A Jack Chick Retrospective

A Jack Chick Retrospective October 27, 2016

It’s the end of an era:

Jack Chick has died.

Finally.

In a way, it’s more important to understand Jack Chick’s role in shaping right-wing Christian culture than it is to understand Jimmy Swaggart’s contribution to the mindset (or for that matter Pat Robertson’s). For good or ill, Jack Chick was modern American fundagelicalism. I’ll show you what I mean by that today.

Ding, dong.
Ding, dong.

Tract Culture.

David W. Daniels, a spokesperson for Chick Publications, recently announced on the site’s Facebook page that Jack Chick had passed away at the age of 92.

Jack Chick was an evangelist who was most famous for creating “Chick tracts,” which are little bitty comic-book-style evangelism booklets with childish black-and-white artwork and even more simplistic messages of fear and terror that are meant to persuade readers to become Christian. They can be best summed up as “turn or burn” tracts that threaten non-believers with gruesome fates for non-compliance in order to sell the artist’s decidedly extremist and controlling version of Christianity.

Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Chick produced many hundreds of these tracts, most of which fall into the general themes of basic threats, pseudoscience and revisionist-history peddling, feuds with other denominations and religions, ludicrous speculations about Catholicism (many based on debunked claims made by Alberto Rivera, a conjob who clearly found the poor gullible evangelist to be quite an easy mark), offensive and bigoted accusations about LGBTQ people, and rants about secular culture.

Back in my day, his work was extremely popular. A great many right-wing evangelical and fundamentalist churches stocked his tracts in their lobbies for visitors to take. Individual Christians purchased them in bulk from religious bookstores and used them to open conversations with non-believers–or (more commonly) passed them out in lieu of such conversations. Sometimes Christians would hide these tracts in public bathrooms or in books that were critical of the tract-hider’s religious beliefs. And often they used the tracts as a substitute for tipping in restaurants. Suffice to say that these little booklets were a near-ubiquitous part of 1980s right-wing Christian culture in my neck of the woods–and still are in places! They quickly gained a (mostly unfounded) reputation as an effective evangelism tool–especially for Christians who were very shy about talking to others about their faith.

Over the years, Jack Chick kept up with trends–toning down or playing-up topics as need be. His site even created a way to embed tracts right inline–and I notice they now even sell a special wallet to hold the print-version tracts so they don’t get too dog-eared, something my then-husband Biff would have appreciated way back when!

The announcement of the evangelist’s passing produced an outpouring of sympathy as Christians drilled down on the weird theology that Jack Chick preached and idolized. Plenty of dissenters, too, showed up to talk about how the cartoonist’s work had hurt them and/or led them straight out of Christianity. It’s a fascinating thread all on its own, worth the read to see exactly why Christianity is failing and how. (We’ll be returning to this topic later.)

It seemed sometimes like Jack Chick was fueled entirely by hatred, fear, and conspiracy theories. But he far outlasted his time, and even his own tribe doesn’t seem to know what to do with his legacy now that he’s gone.

A Fundagelical’s Fundagelical.

How to Multi-Class a Catholic Schoolgirl/Thief.
How to Multi-Class a Catholic Schoolgirl/Thief.

Jack Chick was the original ur-evangelical. His theology was nothing short of horrifying. But he was an equal-opportunity haterSaid to be modeled after the preaching of the famous evangelist Charles Finney, Jack Chick’s view of his own tribemates was largely critical–and focused on proactively seeking “revival” to fix all the problems he saw in his own group.*

Here’s a rundown of Jack Chick’s greatest hits. I don’t think Jack Chick ever met a right-wing conspiracy theory he didn’t like or ever failed to achieve a mental contortion demanded by his religious teachings. Tolerance was really intolerance and intolerance was really love, in his world. His worldview was filled with double standards, such as this one: children were fair game for proselytizing, but only by fundagelicals; if anybody else did it, then it was bad. (The reality, that it’s not actually good for anybody to proselytize children–and that non-Christians actively try not to do that–was lost on him.) In his way, he was both the product and one of the most fervent sources of the 1980s’ Satanic Panic. (Even my mother briefly fell for that propaganda.)

He was one of the best examples of Toxic Christianity that the world could encounter outside of those Westboro assholes. But he didn’t restrict himself to just the tiny little Tijuana-Bible-like tracts. His press also distributed a wide range of full-color comic books and regular print books, almost all of which repeated his (largely-debunked) various conspiracy theory beliefs.

HAW HAW HAW.

Jack Chick only gave one interview after 1975, and precious few before then. (Here’s a scan of one of them.) He preferred to let his work speak for him.

And speak it did.

The god who ruled over Jack Chick’s universe was a sadistic bastard–much like Jack Chick himself sounded like he was. This “loving” deity would happily accept a murderer into his afterlife if the fellow only mouthed the correct words before dying, but he could be counted upon to reject lifelong missionaries who’d done their best to improve the world but hadn’t mouthed the right magic spells in time. In Jack Chick’s world, a child might die of parental abuse, but if he’d managed to convert before death, then all was well. (Incidentally, in that “Somebody Loves Me” tract, rumor has it that the little girl’s offer to fetch help was not part of the original tract.)

Many of his little stories featured horrific deaths of the Just World sort–but in reverse. People who seemed really nice and decent died all the time in his tracts, but Jack Chick always showed (with a lurid glee that clearly carried through the art) these people being punished. He made a very special point of tearing down his fellow Christians by flinging them into Hell (seen to hilarious effect in the tract “Four Angels”). He printed a number of tracts specifically talking about Christians who found out all too late that their devotions simply weren’t enough, like “Reverend Wonderful” below:

This is what I'm talking about. (From "Reverend Wonderful", published 1982.) One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the artist had to go to his bunk for a few minutes after drawing these panels.
This is what I’m talking about. (From “Reverend Wonderful“, published 1982.) One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the artist had to go to his bunk for a few minutes after drawing these panels.

Strangely, none of the Christians celebrating his ascent into Heaven seem to remember that the whole point of Matthew 7:22 was that nobody but nobody could really feel safe in their “saved” status. There is literally no way to know who’s in and who’s out; at any moment someone can fall out of “grace” and thus be doomed after death. (Obviously, a number of fundagelicals would dispute this assertion–but the simple truth is that what I’ve outlined is exactly what is preached in most churches. I was not the only Christian who lived in terror of dying “in sin” or believing the wrong thing and thus going to Hell despite a lifetime of belief and obedience.) To drive that point home a little further, “Flight 144” has its dead missionaries protesting as they are damned that they’d been good people, but Jack Chick declares that they’re screwed because “there is none righteous, no, not one.” And the converted murderer lecturing them right before the plane crash gets into Heaven while they suffer forever.

Don't you feel like rushing right out to serve this god? ("Flight 144.")
Don’t you feel like rushing right out to serve this god? (“Flight 144.”) Not that there’s any evidence that this scenario is a real and valid threat, but still.

As Jack Chick himself pointed out constantly, even someone who seemed really “good” might be harboring some secret sin or doubt or wrong belief that could disqualify them from admission to Heaven. Nobody would find out until after death if they had bet on the right horse. So it’s a little weird that so many Christians on that Facebook page are declaring Jack Chick to be in Heaven right now. You’d think they, of all Christians, would know how impossible it is to be sure of anybody’s eternal fate!

Of course, these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ imagine that they are the exception to that rule. Jack Chick himself firmly believed that the Bible would tell a curious person exactly which horse was the right horse, but in his narcissism he assumed that his horse was the correct one, and that obviously anybody who properly read the Bible would come to that same conclusion. All those hundreds of thousands of other TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who are all convinced that their different-but-quirky take is the real one? Wrong and hellbound, the lot of them.

And only Jack Chick and his flailing ink pens can save them from their own folly.

Jack Chick not only didn’t sympathize with those people, he mocked them. His constant refrain of “HAW HAW HAW!” can be heard echoing and re-echoing across the pages of almost every one of his tracts. He completely blamed the people who heard but were not persuaded of his threats and blustering assertions. Using his villains as a mouthpiece, he taunted and jeered the people who’d been “deceived.” In his world, the victims are the ones that get blamed.

His theology was based entirely on terror–and his evangelism was based entirely on trying to help people avoid the fate that had long terrorized him.

There was nothing of love in Jack Chick’s tracts.

A Thankfully Closed Book.

Amusingly, his death isn’t getting a lot of attention.

Catholics are talking about it. They think they’re being magnanimous because they’re praying for his soul–a gesture he distinctly wouldn’t have wanted from people he viewed as Satanic at worst, utterly-deceived at best, but consent as a concept has always been really iffy in the religion as a whole. Forcing prayers on people is something most Christians don’t regard as a boundary violation. (It really reminds me of the people who sent sex toys to those right-wing nutjobs who took over the bird sanctuary last spring.) Considering that he did no damage to them at all in all his years of flailing, I’m not impressed with their gracious, generous, genteel forgiveness of the man.

Non-Christians–atheists, Nones, ex-Christians, and the like–and progressive Christians like Fred over at Slacktivist are certainly talking about this death, largely because many of them were very negatively impacted by Jack Chick’s work. A constant refrain can be heard going up from that corner as people share how terrorized he made them, how gruesome a view of Christianity he presented, and how hateful his worldview was.

Older fundagelicals are also talking about him, largely in social media and almost always in very glowing terms. The sort of Christians who know about and like Jack Chick’s work are the same ones who really think magic spells are real, that Catholics are part of a world-ruling cabal, that the Good Ole Days were soooo much better  than the modern age ever could be, and that demons lurk around every corner. They’re the people my age (mid-40s) and older–the ones who first read his earliest tracts as teens and were very impressed by his simple universal message of fear, greed, control-lust, bigotry, and overreach. Since their generation is still in charge of churches and forming the mainstay of congregations, we’re going to have a few more years of them to deal with.

Christianity Today, Charisma News, and a few other fundagelical-leaning outlets have mentioned his passing, but I haven’t seen any of those articles arousing much response (except on Wing Nut Daily, of course, but their readership appears to be exactly the older fundagelicals who constitute the core of his fanbase). The more level-headed Religion News Service gives him some space but barely mentions the criticisms leveled at his work.

But the newer, younger right-wing Christians? Radio silence about his death on the Patheos Evangelical Channel, at least so far. I couldn’t find any of them talking about Jack Chick’s passing. And little wonder. He’s as far removed from their culture as Chaucer is from Shakespeare: part of them, but more like background noise than a revered ancestor.

His legacy lives on in them, though, like an inexorable corruption with a power all its own. His tribemates’ current rants about EVIL LIBERALISM would be entirely familiar to him even if they don’t give proper credit to him as one of the architects of their rage. Even the parodies dotting the internet pay a strange homage to his fizzing tinfoil-hat hatred. And as many of y’all know, we’re going to be watching Dark Dungeons, a movie based on one of his most iconic tracts, later this weekend. There’s just something about this guy’s sheer wild-eyed  and plodding, pedantic, ponderous, bees-headed bigotry and pseudoscience that catches the attention.

Jack Chick’s life was a chapter in Christianity’s book that most Christians either didn’t know about or actively tried to distance themselves from, and his passing is hopefully going to be part of the closing of that entire book. May the few people who actually know about him and his work look back on his life as the sadistic joke at humanity’s expense that it really was.

We’ll be talking later about his actual impact, and my favorite tracts of his. We might even have time to fit in a few mini-reviews. For now though, adieu until next time!


The Jack Chick Archives at Roll to Disbelieve:


* Revival: A Christianese word that generally means a resurgence of popular interest in the correct type of Christianity or a great increase in the number of people joining a particular church or denomination. Fundagelicals often believe that their god “sends” revival, but they like to kick-start the process by holding revival meetings, which are big events featuring extra-special preaching geared toward evangelism. Revival can also mean a resurgence of fervor in an individual Christian’s heart. Of course, just as happens with prayer, even a hint of sin or doubt can totally stymie the Christian god’s attempt to send a revival to any of his followers or churches. Revival services are rambunctious even by fundagelical standards, but I don’t remember many of them resulting in any lasting results or conversions.

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