My Answer to Christians Denouncing R. Crumb's "Genesis Illustrated"
- 2009 Dec 03
Yesterday I wrote that I fail to understand how any Christian could not welcome R. Crumb's Monumental "History of Genesis Illustrated." Naturally enough, a Christian or three wrote to tell me how.
So I thought I'd present the Christian arguments against the book of which I've been made aware---and then (in order to save time and space) respond to them between brackets, in lovely, easy-to-read blue.
First off, in an article from The UK's Daily Telegraph, we have this quote from Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, "a religious think-tank":
"It seems wholly inappropriate for what is essentially God's rescue plan for mankind. [Why? What aspect of it is inappropriate?] If you are going to publish your own version of the Bible it must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. [Who would argue that?] The Bible is a very important text to many many people and should be treated with the respect it deserves. [Right. Who would argue that?] Representing it in your own way is all very well and good but it must be remembered that it is a matter of people's faith, their religion. [Have I bought a ticket to Obvious Fest 2009?] Faith is such an important part of people's lives that one must remember to tread very carefully." [Okay, seriously: think tank? The "tank" part, I definitely got. This is just a blanket condemnation followed by four declaratives of the purely obvious---none of which is then connected to anything specific to Crumb's book. Yawn. Based on this statement, I'd bet my house and all its plumbing that Mr. Judge judged Genesis Illustrated without first having seen the work. No one who has spent any time at all with the book would suggest that, of all things, it's not done with the respect Genesis deserves. To claim it is, is, I think, manifestly unthinkeristical.]
Someone also sent to me a link to Cartooning the Word---R. Crumb's "The Book of Genesis," written by my fellow Crosswalk.com blogger, Albert Mohler. (Mr. Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Hi, Mr. Mohler! You're a great writer! Please don't get me fired from Crosswalk for writing this.) Mr. Mohler's objection to Crumb's book seem to boil down to these three:
1. Crumb, an agnostic, found Genesis to be defined by "a primitive, backward morality," and thinks it's insane that millions of people have taken the Bible as seriously as they have. [To show how anti-Bible Crumb is, Mr. Mohler uses quotes from Crumb that appear in this piece published in The Financial Times. What's interesting is that in that same Financial Times article, Crumb is quoted as saying, "I had a very powerful dream in the year 2000 when I saw God, and that (how I drew him in Genesis) is what He looked like." Speaking at his only European press conference to promote Genesis, Crumb then declined to respond any further to the reporters' excited follow-up questions to his surprising revelation. But I think that quote makes it safe to say that the state of Crumb's mind toward God and/or Christianity isn't as cut-and-dry as Mr. Mohler suggests.
But more to the point: I fail to understand the relevance of a person's personal beliefs or opinions when evaluating work done by that person. If I hire a man to build me a house, I don't care what he thinks about me, or houses, or architecture, or ... anything. I care about nothing else beyond the quality of house he builds. By all accounts Picasso was a real doinknut of a human. Should that fact stop me from being enamored of his art? While lost gazing into the depths of a Jackson Pollack's canvas, should I take pains to recall the great number of his personal failings? Of course not---because that's not what the interaction between artist and viewer is about. If Crumb is anti-God, or anti-Bible, I dare anyone to find a single line stroke in all of his Genesis that shows it. That it's not there is all that should matter.]
2. Crumb is merely a cartoonist. [Though he never explicitly says it, the fact that throughout his piece Mr. Mohler never refers to Crumb as anything but a cartoonist (never an "artist," "comic artist," or "illustrator") renders the appelation "cartoonist" a dig. I assume that Mr. Mohler is unaware that over the years Crumb's work has been taken with increasing seriousness by the established art world (as evidenced by an exhibition of Crumb's work in Genesis showing until Feb. 7, 2010, at the Hammer Museum). If the work in Genesis is mere "cartooning," than Dore was a doodler. "Cartoonist" is hardly an automatic denigration---Art Spiegelman, anyone?---but no one should fail to note that, with regards to the discipline of artistic rendering, Genesis Illustrated is about as solid and deserving of praise as it gets.]
3. To use Mr. Mohler's own words:
"[Genesis Illustrated] also reveals once again why God gave us words, and not images. Crumb's newest work may be described as a triumph of the human imagination---and that is precisely the problem. [Respectfully, why is that a problem? Christians have always turned to the creative arts as a means of expressing and reflecting their passion for God and Christ. Are we to dismiss such works as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, and Handel's Messiah as trifling works of nothing more interesting than human imagination? What better tool do we humans have to apprehend God but our imaginations?]
"The Bible always lays claim upon the reader. The Book of Genesis demands a decision. [I don't understand that as true. As a 33-year-old non-Christian, I took an extraordinarily illuminating college class titled "The Bible as Literature," in which we fastidiously studied all of Genesis---and I never felt compelled to "decide" anything at all about it or the Bible. I just ... studied it.] The God who reveals himself in these words is not only the Creator of the cosmos, but the judge of every human soul. Genesis not only begins the Bible, it reminds us of our need for Christ. Every single narrative Crumb depicts finds its ultimate meaning in the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ. [No argument here---nor, of course, from any Christian.]
"But that great fact cannot be reduced to a cartoon. It was never meant to be." [Respectfully, I think it unfair to, again, dismiss Crumb's work as nothing more than a reduction of Genesis to a cartoon. That's like calling Mt. Everest a bump in the ground. Genesis Illustrated doesn't reduce The Book of Genesis at all. It builds upon it, enhances it, brings it to life; it gives us a wonderfully engaging way to learn, remember, and appreciate one of the most dense, complex, and certainly most important books in the Bible. And, again: if illustrating episodes of Bible is something that shouldn't be done, then we have got a whole lot of artwork we need to start removing from museums, innumerable stain-glass windows we need to shatter, and a mountain of illuminated manuscripts we need to burn. There's nothing wrong with illustrating the Bible. Crumb's book is nothing more (or less!) than an important contribution to the ancient and hallowed tradition by which Christians have always relied upon visual imagery to help them better understand and appreciate the Bible.]
Finally, I received a thoughtful email from Bob Luedke, himself the author and illustrator of a series of Christian graphic novels entitled Eye Witness. Here's what Mr. Luedke had to say:
I think that some of the hesitation among Christians toward embracing this work, is Crumb's past works. Many of his creations (Mr. Natural, Fabulous Furry Freak Bros, et al ...) are iconic for many sins that the Christian establishment have traditionally stood against. My thought is they just don't feel comfortable embracing him now---especially since, as you mention, he regards himself as agnostic. And the work did not arrive with any testimony of birth or re-birth as a believer or man of faith. In fact, I read a quote in regards to this, where Crumb stated (and I paraphrase), "This was just another illustration assignment for me." The Christian marketplace and media love a good "come to Jesus story," and they just didn't get one here.
[Again, since when must one be a Christian in order to do work that is pleasing to God? I have a friend who is a Jewish pediatric heart surgeon. Would any of we Christians dare to assert that God is displeased with the work to which this champion of children's health has dedicated her life? Moreover, who among us knows how R. Crumb's personal story is going to end? Don't we believe in the God of redemption, of forgiveness, of transformation? And don't we know---aren't we proud of the fact?---that God can and does use virtually anyone to fulfill his plans on earth? Have we forgotten that Noah was an incestuous drunk, Jacob a liar, David an adulterous murderer?
Not for nothing does our beloved Paul write (at 1 Timothy 1:16), " ... I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life."
How does any of us know that won't end up being R. Crumb's song, too?
When I think of Genesis Illustrated---of a man who on the one hand claims he doesn't believe in God, but who on the other diligently applies himself to the creation of an homage to the Bible of (as far as I know) unprecedented breadth and depth---I think of what God himself says at Isaiah 43: 19:
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?]