May 11, 2016

Jack Chick really means business

If there's one theological argument that drives evangelical Christian publishing, it's probably Charles Finney's point that a revival is not a miracle.

"There has long been an idea prevalent that promoting religion has something very peculiar in it," Finney famously said, "not to be judged of by the ordinary rules of cause and effect; in short, that there is no connection of the means with the result, and no tendency in the means to produce the effect. No doctrine is more dangerous than this to the prosperity of the church, and nothing more absurd."

Publishing is a business, even if it's understood as ministry too. Evangelical publishers have frequently explained this by talking about the "ordinary rules of cause and effect." Good business is good ministry. 

They have also just published Finney, which makes the same point quite efficiently. At least eight evangelical publishers have packaged and sold Finney's sermons on prayer and revival, making them widely available. Besides biographies and autobiographies, several have published more than a dozen titles bearing Finney's name as author.

In the early 1970s, one of these books founds its way into the hands of a young and recently born-again Jack Chick. He understood about revival not being a miracle and took it to heart. 

As he recalled later, he was eating his lunch and reading his Bible in his car. Then, "an old welder gave me a copy of Power from On High."

Chick said, "That book pushed my buttons."

It made him mad at his church, first of all. Or perhaps just put words to the frustrations he already had about how the Christians he knew weren't passionate enough about evangelism.

The Finney book inspired Chick's first religious cartoon. It was about the need for revival. The sinful hypocrites he drew looked a lot like people in the choir of his church -- something he admitted but refused to apologize for, even a dozen years later.

Charles Finney's argument according to Jack Chick
One of his next books was an illustrated version of Finney's lectures on revival, retitled The Last Call and published in 1978.

"When everything is caving in, and when the world laughs at the church, that's when we need revival," Chick said a few years later. "We're in that position now. We're a big joke out there....Right now, Christians are self-satisfied and complacent. God's got a handful of people out there who really mean business, but the rest are playing games."

Finney's theological argument underlies a lot of evangelical publishing, but Chick's work in particular.

Chick really means business--the business of revival and the business of publishing, and how they're the same.

Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests the money in tracts is not too good, but Chick's reach appears to be quite impressive. He gets his stuff out there.

He has, after all, a "worldwide underground distribution network," as Daniel Raeburn put it in his study of underground comics.

He knows the cause and effects of religious promotion, as Finney might say.

Chick's organization has been pushing the 64-page book about Finney again, 38 years after its original publication. This is in in response to a David Brooks column on the need for moral norms in public education.

"There might be a glimmer of hope," the Chick-tract promotion said, "when you have a New York Times columnist calling for revival. Of course, his definition is slightly different than Bible believers use, but close enough to be noteworthy."

Five copies of The Last Call were selling for $17.85. Like Finney before him, Chick was arguing that people ought not to wait for God to start a spiritual revival, but get started themselves. And right away. Buy now!

"If you are serious about revival in your life, home, and church," the ad copy read, "this book is for you."