My family is historically bad at giving gifts. I remember being a kid and getting mostly what I wanted, but I was extremely rambunctious, hyper-active and outgoing. You could throw string and an old shampoo bottle at me and I would have the time of my life. However, like all teenagers, cynicism and an unhealthy obsession with being cool made me much harder to entertain.
I peg myself at about 13 when I stopped getting really excited for Christmas or even birthdays. This probably says a lot more about me than it does about my parents’ and brother’s gift-giving abilities, but I’m still a little skeptical. There was one year though—save for the X-Box Christmas (my parents never, ever bought me video game systems growing up). That year I had gotten punched in the face on Christmas Eve at the mall as I was trying to buy my dad a last minute gift (it’s a long story) and I got something I knew was a gem before I really even understood it.
Through all the disappointing shirts, socks and Christian rap CDs, I opened my brother’s gift to me. We always open one another’s gifts last. I think that year I got him a DVD of a movie I was sure he liked (I was wrong), but he got me Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995. Anyone growing up in the ‘90s would rather disown Power Rangers, The Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles than speak ill of the great work of art that is Calvin and Hobbes. So imagine my excitement when there in my hands was 10 years (all) of the Sunday comics in full color. Not only in color, but on one page was the final draft that went to the papers and on the adjacent page were Bill Watterson’s original sketches with his commentary on each one.
I was stunned.
Always having enjoyed drawing cartoons, watching cartoons, reading cartoons (I’m a kid at heart), this was a wonderful gift. What I didn’t realize at the time was that one sentence in the book would help me answer one of the most profound questions ever posed to me.
In February, 2006, our very own E.J. Park had an article published in Christianity Today with a title the editor probably thought was clever and funny: “A Tale of Two Kitties.” If the title is the first thing someone reads in a magazine, readers must have thought that Dr. Park’s article was cute, cuddly and possibly a little bit funny. This couldn’t have been any further from the truth and despite the moniker, E.J. asked America a serious and troubling question that has plagued me since I first heard him mention it in class.
Is there anything too sacred to be mass-produced?
Let that sink in for a second. Is anything too sacred to be painted on 10,000 t-shirts? Is there anything too sacred to be put on a billboard? Is there something so close to your heart that you would feel offended if a big corporation or even a small business put it on a coffee mug? Whoa! Way to change my world E.J. … ignorance was bliss!
In the article, E.J. referenced the great Calvin and Hobbes. Some of what he said I had already read in my book. Bill Watterson’s characters (a boy and his stuffed tiger) had captured the imagination of millions. In only 10 years, he was able to carve out and create a world so intriguing and so interesting that everyone wanted more. Watterson had t-shirt offers, TV-show offers, movie offers, everything one would think a comic strip artist would dream of. But defying expectations and probably baffling his family and friends, Watterson said no. The world he had created—the characters, the landscapes and the imagination were much too important to him. Too important to give Calvin another person’s voice and too important to settle the ambiguity of Hobbes by making him into a real stuffed tiger.
Dr. Park references all this and more in his article. (It was called A Tale of Two Kitties because Aslan was also referenced. I bring up only Hobbes here because I was more partial to Watterson as a kid than to Lewis.) If a man thinks his comic strip, a form that has never been taken seriously, is too important to merchandise, too sacred to mass produce, then how much more seriously should we take Jesus? How much more seriously should we take love, emotions, sex, etc.? Is there anything we as North Americans take as seriously as Watterson took his art? I don’t know.
It’s funny to me that the decision of one secular man could change and influence my life more than the hundreds of CCM songs that I have probably heard. His seriousness and devotion to his art have motivated me more than what have classically been called “great artists.” His decision to stand up for something that many other people probably thought was irrelevant was what forced me to finally look at my life and relationship with God. After years of church, countless youth groups and more snow retreats than I would like to remember, a cartoon cat and a smart-ass kid are what brought me closer to the Lord, to my art and to myself.
How’s that for a Christmas gift?
[©GGS 2007, all rights reserved.]
Note: This essay first appeared as the introduction to a paper titled Communication Credo that Gabriel wrote for his senior seminar at Wheaton College. He went on to write:
“In the same way Watterson did not want to sell his art short, I do not want to sell God, the people involved or my audiences short. I do not want to make holy moments into postcards and sacred tears into coffee mugs. I understand these decisions are aggressive. I understand I will not get it right all of the time, but as long as I sincerely believe in having a healthy respect for the sacred and a revulsion for the dehumanizing, I can be an ethical Christian communicator.”