We love art.
As Christians, as churches, as individuals, we love art. From where I sit right now in Pittsburgh, I’m about a four-minute walk from the marvel of architecture that is East Liberty Presbyterian Church. I’ve had the privilege of preaching at Grace Presbyterian Church in Kittanning, Pa., filled with wonderful reliefs of the disciples’ attributes. This coming week I have the honor of preaching at the Korean United Presbyterian Church, just outside Wexford, whose choir knocks my socks off.
Architecture. Sculpture. Music. We love art.
But art terrifies us.
If you don’t believe me, look up the definition of the word iconoclasm.
As people of faith, we don’t know what to do with art. We surround ourselves with it, invest huge sums of time and money creating it, and then we ignore it. When was the last time you heard (or delivered) a sermon that acknowledged the design of your building? When was the last time you sat down and thought about it?
So let’s do a thought experiment.
Imagine that there was an art form specifically created to address the issue of our relationship with God. Imagine that it was created apart from official church ties, allowing it to maintain freedom from iconoclastic tendencies. Imagine that it could integrate multiple genres like drawing, painting, poetry and literature. Imagine that it had the breadth to explore even questions that some might consider inappropriate or offensive.
This is the graphic novel.
Stop rolling your eyes. Hear me out. There’s history behind this.
First, let me explain what I mean by “graphic novel.” They’re not comic books – not exactly. Graphic novels are typically understood to be standalone works as opposed to the serial nature of comic books. Graphic novels tend to be slightly longer, self-contained stories.
I’d also include that you can usually spot graphic novelists by the fact that they don’t like being called graphic novelists.
So where did they come from?
Though various comic-style works had been published over the years, the first example of what we often think of as a “graphic novel” was published in 1978 by Will Eisner. This work is widely credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel.” (Go ahead, search for “Who popularized the term graphic novel”. You know you want to.) This decidedly adult-oriented book was titled A Contract with God.
In the preface, Eisner stated that the purpose of the work was to explore the subject of relationship with God. It was a book about relationship with God. The graphic novel as we know it was created to do theology.
Naturally, people were uncertain as to whether they should take this medium seriously. Many didn’t. Until 1992. That year a graphic novel won a Pulitzer Prize. What was the subject matter? It’s not superheroes in tights. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is about the Holocaust. It wrestles with serious subjects, including the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering—another graphic novel diving into theology.
Yes, it’s true. Some graphic novels are a bit shallower than others. The same is also true of music, poetry, drama, and literature.
Nonetheless, graphic novels continue to provide valuable insight into how we think and an arena to grapple with deep questions. Check out sites like Sacred and Sequential to find how some people understand the intersection between religion and comics. Go a different direction and look at Z-Graphic Novels to find Zondervan’s explicitly Christian graphic novels.
Or, just go to a book store. You may be surprised how many books you find in this genre. And their content may surprise you.
So… Pay Attention
We’re not always sure what to do with any form of art. From the sublime to the mundane, art often confuses us when we try to connect it to theology.
Regardless of where you stand on the issues, the people you serve are impacted by art. Whether it’s a symphony or a pop song, a play or a graphic novel, a poem or a video game, art surrounds us. Some naturally address theology. Some don’t.
Either way, pay attention to the art around you. Learn what it is saying (whether good or bad) and your ministry will be that much richer and more effective.
Written by the Rev. Derek Davenport ’05, director of enrollment and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Derek is also an alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program. Derek has covered images like those listed above in greater detail on his website www.preachingsymbols.com.