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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 1)

As has been noted recently in The SBL Forum, graphic novels that use and adapt biblical narratives and images are proliferating in the twenty-first century; as a result,, they are, thankfully, being subjected to both academic inquiry and widespread notice.[1] One of the more interesting phenomena within this proliferation is the presence of religiously didactic graphic novels; i.e., novels that attempt to inculcate or instruct their readers in certain aspects of religious faith. This should not be surprising, as the educational benefits of comic books have long been recognized.[2] More specifically, in the past three years comics have been used in a variety of didactic ways. In 2004, almost two hundred thousand comic strips were printed to evangelize and educate Cuban Christians about important figures in Cuban religious history.[3] That same year, writer and artist Mike Allred, who has also worked for DC Comics, began his successful "The Golden Plates" comic book series, which will retell The Book of Mormon.[4] Naif Al-Mutawa launched his series "The 99," which tells the tales of superheroes who happen to be Muslim, in July 2006. Al-Mutawa's story is based on the ninety-nine divine attributes of Allah in Islam and takes some of its back story from the Mongolian attack on Baghdad in the thirteenth century.[5] In August 2006, Kevin Frank's daily comic strip "Heaven's Love Thrift Shop," distributed by King Features Syndicate and featuring characters who openly discuss their faith, debuted in fifteen newspapers.[6] Late April 2007 saw the publication of a manga-style comic in England designed to make the Catholic priesthood appear more attractive to a younger audience.[7] Finally, in the spring of 2007, Arcadius Press is scheduled to release a graphic novel titled "Stories of the Saints," which includes brief biographies of five influential Catholic saints, including Saints Patrick and Joan of Arc, aimed at a younger audience.[8]

In a series of three Forum articles (of which this is the first), I will focus on three graphic novels: Robert James Luedke's Eye Witness: A Fictional Tale of Absolute Truth, Steve Sheinkin's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wit and Wisdom in the Wild West , and Frank Stack's The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming. All of these texts focus on scriptural stories in an attempt to instill certain messages or information in the reader. First, I will note the larger theoretical context of my examination, using the work of Conrad Ostwalt. Following this, I will discuss the works themselves, noting the specific techniques the authors use to posit certain claims and the overall message(s) they seem to convey. In this first article, I will focus on Robert Luedke's novel and address the other two in subsequent pieces. I will include my own personal view as to how well the graphic novels in question have achieved their goals and, in the third article, ruminate on what the significance is of such a discussion.

To some, it might seem surprising that authors interested in making claims about, or educating their readers in, a given religious tradition or a specific Scripture would choose to work in a decidedly secular medium such as comics. Anyone who has tried teaching the Bible to today's students, though, knows that, in a very real way, the medium through which the message is promulgated is key. In 1976, Howard G. Ball wrote:

A medium that is to become effective and communicate to the public must mirror the immediate culture. This is a valid criterion for any successful medium. This reflection is necessary if readers are to interpret, in a meaningful way, the plot, signs, and symbols used to communicate the message. It is also necessary that the medium offer some familiarity of incidents and experiences with which the reader can identify and relate. A study of the evolution of comic materials demonstrated that they have done an extraordinary job of mirroring the events and issues of the day. . . . Yes, popular comics do reflect contemporary society.[9]

However, this focus on the genre of comics does not address the concern some may have with the religious content found therein. That is, I can easily imagine a reader protesting, "But this is the Bible we're talking about! It doesn't belong in a comic book!" To some, this inclusion of biblical literature in such a medium might smack of "secularizing" the Scripture. In his work, though, Conrad Ostwalt has shown that the processes of adopting and adapting to secular cultures have long been a staple of religious traditions.[10] These processes are the main focus of Ostwalt's work, and within them he finds two main trends of secularization: the "sacrilization of the secular" and "the secularization of the sacred." The former refers to the process by which humans, no longer finding adequate religious meaning in traditional religious institutions and teachings, will seek to fulfill their religious impulse elsewhere — in many cases in "cultural products perceived to be secular," which "can carry authentic and meaningful religious content and deal with sacred concerns."[11] The graphic novels under discussion here exemplify the latter trend, i.e., "there is a tendency for religious institutions to employ secular and popular cultural forms like television and the movies [and, I would add, comics] to make religious teachings relevant for a modern audience."[12] In other words, traditional religious institutions, faced with increasing competition from secular forms of entertainment and meaning-making, not to mention other forms of religious practice, often use and adapt traditionally secular forms of cultural expression — as well as other secular tools like marketing, advertising, and communication — in order to promulgate their message. In his work, Ostwalt focuses on film, literature, and the megachurch movement, but his theory can obviously be applied to our graphic novels as well. As such, the authors of these novels are all attempting in one way or another to utilize the secular cultural form of the comic in order to express their own religious message(s).

Robert James Luedke's Eye Witness: A Fictional Tale of Absolute Truth, published in 2004, is the first volume in a planned trilogy. The second volume, Eye Witness: Acts of the Spirit, was published in 2006, and the third volume is scheduled for release in 2008. Volume 1 of this trilogy contains two intertwined plots. One plot centers on a self-identified religious skeptic named Dr. Terrence Harper, who is a "forensic archeologist." Dr. Harper, along with his Christian assistant Raj Patel, has been summoned by the Israeli Ministry of Antiquities to examine a newly discovered ossuary. Carbon dating shows the relic is from the first century, and it contains skeletal remains, "possibly corroded or misshapen spikes or nails," and two parchments.[13] The Ministry of Antiquities has managed to date both of these parchments: one "was wooven [sic] sometime between 28 and 32 A.D.," and the other scroll stems from "around 68 to 70 A.D." Dr. Harper quickly deciphers the scrolls, which he claims he has seen before at Qumran; they consist of "elements of the Hebrew script with that of the Koine." One scroll, we learn, is a first-hand account of Jesus' public ministry and death, written by Joseph of Arimathea at the bequest of the Sanhedrin. The story Luedke tells in this second plot is an admitted conflation of the New Testament Gospels, but the story skims over Jesus' miraculous actions and most of his teachings in its attempt to focus primarily on the Passion narrative. Because of this focus, Judas plays a large role in Luedke's work, and his orange-red hair conceals a true believer in Jesus as a Davidic messiah, an identity that Judas hopes the capture he is facilitating will force Jesus to reveal.[14] Also key in Luedke's version of the Passion is the Sanhedrin, some of whose members call a secret meeting in order to discuss how to rid themselves of Jesus. They decide that if they can manipulate the Romans into arresting Jesus on charges of sedition, then they will be able to keep their hands clean, as well as maintain the operations of the Temple. In his scroll, Joseph speculates as to whether or not Caiaphas has intervened out of genuine concern or because he feels "the lavish lifestyle for the entire priesthood" has been endangered. In any case, the Sanhedrin employ Saul of Tarsus to "look after" Jesus' disciples. Saul, here portrayed as a "Luca Brasi"-type enforcer, notes that he will do "whatever it takes to get the job done!"


The scene then shifts to the Last Supper, where an incredibly toned and muscled Jesus, wearing not much more than a loin cloth, washes the disciples' feet prior to sending Judas off on his mission. We are then shown Jesus in Gethsemane, a scene that Luedke alters into a Johannine-esque monologue with black backgrounds to emphasize the figure of Jesus praying. Mary even shows up here, telling Jesus how proud she is of him. The Romans show up, led by Judas, and arrest Jesus. Curiously, Luedke does not include the healing of the soldier's ear. Jesus is led away, and the trial narratives ensue.
First, he is taken to the Sanhedrin, which condemns him and sends him to Pilate. Wary of "Jewish trickery," but also worried about being replaced by Caesar, Pilate agrees to question Jesus in private. Once he discovers he is from Galilee, Pilate sends him to Herod, who in turn sends him back to Pilate, who acquiesces to the Jews' request and agrees to release Barbaras [sic]. He also orders Jesus to be flogged in order to satisfy the "bloodlust" of the Jews in the crowd. Luedke spends three full pages detailing Jesus' scourging and even includes an explanation of the punishment from Joseph's narrative. Following the Jews' repeated requests for Pilate to crucify Jesus, he finally gives the order, and Jesus is led away (fig. 1). At this point, Luedke inserts a full page of text from Joseph's account describing crucifixion as a method of execution, as well as what the Sanhedrin hoped to gain by disposing of Jesus — they managed to eliminate a threat "whose teachings were running contrary to many of our legal traditions, while at the same time it pointed the finger of blame for his death at Rome."





After Jesus reaches Golgotha, Luedke uses Joseph's story to describe and depict, in very realistic detail, Jesus' crucifixion. Observing all of this (fig. 2), Caiaphas casually remarks on the success of their plan: "We ended the threat of Jesus, we successfully tricked Pilate into being the one to dispose of him and it was all accomplished without so much as an argument from any of his followers." At the same time, Judas realizes his plan has backfired; when he confronts Jesus, the latter proves a remarkably good sport about the whole incident, telling Judas that God chose him because he was Jesus' friend. As such, Judas is acquitted of any guilt in Jesus' death, which I find interesting given that the Sanhedrin does not receive any such compassion. Following this, we return to more gruesome detail from Joseph's scroll, which enumerates the damage crucifixion does to the respiratory system. Jesus then dies, and his death is accompanied by an eclipse as well as an earthquake. After Jesus' death, Luedke again provides a full page of text in which Joseph speculates on Jesus' actions surrounding his death; he ends up concluding, "Through all of these events he showed us, not only that he was indeed, 'the Son of Man,' with all of our human vulnerabilities and frailty, but also the Son of God, through his willingness to sacrifice all in the name of his father!" So, Joseph of Arimathea is now a follower of Jesus, which explains his request to Pilate that he be allowed to bury Jesus. Assisted by Nicodemous, a repentant member of the Sanhedrin, they bury Jesus in Joseph's tomb and roll a stone in front of the tomb, which "could be secured and sealed by a handful of men, but to remove it from the entrance would require dozens of men." Luedke concludes Joseph's scroll with three pages of text in which Jesus' resurrection and subsequent appearances are adumbrated. Joseph even returns to the motivation of the Sanhedrin again, writing, "They had allowed that concern over their economic and political stability, to guide their every step and overshadow their ability to recognize the very man our scriptures had described in much detail."





The focus of the novel then reverts to the first plot, where Dr. Harper and the specialists from the Ministry of Antiquities are ecstatic that they have discovered "the first hard evidence that corroborates the Gospels of the Bible." The Director of the Ministry, Dr. Joshua Riban, and Dr. Harper have dinner that night to discuss the findings and their implications. Riban is very concerned that the discovery "could lead to a wave of anti-Semitism around the world," that "it could take my people backward to where we were prior to the Vatican-2 agreement of '62!" Harper, though, is more interested in discussing this new evidence's impact on his spiritual life: "I feel like a blindman [sic] given sight! We've uncovered that piece of evidence of devine [sic] intervention, that I've searched for my whole life." Riban is adamant, though: their findings will not be released to the public out of fear of anti-Jewish reprisals. It seems obvious that Harper's story parallels Joseph's, in that they both are won over to Jesus' teachings due to their understanding of new evidence, but one wonders whether Riban is meant to parallel Caiaphas — and if so, how that would affect Riban's concern over anti-Semitic reprisals. Harper returns to his room to find it ransacked and his assistant tied up. Evidently, Riban's men were looking for any trace of Harper's work on the ossuary and scrolls. Unbeknownst to them, though, Harper had the data with him, so all appears to be safe. He and Raj leave the next day; on the way to the airport, in the cab, Harper decides to become a Christian and asks Raj to help him, as seen in figure 3. As the two pray in the cab, a young Muslim opens the door and announces, "I go to the sweet life where flows a river of honey and there are fruits-a-plenty and 72 virgins await me!" He then detonates his bomb, and the following page simply says " . . . And then everything went white." The final two pages contain a postscript, in which we see Raj's wife (now widow) receiving a package containing Dr. Harper's translations and analyses of the scrolls.

Obviously, Luedke has put a lot of time and effort (four years) into this project. From his comments at the end of the novel, he has done so out of deeply held religious convictions. Even so, there are several issues that we need to address regarding this work. First, Luedke's art is realistic, i.e., he attempts to portray and render people and places as realistic representations of the things themselves. As Scott McCloud has argued, this reliance on realism tends to lead the reader away from the "world of concepts" to focus more on the images and narrative as they are presented.[15] Thus, one could argue that by rendering his art in this way, Luedke is not attempting to draw his readers into any sort of critical reflection of the concepts he is presenting, but rather simply informing them, via comic narrative, of certain occurrences: the abbreviated public career, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as well as the effects those phenomena have on both Joseph and Harper. As such, this reliance on realism ultimately proves detrimental to Luedke's goal, in that readers are not encouraged to contemplate the idea of salvation, but instead are asked to focus on the surface level of the novel, which often seems both pedantic and monotonous.[16] Second, even though Luedke claims not to have been influenced by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which also premiered in 2004, there is enough overlap in both imagery and implication of guilt that one can apply nearly all of the criticisms of Gibson's film to Luedke's portrayal of Jesus' passion and the Jews' culpability.[17] Specifically, the exceedingly violent portrayal and description of Jesus' crucifixion, as well as the scheming of the Jewish leadership in pursuit of power and to satisfy their "bloodlust," both echo the concerns raised over Gibson's film.[18] Third, the edition of the book that I was sent for review contained numerous typographical errors; I counted mistakes on forty-one of the ninety-two pages. The sheer number of errors is distracting and makes it difficult for the reader to take the work as seriously as it wishes to be taken. However, I have been assured that a revised version of the book will appear after the third volume is published in which these errors will be corrected.[19] Finally, and perhaps most importantly, who is the intended audience for this book, and how well does it fulfill its didactic purpose? Luedke specifically states that in 2001, "The seed was planted in my head, that someone needed to present this information, in a format that was accessible to more people . . . especially young people. . . . I was charged with bringing the Passion story of Jesus to the youth of the world, in a format that they are both familiar and comfortable with." Again, I do not doubt Luedke's sincerity, but the level of violence in the text, the inordinate amount of text and the vocabulary therein, the rather clumsy attempts at humor, and the lack of emphasis on the concepts he is attempting to inculcate via his use of realistic art — these all point to the fact that his attempt at didacticism and obvious evangelism is not as successful as he might wish it to be.

Dan Clanton, Denver, Colorado

Notes
I would like to thank Robert and Sandy Luedke from Head Press for their help and kind permission to reprint text and images from the graphic novels discussed herein. Thanks also must go to my friends and fellow Bible and comics scholars, Terry R. Clark and G. Andrew Tooze, for their assistance and support. Finally, I would like to thank Leonard Greenspoon and Sharon Johnson for putting up with my interest in popular culture for so long.

[1] Some of these Forum articles include David G. Burke and Lydia Lebrón-Rivera, "Transferring Biblical Narrative to Graphic Novel," SBL Forum (2004); online: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=249 ; Dan W. Clanton, Jr., "The Bible and Graphic Novels: A Review and Interview with the Authors of Marked and Megillat Esther," SBL Forum 4/1 (2006); online: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=477 ; G. Andrew Tooze, "Do Superheroes Read Scripture? Finding the Bible in Comic Books," SBL Forum 5/2 (2007); online:http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=614 ; and Terry Ray Clark, "Biblical Graphic Novels: Adaptation, Interpretation, and 'Faithful Transfer'," SBL Forum 5/3 (2007); online: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=641

[2] See, e.g., James L. Thomas, ed., Cartoons and Comics in the Classroom: A Reference for Teachers and Librarians (Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1983); and the educational resources available on the website for the National Association of Comics Art Educators (NACAE) at http://www.teachingcomics.org/ .

[3] See "Cuban Prelates Evangelizing with Comic Strips," from Zenit.org, reprinted in WorldWide Religious News (posted 2 December 2004); online at http://www.wwrn.org/sparse.php?idd=2795 .

[4] See Christy Karras, "Book of Mormon Retold: LDS Comic Book Shows Some Character," The Salt Lake Tribune, 26 November 2004; reprinted in WorldWide Religious News; online at http://www.wwrn.org/sparse.php?idd=6100 . See also Tad Walch, "LDS Comics Are a Big Hit," Deseret Morning News, 1 June 2005; reprinted in WorldWide Religious News; online at http://www.wwrn.org/sparse.php?idd=17089 .

[5] Jason Szep, "Islamic Superheroes Take Aim at Muslim Youth," WorldWide Religious News (posted 8 October 2006); online at http://wwrn.org/article.php?idd=22991 . See also http://www.theninetynine.com/ .

[6] See John Leland, "Faith and the Funny Pages," The New York Times, 27 August 2006; reprinted in WorldWide Religious News; online at http://wwrn.org/article.php?idd=22544 . Samples and more information are available at http://www.heavenslovethriftshop.com/ .

[7] Jonathan Wynne-Jones, "Cartoon to Tempt Teenagers into Priesthood," Telegraph, 29 April 2007; reprinted in WorldWide Religious News; online at http://wwrn.org/article.php?idd=24923 .

[8] Elizabeth Day, "Holy Comic Books! Saints are the Latest Superheroes," Telegraph, 26 March 2006; reprinted in WorldWide Religious News; online at http://wwrn.org/article.php?idd=20982 . For a sample of this first volume, go to http://www.arcadiuspress.com/ .

[9] Howard G. Ball, "Who Is Snoopy?," in Cartoons and Comics in the Classroom, [14-20] 17.

[10] See Conrad Ostwalt, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003), 11 and 14-23. In this work, Ostwalt focuses specifically on Christianity, but his general claims certainly apply to other religious traditions. For more information about Ostwalt's book, see my review in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 4 (2003); online: http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/br4-secularsteeples.html

[11] Ostwalt, Secular Steeples, 7.

[12] Ibid.

[13] All quotations are from Roberet Luedke, Eye Witness: A Fictional Tale of Absolute Truth (Flower Mound, Tex.: Head Press, 2004) and are reprinted with permission.

[14] As such, Luedke's Judas is a variation of the "Judas the Misunderstood Patriot and Revolutionary" type delineated by Kim Paffenroth in his Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 82-101.

[15] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 49-??.

[16] Interestingly, this realistic approach is almost in exact opposition to the abstract symbolist method of the earliest Christian art. In contrast to the prevailing realism of Roman art, early Christian artists rendered their subjects in an idealistic fashion, thus asking the viewer not to focus exclusively on the representation, but rather on what ideas, symbols, narratives, and concepts were being referenced.

[17] Personal correspondence with Sandy Luedke, 21 March 2007.

[18] For critiques of these issues in the film that can also be applied to the graphic novel, see John T. Pawlikowski, "Gibson's Passion in the Face of the Shoah's Ethical Considerations," and Maddy Cunningham, "'Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?' The Psychological Risks of 'Witnessing' the Passion," in Pondering the Passion: What's At Stake for Christians and Jews? (ed. Philip A. Cunningham; Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 157-68 and 169-179. See also Stephen T. Davis, "Crucifying Jesus: Antisemitism and the Passion Story," and John K. Roth, "No Crucifixion = No Holocaust: Post-Holocaust Reflections on The Passion of the Christ," in After the Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences (eds. J. Shawn Landes and Michael Berenbaum; Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004), 219-28 and 243-53, Finally, see Yaakov Ariel, "The Passion of the Christ and the Passion of the Jews: Mel Gibson's Film in Light of Jewish-Christian Relations," and "Steven Leonard Jacobs, "Can There Be Jewish-Christian Dialogue after The Passion?," in Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson's Film and Its Critics (ed. S. Brent Plate; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 21-41 and 43-52.

[19] Personal correspondence with Sandy Luedke, 21 March 2007.

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Citation: Dan Clanton, " Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 1)," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=676

 
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