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.
Icon as comic, though? Indeed. Folk-art too, if the innocence of that category can be sullied by Wilkie's trademark sarcasm. Comics as a genre are uniquely connected to satire, to the saying of difficult, timely things. They're a Trojan Horse way of telling the truth, getting us to lower our defenses for a laugh or two, only to find ourselves confronted by a sudden phalanx in the pantomime. In this sense, they're icons particularly suited for the very iconoclasts who'd crack a joke about them if they came in their true form, suited for the church of our consumerist self-obsessed pietism. Icons for those who have hears to hear, or those who have hurts to heal, those who have opinions to share.
We, like every generation of believers, make Jesus in our image. In this sense the Christ of Coffee is in many ways just who I perceive Wilkie to be—Christological in mullet and beard. Americano on the breath. This Jesus is snarky, occasionally baldly sarcastic. But with that said, the collection is not notable for its barbs or papercuts. Rather, it's the sincerity lying behind things that makes it stand out.
Somehow, Wilkie manages to produce repetitive, derivative, clip art-sourced four-panel comics about Jesus on coffee break that rise above the polemical to the truly pastoral. Icon? Surely, but in this sense the collection takes on an even more distinctive cast: comic as devotional literature, not merely a less-rabid cartoon cousin of Christian "Chick Tracts." It tells the truth, but the result, curiously enough, is not to make readers feel preached at but rather to feel like they sort of just actually had coffee with Jesus.
The Christ of Wilkie's pages reassures, convicts, retorts, encourages, rebukes, sees us. Our opinions, sins, vices are put in short and brutal sentences, laid before the Son. He sips the black brew and accepts, corrects, loves. It is good.
I interviewed Wilkie in early 2014, as the first collection of his comic was being released. As we corresponded by email, I was struck by the man's kindness, his sincerity. He has a conviction of opinion that both gives his humor teeth and keeps it from drawing too much blood. I asked him about his relationship with the church. "Church," he replied, "is a collection of very different people with one thing—one person—in common. Throw all these very diverse people into a building and tell them to worship, tend to the needs of others, learn, grow and make an impact on their community. It can be very dysfunctional at times, especially if you start to lose focus on the one person you have in common… . If we can step back and look at ourselves—our very selfish selves—maybe we can laugh before pride takes us completely off the rails. But you have to be able to laugh at yourself first, because you might be the problem, not everybody else."
It is precisely this humility of humor, large and startling in its own way, that points to what I hope will be the true legacy of Coffee. Rather than blazing new comedic trails, pioneering cartoon art, or codifying some brilliance of original thought, it is the unitive speculation—what would Jesus say to the sincere nonsenses that we spurt on a daily basis?—that makes one think, that makes one feel charitably toward the weak of heart or opinion, that makes one laugh and wave some Trojan truth past the guards at the gates. This is the invisible legacy that we feel occasionally and forget often—the unknowable rippling influence, like stones tossed in water, of how one's thoughts, words, actions, postures, photoshopped clip-art—might somehow have a lasting effect upon the indelible soul of another.
This is street-level iconography for the age of digital consumerism, chatechesis via virality, at once grotesque and beautiful.
In one of her letters, Miss O'Connor wrote, "I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it." Whether satirical Christlikeness disqualifies us cheek-turners from the deeper life of Jesus, the deeper action of discipleship, I'll leave for you and Flannery to decide. Meanwhile, I'm going to hang out with David Wilkie for a while, and try tossing a few tidbits into the Black Hole of the Christian Cultural Navel.
Something is bound to come out of it.
Paul J. Pastor is a writer, grassroots pastor, and contributing editor to Leadership Journal. His debut book on the Holy Spirit in the Christian life is forthcoming in 2016. Paul lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Emily, and two children.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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