Those of you who know me well are already acquainted with the fact that I am a collector and reader of comic books. The appeal of comic books is multi-layered for me. First, comic books help me to preserve a link to my childhood (since I learned to read with the Bible in one hand and a comic book in the other). Second, comic books create an unparalleled artistic hybrid between the literary and the graphic. Third, since they traverse the territory of the sublime, the supernatural, and the iconic, comic books employ a narrative creativity that demands the expansion of one’s imagination (which, personally, helps me to be a better preacher, a better thinker, and a better imaginer). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, comic books create an approachable and innovative forum in which theology, philosophy, and morality are often explored with unique and noteworthy depth.
In his film “Unbreakable” (2000), M. Night Shyamalan highlights the important role of comic books in the exploration of cultural trends and the transmission of a culture’s history. One of Shyamalan’s characters in the film, Elijah Price, offers this observation:
“Comics are our last link to an ancient way of passing on history. The Egyptians wrote on the walls, there are countries all over the world that still pass on knowledge through pictorial form. I believe comics are a form of history that someone, somewhere felt or experienced.”
I share Shyamalan’s enthusiasm for comic books, their hieroglyphical art, and their illuminating narrative. In fact, some of my most creative moral and theological reflection these days is inspired, not by the academy, but by my interaction with comic books and by my conversations with the proprietor who sells them to me.
Case in point, one of the monthly comic books that I read is “The Walking Dead,” a production of a comic book company called “Image.” “The Walking Dead,” on its surface, is a zombie story about a group of survivors endeavoring to make sense of a catastrophic happening that brings the recently deceased unpleasantly back to life. These reanimated beings become savage flesh-eaters, driven by their relentless desire to “taste” of the life force that they can no longer possess.
As the story unfolds, however, an attentive reader begins to sense that the title “The Walking Dead” is a reference, not simply to the zombies, but to the survivors as well. The “zombiefication” of the world compels many of the survivors to recognize that, prior to the catastrophe, they were living their lives like “the walking dead,” sleepwalking from day to day, conversation to conversation, experience to experience without ever really coming alive to what was before them. The survivors see far more of themselves in the zombies than they could have ever imagined, and, ironically, some of them feel more alive than they have ever been.
As one might anticipate, many of the survivors in “The Walking Dead” begin to articulate theological questions about the circumstances in which they find themselves living. In the most recent issue (#63), an agnostic survivor named Eugene strikes up a conversation with another survivor—a pastor named (interestingly) Gabriel. It is a lengthy conversation, but I include it in its entirety here because of its theological significance:
Eugene: Well, let me ask you this: The rule is, in order to get into heaven, you not only have to do good deeds, you also have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?
Gabriel: That’s right.
Eugene: What about the Aztecs? What about the Sumerians? Surely there were some good people in those civilizations. And they have to rot in hell because God didn’t bother to let them know he existed? How do you explain that?
Gabriel: They worshiped false Gods. They turned away from the Lord.
Eugene: No. They weren’t AWARE of Christianity. One, how is that fair? Two, WHY didn’t they know? Why did God only tell people in a certain region of his existence and then wait for those people to spread the news? That’s inefficient. Why couldn’t he just appear in the sky one day and say “WORSHIP ME.” I could get behind that.
Gabriel: Let us take into consideration for a moment that we are two mortals, with limited understanding of the universe, discussing the inner workings of the mind of God. He works in mysterious ways. And that’s not meant to be a dismissive answer. I’m just acknowledging that he exists at a level beyond our comprehension. He has a plan. It’s not our job to understand it. It’s our job to BELIEVE in him. Is it so hard to believe, brother Eugene?
Eugene: I believe your beliefs are absurd.
Gabriel: Are they? You are a man of science. I’m sure there was a time not too long ago when you would have told me how it was physically impossible for the dead to walk. And yet, here we are.
Eugene: Point taken. But the living dead doesn’t make me believe in the existence of a God.
Gabriel: No. But it’s a start.
I share that dialogue with you because of the way in which it illuminates the theological wrestling that sometimes occurs within the pages of a monthly comic book. Quite honestly, the exchange between Eugene and Gabriel is the most starkly realistic discourse on the subject of divine methodology that I have experienced in quite some time. It is discourse that raises issues of theophany and judgment; revelation and evangelism; Christology and soteriology. Furthermore, it is a discourse that leaves me meaningfully unsettled as I continue to ponder the way in which I might have responded if I had been in Gabriel’s place.
Sometimes a comic book is good because of the clever way in which a hero solves a crime, saves the world, or thwarts a villain. On other occasions, however, a comic book becomes a hieroglyphical journey into a much deeper place. When that happens, I have to smile.
I’m thinking of a certain six-year-old boy, sitting on his front porch back in 1972, drinking a glass of lemonade and reading a Superman comic book. He had no idea of what he was getting into.