April 23, 2001
Unfunny Funnies? "B.C." and Religious Sensibilities
-- Martin E. Marty
Johnny Hart draws "B.C.," a decent enough comic strip. He frequently injects Christian witness themes into it. Sometimes newspapers will then drop "B.C." for a day; some say Hart has no business witnessing there.
They are wrong. He has a right, a perfect right. Just as editors have a right to pull cartoons they dislike. Many of us are edgy when governmental bodies and the law seem to sanction, authorize, or establish Christian devotion and witness, considering this bad for faith, bad for the public order, and usually unconstitutional. But we also tend to line up in favor of public testimony. Much of it we find unattractive, but that's a matter of aesthetics and etiquette, not of rights. We can oppose having a crèche or menorah on the local courthouse lawn and nevertheless favor seeing such symbols on the private lawns of thousands of citizens.
Last week, calls from newspapers began to pour in: what do "public religion" thinkers have to say about Hart's Easter Sunday strip? I was prepared to respond, "Whatever . . . it's his right." But then copies of the strip arrived, ambiguities appeared, and in the end, unambiguous distaste and regret won out. Why?
Take a look at Hart's Easter offering. As you can see, Hart that day played with the number seven, including in "B.C." drawings of biblical days, stars, loaves, seals, feasts, trumpets, rainbow colors, candlesticks, and candlelights. So far, so more-or-less good. But his seven-branched candle holder is not just any old utensil, it's clearly a menorah. Look it up: every dictionary will identify it with the Temple, with Hannukah, with Judaism. That doesn't mean Christians can't use a seven-branched candelabra -- for them any number of branches will do -- but it does mean that this is an unavoidably Jewish symbol.
Now the "B.C." offense. In each square in the sequence there's a "p-f-f-f-t" as a candle gets snuffed out with each quotation of one of Jesus' Seven Last Words on the cross. And after all the candles are extinguished, we are left not with a bare candle holder. Instead, all the menorah's wings have dropped off . . . except one, which makes the crossbar of Jesus' cross. Finally we see that cross against the sky, an empty tomb in the foreground, and "do this in remembrance of me" printed below.
Many newspapers pulled the column or, embarrassed that it was running, editorialized about it. Conservative Christian magazine World called this "Newspaper Christophobia," though the editors granted that "It might offend some Jewish readers, who might see it as suggesting that a Christian cross has replaced a Jewish lamp, or that Jews are particularly responsible for the death of Christ."
Take out the two "mights" in that quotation and you've got it. Hart is either insensitive to the delicacies in relating two covenants, or he's naive. If the latter, "Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he does."
EDITOR'S NOTE: When viewing Easter Sunday's "B.C.," don't miss the links below the cartoon on the same page. There you can connect to statements on the controversy from Johnny Hart and Richard Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate.