The other day, I was driving on 95 south and saw a billboard that made me want to chew glass. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, and no, there wasn’t a typo. Instead, this was a bit of roadside “theology” that made me absolutely fume. The sign contained the words “In the beginning, God created…” and an image vaguely resembling the evolution of man (similar to this) covered by a red X. The message is brief and meant, I think, to be provocative. Well, it is, and it is also horribly injurious to the mission of the church.
As much as these sorts of signs upset me, I find them baffling as well. I’m just not sure what their creators hope to accomplish by putting them up. Has that sort of passive-aggressive proselytizing ever worked on anyone anywhere? Or, if it has, has it resulted in a real, long-term relationship with Jesus? I’m skeptical, because it operates on such a false premise. Throwing up a sign and waggling a judgmental finger is most decidedly not a Christian tactic, despite the fact that people claiming Christianity’s mantle have been doing it for centuries. When I see this sort of behavior in God’s name, I find it positively infuriating because that’s not how Jesus operates. Nowhere in the Gospels does He raise a protest sign, nor does he ever instruct his disciples to do so. He never teaches from a place of shame or judgement, but rather from grace and truth. In John 8, the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and demand judgement. After He gently disperses them (even though they were trying to trap Him in His words), Jesus turns to the woman and says ” ‘Then neither do I condemn you….’Go now and leave your life of sin.’ ”
Grace–“neither do I condemn you.” Truth–“Go now and leave your life of sin.” In that order and always together, that’s how Jesus won people to Himself and to faith in His father. There is nothing gracious about a billboard or protest sign that leads with guilt. There’s nothing true in it either.
The ideological premise this billboard seems to be built on is that science and Christianity are in opposition. Yeah, no. Let’s please kick that to the curb right now. The Bible doesn’t condemn science, archeology, or intellectual inquiry; it just doesn’t. I fact, when a teacher of the law asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is…
“Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the fist and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40, emphasis mine).
He’s not telling us to lock our brains in a box, but rather to use our mind, along with the rest of our being, to understand and love God. It just doesn’t jive for me that a text which draws a line between the beauty of the natural world and God’s majesty would contradict a method for understanding said natural world. In fact, if you are going to the Bible to look for scientific and/or historical explanations, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Scripture reveals a lot about God to us, and we’re fortunate that way. We don’t have to guess or wonder about God’s love for us, because He’s explained it to us in writing. That does not mean, however, that the Bible is a compendium of all He has known, thought, and done. God is eternal, folks, and you can’t distill infinity into a single book. You can’t cram it into a million books, so to say that evolution is false simply because it’s not in the Bible is ludicrous. Penguins aren’t mentioned either, but I’ve seen plenty of them. More than that, it’s arrogant in the extreme to make such a claim, because you are suggesting a complete understanding of God’s ways. To that the Bible says nope: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
Yes, God created. I agree with that 100%. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things about Him, because that suggests that in my creative endeavors, I am imitating Him (in some tiny way). What I do not agree with is the notion that we humans can have a complete understanding of how he created. If you walk into the National Museum of Natural History, into the Hall of Human Origins, look at those fossils, read and listen to the scientists, and then decide that it’s all some giant hoax meant discredit the Bible, I don’t think you can call yourself a Christian. By refusing to critically consider scientific evidence, you are ignoring one the two principal commandments.
I think what bothers me most about the billboard is how blatantly contradictory it is and how much that undermines the credibility of Christians. The sign appears to reject biological complexity in favor of God, when God is the most complex being in the universe. Look at the world He made; it’s massively complicated and filled with untold connections which have to be just so for life to exist. If our planet were just a little closer to or a little farther away from the sun, nothing of what you see would exist. Now, science helps me understand that fact and some choose to see it as a happy accident. But when I combine that truth with the truth of Christ in my life, with all the myriad ways His grace has shaped and saved me, my picture of the world becomes a little more complete. I believe that spiritual truth is of a higher order than scientific truth, but that does not mean science lacks merit. Quite the opposite, in fact. These two ways of seeing the world, along with ideas like artistic and poetic truth, change my perception and reveal more of God’s working in the world.
When an unbeliever is doing 75 and sees this sign, there’s a good chance they will scoff at it, writing it off as “close-minded Christianity.” In that moment, they are driven farther from God, farther from an abundant life in Christ. More than the intellectual backwardness, more than the offense it does me, that moment of loss is the worst effect of signs like this.
Memoir is a tricky thing. At its best, the story is more than telling the tale of someone’s life; there’s a point to be made. Travels With Charlie, for example, isn’t so much about Steinbeck (or his dog, for that matter) as it is about the American experience. Gownley, whether through intuition or intention, gets the concept, and has crafted a singularly excellent graphic memoir. In illustrating his adolescence, the author also has a lot to say about the form his memoir takes.
In once sense, this is a straightforward coming of age story. Gownley samples his middle school and high school years as he searches for a sense of purpose and identity. There are friends, teachers, girls, and the occasional bouts of anxiety and depression. The unifying thread through all of them, what really drives the narrative (and Gownley, I suppose), is comics. The young Jimmy did not just read comics; he drew them; he published them. And it is that journey, as much as the others, which makes his story fascinating. Moreover, he uses the comic form to not only tell his story but subtly advocate for the importance of comics and graphic novels.
This is a point I can thoroughly get behind. We still live is a literary environment where too many people associate “comics” with superheros. And while that is a part of the comics world, that is not nearly the extent of it. I suppose it was Art Spiegelman’s Maus which really shook people up in this respect, but more recent titles like Relish, Drama, and American Born Chinese have continued to defy the stereotype. What I really admire about The Dumbest Idea Ever is that it doesn’t just make the argument, it exemplifies it as well.
When one of Gownley’s friends suggests writing a comic about their life in small town PA, rather than one about “evil jewelry,” Gownley rejects the idea out of hand. His thought process afterwards, however, essentially makes the argument which is at the core of the whole book. “Comics are about heroes and villains and mutants punching each other in the face! Y’know…cool stuff. Who would ever want to read a comic about a couple of idiots like us?” (p. 106) Beneath that surface, however, is a more serious fear for the artist: “At least ‘Star Lord’ is just a dumb story. No one will think it really matters to you. You have so much less to lose that way!” (p. 107) Any kind of writing, any kind of art, requires the creator to open themselves up to the exposure of secrets and criticism. While superhero artists can run the same risk, it is easy to see how the capes and adventure can act as a mask or shield. The kind of book Gownley has drawn (along with the work of his younger self in the story) is every bit as honest as a purely print memoirist.
And this may be Gownley’s point: like any other art, comics are not just one thing. I love superhero books. Comics are more than that. I love Calvin & Hobbes. Comics are more than that. I love this book. Comics are more than this too. This novel is as much an appeal for equality as anything else. We all find something to latch on to, something to put our faith in, when we’re young. It could be the church or sports or the hope of a family. Whatever it is, we have to wrestle with understanding it if we are to follow it through to a sense of self. For Jimmy Gownley that thing was comics, and they are every bit as hopeful as anything else in this world.
“My heart’s broken, all of my previous work is pretty much useless…and I’m years away from a goal that might not even be attainable. Feels good to have home court advantage. Anyway, I can’t think about all of that…all I can focus on is what is here and now…and right here…right now…is the beginning” [Jimmy begins to draw] (p. 235-6).
“There’s power in the touch of another person’s hand. We acknowledge it in little ways, all the time. There’s a reason human beings shake hands, hold hands, slap hands, bump hands.
It comes from our very earliest memories, when we all come into the world blinded by light and color, deafened by riotous sound, flailing in a suddenly cavernous space without any way of orienting ourselves, shuddering with cold, emptied with hunger, and justifiably frightened and confused. And what changes that first horror, that original state of terror?
The touch of another person’s hands.
Hands that wrap us in warmth, that hold us close. Hands that guide us to shelter, to comfort, to food. Hands that hold and touch and reassure us through our very first crisis, and guide us into our very first shelter from pain. The first thing we ever learn is that the touch of someone else’s hand can ease pain and make things better.
That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.”