A Second Shot of Coffee with Jesus
IVP Books, 2015
128 pp., $16.00
Paul J. Pastor
A Second Shot of Coffee with Jesus
When you gaze long into a navel, the navel also gazes into you. (I make no apology for that at all to Nietzsche.)
The recursive nature of self-contemplation produces, at least in popular Christian culture, all manner of both good and ill. The present obsession with every contour of our collective Protestant bellybutton (the metaphor is collapsing already—run!) produces a miniature abyss in the abdomen, a black hole that sucks in any debris unfortunate enough to approach it and, in accordance with some arcane relativity, spits a few bits, transformed and brilliant, back again into the cosmos.
Orbiting around this dark star of the collective Christian gut is David Wilkie. He plays some role between observing scientist and interested looky-lou, muttering puns as he tosses odds and ends into the void, meticulously cataloging what is and is not utterly consumed. Gazing, just beyond the inexorable pull of the navel. Being gazed upon.
His weightless lab notes, as it were, can be found in a little webcomic called Coffee with Jesus, whose collected strips (available with other digital shenanigans at the Radio Free Babylon website) form this book. The readers of Coffee, at least based on the strip's abundant Facebook comments, are remarkably diverse. Swirling with Wilkie in the starry ether are Christians of all backgrounds, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, "spiritual-but-not-religious" folks. Based on those same comments, the strip's readers see Wilkie's notes as some sort of guide to themselves, expressing (depending on the particles returned) agreement, conviction, confusion, tepid offense.
The strip's simple and repetitive format, so easily shared online, is part of the appeal. By turns, five or six mid-century styled white folks, changing only as the most basic principles of Photoshop allow, join a mulleted business-wear Jesus for a title card and four panels of conversation. Topics of conversation include spiritualities of all flavors, politics, entertainment, theodicy, epistemology, morning devotions, industrial-style church growth, sleeping in, the Eschaton, Satanic strategems, Christmas consumerism, toll-free televangelist donations, liberals, conservatives, "fellowshipping," the disparity between Paul and the Four Evangelists, God Blessing America, youth groups, car washes, youth group car washes, anxiety, savior complexes, paradise, virtue, vice, and that new phone that just came out.
Despite the inflexible form, the effect isn't claustrophobic. Wilkie keeps dialogue sharp and evocative; believable, though in a cartoonish, satirical way. The incessant opinions and questions of Christ's coffee dates sound pretty much like tidbits an eavesdropper would hear from around a typical American kitchen table, coffee shop, talk show, pulpit. They're not full conversations, merely glimpses, one feels, of the hinge moments of conversations, the borderland place in the vacuum where something Goes In, where something Comes Out.
In an oft-quoted essay on the grotesque work of true Christian fiction, Flannery O'Connor wrote, "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."
O'Connor was talking about her craft as a woman, as a Christian, as an artist, a writer of fiction. But her principle, that the judicial use of shock leverages gaps in belief, applies to any Christian creative (for me, this category include all Christians) working in a culture that has not only forgotten how to see but has forgotten that it has forgotten it. In this sense, Wilkie's cramped images of a pop-culture Jesus facing down everyday people and everyday perspectives become large(ish) and startling(ish). The shock is muted, hidden under several layers of navel-oriented self-conciousness and sacharrine smiles, but it is nevertheless there, gothic and stark at the core. In the original sense of the word, the images become iconic.
An icon is a Christian image whose purpose is to be both beautiful and instructive. The latter element trumps the former, however: should the artist be forced to choose between aesthetic and meaning (not always a false distinction), meaning must come first. After all, icons are pastoral images before anything else. Teaching images. Images preserving the symbols and values of a particular Christian community while tethering it like a weightless spacewalker to our larger culture of belief, the great Church Universal, starry and wide as the galaxy.