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Fall 2010    Vol. 39 No. 2    pp. 189–203 

The Far Side of Religion: Notes on the Prophet Gary Larson

Michael J. Gilmour

This was a psalter in whose margins was delineated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it . . . a topsy-turvy universe, in which dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion. 1

The speaker is a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, narrator of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose who, in 1327, accompanied the Sherlock Holmes-like monk William of Baskerville to a wealthy Italian abbey. They are in the scriptorium, visiting the workstation of the recently deceased illuminator Adelmo of Otranto, and Adso describes the strange drawings Adelmo placed alongside the biblical Psalms. He reports a long list of bizarre images: bird-feet heads; animals with human hands on their back; zebra-striped dragons; quadrupeds with serpentine necks; monkeys with stags’ horns; armless men with other human bodies emerging from their backs like humps; humans with horses’ heads, and horses with human legs; fish with birds’ wings and birds with fishtails; monsters with single bodies and double heads or single heads and double bodies; cows—yes, cows!—with cocks’ tails and butterfly wings; women with heads scaly as a fish’s back; centaurs; elephants; manticores; “sequences of anthropomorphic animals and zoomorphic dwarfs joined, sometimes on the same page, with scenes of rustic life in which you saw, depicted with such impressive vivacity that the figures seemed alive, all the life of the fields”; a towered city defended by monkeys; and on and on it goes. 2

The universe found in these comics is theistic and broadly biblical, which is more than one can say about most others.

What is startling about the scene Adso describes, especially in the context of a fourteenth-century monastery, is the location of these pictures, appearing as they do alongside the sacred Scriptures. This inverted world “where houses stand on the tip of a steeple and the earth is above the sky” intrigues Adso, who finds himself “torn between silent admiration and laughter, because the illustrations naturally inspired merriment, though they were commenting on holy pages.” 3 Some are not so impressed, particularly Jorge of Burgos who finds such indulgences in the fantastic an evil (one even justifying murder). Jesus, he argues, “did not have to employ such foolish things to point out the strait and narrow path,” and further, “Nothing in his parables arouses laughter.” Humor and laughter, in Jorge’s view, “is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh.” William of Baskerville, on the other hand, is far less severe, suggesting, “Marginal images often provoke smiles, but to edifying ends.” As in sermons, William continues, “to touch the imagination of devout throngs it is necessary to introduce exempla, not infrequently jocular.” Similarly, “the discourse of images must indulge in these trivia.” 4

Allow me to be the first (I think it is safe to say) to describe the great cartoonist Gary Larson as an illuminator not unlike Adelmo of Otranto who could take “known things” and from them “compose unknown and surprising things, as one might join a human body to an equine neck.” Like this medieval illuminator, who “worked only on marginalia,” 5 Gary Larson also writes alongside other texts, including the sacred Scriptures. He does not do so literally, doodling in the margins of actual Bibles (as far as I know) but rather figuratively, taking familiar ideas, characters, and stories, biblical in origin, and repeating, retelling, “re-drawing” those scenes in order to “provoke smiles.” The extent of this biblical and religious-themed content in Larson’s work might surprise casual readers of the cartoon, and as a widely disseminated pop culture art form, engagement with sacred subject matter warrants consideration. As a starting point, the observations of academics in another field suggest a way forward.

The American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson describes Larson as “the madcap sage of the biological sciences” and credits the cartoonist with an important insight: “Nature is part of us and we are part of Nature.” 6 Primatologist Jane Goodall agrees, suggesting, “Gary’s cartoons help us to see things with a new perspective, above all to realize that we humans, after all, are just one species among many, just one small part of the wondrous animal kingdom.” 7 Here we have a constructive way to think about the theological content of these cartoons. Just as Larson bridges the gap and blurs the boundaries between the biological species, so too he allows the distance between the spiritual and the mundane to melt away. There is an odd proximity between the everyday and commonplace on the one hand, the mysterious and extraordinary, on the other. God and gods, Satan and devils, angels and biblical characters mingle with regular flesh-and-blood folk in this topsy-turvy cartoon universe . . . along with aliens, zombies, and talking gorillas.

LARSON’S TOPSY-TURVY UNIVERSE

Ask anyone who read newspapers during the 1980s and 90s and they can recall at least one Far Side cartoon, or, if I might be permitted a neologism for the sake of convenience, Lartoon. The series remains a fixture in popular culture long after Larson’s retirement. By his count there are 4,337 Far Side cartoons, 8 the first published on December 31, 1979, the last on January 1, 1995. What is surprising is the extent of the religious material found in these pages. How does his engagement with rather sobering subject matter function on a comedic level?

For humor to be effective, cartoonists, like other comedians, must deal with cultural commonplaces. Jokes only work to the extent that audiences recognize a twist on what is otherwise normal. Everyone knows “nervous little dogs” do not make espresso to prepare for their day, which is what makes this particular Lartoon funny (2.341). Such departures from normalcy permit a momentary escape from realism and grant permission to indulge in the absurd. Because most readers bring basic knowledge of the “religion script” to their reading of The Far Side (angels are good, devils are bad, God is all-powerful, hell involves suffering and heaven bliss, etc.), which is something Larson presupposes, the unanticipated turns of phrase and shifts away from the usual rhythms of religious narrative surprise and entertain.

And so we find the caption “Acts of God” beneath a picture of God juggling (2.367); a flying saucer with a fish symbol on the back bumper (2.570); and caterpillars offering a beautiful butterfly to an entomologist with a net (2.510). In each instance, the cartoonist takes something broadly familiar to a mass audience and swerves from the accustomed sense. The expression “Acts of God,” needless to say, usually indicates something other than a divine song and dance man in everyday speech. Similarly, though there are no words accompanying the picture of extraterrestrials flying through space, the joke still works because most North American drivers know a fish bumper sticker is a religious symbol (representing Christianity; the image is an ichthus, a fish). Apparently, aliens identify their religious beliefs in the same way (though their ichthus has four eyes!). The image of pagans offering a sacrificial human to some god or monster (like Fay Wray to King Kong) comes to mind as we look at caterpillars summoning Professor Crutchfeld with a gong. We see him approaching the terrified, tied-up butterfly, and the caption reads, “The little caterpillars had done well this time in their offering.” All such scenes are part of our collective cultural capital. We recognize the norms behind the cartoons and enjoy the deviations from them. Larson’s genius lies in his ability to manipulate our expectations.

I think we can say more about the religious content in Lartoons, however. Trying to explain the attraction of the natural world, indeed the allure known to biologists, zoologists, entomologists, and everyone else looking under rocks, up trees, down holes, and under water to find some specimen to observe, Larson offers this explanation:

Very simply, it’s the obsession to capture and to hold, if only for a few moments, some living, natural wonder, to observe it, examine it, have it touch your skin, feel its heartbeat against your hand—to “drink it in” before it once again slips back over that invisible wall that separates Us from Them (1.181; italics added).

By the natural world, Larson has in mind insects, birds, and animals—and, in fact, he makes this comment after an account of chasing a three-foot-long lizard while in Indonesia (which got away from him, incidentally). This remark offers a useful insight into Larson’s comical world that extends well beyond human curiosity about non-human species. So often in these cartoons we find ourselves looking at and reading about—and then despite ourselves, imagining—things that are either unreal or impossible or inaccessible to us in some sense. We are privy to the private thoughts of plants and animals; the emotional states of inanimate objects; or conversations between extraterrestrials and vampires. Fictitious literary characters and long-dead historical figures also come to life, speaking, and acting, accessible to Far Side readers, if only for a brief moment before slipping back over that invisible dividing wall. 9

My concern here is the religious content of Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Spiritual beings, those experiencing the afterlife (for better or worse), and biblical characters are all beyond the reach of our senses. They too are over that invisible wall, as it were, as unfamiliar to our everyday lives as vampires, cave dwellers, and the private thoughts of Leonardo da Vinci’s dog (“So where’s my dinner? . . . One of the Great Masters indeed” [2.263]). Here too we also deal with something analogous to Larson’s longing to take hold of that three-foot lizard. Religions attempt to bring near a “wonder” that is otherwise beyond our grasp, to bridge the mundane and the supernatural. The New Testament refers to belief in “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 NRSV). Larson’s dialogues with religion also explore “things not seen,” though he chooses to remove that invisible wall, giving devils and angels faces.

BRINGING RELIGION WITHIN REACH

The terms “anthropomorphism” (thinking of animals as we would people) and “zoomorphism” (thinking of people as we would animals) involve, among other things, uses of language that attempt to remove the gap between species. Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are commonplace in these comic panels, with animals acting and speaking like humans and humans behaving like animals. As Jane Goodall puts it, “Larson blithely reverses the roles of human and nonhuman so that, as you browse through a collection, you find on one page a Gary Larson human carelessly squishing a foolish dog (yapping when the man of the house is trying to watch the World Cup), and on another, a Gary Larson elephant carelessly squishing a foolish human.” 10 These role reversals provide much of the humor, of course, as species do the most unexpected things. In this world, spiders commit suicide (1.159); snakes attend movies (1.138); elephants sit around campfires (1.567); and worms attend parties and flirt with other guests (1.438). At the same time, humans are bestial/insectival/birdlike in all kinds of ways. A similar pattern emerges in The Far Side’s religious content with the humanizing of otherwise-out-of-reach spiritual beings and phenomena, thus casting them in recognizable forms. A few examples of this “humanizing” and “familiarizing” pattern in Lartoons illustrate the point.

DEATH, HEAVEN, AND HELL

Life after death is a recurring subject in The Far Side universe, and three general patterns deserve notice. First, Larson’s cartoons often literalize popular religious ideas and metaphors. Here we find actual wolves wearing sheep’s clothing/costumes to aid the hunt (1.312; 1.461; cf. Matt. 7:15). Such concretizing of metaphor is widespread, particularly in depictions of post-mortem experience, which capitalize on popular, fanciful notions about the nature of heaven and hell—clouds, wings, haloes, harps, and white robes on the one side; fire, horned red devils with tails, heat, and grief on the other.

Second, death generally involves continuity, as one’s habits, behaviors, and interests in life follow them to a particularly well-suited heaven or hell, as the case may be. If a hippie goes to heaven, it only makes sense that he sits on a cloud with long hair, sunglasses, and sandals, with his harp plugged into an enormous amp (1.22), whereas for flies, now buzzing around with haloes, heaven is a big bowl of potato salad (1.416). A bowler in hell must naturally face a wider-than-usual lane with only two pins standing on the opposite corners, while the devil says mockingly, “Whoa! Another split? . . . What a bummer!” (2.249). Jazz great Charlie Parker must endure New Age music in his private torment (2.276), whereas those sent to “Scientist hell” face a room marked “Psychics, Astrologists & Mediums Eternal Discussion Group” (2.600). Before learning his ultimate fate, Colonel Sanders approaches the pearly gates only to find statues of chickens gracing the entranceway: “Uh-oh” (2.379). This highly individualized underworld includes some surprises. Not only is there a customized room for homicidal maniacs and terrorists but also one for “people who drove too slow in the fast lane” (2.166). Of course, the coffee in hell is cold, something only a coffee drinker would appreciate: “Oh, man! . . . They thought of everything!” [2.511]).

Third, Larson’s presentations of post-mortem existence dull the terrors of hell and make dull the pleasures of heaven. A man in glory with halo and wings sits by himself on a cloud wishing he had brought a magazine (1.451). The fate of the damned involves little more than petty nuisances (cold coffee), monotony (blowing bubbles for all eternity [2.567]), irritation (a maestro in a room full of banjo players [1.190]), rich irony (dogs carrying mailbags and picking up after themselves [1.582]) and, of course, heat (“Hot enough for ya?,” says one of the damned to another, with the caption: “Nerds in hell” [2.91]). It is not all fun and games for Satan either, forced as he is to put up with the invasive interviewing techniques of Mike Wallace (2.381); an incompetent painter (“999”; 2.454); residents playing with the thermostat (2.381) and ordering pizza (2.177); and various graffiti insults: “Satan is a warm and tender guy”; “Hey, you call this hot?” and so on (2.543).

ANTHROPOMORPHIZING GOD

The Far Side God is rather human—an old man, to be precise, in most Lartoons. He has a body (e.g., 1.418; 1.529); plays game shows (and well, needless to say; 1.418); uses a phone (2.454: “And for the rest of his life, Ernie told his friends that he had talked with God”); and operates a computer, complete with a “Smite” button (2.347), presumably when sitting in his den (1.554). Since the divine creator of the universe is spirit, remote, unimaginable, and beyond day-to-day experience, Larson washes away that invisible line and represents the deity in terms we can all recognize, which is to say anthropomorphic. His God is powerful yet limited in these cartoons, creating a world that is half-baked (1.529) and losing his keys (1.207) and a contact lens (1.479). After dropping a jar marked “Humans” into the newly created world, a voice from the clouds mutters “Uh-Oh” as people run merrily away (1.243). God has a sense of humor too, sprinkling in some “Jerks” to the new creation, “just to make it interesting” (2.562).

The origin of the universe is a recurring theme in The Far Side, especially if we include both religious-themed Lartoons referring to creation, and various scenes inspired by evolution and related matters (dinosaurs, cave dwellers, continental drift/plate tectonics, Darwin, and the like). Larson’s version of divine creation expands on the rather succinct, unembellished account found in Genesis, suggesting more of a process. God practices his creative techniques as a child, even causing a minor explosion when trying to make a chicken on one occasion, leaving feathers scattered all over his bedroom (1.616; making snakes, by comparison, is “a cinch” [2.302]). He thinks on his feet when creating animals, pausing to consider, for instance, whether to put “a ‘happy face’ on the uvula” of the great white shark (2.389). After making pairs of zebras, giraffes, pigs, rabbits, and other non-predatory species, he looks at his handiwork and muses, “Hmmmmm . . . not bad, not bad at all . . . Well, now I guess I’d better make some things to eat you guys” (2.237).

SPECIFIC AND GENERIC RELIGIOUS REFERENCES

Just as literary and historical figures make regular appearances in The Far Side, 11 so too do those found in biblical stories. God appears often, as noted, but he is not alone. Noah is the most frequently represented biblical character, featuring in at least nine panels by my count (1.8; 1.29; 1.53; 1.177; 2.24; 2.40; 2.116; 2.206; 2.594). Others include the serpent and/or Adam and/or Eve in the Garden of Eden (1.104; 1.549; 2.126; 2.387); Jonah (1.65); Jesus (2.547); Moses (2.158; 2.456); Samson (2.383); the three wise men (1.486; maybe also 1.503); and if we take the pyramid/Egypt/slave panels as a reflection of biblical stories, the Israelites (1.39; 1.151; 1.502; 2.585).

Other panels provide glimpses into religious life bearing little or no resemblance to the major religious traditions. These include, to name but a few, “Chicken cults,” with robed birds gathered around a freshly roasted bird, their sacrificial victim (1.614); astral travelling water buffaloes (2.6); Cowintology (“just take one of our brochures” [2.7]); witch doctors (2.9); rain dancing (2.17); reincarnation, with reference to Shirley MacLaine (2.19); and appliance healers (“I command the foul demons that have clogged this vacuum cleaner to come OUT!” [1.597]).

RESPONDING TO THE FAR SIDE OF RELIGION

So how should we react to all this, as readers who take religion seriously, as academics in the religious sciences and/or practitioners of specific faith traditions? Allow me to address this in the negative, with a suggestion of how we should not respond.

I mentioned earlier that evolution is a recurring subject for Larson, appearing alongside various other indicators of the Earth’s age. My favorite has the caption “Continental drift whiplash” (1.297), and the picture shows two continents colliding, catching people standing on either side unawares, causing them to stumble! There are many others (e.g., 1.77; 1.198; 1.236; 1.255; 1.287). Larson’s frequent references to biological evolution provide a hilarious backdrop for one letter of complaint included in The Complete Far Side. The writer, representing the “Center for the Study of Secular Humanism,” complains that Larson combines a brachiosaurus and homo habilus 12 in the same drawing—sort of, since it represents the dinosaur’s footprint with the flattened, club-holding hunter at its base (1.296). The writer criticizes the drawing, calling it ludicrous, “since Brachiosaurus existed 60,000,000 years before Homo Habilus or any form even remotely resembling the human form came on the scene.” This disgruntled reader then adds, “this is exactly what the ‘Creationist’ would like us to believe; that evolution was a one-shot deal instead of a process that took place over billions of years.” I suspect most evolutionary scientists and creationists reading this would find the complaint absurd, and marvel that the letter lacks even a hint of irony in its concern for “truth and historical accuracy” and the dissemination of “specific information to the public at large.” 13 What does this scientist expect from a cartoonist who blames cigarette smoking for the extinction of the dinosaurs (1.264)?

There is clear genre confusion at play in such a response. The Far Side is not a doctoral dissertation or university textbook and so it does not matter that a brachiosaurus stepped on a homo habilus any more than that cows can fly in these pages. This angry letter is not an isolated case. Larson’s cartoons generated numerous negative reactions over the years, to both particular drawings and recurring themes. Some of the issues of concern are important, to be sure, like torture and violence against animals. Important concerns, yes, but again . . . seriously? Is a letter to the editor about a cartoon the best place to voice one’s views on such things? 14

Larson’s religious content also generated angry responses, including threats to boycott particular newspapers carrying the panels (see e.g., 1.471). To react to these cartoons this way misses the point, which is, in my view, that there is no point. To take offense at any of these subjects is to commit Jorge of Burgos’ error of equating humor with ridicule of the “target,” levity with sacrilege. I think it is safe to say that Gary Larson would not actually condone torture in real life, so a cartoon referring to this subject is not an obvious window into the man’s views on the subject. Similarly, religious-themed cartoons are playful, not theological statements with any agenda attached.

Then again, maybe I am wrong. Perhaps we should we take the religious content in these cartoons more seriously. Maybe the comedian Steve Martin is on to something in remarks about the theological significance of The Far Side:

Many Larson scholars like to cite panel 108, caption 16, as proof of the existence of a deity. However, the exact nature of the deity is contradicted by several other panels. Scholars working at the Institute of Talking Dogs offer panel 247, with its image of two men standing on white clouds of heaven talking out of earshot of the deity, as proof of Larson’s theory of semi-omniscience. In another panel depicting heaven, the newly deceased are issued harps, indicating a benevolent un-musical mover. However, the two men in the previous panel do not have harps, they have a gun. So how does a supreme being regarded as a benevolent un-musical mover fit into the theory of semi-omniscience, especially when the devil, who is handing out accordions, is revealed to be a blithe humorist (panel 42, caption 16)? 15

Clearly, we need more theological analysis of The Far Side. (Or is that less?) To return to Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose as I close, I take note again of William of Baskerville’s views on humor and religion. Defending the margin illustrations of the biblical illuminator Adelmo, he reminds the humorless Jorges of Burgos that some ancient Christian authorities prized laughter and absurdity for what it might reveal. “God can be named only through the most distorted things,” some argue, and “the more the simile becomes dissimilar, the more the truth is revealed to us under the guise of horrible and indecorous figures, the less the imagination is sated in carnal enjoyment, and is thus obliged to perceive the mysteries hidden under the turpitude of the images.” 16 This does not impress Jorges who continues his murderous efforts to rid the monastery of laughter, nor will it resolve all the theological conundrums we grapple with, as Steve Martin makes clear, but it might just be enough to conclude that laughter is good and edifying, even when the subject matter is sacred.

Though some might still find The Far Side offensive, it deserves notice, to state the obvious, that the universe found in these comics is theistic and broadly biblical, which is more than one can say about most others. It is irreverent, perhaps, but with no real agenda (that I can see) beyond humor. Like Umberto Eco’s narrator Adso, who finds himself “torn between silent admiration and laughter, because [Adelmo’s] illustrations naturally inspired merriment, though they were commenting on holy pages,” 17 we recognize the sacred in the playful Larson panels and occasionally do not know how to react. Lartoons bring religion and its characters close, making them “like us.” These marginal images provoke smiles, potentially to edifying ends. This is not sacrilege, but rather an attempt to look behind the invisible wall that separates us and them.

ADDENDUM: ARE POPULAR CULTURE AND THE ARTS REALLY SO DANGEROUS? AN OPINION

As is so often the case with popular culture and the arts, there is a fine line between playfulness and insensitivity in the depiction of religious content. Art easily offends and leaves us with difficult questions. With reference to Lartoons, for instance, can we laugh at God and still revere him? Can we laugh at other people’s notions of God and still love those people? Gary Larson knows first hand that some Christian readers find his work offensive. At one point he mentions Christians among a long list of groups troubled by his work (2.452). Though fortunately not as violent, Larson’s experiences parallel those of Danish artist Kurt Westergaard, whose cartoon featuring Mohammed in the Jyllands-Posten in a September 2005 issue outraged many Muslims. Religionists are not alone, however, in finding the mix of comedy and serious subject matter troubling. Larson “incurred the wrath” of many others: Eskimos (“I’m still not exactly sure why”); cat lovers (“I know why”); mental health organizations (“Shouldn’t they have been reaching out to me?”); and Amnesty International among them.

My attempt to argue that The Far Side is just innocent fun—and not theologically dangerous or significant—will not convince all. For some, censorship, not laughter, is the best course. Either ignore The Far Side altogether, or read it selectively. While this in itself might not seem consequential (because most do not run across The Far Side on a regular basis), consistency requires a similar response to all art forms, and this is consequential. The challenge here is the endless list of potentially offensive paintings and drawings, sculptures and dances, literature, films, television shows, plays, and music. Should Christians ignore popular culture and the arts outright? Is censorship the best way forward? Personally, I do not believe it is because of the tendency to throw out too much.

The austere Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s delightful comedy Twelfth Night, or What you Will is a classic wet blanket, an insufferable moralist quick to find fault in others and voice disapproval when they have too much fun. The mischievous and fun-loving Maria calls him “a kind of puritan” (2.3.125). Few take him seriously. Sir Toby, for one, dismisses Malvolio’s self-righteousness out of hand: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (2.3.103–104).

The Puritans, and those like Malvolio who resembled their strict demeanor, were easy targets for theatrical comedy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries but this religious sect proved to be more than a mere irritant in the following decades. In 1642, twenty-six years after William Shakespeare’s death, the Puritan-influenced English parliament closed all public theatres in the country. They found much to complain about in these places, with sexuality of particular concern. The Puritan preacher John Northbrooke published an attack on the theatre that is representative of their sentiments: “Satan hath not a more speedie way and fitter schoole to work and teach his desire, to bring men and women into his snare of concupiscence [sexual desire] and filthie lastes [lusts] of wicked whoredome.” 18 The theatres finally reopened in 1660 and though the Puritans’ political influence diminished by this time, this pattern of suspicion about the popular arts persisted.

Jump ahead a few centuries to 1807 and 1818, and the publication of The Family Shakespeare by Henrietta Maria Bowdler and her brother Thomas Bowdler, who explain their reasons for editing Shakespeare the way they do: “It must . . . be acknowledged, by his warmest admirers, that some defects are to be found in the writings of our immortal bard. . . . Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.” Said differently, the Bowdlers took out the naughty bits. Swearing, flippant treatment of religious subjects, bodily functions, and of course, sex—the Bowdlers excised or changed anything they deemed indecent and improper for respectable families. Somehow, Lady Macbeth’s cry of “Out, crimson spot!” in The Family Shakespeare does not pack the same rhetorical punch as the original.

Here we have two extreme reactions before us—avoid Shakespeare altogether, or bowdlerize his work beyond recognition. It is hard to imagine a world without Shakespeare’s jolly Falstaff, neurotic Hamlet, or the deluded Lear (not to mention Larson’s cows) but many insist the Puritans and the Bowdlers got it right—the world is better off without these characters and stories as Shakespeare constructed them and the same goes for other artists and entertainers with questionable content. What we really need is a world without cakes and ale!

These religious and social conservatives insulated themselves against coarse language and sexual innuendo but in the process sacrificed far more. Shakespeare’s villains, tragic heroes, and comic figures embody quintessential qualities of the human condition. We recognize ourselves in his depictions of friendship and rivalry, self-sacrificing love and self-serving ambition. Shakespeare captures such things as the joys of romantic love, religious hypocrisy, existential despair, and fear of the grave. He teaches us what it means to be human, with all its private/internal/psychological and public/external/social complexities. Is this really such a bad thing?

My concern is not really the prudishness of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century English readers but more generally Christian responses to popular culture. Many in our day fear film, television, literature, comics—all the so-called “secular” arts—just as much as the pious of earlier generations, equally convinced that in these media “Satan hath not a more speedie way and fitter schoole to work and teach his desire.” Without denying that Christians need to be thoughtful consumers of popular culture, allow me to come to its defense against proponents of censorship, bowdlerizing, and retreat into Christian subcultures.

The inclusion of sex, swearing, drug use, violence, irreverent religious references, and the like does not necessarily make movies, television, literature, or comics bad, any more than the absence of such things makes them good. Furthermore, films and literature without such content might be immoral on other, less obvious grounds. Interestingly, concern over the anti-Semitic overtones of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (Shylock) did not bother Puritan or Victorian readers. I find this issue far more troubling than the Bard’s occasional bawdy jokes. Moral censure tends to be selective.

A better way forward, in my view, is thoughtful engagement that focuses on the quality of art as a whole, not the presence or absence of particular subject matter. Thinking about whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8) involves more than averting one’s eyes or plugging one’s ears at opportune moments. If someone’s top criteria for measuring artistic merit is the absence of sexual references and swearing, for instance, they might conclude The Passion of the Christ is a good film (it isn’t), and Jesus of Montreal a bad one (it isn’t). If someone else prizes explicit Christian content over all else, they might replace Jane Austen on their shelves with the Left Behind series. Shudder.

We also do well to change our expectations and actually seek out meaning and truth in popular culture. We might just find the “secular” arts also turning our thoughts to what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. I learn far more about the evils of systemic injustice and the ameliorating potential of simple acts of compassion from Charles Dickens than any sermon. This is not a criticism of the preachers in my life, but rather a comment about the power of the novel and this particular storyteller.

Christians should celebrate good art rather than simply tolerate “safe” art. Larson is good art, for this particular medium. Shakespeare or Larson censored and abbreviated in any fashion is not Shakespeare or Larson at all. Yes, Christians must be discerning and critical consumers of popular culture, but censorship is too clumsy a tool for this particular task.

NOTES

  1. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, tr. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt, 1984 [Italian original, 1980]), 76.
  2. Ibid., 76–7. For a marvelous tale involving a number of such phantasmagorical creatures, see Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, tr. William Weaver (Toronto: Harcourt, 2002 [Italian original, 2000]).
  3. Eco, Name of the Rose, 78.
  4. Ibid., 81, 474, 79. See too the long exchange between Jorge and William on this subject on pp. 473–9.
  5. Ibid., 76.
  6. Edward O. Wilson, “Foreword,” to Gary Larson, There’s a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story (New York: Harper, 1998), n.p.
  7. Jane Goodall, “Foreword,” to Gary Larson, The Far Side Gallery 5 (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1995), n.p.
  8. Gary Larson, The Complete Far Side, Volume One 1980-1986, Volume Two 1987-1994 (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2003), 1.xvi. All subsequent references to this collection appear in the main text of this paper. Complementing this delightful body of work, Larson’s post-Far Side book, There’s a Hair in My Dirt! A Worm’s Story, is must reading for fans.
  9. Also hidden away from everyday experience are the decidedly private, psychological dimensions of existence, human or otherwise. Larson’s cartoons reveal the deepest fears, longings, and beliefs of a world of characters. Usually we bury our emotional lives behind a veneer of respectability because society socializes us to keep certain matters hidden away from onlookers. Not here. Personal failings and social ineptitude; our pathetic romantic insecurities or overbearing self-confidence; every manner of embarrassment and shameful cowardice; pure folly and stupidity; not to mention that nagging but rarely indulged desire we have to place “a single drop of hydrochloric acid on the back of a [colleague’s] neck” (2.356); or scare and humiliate peers in some other way (for suggestions, see 1.303; 1.306); all this and much more parades through Larson’s panels. They reveal much about human existence that is less than cool, and far from noble; behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, desires, and fears usually secreted away behind that invisible wall.
  10. Goodall, “Foreword,” n.p.
  11. To give but a few examples, literary allusions include stories about the Wizard of Oz, Moby-Dick, Frankenstein, the Trojan horse, Humpty Dumpty, King Kong, Dorian Gray, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tarzan. Historical figures include Genghis Khan, Albert Einstein, and Lewis and Clark.
  12. In the cartoon, the spelling is habilis. Homo habilis appears again in a cartoon depicting an anthropologist’s dream: “a beautiful woman in one hand, the fossilized skull of Homo habilis in the other” (1.428).
  13. The letter appears alongside the cartoon, at 1.296. The writer even carbon copies the letter to Carl Sagan!
  14. See, e.g., remarks by Larson’s editor Michael Reagan, in The Complete Far Side, 1.xx, and the letter from a reader (at 1.171), who suggests Larson “has some kind of sickness in that he has to portray animals in some kind of suffering situation.”
  15. Steve Martin, “Foreword,” in The Complete Far Side, 1.vii.
  16. Eco, Name of the Rose, 80.
  17. Ibid., 78.
  18. Taken from Jack Lynch, Becoming Shakespeare: How a Dead Poet Became the World’s Foremost Literary Genius (London: Constable, 2008), 15. The citation below from The Family Shakespeare appears on p. 178.
Michael Gilmour is Associate Professor of New Testament and English Literature at Providence College in Otterburne, Manitoba. He enjoys tracing ways the Bible and religious discourse migrate into mass media art forms, especially in unexpected places like popular music and zombie films. He is not a member of the Institute of Talking Dogs and is the first to admit he is no rocket scientist (2.467), but he is a long-time fan of The Far Side. Gilmour is the author of Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music (Baylor University Press, 2009) and The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times (Westminster/John Knox, 2011).

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