Problems have solutions

Problems have solutions February 12, 2021

Image: Amazon

I don’t follow many web comics. Okay, I don’t follow any web comics–though I am at least aware they exist. But from what I understand, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half is one of the good ones. If her newest book Solutions and Other Problems is typical, the website is undoubtedly good as well. Because Solutions and Other Problems is a very, very good book.

Like her previous book (also Hyperbole and a Half), Solutions and other Problems is funny, thoughtful, and clever in its use of simple art. It’s also fairly bleak in its outlook. I assume that much of what we’re getting here is autobiographical–though maybe I shouldn’t. If I’ve learned anything from compulsively watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, it’s that people who do comedy for a living care more about the bit that about accuracy. That’s not a shot–they’re allowed to put humor first (heck, I’m a Political Scientist and see the world through the filter of politics). But just because something is said doesn’t automatically make it true. Bill Watterson drew the greatest comic strip of the 20th century (and if you disagree, I will fight you) without having children of his own. So again, maybe I shouldn’t assume this is all autobiographical in its details.

But assuming that the general content and tone are based on fact, as I said this is a bleak, funny, book. It is about wrestling with a world that makes no sense, seems to be out of control, and in which the author cannot see how there can be any transcendent meaning. Brosh even intentionally undercuts the meaning inherent in the structure of a book by dropping out a chapter number (while telling us she’s dropping out a chapter number–it’s number 4, in case you were wondering; cue the numerologists to explain the significance of that omission). The art style, which is again incredibly clever and occasionally straight-up hilarious, contributes to this bleak worldview with its simplicity and spartan design. Of course the world is empty of meaning–there are rarely more than two people in it at a time; the setting is usually simple and stark; things happen without explanation (particularly tragedies, of which there are several deeply devastating ones in this book); etc.

This is a book I would strongly, strongly encourage Christians to read. In addition to being a great read, Solutions and Other Problems is a window into one of the dominant worldviews of the 21st century. This view is certainly a major one in the world, but I suspect that there’s a streak of it in the church as well. What’s more, it is a worldview that doesn’t lend itself to easy evangelization. Adam Ford (in his pre-Bee/pre-Not-the-Bee days) might have produced a Christian-themed comic along similar artistic lines, but the similar simplicity of style between the two won’t overcome the vast divided between perspectives. The “we’re all sinners who need to repent/Christ has paid for our sins on the cross” of Ford’s comic would be at best a jarring contrast if placed in Brosh’s, and at worst an empty statement so disconnected with the reality of the setting that it would sound cruel.

And while we as Christians believe that there are times when it is more important to evangelize than to worry about contrasts or sounding cruel (as opposed to being cruel, of course–we should never do that), we should also be careful that we are not being so thoughtless with our words or unaware of our audience that we end up obscuring the goodness of the news we have. “You need Jesus” is technically true of all human beings, but if that is our gut reaction to the “problem” we find in Solutions and Other Problems then even though it is the right solution we will have failed to communicate well. 8²-(34-20-√36) technically is the answer to “2+2=?” (and it took me an embarrassingly long time to get that where it needed to be), but it’s jarring to see it written that way and not really the way to go about making the case.

So how should we communicate? Frankly, I’m not sure. With kindness and compassion, certainly (to pick two characteristics I don’t particularly abound in). With understanding and while listening carefully, and also certainly without compromising the truth of Scripture. But also without giving in to the bleakness of books like Solutions and other Problems even as we admit their quality as works of art, enjoy the skill and humor that goes into them, and appreciate the effort of the work and the artist to communicate something deeply personal and important.

All of that to say, you should certainly read this book, enjoy it, and think deeply about what it tells us about the perspective others have of the world we live in.

Dr. Coyle Neal is host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO


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