The Christians I dissociate myself from are the ones usually found in films like Saved! or in comics like American Virgin: generally linked with sexism, homophobia, racism, fundamentalism, and conservative political views. I prefer to call myself a liberal or a progressive Christian. The type of guy who sits comfortably with the likes of Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Hans Kung. Because of my more liberal religious views, comic books like Preacher do not offend, but rather excite, confront, and challenge me.
Preacher by Garth Ennis is one of my favorite comic books, and I loved every second of reading it. It is a modern-day Western with a supernatural and religious backdrop, about one man’s quest to literally find God. Now, many might simply view this as Jesse Custer’s quest to find the “Christian God,” and this not exactly incorrect. But the god Jesse is trying to hunt down is actually the combination of several theological thoughts and principles.
In the story, God has abandoned Heaven. No one knows where God is, and for most of human history, the Earth has been basically left to its own devices. Although not the classic expression of the belief, this is called “deism.” Deism is the belief that a supreme being commonly called God exists, but this being is unknowable, untouchable, and undefinable. God is simply the “first cause,” the weaver of all the laws that govern the universe and everything in it. These laws operate in themselves and do not require intervention. God simply allows the universe to be. The most common metaphor used to explain deism is that of a clockmaker. God creates the clock, and then the clock simply keeps ticking. Deism was extremely popular in the Age of Enlightenment, including the U.S. founding fathers, but it eventually started to wane.
Among theologians, the biggest criticism of deism is that is appears to be a rather empty belief for the person seeking a personal spirituality. God exists, but he does nothing but watch? Some of the biggest problems with deism come when faced with the problem of evil. God just sits back and watches evil? God allows evil to exist? It is a part of the age-old problem: if God is all powerful, why doesn’t he stop evil? If he can’t, then he isn’t all-powerful. If he can but doesn’t, then God is a rather cruel being. In a sense, Jesse embodies the voice of the critical when he tells God, “There’s questions you gotta answer. Not just why Creation’s fulla pain an’ misery, or why you’d make a world this cold.” It’s the elephant in the corner: why would God bother making the world if it was just going to end up full of so much chaos and evil?
However, deism does not capture the god of Preacher fully. In classical deism, God does not interfere with humanity’s actions or with the laws of science and nature. But in Preacher, God continually plays fast and loose with the laws of nature for his own ends. He brings Tulip back from the dead, tries to convince Jesse to abandon his quest (resulting in him ripping out Jesse’s eye), and eventually strikes a deal with Cassidy. In this, we have the idea of theism. Richard Swinburne, an English theologian, defines theism as a view of God that is “something like a person without a body, who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.”
Religious art and imagery are full of theistic ideas. For example, the classic old-man-in-the-sky image, the words “How Great Thou Art,” and the Nicene Creed, “God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and of Earth.” Garth Ennis uses the common theistic image of God in Preacher — the old father figure from Heaven — to bring out the concept that God can do anything he pleases, simply because he is God. In modern times, theism came under great criticism due to the two world wars and the Holocaust. The idea of a being looking after us, loving us, protecting us, and answering our prayers in the sight of so much massive evil resulted in the common use of the phrase, “God is dead.”
Even more than deism, theism is critiqued the most in the face of the problem of evil. The problem consists of three main points of view and how they relate to the argument:
- If God is good, and therefore willing to overcome evil, then God cannot be all-powerful, thus making God impotent. If this is true, what use do we have for religion?
- Alternatively, we could say that God is good and all-powerful but unwilling to intervene. Then it could be argued that God is not interested in humanity’s welfare. However, if this is true, then what use is there of God?
- Or we are left with the view that God is all-powerful but not good and unwilling to intervene. Yet if this is true, do we merely worship God to placate his anger and lessen his wrath — or to try and court his favor above others? If so, why even worship God at all?
Some theists and theologians argue that God allows evil to exist so that humans can have the freedom of choice, the freedom to choose between doing good and doing evil, thus making them whole beings rather than mindless machines. But in Preacher, God invades the lives of many, affecting the way people make their decisions, and not allowing much or any free will at times. The theology is confusing and contradictory, but in Preacher, that’s the point. God in Preacher is a violent, tyrannical, hypocritical, and irresponsible super-being. He is the representation of theism gone horribly wrong.
While both of these theological concepts are in Preacher, the most difficult one that confronts the reader is that of universalism. Universalism is not overtly found in Preacher but can be found between the panels, particularly in the issue titled “First Contact.” Universalism is the belief, or “hope” rather, that God at the Final Judgement will forgive humanity and everyone will be saved, no matter who they are or what they have done. In the issue, God offers Jesse his eternal love; Jesse rejects it and challenges God to answer for his crimes against the world. At this point, one expects God to react with extreme judgment. Instead, God grabs Jesse and declares, “Believe in the loving God!… Accept me as your Saviour or be damned!” If God doesn’t allow Jesse to reject Him, what is the point of free will? And if God wouldn’t allow him to say no, what sort of love is that? Can it be love if it is forced upon someone?
In the end, the God of Preacher takes these theological ideas to their extremes. They are not meant to be taken literally or seriously. Ennis presents a deeply captivating critique of some of the most commonly held and accepted religious doctrines and ideas. As a person of faith, I thank Ennis for confronting me with his problems and many of his criticisms. While I was in seminary, I was taught in the tradition of John Shelby Spong that “any God that can be killed should be killed.” And if the God of Preacher existed, you would definitely find this Christian riding next to Jesse on the road to bring him to justice.
Want to read more? Read my old article on the Problem of Evil at http://www.catholica.com.au/gc1/dg/001_dg_010607.php.