Graphic Novel (pt. 1)

Michael Metzger

Many folks prefer the book version of “The Hunger Games” to the movie. The film is less gripping because editors cropped the book’s more graphic scenes to get a PG-13 rating. That sort of thing has happened in the past to graphic literature, including stories like “Snow White” as well as the gospel. And like “The Hunger Games” movie, gutting the Bible’s graphic scenes will only make the gospel story less gripping.

I admit I haven’t read “The Hunger Games.” I did see the movie and found it to be pleasant entertainment (Gary Ross, the film’s director, was the director of such genial movies as “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit”). The book version of “The Hunger Games” is violent and graphic. Film editors feared a R-rating, so they cropped the graphic scenes. A PG-13 rating might be good for sales but it can be bad for making a riveting movie. As the New York Times noted, other than the initial fight scene, nothing else in the film comes close to the book’s sheer primal impact.

Sanitizing stories is nothing new. In the 19th century Victorians romanticized the idea of “childhood,” inventing “adolescence,” an anomaly extending the age when adults could act like kids (childhood originally ended at age eight). Victorians, many of them people of faith, believed youth should be protected from all manner of evil. Their influence extended into the 20th century with filmmakers like Walt Disney. He crafted “cleansed” renditions of ancient stories.

There are now for example two versions of “Snow White.” In the original book, a passing prince claims the girl’s dead body and locks himself away with it. His mother, complaining of the dead girl’s smell, is greatly relieved when the maiden returns to life. In making the film version, Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, these graphic scenes were deleted. When critics protested the broad changes, Disney responded, “It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough.” This sanitizing also sentimentalized “Sleeping Beauty.” In the original book version, the prince awakens the princess not by a chaste kiss but by fornicating with her sleeping body. In Disney’s film version, this was considered too graphic.

J. R. R. Tolkien warned this “sprucing up” would ruin the ancient stories.1 By removing graphic elements, a story becomes less gripping. It isn’t taken as seriously. This is essentially what happened to the gospel in the 19th century. It was “cleaned up.” Originally, the good news was considered a “great mystery,” the marriage of divinity and humanity (Eph. 5:32). The quintessential picture of this union was Adam and Eve becoming “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) – the meaning of consummation (“together at the summit”). Their bodies, including their sexual experiences, echoed a “great mystery.”

This is what the church historically meant when it claimed that our bodies are to be a catechism. “Catechesis” comes from the Greek to resound or echo. Our bodies, especially our sexuality, echo the mystery of the gospel. We hear echoes in arousal, intercourse, and climax. Our human sexuality is not the only gospel metaphor, but it might be the best one for a story that does not easily lend itself to explanation.

The invisible, infinite, eternal, mysterious marriage of divinity and humanity doesn’t easily lend itself to explanation. As Paul noted, “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, nor has it entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9). This story can be understood by experience. The church historically believed that in our bodies we experience the mystery. Our experiences, especially sexual ones, are echoes widening our imagination and wooing us toward marriage with God.

That’s the original book version. It’s a “full-body” gospel. It’s graphic. For instance, in Genesis Two, the covenant-keeping God brings Adam and Eve together in marriage, designed to reflect God’s covenant-keeping love. God later gives the Jews a sign of this deep covenant – circumcision. A “full-body” gospel explain why this sign is inscribed on the tip of a man’s penis – the part of a man’s body that most deeply penetrates a woman.

A sanitized gospel is scandalized by this kind of talk. “Cleansed” renditions of the story, common in much of modern evangelicalism, are a convergence of Puritan prudery, the vulgarization of sex by Victorians, and Enlightenment thinkers who see the body as essentially a vehicle for transporting our brain. The result is a disembodied faith. It focuses mostly on the mind. It no longer hears how the human body echoes the gospel.

The tragedy of a disembodied faith is that it has trouble getting a grip on the human body. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), yet 90 percent of all divorced born-again couples split after accepting Christ.2 Brad Wilcox says conservative Christians are, on average, “more likely to divorce” than the general population. They are also just as addicted to porn as the general population. A 2007 ChristiaNet.com survey indicates 50 percent of evangelical men and 20 percent of all women are addicted to pornography. The survey reports 60 percent of the women admitting to significant struggles with lust, 40 percent admitting to being involved in sexual sin in the last year. In a 2011 Christianity Today survey, 37 percent of pastors reported that porn addiction was “a current struggle.”

The good news is that some folks, after watching the movie version of “The Hunger Games,” desire to go back and read the book. The same might happen to those who find a disembodied gospel not very gripping. They might desire to go back and read the original graphic novel. They might see why the Bible talks graphically about our sexuality, our loins, or a woman’s breasts. They might see why only this gospel comes close to the Bible’s primal impact. If you’re one of these folks, we’ll see you next week.

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1 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).
1 The Barna Group, The Barna Update, “Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just As Likely to Divorce,” August 6, 2001.

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10 Comments

  1. Mike,

    A very interesting interpretation of the Pentateuch and one that I can honestly say I never considered before.

    I would be interested to read the original source of this symbolic reason for circumcision being the sign for the “deep” covenant.

  2. Chris:

    I am the source. I was not intending to say that the Pentateuch explicitly says God chose the tip of the penis because it makes the deepest penetration. Simply making an observation.

  3. My good friend John Rankin sent an email to me, making a good correction. The advent of circumcision is to the Hebrews, with Moses, to the Israelites. The “Jews” do not technically come into existence until after the Assyrian conquest in B.C. 721.

  4. Metzger writes, “Our human sexuality is not the only gospel metaphor, but it might be the best one for a story that does not easily lend itself to explanation.” There is more than “mystery” captured by this metaphor, it parallels the incarnation, of making the divine visible. We live in a culture that sanitizes, abstracts, and virtualizes reality — the gospel will have none of it. It is intrinsically a bawdy faith.

  5. A result of the fall is a disconnected life between heart, soul, mind and body (strength).

    I look forward to learning an expanded vocabulary this summer to better articulate and communicate the glory of the consumation.

  6. Mike, thank you for articulating this so well. We Christians have run scared for too long from God’s image stamped in our sexuality. The sad paradox, as you point out, is that in trying to protect against the lusts of the flesh, dis-embodying the gospel has left us largely impotent (not ironically) to resist lust.

    Thankfully, I’ve seen first hand the difference the theology of the body makes in the lives of people once enslaved by lust–empowering them with and to the self-giving love of Christ instead.

    I direct Regeneration, a ministry that walks alongside men and women seeking healing and freedom in the area of sex and sexuality, and I’m printing up your articles for the benefit of those we serve here.

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

  7. Thank you, Josh.

    You are correct about lust. Pornography is simply an abandonment to lust that’s often the result of a Christian suppressing desires.

  8. Two questions, if you will: 1. How would you explain homosexuality in this ‘Theology of the body’ and 2. is ‘addiction’ the best word to use in connection with pornography? Thinking here of the increasing tendency in the medical field to see addictions as a disease (organically-caused) rather than a behavior issue (sin – and all that – and choice).

  9. I had difficulty finding an original Brother’s Grimm of Snow White. I could find no “original” that depicted the Prince as fornicating with the Snow’s dead body. Would you happen to have a reference for this? There are a myriad of “originals” from around Europe.

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