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Earlier this year author and religious scholar Reza Aslan released a new book about Jesus, giving it the intentionally provocative title of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is so much a part of modern life and culture in the West that it’s easy to forget just how extreme so much of what Jesus preached in the Gospels really was. And is.
I mean, the Golden Rule in and of itself is a hell of a thing to try and live by, but going out of your way to aid and love your enemy, turning the other cheek rather than raising a fist when violence is visited upon you, selling all of your possessions and giving the money to the poor? That’s some radical stuff, and Jesus’ exhortations don’t lose their revolutionary feel, no matter how many centuries pass or how many churches are built.
With Zealot already claimed, writer/editor Paul Buhle’s triptych look at the teachings of Jesus takes for its title a similarly evocative, provocative title: Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith.
The album-sized graphic novel from Herald Press is split into three sections, each illustrated by a different artist in a distinctly different style, and each concerned with the ways Jesus’ words and actions challenged authority in different time periods, from Jesus’ own lifetime to the modern era.
Obviously, it’s a religious book, but Buhle and the artists don’t seem to be overly concerned with preaching. Rather, the book reads like a work of history, albeit the history of a faith, and, as it enters modern times, the liberal, left-leaning reading and application of that faith. (Buhle’s previous comics works include contributions to adaptations of Studs Terkel’s Working and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the American Empire. He also collaborated with Harvey Pekar on 2009’s The Beats: A Graphic History.)
The most overtly religious of the three sections is the first, “Radical Gospel,” by artist Sabrina Jones. It’s a retelling of Jesus’ life, focusing mainly on his teachings, and based most directly on the account from the Gospel of Matthew (it begins with Jesus’ baptism by the prophet John, includes the Sermon on the Mount, etc.), with some material pulled from Luke as well.
Jones doesn’t cite what comes from where, nor does she add any verbiage to the telling, or at least nothing more than a handful in a narration box here and there. Rather, she takes the words pretty much directly from the Gospels, and draws a story around them, with quotes from the Bible appearing either in dialogue balloons or narration boxes. The setting mixes the modern with the ancient, so soldiers carry guns and wear sunglasses and helmets; the rich men and lawyers wear business suits, and there are SUVs and skyscrapers alongside camels and temples.
Her artwork, presented in stark black and white, bears a thick, almost scribbly line, the panels taken on an appearance that falls somewhere between sketchbook and woodcut.
That’s followed by perhaps the most complex part of the book, “Radical History,” co-written and illustrated by Gary Dumm, who has worked quite a bit with Pekar and with both Pekar and Buhle on 2009’s Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History.
Beginning with the Black Plague in the mid-14th century and ending with a three-panel mini-biography of “Angelina Grimke, Christian Abolitionist” in the early 19th century, Dumm tells a series of very short stories about internecine struggles, many of them quite savage, between different factions of Christianity, as the faith grew and diversified in Europe. Some of these resulted in martyrs who died every bit as spectacularly as those during the time of Roman persecution.
So, for example, there are short stories, some merely interesting anecdotes, others summaries or biographies. The subjects include John Wycliffe’s translating the Bible into common English, and the rise of the proto-Protestants that resulted from direct access to Jesus radical words, the fight with the Anabaptists that sounds a little like Dr. Seuss’s Butter Battle Book from a remove of centuries (over whether people should be baptized as infants or as adults), the Quakers’ dealings with Native Americans in the New World, and the issues of slavery, both white slavery within Europe and black slavery in the Americas.
These are in full color, by Laura Dumm, and feature Dumm’s thick, sturdy, highly detailed figures.
The complexity comes in the form of the combatants on each side of the various conflicts, as they are all Christians, yet in nearly every story there is a powerful, comfortable group and an oppressed group. The book’s sympathies lie with the latter, of course, but it’s an unsettling jump through time to see the life of Jesus, ending on its hopeful note of his bodily resurrection, to 13 centuries later, where his purported followers are burning one another at the stake over theological differences.
The final section, “Radical Resistance,” is drawn by Nick Thorkelson, in a style highly reminiscent of the loose, urgent work of many modern political cartoonists; he even uses symbolic and labeled imagery the way many political cartoonists do, although the pages are broken up into panels, and tell stories, here a series of stories within a series of stories.
Premised as a series of meetings of modern Christian groups intent on practicing their faith, it involves different members at different meetings opening with different biblical invocations, and talking about the work of their heroes in effecting social change and what they would like to do, what they plan to do, what they should do in order to truly follow the words of Christ.
In this section, then, we learn about Sojourner Truth, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war activities of groups like Catholic Worker and Christian Peacemaker Teams from the Vietnam War to the hotspots of the Cold War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Torkelson’s clean, open, fun style makes for an easier transition than might be expected, given the deluge of historical information included, but for Christians in the books’ reading audience, I imagine this will be more challenging than inspirational, as its characters are modern people who are living the teachings of Jesus to the point of grave disruption of their own lives, like languishing in prison for trespassing during protests or visiting danger zones like pre-invasion Iraq with the futile hope that the United States will decide not to bomb if they know there are U.S. civilians there.
Whether Christian readers find the stories inspirational or discouraging (knowing there are some things they could never bring themselves to do), the book does serve as an always-needed reminder that Christianity isn’t simply a faith devoted to policing the bedrooms of others eroding the walls between Church and State in American society—which tend to be the only times Christian faith is discussed much in modern media.
And, of course, it’s nice to see Buhle and a few talented artists writing about the positive, society changing aspects of Jesus and many of his modern followers in a comics format. Chick tracts really shouldn’t be the last word on the subject of Christianity in comics form, after all.