Chick Tracts: A Cultural Artifact, Cheap at Twice the Price.

Chick Tracts: A Cultural Artifact, Cheap at Twice the Price. October 28, 2016

Hey, gang! The Dark Dungeons live-blog is on for tomorrow. Here’s how it’ll go down: I’ll post an intro to the movie around 8:30pm PST. The movie itself is about 45 minutes long. Feel free to comment if you’re watching–I’ll be adding to the post in comments myself!

Now on to the post for the day–

A classic placement.
A classic placement. (Michael Coté, CC.)

A Cultural Artifact.

It’s amazing to me that there are people out there who’ve never, ever encountered a Chick tract. For any new folks reading this blog, a Chick tract is a little cartoon booklet put out by Chick Publications that is meant to terrify and awe its reader into converting to his brand of Christianity. There are hundreds of these booklets available for sale on his website, and you used to be able to find them at Christian bookstores wrapped up in plastic in bulk for purchase. Christians hand these out to strangers and hide them in various places. They’ve inspired a great many parodies, one of which we’ll be watching tomorrow.

Jack Chick, their main creator, is gone now–and we don’t know quite yet if the remaining artist(s) will be continuing his tradition or just reprinting and selling the ones he made during his lifetime. So chances are good that if you’ve never tangled with one of these little beasties at this point, you never will.

Though he began making them in the 1970s, their zenith of popularity seems to have been reached in the late 1980s–declining thereafter. But even afterward, they’ve popped up in the weirdest places, buoyed up by Christians’ probably-mistaken impression of their effectiveness.

We’ll talk about that impression later to examine it (because I’m frankly curious about just how effective this form of evangelism is), but for now, I find myself simply marveling at how popular they got–and how largely unknown they are now. I can only chalk older Christians’ affection for the booklets to a crushing case of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a powerful force in our culture. Entire industries operate to sell Americans treasured treats remembered from their childhood, some of our favorite websites are the ones poking fun at or admiring long-ago pop culture, and reboots of our favorite TV shows and movies are so ubiquitous that even the most die-hard fans are starting to complain about it all.

There’s actually science behind our insatiable yearning for our past. We idealize the stuff we liked, gloss over and forget the stuff we didn’t, and glamorize in our minds what is more of an emotional state than actual events. And if we happened to be in our teens and young-adulthoods during a particular era, that’s the era where our nostalgia will be the strongest and most emotionally resonant.

Well, for people in their late 30s and early 40s, that era is going to be the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s why the people who seem the most persuaded of Chick tracts’ effectiveness are older fundagelicals. These tracts came along at a very pivotal moment in their culture–a moment long gone, and a moment many of them dearly wish they could have back.

Like Sand in the Hourglass…

Chick tracts capture the essence of late 1980s fundagelical culture in a way that very little else does. In their tiny pages, we see a world where right-wing Christian talking points actually worked: where “evolutionists” had little to no evidence for transitional fossils, where men became gay through dysfunction in their relationships with their fathers, where miracles happened all the time, and where the idea of Wiccans casting spells that actually did stuff wasn’t outright laughed offstage by anybody sensible.

Even moreso, it’s a world where Christians win every single time, where non-Christians and loud dissenters get beaten-up just like they deserve, and where Jack Chick’s worldview turns out to be totally correct in all particulars. Christians are always moral powerhouses and handsome, strong, and gentle people who fascinate and enthrall everyone around themselves, while non-Christians get more grotesque and repellent the further they drift from the version of Christianity Jack Chick espoused.

It’s also a world in which every single Christian, no matter how small or unimportant, has a serious and grand role to play.

Jack Chick saw the world as the backdrop for a vast and unthinkably-broad war between Heaven and Hell–with demons and angels contesting invisibly for the souls of each and every person on the planet. In his world, every single thing and person could be divided up into “good” and “evil.” Everyone and everything either worked for or against his god–and everyone got what was coming to them. Every moment counted! Any day now, Jesus would kick-start the end of the world.

It’s a childish and simplistic view of the world, to be sure, but its sheer childishness and simplicity speak to Christians of a certain age and temperament. Jack Chick encouraged that temperament in what I can only assume was a deliberate way. The fervor of his fans, after all, paid his bills and afforded him no small measure of fame. He might know the secrets of the universe and be privy to his god’s great master plan, but he sure as hell wasn’t giving away his wisdom. People had to buy these tracts themselves–as Biff, my then-husband, found out when he asked our pastor to let him take a bunch of the church’s tracts to give strangers at  school. (I still remember how that poor old fellow froze, trying to work out how to tell Biff that no, he couldn’t do that–even though Biff likely could have gotten them in way more people’s hands than the church would likely see in a year.)

A Perfect Storm.

These little booklets exist in a cultural milieu alongside This Present Darkness and Mazes and Monsters–but also alongside the Jesus Movement and Rapture fantasies like The Late Great Planet Earth. At the height of their popularity, Satanic Panic was in full swing: that period when fundagelicals became downright terrorized by the idea of a widespread network of Wiccan Satanists/Satanist Wiccans (collectively referred to as the New Age) who secretly controlled the world.

The idea was that this cabal of Illuminati-like sorcerers were secretly kidnapping and abusing children and animals in order to gain power with their dark overlord and master, Satan. They also had their hands in porn, rock music, the sexual revolution, Catholicism (yes, seriously), alternative religions, drugs, biology classes, and roleplaying games (so yeah, pretty much all the things that fundagelicals hated). Only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ could possibly turn back that tide of evil and get the country back to safety and security! Only through crusades, revivals, and constant prayer could children be made safe, men be rescued from effeminacy and homosexuality, and marriages become whole again!

And Christians knew that this was happening and that our action was essential because Jack Chick, the nice man selling us stuff, told us so. After scaring the pants off of us by warning us about how responsible we were to warn every human being alive about Hell, he offered to sell us little books that we could pass out to work off that dreadful responsibility! (Wasn’t that just super of him?)

It’s hard even to guess which was the chicken and which was the egg in this equation. The Satanic Panic itself very likely influenced the tracts–Jack Chick was a grade-A conspiracy theorist who was not difficult to bamboozle–but there’s no doubt in my mind that the information contained in them influenced, in turn, conspiracy-minded fundagelicals who were not, themselves, very difficult to bamboozle. My own friends cited these tracts and Jack Chick’s other work as “evidence” for various claims, and even I fell for some of the crap in them before realizing, long before deconversion even, just how flimsy their foundations were.

Had Jack Chick gotten rolling just a couple of decades later than he did, he’d have just ended up on the fringes of the internet alongside classic right-wing nutjob sites like Rapture Ready and Jesus Is Savior (whose creator, ironically, does not at all approve of Jack Chick’s “false gospel”). His pearl-clutching over gay men, Wicca, Catholicism, roleplaying games, and rock music couldn’t have happened before the 1970s–and certainly not until fundagelicalism became a force in American politics.

But he hit just that perfect moment in American history when fundagelicals were flailing around in search of an solidified, politicized identity and the technology and distribution systems existed to get his message out and very little in the way of debunking material existed to contradict his claims and a moral panic existed to spur people into acting out of fear without critically assessing those claims.

Troubled Waters.

Paradise wouldn’t last. Just a few years later, Chick tracts were a memory that was cherished by a certain segment of fundagelicals, but cringed at by others. Most, though, don’t even know that these little booklets ever existed or that they were once an unmistakable and indelible part of Christian culture at one point. Jack Chick’s own conspiracy theorizing did him in–the tracts contain a number of disgusting and grotesque stereotypes of gay people, shocking images of child abuse and misogyny, fearmongering and pandering, and outright falsehoods about a variety of topics. And his black-or-white worldview is turning off a great many younger Christians, who seem increasingly unwilling to entertain the idea of a loving god who would fling their loved ones into Hell simply for believing the wrong doctrines.

The legacy of these booklets is gullibility, reckless disregard for the truth, and savage cruelty dressed up as “love.” They may seem silly and foolish now, but they are both a sign of fundagelicalism’s sharp descent into toxicity and very likely a cause of that slide. I seriously don’t think anybody can really understand right-wing Christians without understanding Chick tracts. They’re that much a part of the mindset and the cultural tapestry that animates and informs fundagelical thought.

The real irony is that for a cultural phenomenon that is so important, the tracts themselves are all but forgotten.

Oh, but there are still fans of them.

Even now, if you find yourself in a truck-stop bathroom way out in the middle of nowhere late one night, some folks say you might find a little booklet jammed into the top of a toilet-paper holder… or wedged in between the pages of a Christopher Hitchens book in a library somewhere… or handed to you as you hurry to class one crisp autumn day.

And when you see that colorful cover, you’ll know that you’re seeing a blast from the past–one that is thankfully slipping away faster every day from our culture.

We’re doing the review tomorrow, but join us after that for a look at how these tracts work–that is, if they do at all.

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