A Theology of the Arts

Shaun Sass
October 7th, 2009


“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-6

A groundswell of creativity is occurring, of which many in the church, book trade, and libraries aren't yet aware. Writers, artists, and publishers are being drawn to a literary genre that offers a wonderfully effective tool for sharing God's word and history with young readers—the graphic novel. And despite the lack of knowledge about this 25-year-old publishing genre, the wheels of production are already in motion—inspired within most creators by a driving passion to share God's Good News through their spiritual gift of artistic creation.

More and more authors—young and veteran alike—are creating stories with either an overt Christian basis (illustrated presentations of Biblical stories), autobiographical-based stories, or modern day fictional allegories with underlying Christian themes. Some are crafting stories to evangelize and more effectively share the Word of God. Others are creating works to educate or entertain readers, whether Christian or not. Many are doing both!

Since many of these works are largely targeted to those in the teen to young adult male reader category, they fill a void that most Christian book retailers would agree is largely ignored by Christian publishers utilizing other formats. So if the literary form of the graphic novel has been around for over 25 years, why isn't there more spiritually-based product available?

A Brief History

By definition a graphic novel is more than an illustrated adaptation of a work done in another literary form. A graphic novel stands on its own and is an integrated whole—combining text with visual images, both of which are critical to the telling of the story. They differ from their comic book cousins in that they are: usually novel-length complete stories that aren't serialized; frequently written to appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience; and packaged and displayed similarly to text-only literature (square bound or hard cover).

The term “graphic novel” was first used in 1978 in connection to the release of Will Eisner's A Contract with God. This collection of four short stories by the creator of a widely popular newspaper comic strip (The Spirit, 1940 to 1952) was a collection of interconnected, faith-based tales. But Eisner himself, in his book Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, traces the roots of the format back to the work of Frans Masereel, a Belgian political cartoonist, who began producing “novels without words” as early as 1919 with his story Passionate Journey (a novel told in 169 woodcuts).

In the 1980s the format gained a level of respectability, as Art Speiglman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his semi-autobiographical story of the holocaust Maus. For the most part, prior to the emergence of Christian fiction in the book trade, graphic novels with Christian themes either never found the support of a major publisher or, if published, didn't garner enough consumer attention to be considered note-worthy.

In today's fast-food world, many teachers, youth pastors, and missionaries are realizing that to effectively reach out to young people we have to provide a form of literature that falls more in line with their tastes and other entertainment choices. According to Presbyterian pastor and author Michael Brewer (author of Who Needs a Superhero: Finding Virtue, Vice, and What's Holy in the Comics), “If the Church is going to be in conversation with the world—and that is certainly our calling—we must talk in ways the world understands.” For many young people, comic books and graphic novels are simply more accessible and user-friendly. Pastor Brewer feels that comics and graphic novels can serve as stepping stones toward the Bible for young people, just like traditional novels have done for many adult readers.

According to industry sources, more people read graphic novels and comics than any other form of printed literature on earth! In the Philippines, 40% of the population reads a comic book, while only 2% read newspapers. According to Simmons' Kids Study (Aug. 2000), 88% of U.S. children aged 6 to 11 read books outside of school. Out of that number, comic books top the reading preference (41%). In Japan, 40% of all printed material is comprised of graphic novels and comic books, with sales in excess of $7 billion annually. It's estimated that 20% of the entire Japanese population, regardless of age, reads at least one title daily. In Central America, a comic book was created to help teach children how to spot and avoid landmines, because it's the most efficient way to pass on information to this age group.

Theology of the Arts

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are…”
1 Corinthians 1:27-28

Since many of the works in this genre are done out of a passion, most creators are less concerned with their acceptance within any specific organized group or denomination within the church. Rather their focus is firmly placed on sharing their vision through a way that's relevant and approachable to those they're attempting to reach, despite the fact that it may be looked at as a common man's art form.

As more creative people from all walks of the secular entertainment industry (including artists, writers, filmmakers, and animators) are being drawn to witness their faiths through their creative abilities, we're seeing the birth of what pastor Mike Brewer calls an explosion in the “theology of the arts.” Centuries ago, when a large majority of the population was illiterate, craftsmanship, illustration, and painting were the major vehicles through which people, and even entire cultures, expressed their faiths. That has changed, especially over the latter half of the 20th century where the written and spoken word (transmitted by radio, TV, and the Internet) has become the primary method through which information is shared and worship is expressed. Expressing one's faith through the graphic arts, it seems, has dwindled considerably as a form of worship.

The development of the Christian contemporary music industry over the last decade was, in part, a similar response by the modern musician to this same void that had occurred in musical arts—and it has been used effectively to reach hundreds of thousands of young people. But there are other avenues of worship within the arts that can be utilized. “Simply put, God apparently loves diversity and variety. The creation proves that,” states pastor Brewer.

…And the Winner is? Everyone!

Since they are a format that's easily racked right along side text-only literature, collected and bound comic book series and graphic novels are now making their presence know in the bookstore market and in most libraries. Religiously- and spiritually-themed literature has been topping the charts in all categories of book publishing over the past few years. Why then wouldn't it make sense to have spiritually-themed graphic novels or comics available for our young people as an alternative to works with themes and characters that many would consider not quite as wholesome and sometimes even disturbing?

During these years that are so crucial to young people's development when there are so many entertainment choices to make, it falls to youth pastors, churches, and parents to expose our children to alternatives with a spiritual or moral center. In the words of pastor Brewer, “If we are not searching out relevant and attractive methods of spreading the word, which connects to the young people of today in a way they can relate to, we are cheating our Maker and we belittle our theology.”

Shaun Sass

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.