Showing Reality and Sin in Comics

by Robert Flores

“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” —1 Corinthians 8:9

When Christians advocate showing offensive actions/scenes/situations in comics, they inevitably bring up the fact that offensive actions/scenes/situations are in the Bible. The Bible, indeed, shows the whole of humanity, the good and the bad, the glorious and the horrendous. The Bible is a history book, chronicling the real events and actions of real people. But God, when writing about sin, always shows sin in a way that does not glorify it. If God is willing to keep the veil on sin, in His Literature, then why are Christian artists willing to take the veil off of sin, in their works, in the name of reality? The purpose for this essay is to show how you can show reality and sin in comics. As Christian artists, we are called to use discernment in all we create. Let’s look at a few examples from the Bible and see how reality and sin were portrayed.

This first example is about the Levite’s concubine that is raped and killed in Judges 19. The main verse is verse 25: “But the men would not hearken to him: so the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go.”

This verse is the entire account of the rape of the Levite’s concubine. In 44 words, God describes the beginning, middle and end of a 10-hour rape scene. Why one verse? Why not a whole paragraph or a whole chapter detailing this scene? God could have easily expanded this scene to be more detailed and more graphic—ripping of clothes, screams of agony, brutal sexual violence—and yet He chose not to. Why? Because God showed enough of what He wanted to show, and when He got His point across, He moved on. It’s as if God pulls a veil over the disgusting sins of men in the Bible. He doesn’t give glory to sin by going into a lot of detail and yet this method doesn’t take away the reality of the story.

In the historical books, (like Judges) facts are stated very matter-of-factly (even the evil details).Is there an image in your mind of the rape of the Levite’s concubine? Of course. There is in mine and it's a disgusting image of what sinful men do. But that image of what God’s Word produced was not sinful. Or, to put it another way, “knowing” about sin or “retaining facts” about sin is not sinful (If it was, then God would be a sinner, since He knows all our sins). Sin happens when “knowing” about sin turns into “dwelling” on sin and “fantasizing” on sin. And that is always a possibility when writing about sin.

Let’s look at another example. 1 Samuel 22:18 says, “And the king said to Doeg, Turn thou, and fall upon the priests. And Doeg the Edomite turned, and he fell upon the priests, and slew on that day fourscore and five persons that did wear a linen ephod.”

King Saul’s henchman, Doeg, murdered 85 priests with a sword. How long did that take? Maybe an hour? And yet this verse’s 39 words describe the entire massacre. Certainly God could have detailed this slaughter with realistic details—puddles of blood, severed limbs, screams of agony, violence—more accurately. But these details are missing from the narrative. Why? Did God not want to portray this real event as “real” as possible? Or did He just report the minimum details that had to be reported—and moved on?

Another example is found in 1 Samuel 31:9-10, describing the brutality and mockery done to Saul’s dead body: “And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armor, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to publish it in the house of their idols, and among the people. And they put his armor in the house of Ashtaroth: and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan.”

Even in this brutally violent scene, God holds back the gruesome details that a writer could have chronicled. There are no descriptions of mangled flesh, no puddles of blood, no details of the nails used (if the Philistines used nails to fasten the bodies to the wall). The narrative is very matter-of-fact. No glamor. It’s as if God is simply relaying the facts to us and we are to do with them as we wish.

The death of Jezebel is another example. 2 Kings 9:33-35: “And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot. And when he was come in, he did eat and drink, and said, Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king’s daughter. And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands.”

Jezebel’s body is thrown out of her third(?) story window and some of her blood splatters on the wall. Even though this is a gruesome scene, God could have gone into more detail, but didn’t. Actually, this is just the beginning of a scene that could have easily been rated R. Verse 34 says that Jehu goes inside to have a feast, and when he comes out, there is nothing left of Jezebel but her skull, feet and the palms of her hands. According to 1 Kings 21:23, Jezebel was prophesied to be eaten by wild dogs. If there was any scene that God could have shown in all its graphic detail, it could have been this scene. Imagine it with me: an evil woman receiving her just reward by having her body torn apart by wild dogs. Do you hear the crunching of tendons and the snapping of bones? No? Well, either do I. That’s because God doesn’t describe the “wild dogs scene”. This entire scene happens “off-screen”, in verse 34, while Jehu is eating his feast. He walks outside, in verse 35, and the scene has already taken place. So much for God glorifying violence. He takes care in how He portrays sin and reality and so should we.

This is part of the problem I see in Christendom today. Christians don’t hold back disgusting details in a story— whether it’s their testimony or a fictional story. In testimonies. in particular. artists want to air out all their dirty laundry in the name of “reality” and “honesty” and “maturity”. Paul considered his past life as “dung”; why are artists so inclined to give all the details of their former dung life? There is no honor in that. There is no reason for stories to have disgusting, truthful details that only adults could listen to. The more sinfully realistic details that are in a story has more potential to become a stumblingblock to the audience.

If God delivered you from pornography, you don’t have to show a centerfold. You can simply show a stack of Playboys (spines only) with a caption “God delivered me from porn.” If God delivered you from drugs, you don’t have to depict yourself “shooting up”. You can show a needle on the table and that would suffice. Do you see what I mean? You need not glorify the evil by depicting it in all its decadence. Less is more. Readers aren’t stupid. They get it. If “showing reality” takes precedence over “not causing your brother to stumble” there is a serious problem.

If God had God-breathed the Bible as a graphic novel, would He then have had an “excuse” to show the detailed reality of the rape of the Levite’s concubine, Doeg’s massacre, the brutality done to Saul’s body or the death of Jezebel? I don’t think so. It would be a totally different medium, but the same Author. He would have done no different; He would keep the veil on the sin, even though He would be working in a more visual medium (comics). God doesn’t give glory to sin and neither should Christian artists.

I want to briefly look at another kind of “reality scene”, namely the entire book of the Song of Solomon. Even though this book isn’t being written about sin, it still needs to be talked about within the context of reality. This book is meant (among other things) to show the real love between a husband and his wife. In this book, we have descriptions of male and female anatomy as well as (what!?) a sex scene. But if you read this book, you will notice that the language is highly poetic and allegorical. In writing this, God could have gone into a lot more detail of sexual, physical love between a husband and wife, and yet He doesn’t. He knows how easy it is for us humans to lust and to turn His perfectly created love into something pornographic. He chose to write this book in a way that doesn’t have to lead to sin in the audience’s mind. (And if reading this book did lead the reader to sin in his mind, it would not be on God’s end; it would be due to the reader’s unrenewed mind.) If God doesn’t feel compelled to show “reality” in all its detail (whether in a good or evil context) then why are Christian artists compelled to?

As Christians, we need to be cognoscente of the fact that what we show in comics (whether in the name of reality or not) we will be held accountable for. What does Paul say? “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.” (1 Corinthians 14:12-13) What will one say at the Bema Seat Judgment? “But, God, I was just showing reality in my comics, how you took me out of drugs and pornography.” God’s reply: “Yes, my son, but what you showed in your comics made others sin.”

I want to look at one final example of how God showed reality in His Word. This example is the most gruesome, violent, disgusting scene(s) in the whole Bible: the beatings and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The following verses contain the most grisly details of the violence done to Jesus. Read carefully how God chose His words in describing the brutality done to His Son:

“. . . they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands” (Mt 26:67), “. . .he had scourged Jesus” (Matthew 27:26b), “. . . and they crucified him and parted his garments” (Matthew 27:35a), “they stripped him, and put on a scarlet robe” (Matthew 27:28), “they platted a crown of thorns, they put it on his head. . . they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head” (Matthew 27:29-30), “And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him. . . and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands.” (Matthew 14:65), “. . . and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him to be crucified.” (Mark 15:15c), “. . .and platted a crown of thorns, and put it about his head. . .” (Mark 15:24a), “And when they crucified him, they parted his garments. . .” (Mark 15:24a), “And it was the third hour, and they crucified him.” (Mark 15:25), “And the men that held Jesus mocked him, and smote him. And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face. . .” (Luke 22:63-64a), “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him. . .” (Luke 23:33a), “one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand.” (John 18:22b), “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head. . .” (John 19:1-2a), “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull. . . where they crucified him. . .” (John 19:17-18a), “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments. . .” (John 19:23a)

The brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus was excruciating (literally, “out of the cross”) to say the least. Execution by crucifixion remains the most painful death in the annals of history, and, yet, in these narratives describing Jesus’ death, God held back from us what really transpired that day. No record of how many times he was whipped; No description of the flagellum with pieces of bone and lead balls embedded into its leather thongs; No details of the blood loss; No description of what his back looked like after the scourging; No details of the thorns that pierced his skull; No description of the 7” iron nails that lacerated the nerves in his hands and feet; No details of the respiratory difficulties on the cross; No description of the splintered and unhewn wood of the cross; No descriptions of joint-wrenching cramps; No details of his exhaustion and dehydration; No description of his fatal congestive heart failure.

In all of this, God simply uses the phrase “they crucified him”. If any event, in the history of the world, could have warranted more detail, it would have been the beatings and the execution of Jesus Christ. And yet God puts a cover over the evil for us. Even in His most heroic moment God is humble in describing what He did for us. He described these events in as much detail as He wanted, and, when He accomplished that, He moved on to describing the next real event:

“Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (Luke 24:1-7)

So now that we have examined examples from the Bible, and have gleaned how God, as an Author, dealt with reality and sin in the Bible, let’s look at the implications of this. How do Christian artists show real evil in their comics? Well, one way is to realize that you don’t have to show evil. There are other ways of talking about “reality”, without actually talking about “reality”. Or, to put it comic book terminology: there are other ways of “showing” evil, without actually “showing” it.

I would like to advocate something I call the “bottom-up” principle. The “bottom-up” principle, in regards to showing evil in comics, is this: 1. If you don’t have to show “adult-level” evil in your comics, then don’t. Just show evil that teenagers can see without it being a stumblingblock to them. 2. If you have to show “adult-level” evil, then show it without actually showing it (i.e. “closure”). (There are, no doubt, Christians who would go one step further and show evil in ALL its disgust, which is so sad in my opinion).

“Closure” is a word taken from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It is a term that he used to describe “showing parts of a whole”. In other words, you can show something without actually showing it. Great examples of closure are found in the black and white movies of the 1940’s. If a violent or gruesome scene happened, it either happened off-screen, or it happened in the shadows, or it happened with hand gestures, or facial expressions, or other people’s reactions, or with silhouettes, or without sound. Even in the hard-boiled crime movies, when someone got shot, blood wasn’t splattering. It was: “close-up of a gun” cuts to “reaction of the shot victim”. The actual moment that the bullet entered the victim was almost always never shown. A Christian artist can show real evil without (a) going into a lot of detail, (b) not causing his readers to sin and (c) not compromising the reality of the evil. It is done by showing parts of a whole: silhouettes, hand gestures, thoughts, metaphors, symbolism, etc. There is no excuse, even in comics, for Christians to cause a stumblingblock for the reader or to glorify sin.

Why is it called the “bottom-up” principle? Because, as a Christian, he is working from the bottom to the top, with the top being the most evil of subject matter. Hollywood follows the exact opposite: if there is any possibility to show great evil, in the name of reality, they will show it without blinking an eye.

I want to briefly touch on the subject of the audience’s imagination that is fed from the words on the page, particularly asking the question, “The words that the Author used on the page brought an image into my mind. Is having that image in my mind, while I am reading His Word, sinful? I would answer, “No, the image that God’s Word produced in your mind was not sinful.” Or, to put it another way, “knowing” about sin or “retaining facts” about sin is not sinful. (If it was, then God would be a sinner, since He knows all our sins). The sin happens when “knowing” about sin turns into “dwelling” on sin and “fantasizing” on sin. And that is always a possibility when an author writes about sin.

Likewise, there is the possibility on the artist’s end, to sin, while creating art that shows reality and sin. In every artwork an artist creates, it should always pass his conscience/sinful nature first, then, if it passes, he should be thinking about the conscience/sinful nature of his audience. If it doesn’t pass the first step, it should never reach the second. In contrast to what the world thinks, an artist is accountable for what he creates. An artist should always take care in how he represents sin in his work. And when questionable material comes up, look to God’s Word to see how he represented evil in His Work.

In all these examples, it is still possible for the (the audience ) to sin. But if that happens it is not on God; it’s on the reader because all readers (including me) have a sinful nature and a deprave mind. God is no the Author of evil. If someone reads His Word and has evil thoughts, it’s not God’s fault; it’s the person’s fault. And actually, that’s one of the purposes of His Word: to bring to light our sinful nature and repent.

Is God a sinner because he wrote about a real sinful event in the Bible? Of course not. If there is any sin in this story, it would be on my end (in what I am dwelling on in my mind as a reader). The sin is not in what God wrote; the sin is the fact that I'm not "renewing my mind". The fact is, God still put these examples in the Bible. Why? To show the evil of other men and the evil in my own heart. (Given the right circumstances, any man is capable of any sin). But, again, the Bible is a special case. It's God-breathed. My comics, nor anyone else's comics are God-breathed. Also, the Author of the Bible is a unique case. So I have to be careful in extracting God's methods, and not necessarily creating art that God would. (A sin for me is never a sin for Him; He can't sin).

There is nothing wrong in showing reality in your testimony or sin in your stories, but just in how you show it. As artists, we will be held accountable for the art we create and as readers, we will be accountable for what we read. Christian comics, in order to be effective, have to be set in the real world. And the real world, as I know it, is full of sin. Therefore, sin has to be shown in Christian comics when it is applicable, and cannot be shied away from. Christian comics will not be effective if they do not treat sin as something from the depths of hell. Sin should always be shown in a negative light, contrasted with the righteousness that only Christ can give.

Likewise, Christian comics will not be effective if they treat God’s grace as some mamby-pamby pie-in-the-sky upgrade to one’s life. The Christian life is not an “upgrade”; it is a totally new life! There is a balance between showing sin (where we have been) and showing righteousness (where we are going). And, as Christian artists, we need to know how to portray that balance in our comics. And how will we know how to portray that balance unless we ask God how we should create these difficult scenes in our comics? If He has called you to make a particular comic then only He can show you the proper way to draw it. We shouldn't be relying on our own wisdom and creativity. It’s His idea. It’s His plan. Let’s show reality and sin in comics how He wants us to.

In this essay, I have gleaned examples from a Perfect Author (who cannot sin) and a Perfect Book (that has no mistakes). This unique situation makes it difficult to apply everything God did (in a perfect manner) to something I can do in an imperfect manner. But I can still try, right? (And I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me).

Artists shouldn't feel detached, or, unaccountable to what they produced for an audience. An artist should always take care in how he represents sin in his work. God took great care in representing evil in His Work and we, as artists, should apply His techniques in how we represent evil in our work.

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” —Philippians 2:3

“But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.” —1 Corinthians 8:12