Jack T. Chick, the infamous genius who published almost 900 million “Chick Tracts” (comic-book style religious pamphlets), died last week at 92. A cartoonist-evangelist who built a massive empire out of a modest storefront in California’s desert, Chick was not afraid to offend in order to get his message out. From the late 1940s until he died this week, his style and message never wavered. He was one of the most prolific and polarizing religious leaders in US history.
To grasp Jack Chick, imagine Dante on a really bad day composing hundreds of tiny comic books, selling them at seventeen cents a pop with the intent to load up bus seats, public benches, church foyers, strangers’ windshields, and neighbors’ mailboxes. Take one of the tamest tracts (and one of the earliest), “This Was Your Life”: It is so dark that when a lifeline of salvation is offered, it comes along with a sinister “Grab it or else”–type ultimatum. The main character has been convicted of thinking about “the ballgame” in church, and has been banished from heaven for eternity. The message for the living? You had better change your ways now, or it will be too late. There is nothing of the love of God or the warmth of the biblical Savior; no mention of God’s compassion for the vulnerable or identification with those who are in prison (Matthew 25).
Chick was raised in L.A., where early in life he aspired to be an actor (which didn’t pan out). His greater love seemed to be the drawing of comic book–style cartoons. His biography states that a turning point came when he was nineteen years old, listening to a radio broadcast of Charles E. Fuller’s Old-Fashioned Revival Hour at the behest of his mother-in-law. Hearing the winsome, warm, and funny Charles E. Fuller triggered in Chick a conversion, starting him on his path of faith. There is no record of how he morphed Fuller’s message of love, peace, and joy, delivered by one of the early-twentieth century’s most genuine, home-spun, and beloved evangelists, into such a dark view of God’s engagement with people. This aspect of his journey remains a mystery.
But two things about the Chick Tracts may provide some clues. First, the hybrid genre Chick perfected began in a time when comic books were gaining immense popularity. Comic books of the mid-twentieth century were loaded with over-the-top seductive heroes and villains, often including sensual clothing and images, and wild, caricatured rhetoric and violence. So, although Chick’s tracts could be considered “religious” literature, they were and are still comic books, and thus part of a genre in which the dictates of civility and discourse are different from other forms. Comic books are, above all, entertainment, and therefore the rules of civil discourse and logic do not count for much.
Second, because the genre has its own rules and standards, Chick was able to present his version of the Christian message with a vitriol that was remarkable—and yet permissible. Though his theology is extreme-to-wacky, he rarely got lumped in with the likes of the clinic-burning far-right. Perhaps the combination of two seemingly unrelated genres of literature—comic book entertainment and aggressive evangelism—gave Chick the pass he needed to discover and then empower his niche.
When it comes to Chick Tracts, there are two kinds of people, and only two kinds of people: those who are offended and even angry, and those who believe that this kind of “in-your-face evangelism” is not only an appropriate way to share the Gospel, but the most effective way. I have had students who fought hard in defense of Chick Tracts, usually because the tracts “work.” Aside from the suspect theological rationale, in these cases there is no arguing with personal experience. “Hardcore” comic book aficionados can read and enjoy Chick Tracts, even if they are not interested Chick’s religious message. The appeal of this intersection cannot be understated.
Was Jack Chick a charlatan, using his platform to make millions while laughing his way to the bank? The evidence doesn’t support that. His friends, family, and supporters attest to his integrity and legitimate commitment to his mission. How could he have so profoundly missed the central ethos of the faith he espoused when it comes to how we treat others (as in, “Be ready to give an answer … but do this with gentleness and respect” [1 Peter 3:15] and “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” [Colossians 4:5])? And how did he stray so far from the ethos of his own conversion messenger?
We can appreciate Chick’s sincerity. We should celebrate his commitment. We must also help those who follow in his footsteps take a deeper look at what the Gospel actually says about how we treat all those that God loves. (If only our political leaders could take note.)
Chap Clark is professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.