Coming of age in the mid 80's to early 90's Calvin and Hobbes helped me come to grips with many of the realities of suburban life in America. Of course I'm referring neither to the French theologian nor the English political scientist. No, I'm talking about two comic strip characters; a boy and his plush tiger willed to life by the sheer force of a 6 year old's imagination. Arguably the last great comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes came to an apparently premature end when its mildly reclusive creator Bill Watterson became disenchanted with the industry. In a documentary entitled Dear Mr. Watterson former editor Lee Salem explains, "Calvin and Hobbes was going to be huge in licensing...but Bill made it clear he was not going to do it." Watterson felt continually pressured to commercialize his work, as if it were not satisfactory to simply appreciate Calvin and Hobbes as legitimate art.
As Watterson demonstrated so well with characters like Calvin, Suzy, and Moe, one of the primary struggles of adolescence is to gain an appreciation of one's self apart from any ability, or lack thereof, to produce or perform. This is a particularly laborious undertaking in American culture, fixated on outcomes and economics as we are. It's why many of us would be completely devastated were we to lose our jobs or careers. Our tendency is to identify ourselves by what we do, or even what we sell, as opposed to who we are.
Stephan Pastis created a comic strip entitled, with curiously biblical intonations, Pearls Before Swine. In Dear Mr. Watterson Pastis refers to the now defunct relationship between Snoopy and Met Life Insurance as an example of his own personal distaste for commercialization. "It's sort of like a cousin who spent all this time with you and you really got to know him," he explains. "...And then you're fishing with him one day and he says, 'Y'know, I never said this to you before, but I sell life insurance.' And your stomach would just drop because you'd say, 'Gosh, was the whole relationship based on this...was it all just BS?'"
I was beset with anxiety at that point in the program, immediately searching my memory for all the times I had ever been fishing. During any of those outings on the banks of a river or in a skiff in the middle of a lake could I recall ever having looked at a fishing buddy and saying, "Y'know, I never said this to you before, but I'm a Christian..." Had there ever been any workout, ride into town, hangout, climbing trip, pick up game, or cheeseburger during which I had said something remotely similar to that, only not in reference to life insurance but to the gospel? I knew that there had been. A few particularly vivid memories quickly came to the fore. I fell asleep later than I might have otherwise that particular evening, wondering whether or not I had been perceived as a relational fraud in those moments.
By no means would I seek to minimize Bill Watterson's art or his convictions. Calvin and Hobbes remains my favorite comic strip both for its wit and its wisdom. But unlike Bill Watterson I don't feel I'm at liberty to simply step away from the "industry" in which I am involved. I do wonder whether American Christianity has been unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, "licensed" in such a fashion as to obscure the true beauty of the message with which the Church is entrusted. I am finding that the sentiment expressed in Pastis' analogy resonates with many when they compare it to their experience of religion in general or Christianity in particular. More to the point I am coming to terms with the fact that I may part of the problem.
I don't normally allow myself to sit and admire artwork; I want results...or so I think. Lately the gallery is, in my case, a steadily growing collection of individuals who simply do not view the world through the same biblical lens that I do. I would desperately like to correct their vision. However, the reality of the situation is that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts individuals of their impairment, provides correctives, and renews wills. That is what I believe he did to and for me. He may choose to use me in order to do that for others. But should I forget that each and every individual I encounter and with whom I strive to build a relationship is a unique human being created in the image of God...then I should revert back to my old ways and consequently grieve the Holy Spirit.
As the halfway mark approaches, the challenge of this evangelistic research project has been to stop looking at individuals as a means to enhance my own production or performance. They are after all unique creations in God's image; pieces of delicate art if you will, to be appreciated as such apart from any utility or earning potential. That doesn't mean that my hope and prayer is not still for their redemption in Jesus Christ. It just means we can still be friends...should still be friends, regardless.