Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column. Be warned, if you haven’t read the comics discussed below, you might want to go read it and come back, as this column may contain spoilers!
The troubling thing about religion is that it can completely debilitate a person’s self-expression. Religion isn’t meant to do that, mind you, as religion is a set of beliefs and ideas that have the ability to free people from the chains with which life tends to shackle us. However, far too often, religion can become the very chains by which humankind becomes shackled.
Take Craig Thompson’s beautiful autobiographical masterpiece, Blankets. In it, Thompson tells his own story of self-discovery amidst being shaped in a religious world that hindered and even suppressed his own sense of creativity. Blankets tells Thompson’s own story of growing up in a small Wisconsin town in a fundamentalist Christian environment. Craig is an outcast in every sense of the word. He is picked on at school, his parents don’t understand him, and even his church community fails to encourage him in a healthy way. Craig, of course, is an extremely talented artist, and he chronicles how his love of beauty and self-expression through artistic means clashed heavily with the religious environment in which he grew up.
Things begin to change for Craig upon meeting his first true love, Raina, at a church camp. The meat of the book takes place on a two-week visit Craig makes to Raina’s house in Michigan. Craig and Raina share a passion for creativity despite both coming from families that are troubling. Raina struggles with her parents’ impending divorce while caring for her handicapped brother and sister, as well as her niece. As the two teenagers become closer and fall in love with one another, Craig has more conflicts with his own upbringing. Not only did his fundamentalist Christian background hinder his creative side, it also stunted his sexuality.
Because of his religious upbringing, he is told that artistic self-expression is unholy and sexuality is evil. Being an artist is not bad, but being a Christian artist is really the way to go, he is told. Making out with a girl is completely out of the question, and all sexual desires must be denied. Perhaps the instance this becomes most evident is when Craig is a little boy and draws a picture of a naked woman which his parents find. They lecture him about the evil that he has done, and even go so far to say that by doing that, he has hurt Jesus personally. As a young child, Craig is completely impressed upon, and these thoughts haunt him to his core.
As a Christian, I can identify with Craig’s impressions, even though like Craig, I know that life and faith don’t have to be that way. But it’s difficult to unlearn what has been drilled into you for so long. And that’s the underlying sadness of Blankets, that while religion has the potential of encapsulating all beauty and grace and love, it also has the potential to make people repressed, hateful, intolerant, and fearful. Craig experiences this firsthand a number of times throughout the book. One such time is when a group of adults at church are giving Craig advice on whether or not to go to art school. One man says, “Craig, I’d highly advise…that is, I WARN you flat outright NOT to go to art school. My brother went to art school, and they made him ‘draw from life,’ you know…he had to draw people, but they…uh…didn’t have any clothes on.” He then traces drawing nudes to becoming addicted to pornography to becoming homosexual, which is an incredible leap in logic. This guy’s fear stems from his lack of understanding of his religion.
However, there is hope for Craig and for us readers. Craig discovers a sense of freedom which faith can bring. When he first comes to Raina’s house, he notices a picture of Jesus in her room that is identical to one in his mother’s room. It was that very image of Christ that he imagined being wounded by his drawing of the naked woman. After a passionate sexual experience with Raina, he sees that image that once reminded him of his shame. However, after the experience with Raina, he see Jesus beaming at him with acceptance and love. For Craig, this is a true sense of validation that he, in fact, is not a horrible sinner, but one who is created for beauty and as such, his own sexuality and his own gifts of creativity are blessings from God and not curses.
As a Christian artist myself, I highly identified with Craig’s journey in the book. Growing up in the South, I literally had the same kinds of conversations with people about art school and struggled with the repression of sexuality because it was “unclean.” While the Christian journey I’m on is much more accepting and validating, when one grows up in a strict environment like that, it can be hard to shake. Thompson’s book reminds me that religion is ultimately not about fear or judgement. Even though Craig eventually leaves the Christian faith, he discovers something much more universal and true. We are each made into wonderful human beings and life is a journey to discover that person we are meant to be. I believe true religion can help us on that journey. But it’s a very delicate thing. We must be careful not to use religion to exclude, suppress, or hate, lest we really do damage not just to ourselves, but to the generations of people who grow up in religious homes. You think about the people who have died, either by their own hand or by someone else’s, all because religion taught them to fear.
We have nothing to fear, as Blankets shows us. We have only to uncover our eyes and see the beauty within and the amazing world that is laid out for us.