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. There be spoilers ahead, so beware!
I’ve been thinking about time recently. Perhaps I find I don’t have enough of it, or perhaps I waste too much of it, but time seems to be something to which we all find ourselves slaves. Time as a concept is especially pertinent to those of us who are both full-time comic book fans and part-time theologians.
I remember reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and how the reader’s concept of time is critical to our understanding of how comics work. In fact, time is key in reading comics. As a panel flows one to the next, our imaginations fill in the gaps, allowing us to perceive the story and shape it in our own minds. This is what makes the sequential form of storytelling so unique, and in my opinion, one of the higher forms of storytelling. As comic readers, we glimpse flashes of moments, and when done well, a comic creator can play with our sense of time in a way that furthers the story. One example of this is in David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp, where flashback sequences use the same drawing of a figure, but with different backgrounds.
Time changes here even though the central figure stays the same. It’s up to our own imaginations to recognize that this is a flashback.
In theological terms, there are two designations of time: chronos and kairos. Both are understandings of time from the Greeks. Chronos is a linear form of time. It’s where we get the word chronology. It’s a certain and measurable form of time. It took me three hours to write this column is a chronos statement. Chronos is based on quantity.
Kairos, on the other hand, is more nuanced. The best way I can describe kairos is by using a decidedly more human example. When people talk about positive sexual experiences, they usually don’t describe it in terms of the time it took to perform the act. “The sex was great…we did it for 34 minutes.” Instead, we talk about it in terms of quality of experience. The chronos of the experience doesn’t really matter, but the kairos does. A significant amount of time is spent, but that time is experiential. It’s a period of time of any chronological length that is based on an important or significance occurrence. Another way to describe kairos is if you practice prayer or meditation and literally hours have slipped past without much notice.
In the Christian church and Scripture, when one talks about a “time” when God may act, for instance, they are not talking about an exact minute on a clock, but rather the experience of God acting beyond time. God acts both within time and outside of time. Therefore, it’s rather ridiculous to try and calculate dates for the rapture or the end of the world when Scripture wasn’t even referring to chronos, but kairos.
Our 21st Century mindset is much more chronos-driven. However, there are many cultures who understand kairos much better than we do. I was once on a Navajo reservation waiting for a worship service to start. My group had been told to show up at 2:00pm, however, when we showed up, none of the locals were there. They started showing up within a few moments of each other, and once everyone got there, we started. But they were not tied to chronos, but rather valued the kairos of being with one another. The time of the service didn’t matter, but that they were all there did.
Recently, I read Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s book Return of the Dapper Men, which focuses directly on the idea of time. In the book, time has stopped, however, life goes on. Children have forgotten to grow up and robots have forgotten who built them. There is general dis-ease in the community, as these lack of understandings have driven the human children and the robots away from one another.
It’s not until the community is visited by a down-pouring of Dapper Men that things begin to change. One Dapper Man, designated “41,” brings about the epiphany of the importance of time to the characters, and they find that their destinies are even dependent on time. If one lives in a world with no time, then how might they discover who they can grow to be?
Return of the Dapper Men is most definitely dependent on chronos. However, I would argue that McCann finds the kairos within the chronos in telling this story. There is one short scene when 41 shows up that illustrates my point. He puts his hand on a mound of dirt, a small plant grows and dies in a matter of seconds, fully completing its circle of life. While 41 is displaying a chronological event, he is illustrating a kairotic understanding. Our potential in life is not determined on a chronos time scale. Rather, who we are depends on the kairos of our lives, the significant moments of undetermined time, with all its ebbs and flows of intensity.
The central character of Ayden doesn’t discover his destiny when the clock starts ticking and the Dapper Men show up. Instead, Ayden’s destiny is seeded within him, making him question why the world is broken, drawing him to befriend the robots and one robot named Zoe specifically. His calling happens well before the chronos starts. This is what makes Return of the Dapper Men a great example of kairos.
Frequently in worship I will find myself looking at the clock to see how long the service has gone. Other times, I find myself so focused on the connection I have with my Creator and with those around me that time no longer bears much meaning. It is in that time, rather than the clock-watching time, that I find my great potential and love of life. It’s in that kairos I find the true meaning of time that exists in between the panels, where imagination is more real than reality.