I noticed a plastic sandwich bag with a small piece of paper with a four-panel black, white and red grid on it—a comic! In the same little baggy were a few pieces of generic candy and something made out of plastic.

As I pulled out the bag to take a closer look—the lettering and coloring made it look like something from the Chick Tract family, or at least a near relative—my niece bounded up and snatched the candy bucket away. All she saw was her uncle’s hand in her candy.

Their mother saw the comics before they did, and removed them from their buckets before they could read them. I asked her to save one for me and she did—although she read one of them first.

“It was horrible,” she reported, and that it was a good thing the girls hadn’t seen them, because they would have been traumatized. “I wish I knew who gave these out so I could go talk to them,” she said.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a Chick Tract, but the same general idea—Christian evangelism through cheaply made little cartoons put in the hands of strangers some way or another. In this case, in plastic bags with some candy, handed out to neighborhood kids going door-to-door trick or treating.

This particular tract is produced by The Fellowship Tract League of Lebanon, Ohio, and is entitled “I’ll Do It Later”. You can read it online at their site, if you’re interested in seeing the whole thing in its original context.

Here’s the first page: Johnny, dead-eyed, unblinking child sitting among a pile of toys ignoring the first shouted command to put away his toys, but mildly freaking out when he hears a second shouted command to put away his toys.

Johnny, now going to school, rubbing his check with glee while a teacher shouts about a homework assignment, then recoiling in terror and choking an apology when his teacher yells at him for not doing his homework.

On the second page, we see another two-panel sequence, in which now the grown-up John does the same at work. One moment his leaning back in the big leather chair at his desk, hands behind his head while thinking about all the time he has to do his report for the boss, and then later, he’s apologizing to someone yelling at him from off-panel: “Because of your neglect, we have lost much income!”

I’m not sure where John works, but it seems like a pretty good job, based on his desk, chair and the suit he wears to work. I guess his boss is an ESL speaker too…maybe Japanese or Chinese? That would explain the odd phraseology.

Anyway, one day John’s friend, an older, fatter man shouts at him:This sequence was the climax of the four-page strip for me, its comedic highlight. John is really excited—comically so—to be getting good news of any kind, and his reactions to this whole Jesus Christ thing and heaven and hell are similarly outsized.

It seems as if John has never heard of Christianity prior to his middle-aged friend telling him the good news. Somehow John managed to make it to adulthood, including at least four years of college to earn that suit-wearing, leather chair-having, report-making office job, without ever hearing about Jesus or Christianity.

I’m actually sort of surprised that John knows what heaven and hell are enough to be excited about the former and scared of the latter (“NO!!”) considering that he’s never heard of this Jesus Christ guy dying for our sins thing before.

After John shouts “NO!!”, his friend comes back with “YES!!!” instructing him on how to avoid hell and get into heaven. “Joh, all you have to do is this: Call on the Lord Jess Christ!”

Easy peasy, right?

As is his way though, John, perhaps still shaken from the whiplashing emotional rollercoaster of the previous few panels, responds with his default response: “I—I’ll do it later…”

Here are the last two panels, with a prose moral quoting the gospel of John and two of the letters from the New Testament: What do I think? I think the cartoonist’s panel filled with flames and narration box saying “It’s too late to say ‘I’m sorry’ now” doesn’t leave too much room for interpretation.

I also don’t think this is an appropriate form of evangelical ministry, particularly if it’s aimed at little kids. My nieces are five-years-old and seven-years-old, and the girls they went trick or treating with were one, three, eight and nine.

Kids mature intellectually and emotionally at different paces, of course, and, at seven, my eldest neice is just starting to have some understanding of death, hell, heaven, God, Jesus and religion. Seven is the traditional “age of reason” in the Catholic faith, defined as the period of human life in which people are supposedly able to begin to be morally responsible. She just started going to mass regularly and going to Sunday school; it was only within the last few weeks that she began to learn about the concept of sin at school, and asked her mother and I if she sins, what sin is, if we ever sinned when we were her age and so on.

Her teachers and parents and priest are just now introducing her to this stuff—she’ll earn the sacrament of reconciliation next year, and first communion the year after, while she won’t be confirmed in her faith for a good nine to ten years late—she certainly isn’t ready to hear about how easy it is to burn in hell through inaction (If you believe that; I don’t know what denomination produces the tracts, but it was stamped with a local church of a different denomination than the one my nieces are part of).

My youngest niece—and two of the other girls she was trick or treating with—is still learning to tie her shoes and read. She could look at the very, very boring pictures of the comic, but would have to ask her sister or a grown-up to read the actual words to her. While understands a little about death—that it’s sad and permanent—I don’t know how strong her grasp on God or the afterlife are.

I do know that she has some pretty irrational little kid fears still, including being afraid of raccoons, skunks, deer, cats, tornados, hurricanes, being alone, the dark and one particular poor old lady suffering from dementia that she saw yelling at her in a nursing home one recently—she’s certainly not emotionally ready to think about dying herself, going to hell or burning.

(Although now that I stop and think about it, I realize I’m not intellectually and emotionally mature enough to deal with the theology posed by this tract; reconciling the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God with the existence of a hell of eternal damnation is an issue that’s troubled some of history’s greatest theologians and philosophers).

It just doesn’t seem like an appropriate thing to hand out to little kids on Halloween. Unless…well, Halloween is all about scary things, right? And what could be scarier than the thought of dying and suffering as if you were burning alive for all eternity, with no chance of any relief ever?


I guess I just assumed that whoever was passing these out was trying to do what they thought of as a good deed, scaring some little kids straight in order to save their souls. But maybe they were trying to terrify the neighborhood children simply out of the spirit of the season.


mordicai said...

Guh. More insidious than a razor blade in an apple or LSD in Bit O Honey.

jason quinones said...

OR.... maybe the person handing these things out to impressionable young children was just an arrogant "i-am-holier than-thou" a-hole.

how old do you you think your nieces will be when they finally realize that there is no god???

after 4 years of catholic school (4th to 8th grade) i concluded that if these horrific nuns and priests were suppsoed to be the representatives of god here on earth then i wanted no part of their bullshit.

ever try asking a catholic school teacher how dinosaurs fit into the whole genesis scenario? the answer is DON'T!