Jack Chick passed away last week. If the name sounds obscure, would it help if I mentioned that he was, by some estimates, the world’s most published author? Chick never appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, and the odds are slim that you could find his volumes at your local used bookstore. Yet, over half a billion copies of Chick’s work were printed in his lifetime.
Chick’s work was evangelistic tracts: little booklets, often not bigger than an adult’s palm, designed for quick and mass distribution. Inside were paneled drawings that resembled amateurish comic books. But Chick was no aspiring Stan Lee. His animated narratives did not tell of superheroes or zombies, but instead warned readers of hell, death, sin, Harry Potter—and the Catholic Church and Jewish conspiracies.
For those (like me) who grew up in conservative evangelical culture, Chick Tracts are instantly recognizable: the dark, apocalyptic artwork; the obscure human caricatures that somehow resemble everybody and nobody. And, of course, the fire-and-brimstone, life-and-death jeremiads on everything from homosexuality to atheism to Dungeons & Dragons. This description may sound absurd, but Chick’s talent was undeniable. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and artist Daniel Clowes once remarked that after reading through dozens of Chick Tracts late one evening, “I was convinced I was going to hell.”
This is precisely the response that Chick intended. His cartoons evoke a very old and very familiar legacy of dread within revivalistic preaching. A prime example is Chick’s most famous and bestselling tract: “This Was Your Life.” This booklet tells the story of a young-looking man whose sudden death puts him in the presence of the Judge of all the earth. Though the man insists he was a “good” person in life, God’s angel informs him that everything he has ever done has been recorded. Together, they watch as he tells dirty jokes, steals lustful glances, cheats, and lies. Weeping and panic-stricken, the man begs for forgiveness—but of course it is too late, and he is cast into hell.
Chick’s work also embodies a less penitent strain of cultural paranoia, a kind that has too often characterized the independent fundamentalist tradition in which Chick first professed Christ, and which he never left. Though Chick saw himself as an evangelist, he was perhaps better established as a conspiracy theorist—one who used his talents to convince readers that children could become demonically possessed through the Harry Potter books, or that trick-or-treating was a Satanic incantation.
Chick was also a deeply bigoted man. His animosity toward Roman Catholics was unhinged and vicious. An infamous tract titled “Holocaust” (which can still be custom ordered from Chick’s site) features an elderly survivor who tells the reader that the Nazis’ “Final Solution” was masterminded by Jesuits, and that Hitler was a “faithful Catholic” who remains admired by the Vatican. Such wild prejudices alienated Chick from mainstream evangelicalism; to this day, no major Christian retailer offers any of Chick’s material, and, as Joe Carter has noted, one is probably more likely to find a “Chicklet” in a gas station restroom than in an evangelical church.
While the impact of Chick’s career is difficult to estimate (fortunately, he appears to have had very few disciples), he was nonetheless a fascinating embodiment of both American evangelicalism’s sins and its virtues. Chick’s is a horror-movie gospel, in which a ravenous evil consumes the foolish souls who aren’t clever enough to defeat it. By reducing salvation to the threat of hell and the escape of the “sinner’s prayer,” Chick Tracts ironically turn grace into the same kind of superstitious incantation that they passionately decry. The gospel according to Jack Chick is one without beauty, without what John Calvin called the “infinite riches” of knowing Christ. There is only threat, and the remote possibility of clemency.
But there is a glimmer of good in Chick’s shadowy tales. In an age in which most religion could be classified as moralistic therapeutic deism, Chick Tracts spoke directly to the conscience. His cartoon characters are mortal beings who need truth in the face of death and eternity, not just affirmation and self-actualization on their way to their “best life now.” We need not follow Chick in his hateful, conspiratorial wanderings to know that he understood something about human nature that our culture’s self-appointed “thought leaders” often ignore.
Just days after Jack Chick died, a popular evangelical blogger made news by calling on Christians to reject the church’s historic teachings on sexuality and marriage, so as to meet better the felt needs of modern people. The contrast between the frigid fearfulness of the Chick Tracts and the murky apostasy of liberal revisionism should remind us that there is more than one way to disembowel the good news of the Kingdom. C. S. Lewis once warned that a cold, arrogant, self-righteous religious person may be nearer to hell than a moral libertine. “But of course,” he concluded, “it is better to be neither.”
Samuel D. James serves as communications specialist to the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.