Show notes: episode 88
I can't believe that by the time people hear this my 40s will be a thing of the past. This is Spider's 50th birthday weekend and all I can say is... what the fuck? 50? I don't feel 50. I still feel like I have a lot to do before I check out. Like another episode of this show which I should stop rambling and get on with.
...and this week we are finally tackling a subject that I've wanted to address for a while: gospel tracts. How do evangelicals weaponize them for various purposes and what kind of gospel do the more popular ones out there actually represent? Spoiler alert: the most pervasive ones out there have very little to do with love or any of the positives of the gospel message. We will look at that aspect of them more, along with a laundry list of other problems they create in a few, but first...
Right now, from the files of “Stop criticizing me and admit I'm right...” Here's Shelle with the cheese to go with a couple false prophets' whine. It's more election denial and what should be considered a world record for a continuous temper tantrum over a political loss in this week's Christians behaving badly segment: prophets predicting poorly edition!
First up: we're going to talk, once again, about prophecy. The “Prophets of God” are starting to sound...a little desperate at this point. For instance, take Robin Bullock. Please.
He's very frustrated because people are criticizing him. You know, because he keeps being wrong and people keep pointing that out. It would be pretty easy to stop the criticism by just...not saying that “the last guy is still president.” and “he's going to return to power really soon,” or, “he's still president anyway we just have to wait.”
( I don't know about him but when I went to bible school I was always taught that a true prophet of god was NEVER wrong. I don't know how we have so man prophets who get everything wrong at every turn...)
Anyway, he's frustrated and he will never apologize for those false prophecies he keeps spouting at every turn. Here's his rant:
“How about that? Just so you can hear me again — No!” he yelled into his microphone.
“Because you are wrong,” he declared, before asking if his premonitions were wrong, “why don’t it go away?”
“How come it hasn’t ever faded away? How come it’s still a fight over that election? If it wasn’t wrong and it wasn’t true, then why are we still debating all of this?” he continued. “Folks, it would have already passed. You keep your doctrines … but I’ll tell you what — you are going to answer for trying to regulate the Lord’s prophets, with your big educations.”
“You’re going to answer for trying to regulate a prophet of the Lord,” he warned.
Dude, we're not the ones arguing about the election. It's Christians like Bullock and Republicans who are insisting that Trump won the election even though there's no proof. And when they've tried to prove it, they keep proving that Biden won the election!
To make things worse, he's recently heard 'in the Spirit' more information that he's imagined:
Bullock claimed that he had heard, in the spirit, Trump’s advisers telling the former president not to listen to the prophets. Bullock insisted that Trump must not listen to those advisers and instead call him so that he can pass on the word from God that Trump was “anointed from the day you were born to be president.”
“Get in touch with me, and I can tell you some of these things,” Bullock said. “Donald Trump, call me. Call me. … Listen to the prophets. Don’t let them tell you to not listen to the prophets. … I heard these people talking, and they told the president—I’m talking about President Trump. The president. I’m not talking about the jackal who barks over the desk of the Oval Office. I’m talking about the president—I was listening to this conversation and they said, ‘Don’t listen to the prophets.'”
Well I'm not even sure that 45 knows who this guy Bullock is but apparently he's open to the last guy's phone call so there's that, I guess.
Finally there's Prophet Nathan French. He, too, is frustrated. He predicted in March that Trump would be back in power by April. He also predicted that the social media sites that banned 45 would be destroyed. And those prophecies...haven't happened, obviously. He's not sure what God is doing, but he knows the “prophets” are correct because Jesus, I guess?
Anyway, like any prophet these days, he was on the show 'Elijah Streams' because of course he was. The host of that show will put anything on it. When asked how he responds to people who say that if god was going to put 45 back in office he would have done so by now, he said basically that “God must restore Trump to office or else the prophetic community is going to look really, really dumb.” Here's a further statement:
“I took a risk to prophesy over him and Melania,” French said. “What we’re seeing right now is the unraveling of the enemy’s plan because God’s been shining the light. … I saw the Lord shining a light into the dark places and all the scurrying of the evildoers or those who had worked against Christ with an Antichrist spirit. We’re gonna see God finish what he began. The word promises that he will finish the good work he began. Where people miss it and start trying to discredit the prophetic community is when they start getting the timeline messed up. If somebody gives a word that, ‘Hey, on this date, this person is going to be in office,’ and it doesn’t come to pass, then it was a false word. It wasn’t true. But if they give that word and the date that they gave hasn’t yet come to pass, you can’t call him a liar or [say] that they were wrong because the time hasn’t happened yet. If somebody doesn’t give a date and God gives a word and speaks through the voice of his prophets—which he’s doing on the Earth right now because there’s still prophets today. … There’s a whole bunch of people on the planet that don’t believe that there are still prophets on the Earth. And so they scripturally are trying to resolve that, and they’re teaching people that prophets no longer exist.”
These guys are getting desperate. But as long as people keep listening to them and believing what they say, they're not going to stop. It makes money, after all.
Next week we're going to talk about what to do when you start looking back. How do you deal with the feelings of loss when you leave evangelical faith? What mementos are you holding onto and are they keeping you in an emotional tug of war over what you know is right and what you know to be harmful and detrimental to your happiness, well-being, and overall emotional health?
It's kind of a heavy subject but I wanted to get this one in there in time for all the holiday activities that many of us will once again be enjoying this year. You'll be in people's houses where you will see mementos and reminders. People will start reminiscing with you about church and youth group. How do you respond? How do you deal? We'll try to help you answer those questions next week.
Thanksgiving week we are taking a well-deserved break and then coming back with our second anniversary gala on December 5 with a look at the movie Dogma.
What is a tract?
A tract is a “literary work” (let's be sure we use that term as loosely as possible in this context) that is usually religious in nature. The definition has changed quite a bit over time. By today's standards, a Gospel tract refers to a brief pamphlet that is used to communicate religious ideas. They are typically handed to someone in passing or they are left in random places to be found and read later. In other words, they create litter and lots of it.
Tracts have also been used in the past to convey governmental messages and propaganda. Propaganda bombs filled with leaflets have been used in every war the US has been involved in since the advent of military aircraft. As late as 2015 (and probably even later), the US was using propaganda bombs to convey messages to groups like ISIS and its sympathizers.
Gospel tracts work the exact same way although the delivery method is usually much different. Although if you ask the residents and visitors of Lake George, NY they might say what a certain local youth ministry does with them is about the same. I'll get to that later.
The distribution of tracts pre-dates the development of the printing press, with the term being applied by scholars to religious and political works at least as early as the 7th century CE. In the 14th century CE, tracts were used to disseminate the teachings of John Wycliffe. [ad lib]
Tract writers and distributors wasted no time harnessing the power of the printing press to mass produce their persuasive religious material. Even Martin Luther was a proponent of and avid user of tracts as a means of spurring on the protestant reformation. Tracts are believed to have played a large role in the formation of the Lutheran movement in Christianity. When applying a specific definition to them, the 95 Theses could also be looked at as a tract. It served the exact same purpose but was just more long-form.
Most of these tracts are from one of my favorite blogspot blogs, Old Time Religion. The contents are mainly vintage images of Christian ephemera, including tracts, photographs, record and book covers, and religious “outsider art.” Links to the individual images as well as to the blog proper will be included in the show notes.
This first one is from 1902, a picture from a book called “The Devil in Society”. It's an image of a young woman, clearly dressed for a party with a nice off-the-shoulder gown:
Her shadow is in the shape of a Devil: pointy horns, tail. It's unsure if the woman is the devil, her off the shoulder gown, or the dancing and revelingmat the party she will go to. It's clearly an image meant to stick with you.
This second one is a Sunday School 'guilt card'. If you were absent one Sunday, you would get one of these in the mail to get you back to church. This one from 1912 is particularly guilt inducing:
There's a picture of a redheaded boy in a sailor suit, one tooth obviously missing in his grin.
The Caption is: “one out” of our Sunday School class last sunday—was that somebody YOU?”
Listen to our pleading: don't let that happen again! We want every member present every sunday
Perfect attendance was something to be attained. I've seen some jewelry, like a pin for perfect attendance and you'd get another pendant to add on with “Year One” “Year Two” and so on. My grandmother had one.
Here's another tract from the early 20th century:
https://old-time-religion.blogspot.com/2018/04/old-time-religion-railroad-to-salvation.html early 20th century
This is one that is made up to look like a 'ticket to the railroad of salvation'; scenery unsurpassed, dining cars on every line but no sleepers or smokers! Conviction station, the fare: thy sins.
A lot of these tracts were invitations to special events at a church, like this one from 1923.
“The Great White Throne”, a sermon by the Reverend Wilson, who apparently is authorized to tell us how long judgement day will last. Indeed.
and just two more, a couple of my favorites off the site:
The first one is a stark, black and white image with a skull in the center and very dramatic fonts.
https://old-time-religion.blogspot.com/2019/02/old-time-religion-courting-ruin-of-your.html early to mid 1900's
Above the skull is written “Every Sin Points to Death” and there are fingers pointing to the skull with various sins written on them like “lying”, “blasphemy”, and “unbelief.” One side of the tract has the phrase “God says 'sin when it is finished bringeth death'” and the other says “Sin never wears it's grave clothes when it comes to court the ruin of your soul.” Dramariffic.
This one is also a great one, from 1942:
It's headed with “The Laundry Line of Christian Life”, and depicts a woman hanging linens out on a line. It's actually very detailed. Each of the linens has a 'laundry-related' phrase about Christian Life, like “Washing--Purified” and “Rinsed in the Water of Life”. The Sun above her says “bleaching.”
Must have been aimed at womenfolk. Still I really like it. The art is detailed and there's a lot to see in this one.
Are tracts effective?
If you ask Christians, they will answer in the affirmative without hesitation. Of course, their answers have literally no basis in any kind of observed result or compiled data. They believe that they are effective for one reason and one reason only: they help spread the gospel. From the average evangelical's perspective, all tracts fulfill their purpose. They use the Parable of the Sower as their defense:
Mt. 13:3b-8 (NIV) “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Basically, their argument is that if you hand someone a tract, they will be one of the three distinct types Jesus mentions in the parable. Some will reject the tract and its messaging outright (the rocky grounders). Some of the tracts will find their way into the hands of people who know how to think (the thorny grounders – the ones who read them from the standpoint of skepticism and let the messaging die inside their heads). And some will lead to people going to the church stamped on the back or getting saved as a direct result of hearing the gospel message in this way. I'm sure some people have gotten saved as a result of reading a tract. The gospel can, of course, have a strong influence on the weak-minded, too.
What about the ones that people just leave in random places? Well, they have an answer to that question too (because of course they do). In those instances, God himself decides who sees them which, in many cases, makes them more significant. Even the ones that blow away in the wind and litter the neighborhood have apparent purpose in God's kingdom. I literally had someone use this analogy with me: “Millions of sperm make their way to the egg but it only takes one to fertilize it.”
That statement can be taken a number of ways but I think they all boil down to one of these two interpretations. Either we're supposed to assault people with them until they see a title that jibes with them and they have a spiritual epiphany or that it's okay to litter a town with a million tracts if just one person finds one, reads it, and gets saved. Either way sounds equally ridiculous to me and I have a seething savior complex. That part of me would (and did) think like this and it wouldn't have cared which scenario played out. An excess of litter was a small problem in comparison to the loss of someone's soul.
Covering their Asses
There are a lot of problems that come along with distributing tracts. In fact, there are so many that we could do an entire series on the actual harm they do both to the environment and to the individual, but let's zero in on two of the bigger ones.
Litter – During certain events, especially when large groups are out witnessing or promoting nearby events, the sheer amount of pamphlets and tracts that get tossed on the ground or blow away from the places they're left create a huge problem and the churches involved almost never make a reasonable effort to prevent litter. They might make muted calls to action to pick them up if you see them on the ground, but most would actually rather they stay on the ground where they might later be found.
Still, more recently it has become a priority to at least put a cleanup plan in writing because there are plenty of cities and towns that have cracked down on tract distribution to prevent littering. As long as the church tells people how to distribute them in a way that minimizes littering, they are far less liable for an increase in litter.
[Word of Life story]
Tipping – Evangelicals have a nasty reputation for leaving tracts as tips at restaurants. Not with tips, mind you... as tips. There have literally been tracts printed to look like $1, 5, 10 20, and even 100 dollar bills on the outside with a brief gospel message printed on the inside. A quick search instantly uncovered a picture of a tract made to look like a $10 with this message printed inside:
And then there's this:
And I'm sure there are even more but these I've actually seen in the wild and was mortified once to watch someone in a group I was out with pull one of them out to tip the server. It was one of a few times I wound up tipping for an entire table full of Christians about to fail miserably at communicating Christ's love to a service worker. But for the most part I ran with a decent crowd in that regard. In fact, the two out of three times that happened to me revolved around Mission Impossible (episode 11).
The CYA aspect of this one comes in the form of tracts like this one:
I don't think I've ever met a server who wasn't at one point or another, tipped with a gospel tract. And JUST a gospel tract. Some of them have cheery “thank you!” messages on the outside followed by a sales pitch for the Gospel. Who on earth thinks that someone making two dollars an hour will appreciate being sold a religion in exchange for money they could use to pay their bills? The answer: no one. Tipping with tracts is a very rude and selfish way to hide your ungrateful nature behind a religion that bases itself on the concept of grace. I care enough about you to sell you my religion, but not enough to help you pay your rent. If you tip with a tract, that's what you're telling people whether you want to acknowledge it or not.
And if you're skipping tipping for any reason, on behalf of tip-reliant service workers everywhere: stay the fuck at home. Do not call for delivery. Get takeout or cook for yourself. Period.
And I did find a website that sells tracts that did have some good advice mixed in with the bad and nonsensical, but they at least say this much:
1. Don't litter—tracts left outdoors can easily blow around and become a nuisance to those who have to clean them up.
2. Don't leave tracts in Post Offices or other places where literature is prohibited.
3. Don't force tracts on people.
4. Don't be rude when someone turns down your tract.
5. Don't trespass.
6. Don't cause damage by sticking tracts to houses, cars, etc.
7. Don't leave a tract in place of a tip—it is a very poor testimony.
(I'm not sure if they're actually learning or if these people are just disassociating from the practice of tract tipping and the other shit on this list so they don't get blamed for it)
And just so we're clear... most people hand out tracts for their own benefit, not that of the receiver. It's an easy way to say “I witnessed!” without getting overly-involved.
Tracts and their messaging
Tracts take on different tones based on the person who writes them, their motivations, and their demeanor. To do a quick compare and contrast, here's an excerpt from a tract written in the last few years...
...and here's a little bit from a gem called The Burning Hell from 1974
“One day in HELL, you will not have to be bothered by some Christian trying to give you a gospel tract. Neither will you have to worry about a soul winner knocking on your door and inviting you to go to church. No sir, but you will be remembering every gospel sermon you ever heard, every gospel tract you turned down or tore up, each kind word from your mother, preacher or Christian friend pleading with you to be saved. You too, will one day be like the rich man you just read about in LUKE 16:23 & 24. You will be crying, and begging for one drop of water to cool your scorching tongue. But it will be too late!
On the latter extreme, we have an individual named Jack Chick – an angry asshole who wants you to know that you might be a piece of shit (ok, let's just say it – you are), but Jesus fucking loves you anyway and you need to take what I have to say seriously.
For a lot of people, the term “gospel tract” is synonymous with those little rectangular stapled booklets with frightening black-outlined cartoons on far too cheerily colorful backgrounds with the title to the right in glorious white on black. And the format has been emulated tweaked and outright stolen by a number of tract writers over time. There are a lot that follow the format of a Chick tract and some even follow the fractured morality play format of Chick comics. (Unshackled?)
I don't think there was a non-evangelical people group that Jack Chick didn't hate. And while I was trying to put a bullet list together in my head, Brandy Zadrozny favored me with this list from her 2017 article Evangelical Cartoonist Jack Chick Was The Dr. Seuss of ‘Hate Lit.'
Here's the shortlist of people who Chick hated:
“Women, witches, gays and lesbians, teachers, Dungeons and Dragons players, atheists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and worst-of-all, Catholics”
He was also not a fan of Muslims, freemasons, or evolution. Those come up repeatedly in his tracts too. His work was also hopelessly racist, particularly evident in tracts written to “reach” black people.
No, I'm not kidding. All the tracts on the website are categorized and some of the older tracts have been rewritten to appeal more to groups like women and blacks. And that's far from all there is. There are currently FORTY-SEVEN categories of tracts on the JTC website and they are still churning out new hate rags to win over the masses to this day. Some of them are up to 25 pages long. Mini comic books loaded with hate-filled vitriol and strong evidence of IQs somewhere in the mid to high 70s, possibly 80s? I mean, the English isn't that bad but...
“As of now, all killing stops! There will be no more raping because I just found out that God hates sodomy.” ←real quote from, “The Bull”
Zadrozny then does a stellar job of synopsizing a number of tracts and links to all the ones she reviews. I won't just sit here and read her stuff for the next half hour but I will totally and completely recommend that you read the article on The Daily Beast. The link is in the source list at the head of the show notes.
There are, however, other sources that synopsize and describe this shit, too, so here are a few of the themes that show up regularly in Chick tracts:
(paraphrased or outright stolen from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/ComicBook/ChickTracts)
Most American adults have never heard about Jesus and are STUNNED by the details of the gospel. If they DO know who Jesus is, they don't know much about him. Because, you know, Christianity is the one true religion but... it's shy. And not really all that public.
Homosexuals, Freemasons, Wiccans, tabletop gamers, and readers of Harry Potter books are all possessed by demons.
Some atheists don't just worship demons... they ARE demons.
The world is a very dangerous place indeed, and the Devil rules over us all.
The Catholic Church is at the center of a worldwide Satanic conspiracy.
The Catholic church is to blame for pretty much every war and tragedy since its creation.
Islam is a front organization for the Catholic Church (or at least that's how it started out)
Evolution is a religion
The Authorized Version (or King James Version) of the Bible is the only modern version that God inspired. Nearly all other versions of the Bible are lies corrupted by humans, and/or Satan.
People can only relate to other people of the same gender and ethnic group, so... many best-selling tracts have been rewritten to change the characters to women, or to black people, or other narrow demographics.
I will cite one of Brandy Zadrozny's synopses because a) it shows just how reprobate this person's mind was – how morally devoid and misogynistic he was when it came to his opinions on things like incest and child molestation. We're talking about a tract so vile that even Chick's own organization doesn't want it associated with them and has stopped printing it. I'm talking, of course, about a tract called “Lisa.”
The most disturbing tract in Chick’s library is undoubtedly Lisa, a no-longer published tale of Henry, a father whose family doctor confronts him with the knowledge that he has been molesting his own daughter. Instead of reporting the abuse to authorities, the doctor preaches to Henry, and after a quick prayer, Henry repents and that’s apparently that.
My personal “favorite” is one called The Death Cookie and, apparently I'm not alone. This Catholic-bashing train wreck has a bit of a cult following and it has one of the most condescending descriptions on the whole chick tract website. Here's what Chick publications says about The Death Cookie: “Introduces Catholics to the real Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.”
Are they quite serious? This is a story about how Satan invented communion to ensnare people in Catholicism never allowing them to experience things like independent thought, personal freedom the only true Christianity: evangelicalism which, ironically enough also deprives people of these things.
Oddly enough, JTC was right about the Egyptian connection but all that proves is what we've said here repeatedly: most religions borrow from other religions to make all the pieces fit. Transubstantiation was mysterious enough to the uneducated and most early adopters of Catholicism had no clue about any culture but their own so... it was all new to them.
JTC died on October 23, 2016 and I swear I never saw so many fuck-you-logies for someone all over the Internet. This guy gives Rush Limbaugh a run for his money and Rush received A LOT of them. But I accidentally uncovered a bunch of articles that were written about his death and all I can say is that they roasted the ever loving shit out of him. Here are just a few snippets:
Jack T. Chick, the creator of those horrifying evangelical cartoon booklets found for years in the bus stations, laundromats, video arcades and park benches of America’s cities, died on Sunday at age 92.
Chick typically took the most extreme position on any given topic, and the tracts were variously anti-Catholic, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Mormon, anti-evolution and anti-anything else you can think of. The lurid nature of the illustrations underlined the nature of the philosophy. Chick tracts were not meant to gently instruct or present sober moral arguments. They were designed to shock you into repentance. - Andy Sturdevant, https://www.minnpost.com/stroll/2016/10/chick-tracts-lurid-cartoons-belong-20th-century-chapter-culture-wars/
For the majority of nonbelievers and the moderately religious, Chick’s life’s work is viewed as a combination of a kind of folk art, hate literature, and “hardcore Protestant pornography.” The designation depends on in whose hands the 3-by-5-inch booklets rest. - Brandy Zodrozny
“Jack Chick died on Sunday. It was a moment he'd been waiting for all his life. He was, in his own way, an incredibly successful man—an architect of the Satanic Panic, [and] a hero of the religious right...” - Sam Kriss, Vice Magazine
If I could say anything about Jack Chick it would be that he understood a thing or two about marketing. [ad lib – good visuals, narrative themes, etc.]
It's just too bad that he had to use those talents to fuel ignorance, blind hatred, and fairy tales.
Imagine a collection of tiny comic books that taught things like science and philosophy. What about a collection of comics that told true stories about U.S. History? There are so many more relevant vendettas that this guy could have pursued but instead he latched on to the “accept Jesus or die, motherfucker” angle and ran with it. So very sad.
Any way you want to look at it, tracts are weapons. They're the ammo in a lot of Christians' armories, especially in groups and in other instances where they enjoy a little strength in numbers.
Over the past few years, people who write and distribute tracts have put up a few good facades. They say things like “don't tip with tracts” “don't litter” and “don't cop an attitude when people reject you” but how many people listen? And with the violent and threatening nature of so many of the tracts out there, particularly the older ones and ones stamped JTC, how can you tell people not to be insulting and then tell them to hand someone a copy of “The Bull”? And nothing says “I'm too white to understand any people group but my own” like handing a person of color a tract that has clearly been written by white people to prove they understand black people.
And just because a website tells you not to tip with tracts on the heels of providing a section called “tipping tracts” to choose from, the fake bill tracts are still out there and I assure you people still use them to save $10 on their after church luncheon, completely forgetting the “whatsoever you do” principle of Christian responsibility and charity toward others. And, for the record, tipping a server isn't charity – it's a responsibility we assume as soon as our ass hits that seat and menus open (in case I wasn't clear earlier).
So bottom line time: are tracts harmful? Yes, and for obvious reasons. They are harmful for what they represent and what they exist to accomplish. The world doesn't need any more Christians and they sure as shit don't need to be the kind of Christian that learns what Christianity is from a shit bag like Jack Chick. Nothing like starting off your spiritual journey on a path of hate, fear, ignorance, and intolerance.
They are harmful to the environment when people spread them like a virus all over town and in places they are neither wanted not allowed. You can tell people to “remember where you left them” and “pick them up when you see them” but let's be real... they create A LOT of litter.
Many tracts are harmful in their delivery, threatening people with violence (albeit spiritual and fictional) if they choose to use their rational minds and reject the absurdity of the Gospel. But even the ones that are a little softer and a lot friendlier still promote ideologies that have proliferated the world enough.
Finally, they are harmful in how they allow some people to hide behind them. They hide behind them when they don't want to witness. They hide behind them when they have no clear apologetic they can explain, and they hide behind them to save 20 percent on their dinner out.
So if you see a Gospel tract of any kind (this includes copies of The Watchtower and other fringe evangelical propaganda material), the best thing you can do is pick it up and dispose of it properly. Don't leave it for someone else to find. Don't let it create litter. And if you're coming out of this thing and you still feel a tug toward it, DO NOT READ IT. The simple act of throwing it away is an act of righteous defiance, strength, wisdom, and intelligence on your part. It will feel good. You will feel relieved. You will feel smart and empowered. Most importantly, it will take you another crucial step toward getting and staying unbound.