These tracts are small, easily read comic books with a distinctive cover - white text on a black background on the left, and a cartoon of some sort on the right. These tiny, easy to consume comics are extraordinarily instructive.
And they encapsulate, in a nutshell, just how far Christianity has fallen, and why the winds of Emergent Christianity and postmodern theology couldn't come any sooner.
To Jack Chick, the author and publisher - the universe is starkly black and white, and as crudely and starkly drawn as the comics he produces. There are the forces of light, represented by kindly old men, a headless God, Jesus on the cross, and Bible believing women of color, and there are the forces of darkness, who are either slick game show host style preachers, Jesuits, heavily tattooed biker trash types, Goliath-sized Neanderthal prisoners, or overly stereotypically Semitically drawn Arabs, never mind the overly grotesque demons and devils, complete with the catchphrase "HAW HAW HAW".
The sole and solitary purpose in life, according to Chick, is to at some point either be told that Jesus is Lord and pray the kitschy prayer that follows from it, and to be saved. Or, to either put one's trust in the material world and being "cool", in accepting a false Gospel or fake religion like Catholicism or Islam, or to just get extraodinarily angry, and be rejected by Jesus and God at the end of time. Two oft repeated leitmotifs in his work are of millions of human beings falling, lemming-like, from a gigantic cliff into the lake of Fire, or of our would-be hero, on his knees, sobbing at learning that "his name is not written in the book of Life", resulting in being cast into the fiery pits (complete with "YAAAAAAAAAAA"). Forever. And ever. And ever.
Chick is motivated entirely by fear. And he motivates others the same way. His website expresses quite frankly that the purpose of his tracts is to terrify and scare people into accepting the Gospel. There's only a few problems, there.
And I'm not even going to get into the obvious ones of sterotypical depictions of black thugs, white trash, sword-waving Arabs, or drawings of Chinese communist agents that would make some of the World War II propagandists go "wow, you've gone a bit overboard with how stereotypically you've drawn that Asian, bub". Or how grotesque and ugly some of the art is, making the "good guys" pleasantly homely or good looking, and the antagonists ugly and twisted. Suffice it to say that Chick neither knows nor cares about simple decency, never mind political correctness.
The first is that his theology is horribly, HORRIBLY unsound. The express purpose of Jesus' ministry was not to sit there in judgment of entire groups of people, nor to terrify them into signing on the dotted line to join a club. The savage irony is that in his anti-Islamic pamphlets he derides and scorns Mohammed for putting a sword to someone's neck and saying "believe in this or I'll kill you on the spot", but sees absolutely no problem in saying "you must immediately accept Christ as your saviour because in the next panel your plane is going to crash in a giant fiery wreck, and you're going to want to avoid the torment of everlasting, eternal, neverending, unrelenting, searing, torturing fire. So you'd better believe what I'm telling you RIGHT NOW or ELSE."
Mind you, this is the end product of a by-road in which smaller and smaller groups of people have read 20th century meanings into 16th century English words translated from first century texts.
In the wonderful book "Speaking Christian" by Marcus Borg, he goes on to explain that the connotations of certain words have changed since the translations we've used. "Mercy", to the writers of the King James Bible, was what we would now use "compassion" to express, whereas our modern understanding is that "mercy" involves a higher power staying his hand to punish, hurt or otherwise do something unpleasant to a lesser power. Of course, if read in a 20th century language, "Christ, have mercy on me" gives the image of Jesus with a sword in a gladiatorial combat, putting away his sword rather than cutting through you. And there's nothing theoretically wrong with the idea that a being who had the power to crush you like a bug can and should stay his hand. But there's a far cry from "Jesus, please, please don't kill me" and "Jesus, be compassionate with me." The former makes for a dramatic, fear-driven sales pitch. The latter doesn't translate very well to a six page comic book. There are other terms whose meanings have shifted in important ways, but that's beyond the scope of this particular writeup.
Jesus sought out the marginalized and told them to kindle a flame. To leaven sacks of flour. To be the mustard seed that grows like wildfire. To create a world in which compassion, justice, and selflessness transform not only you as an individual to be a far better person, but also your society into one that values all its members and helps those most in need. Not to see Jesus as some kind of lifeboat to leap onto as the rest of the world falls into ruin.
The second major problem is that Chick's premise is that that terror drops you to your knees, and after praying for Jesus to be your savior, you literally stand up an entirely changed human being. Never sinning, never doing wrong, never having any doubts, worries, never falling into temptations or concerns. It's like in the movie where the hero (or the villain) drinks, consumes or puts on some object and then stands up with glowing eyes, no longer being what he was. Obviously, this is utter nonsense. Salvation isn't about being in the right club, becoming a Christian doesn't make you some kind of sinless overman immediately, and the adrenalin rush of no longer feeling the terror of hell fire isn't a cleansing salve that washes away your sinless nature forever. And it's undoubtedly unfair to do that to someone- to frighten him, then promise him he'll be a changed being, and then leave him there. Where's the second or third tract in which our hero, six months later, is a human being and stumbles again? Probably not for nothing that every Chick tract ends with the death of the protagonist, whether he's accepted Jesus just before the fiery wreck/heart attack/inferno/terrorist attack/snake bite/murder or hasn't.
And Chick most decidedly cuts out any other possibilities in his tracts. If you advocate a relationship in which you actually live differently, he scorns that as "salvation by works". If you believe that Christianity puts you under any obligation to do right by your neighbour and work for social justice, he derides that as "liberation theology", but never explains why that's wrong. (It's just, like Catholicism, one of Satan's plots).
No, for Chick, the only point in ever being born is to give assent, forever and unwaveringly, to the theological position that simply believing Christ rose from the dead to save your soul is sufficient. And that Satan has nothing better to do in life than to do things to chip away at your belief in that theological positon, from inspiring people to write Dungeons and Dragons to starting Freemasonry.
So you can see why Chick's work is so formulaic. He starts with what he sees is most likely to chip away at the assent in that theological position, and have a protagonist make a choice. To either deny whatever that is, be it Islam, atheism, a belief in evolution, Catholicism, role playing games or whatever, or to give assent to that theological position. Some tracts end with the protagonist making one choice and being cast into flames forever by an angry, tormenting God, or being welcomed into paradise. It's gotten to the point where he's phoning it in, because he's rapidly running out of topics.
Some later addition to this work is to show how "persecuted" him and his kind are - answering obvious critiques that his work is "hate literature" or "fear driven". More than one would-be soul winner is scoffed at, laughed at, assaulted, or accused of hate crimes. The ne plus ultra of this is a horrifying Flash Gordon meets 1984 tract in which the Jesuits, now wearing space suits for some reason with capes, literally torture Protestants of Chickian bent "with microchips to increase the pain" in order to "crack" them from that position. Of course, within a few panels the people doing the scoffing are terrified and begging not to be tortured forever, with Jesus mocking them saying that "I did send (person from a few panels ago) to warn you!"
It's almost as if Chick never took the time to read the Bible, and the number of times that Jesus told his followers not to be afraid.Not to bury their talents in the ground, or anything. Not to hide their light. To emphasize forgiveness and that God's love has always been there and doesn't need to be earned, just accepted.
In the short term, Chick just might work. I'm reasonably sure a number of people, out of nothing more than pure self-interest, recited the prayer on the back of the pamphlet and then went out looking for other people to judge. However, the long term ramifications on the people "saved" by these tracts - have they been studied? Are most of them still in church within two, even five years? Or were they another crisis of faith or another sin away from despairing forever and walking away, or far worse - assuming that they're "saved forever" and shrugging off the wrong they've done others?