Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I was sitting in the rec center the other day, waiting for Willow to pick me up, reading a book (shocker there, eh?), when a young man taps me on the shoulder and hands me something and says, cryptically, "you're not too old for comic books are you?" and saunters away looking pleased with himself.

The pamphlet he hands me is a good old-fashioned evangelical tract, with a graphic narrative of a mean-looking, balding, hairy-shouldered, wife-beater-clad, cigarillo-smoking trucker, who, while strolling through the parking lot of his favorite truck stop, comments on the "gutless idiot' with a "Jesus Saves" sticker. Well of course, a handsome, masculine man swings down from the rig, looking not unlike Johnny Cash on 'roids, and says "I heard what you said about Jesus being a sissy!" goes on to convert the two wayward truckers to the path of Muscular Christianity.

I have so many thought on this, I can hardly tell where to begin, but:
  • Too old for comic books? How old do I look, exactly?
  • When I was a kid, and in high school, these tracts occasionally circulated through my hands, Jesus-camper that I was. Even then I doubted their effectiveness as rhetorical tools, but Chick Publications of California still keeps pumping these things out. Do these things ever actually work to effect conversion? As conversion narratives, how do they fit historically (Erin Kelly, are you reading?)?
  • The cultural work being done here is fascinating, particularly (and obviously) around constructions of masculinity, something I've been thinking about a lot since moving here to the mountains.
  • A) The "It's a man's world" mentality of Duke, the hairy-shouldered trucker, is one of bravado and machismo, but is trumped by another version of masculinity, one that is decidedly clean-cut, understated, but buff as all get-out.
  • B) The superior version is not obviously classed, as the clean-shaven, vitalis-coiffed trucker, but Duke, the Hairy-shouldered one, (and his scrawny sidekick Billy Joe) are clearly classed.
  • C) When the Evangelist swoops down from his rig, he calls Duke, "Little fella" even though that character is heretofore depicted as a brawny man, so while more understated in his masculinity, the Evangelist is clearly establishing Christianity as a superior masculinity to other more ostentatiously brutalist masculinities.
  • D) The notion that Christianity needs to be defended against charges of effeminacy at all strikes me as being a particularly curious move. I get that historical discourse around Christ's body often participates in reading that body as feminised, but the "sissy" moniker strikes me as raising a spectre of homoeroticism that would likely strike the tract's distributors in deeply uncomfortable ways. It is all elided so quickly, and established in the title, THE SISSY?, by picturing Duke, our hairy trucker, next to that question.
  • In the end, as much as my own past is implicated here, I found the whole thing to be almost amusing in its hubris. I wonder if someone like me, someone not afraid of being a sissy, for example, can ever be an audience vulnerable to this sort of rhetoric. Clearly, the student who handed me this thought I would be.


Flavia said...

It doesn't seem to me that the purpose of this tract is to convert, and if that's what your campus evangelist thought he was doing, he misread the work.

I'd guess that its primary purpose is to a) make the nerdy comic-book-writing Christian feel superior to his more "manly" competitors or persecutors, and b) hearten people like him: more mild-mannered folk who either already are active Christians, or who are semi-believing Christians who have distanced themselves from church-going or evangelical extracurriculars, perhaps in part because they felt those activities were too wimpy. In other words, I think the tract (like so many spiritual autobiographies, if that's what we want to call this thing!) is actually more about community consolidation than conversion.

As for the word "sissy": it IS a weird choice of word (wimp or dork would seem more appropriate to me), but I wonder whether the homosexual implication isn't the point: all the comic is lacking is a buxom babe who scorns Duke in favor of the Evangelist for it to conform to comic-book, revenge-of-the (not really!) nerds stereotype. The Christian dude--he's not gay! He understands what women really want.

Maybe the point of suggesting that some people would find Christians sissified is precisely to argue that outside of the church is where all the fagg*ts are.

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, how weird! Does the whole thing look like it's twenty years old, stylistically? There seems to be something with conservative christian tracts attacking popular culture that's a generation behind the times at least (stay away from that newfangled rock n' roll music, honey). At least, the copies of The Watchtower I get are all about defending me from the evils of 8-tracks and leisure-suited men wearing gold chains.

Not that I don't need to be defended from those things, but I've got my own methods.

Tenured Radical said...

The idea that Jesus was the biggest sissy of all has always been cheering to me.


Erin said...

Nothing brings a lurker out of hiding like addressing her directly by name.

I love your question about whether or not these kinds of texts work to affect conversion. My sense is that there have always been cases of individuals converting after reading a particular polemical text. There have also been cases of conversions being triggered by inspiring individuals, encounters with devotional texts, semi-miraculous events, and lots of other things. Radical conversion experiences are rare events, and conversions triggered by polemical tracts seem even rarer. Someone at your lovely institution might have been hit by a holy lightning bolt after perusing "Sissy," but I doubt it.

That being said, I think you're missing one of the rhetorical functions of this type of tract, which is linked to the cultural work the concept of conversion does in the first place. To say that someone has coverted is to insist that what he or she previously believed (and thus what he or she was) before is a false faith with no redeeming value. Conversion, by definition, precludes the possibility of sort-of believing or of recognizing more than one faith position as possibly viable.

The pamphlet you were handed, and similar documents, doesn't so much make converts as help to create the conditions of possiblity for conversion. It carves out space for Christianity as both the one true faith (and, in a closely related argument, as the one true way to be a man) by pathologizing all other ways of being.

I'm interested in your thoughts on how evangelicals attempt to make all sorts of converts, be they homosexuals (who can be subjected to attempts to convert them to heterosexuality), non-Christians (a la Jews for Jesus), and folks standing around minding their own business at godless academic institutions. Do Jesus campers really think they will succeed in making converts, or are their public encounters really just a way of performing (and thus creating and reinforcing) their religious identities?