What Comic Books Can Teach the Church

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“Oh dear, I can’t believe you are talking about comic books,” you are probably saying. What could a comic book possibly have to teach us in the church? Considering all the punching and super-powered drama of comics books, this is understandable. After all, it is pretty hard to take yellow spandex seriously.

But let’s not be so quickly dismissive. Today’s movies are dominated by billion dollar spectacles built upon the stories told 50 years ago of men and women in spandex who were saving the world. So what does that say for us today as we try and engage in culture? Well, I have a few thoughts.

We should be thoughtful about it. While the late Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s mantra of “the medium is the message” might not be as well-known as Spider-Man’s “with great power must also come great responsibility”, it’s important nonetheless. Unfortunately, with tens of thousands of pages written in either defense or critique of McLuhan’s work, it’s impossible to suss it out fully in a single blog post.

But in Understanding Media, his 1964 best-selling book, McLuhan was direct and forceful when he wrote that “our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” McLuhan doesn’t mince words, huh?

Comic books are like any other pop culture media in that the quality and tone of the content message varies wildly. But I don’t want to be as silly as to take up your time by drawing lines or prescribing individual messages you should either seek or avoid. That’s your job, and it would be the same with comics as it would be with the movie clips we show in sermons, the internet jokes we use, or the themes we use in church marketing.

I want to talk instead about comic books as a medium. Comic books are very visual obviously, and they also excel at telling stories in imaginative ways. What’s more, comic books slow readers down. The human brain must make connections about what is happening from one panel to the next. Readers must also understand cues from the context in the images, as dialogue is typically sparse in comic books.

This dovetails well with the natural strengths of communication in churches. Slowing down, considering images, reading context, and making connections are hallmarks of church communication values. Sparing a thought for how well comics communicate can help us communicate better in churches.

We should avoid the extremes. Related to the point above, the Church tends to do extremes. It’s often that a church hates all media and refuses to consider much of anything from popular culture, particularly from genres that is frequently misunderstood.

On the other extreme, there are churches that make the mistake of thinking that every pop culture property should be turned into a sermon series. There is a thoughtful middle when it comes to how churches can best use popular media to help their communication.

Comics come in so many shapes and sizes. Superhero movies have been the box office juggernaut of this decade, so it’s understandable that most folks would equate comic books with superheroes only. But the truth is that comic books cover virtually any topic you can imagine.

The 2016 National Book Award Winner was March: Book Three, the last in a series of comics by Congressman John Lewis, telling the true story his experience in the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. Another brilliant comic is I Kill Giants, which is a charming and quirky tale with an incredible amount of emotional depth that has been used by youth pastor friends of mine to help kids deal with grief.

Comic books can deliver powerful, important messages. Some of my favorite comics are old X-Men tales. A well known X-Men villain is Mister Sinister. Before his descent into villainy, Mister Sinister was geneticist with a sick child. His motivations are at first driven only by grief and a desire to help his child, but his lack of a strong ethical foundation eventually allows him to tumble off the edge into villany. That’s heady stuff, albeit wrapped in spandex.

The first comic book I bought was Amazing Spider-Man #200, purchased for just a couple quarters from an old drug store spinner rack. Even casual comic book fans are familiar with the words that Spider-Man lives by: “With great power comes great responsibility.” These were powerful words for a nerdy little kid who aspired to be like his hero, Spider-Man. I read issue after issue of colorful pages of Spider-Man foiling bank robbers, helping kids who were being picked on, and rescuing old ladies who had their pursues snatched. Of course, Spider-Man battling super-villains was fun too.

The words “with great power comes great responsibility” have stuck with me to this day. That’s in large part because my mom would reinforce those words with the phrase “to whom much is given, much is expected,” which was her heroic catchphrase that she pilfered from the “Parable of the Faithful Servant” in Luke chapter 12. All this is something I’m passing on to my comic book loving children as I try to instill in them an understanding that none of us should abuse our privilege. We should instead seek to serve and love others in our communities because the grace God gives us was never meant to be hoarded, it was meant to be shared.

Comics connect across generations. Many of the stories were written in the 1960’s and–while they are adapted for today–the core message works with my dad, with me, and with my daughters.

The takeaway is that comic books are something that many people enjoy and are consuming anyway, so it’s helpful to know that there are many that have valuable lessons and images from which churches can mine ore. But the church has to be looking to learn. And the church has to be thoughtful about it.

Sure, those stories are buried buried beneath a layer of spandex and words like Zoom! and Pow!, but comic books have some lessons and stories that can be of benefit to the church.

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