Preacher was the inheritor of the intelligent title void left when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman run ended. Preacher was on my list of things probably too sacrilegious for me to engage with, must less be entertained by, when it first came out. The list was essentially Preacher and the movie Life of Brian. I realize that this might sound like an odd stance for a horror writer to have, but, if nothing else, I’m all about freedoms. We’re free to draw moral and comfort lines for ourselves, but we shouldn’t make our personal lines the demarcation for all people. I drew my line there, but this was back in the early 1990s. Obviously, I was in a different place in my faith walk then and I have since gotten to a point where I thought that I could “handle it.”
This also serves as my “fair warning” that this work isn’t for everyone.
Garth Ennis has always been hit and miss for me. He’s a maestro of violence and mayhem, as seen in his Punisher run, but even that can become tedious when he’s exhausted everything he has to say and the violence seems so pointless. When he’s on, he’s on (Unknown Soldier, Hitman); when he’s off, well, let’s leave it at I still haven’t forgiven him for Goddess. [For those waiting for me to comment on his Hellblazer run, I have so many feelings over that title, both good and bad, that it would require its own review.]
Joe Lansdale, a horror writer who knows a thing or two about injecting fun and mayhem into a work, says in his introduction to the first collected volume of Preacher, “It’s our chance to look at the dark side without having to be a part of it.” Preacher has the feel and rhythm of a western, the language and tropes of the horror universe, and more than a dollop of a crime spree yarn tossed in. However, when all is said and done, Preacher is about one man’s search for God. That’s not me making a spiritual leap, that’s seriously the plot of the book. Jesse Custer—J.C., get it?—was a small town preacher losing his faith because what few members of the town that bothered to show up on Sundays did so to sing a few hymns and “then act like savages for the rest of the week.”
This pointed to a deeper problem to him: God had abandoned His creation.
So he decides to search for God: “I’m looking for the Lord ‘cause I figure He’s deserted His creation. I aim to bring Him to book for that little transgression: to confront Him and hear His answer to that charge. He has a obligation to do right by the world He’s made an’ the folks He’s peopled it with. He quits an’ runs, He ain’t facin’ up to His responsibilities.”
“There’s two good places you can look for God: in church or at the bottom of a bottle.” Tulip O’Hare.
So with his gun-toting girlfriend, Tulip O’Hare, and a hard-drinking Irish vampire-cum-best friend, (Proinsias) Cassidy, he heads out. Now’s when I have to explain a bit of the mythology of the comic book, and it’s not nearly as simple as “a guy got bitten by a radioactive spider.” Jesse merges with the spirit of Genesis—the spawn of an angel and a demon, a mix of heaven and hell—which represents a new idea, one that God is afraid of. Genesis gives Jesse the power of the word of the Lord, the word that must be obeyed.
[God left the seraphi (warrior archangels) in charge with the adephi (lesser angels/scientists) doing all the real work. The cast of characters in the book also include the surprising beloved figure, Arsehole Face, and the Saint of Killers (the patron saint of murderers and assassins). Sample storylines include a romp through sexual perversity (the Gomorrah People) and Jesse’s pursuit by Herr Starr, of The Grail, a group so focused on the Apocalypse that they fool themselves into thinking that they are about God’s work.]
Still with me?
Where does all of this hate and anger come from? Sadly, a lot of people have been hurt by the church. In fact, most times people who hate church/God have been burned by the church in one way or the other. Jesse Custer had religion forced on him by his family, stemming from his grandmother. Grandma taught that “God’s special because he’s always with you, Jesse. He lives inside you, in your heart, and he sees everything you do and he knows what you’re thinking. Always. God loves you very much because he made you. And God wants you to love him, because if you love him and do good things all your life, he’ll take you away to live with him when you die.”
Let’s pause for a moment and examine her proselytizing technique. For a start, there’s the issue of “witnessing” to kids this way. We have to think about what exactly gets communicated when we use phrases like “live inside you” or “in your heart” because what we are saying might not be (or rather, might exactly be) what kids are hearing. A lot of the time, this type of religious parroting amounts to well-intentioned coercion. Then there’s the issue of whether or not this is even the heart of the Gospel message. Though there’s some truth in her statement, is this what Christ meant when he said “follow me”? Either way, this didn’t play well with young Jesse as he responds with the statement that God sounded “kind of scary” (which He is, but not everyone is ready to think about that aspect of Him).
So Grandma responds by having young Jesse put in a coffin and sunk to the bottom of the river until he accepted God. Go ye forth and make disciples... by any means necessary.
Another source for this anger is that many people feel abandoned by God, as if He has capriciously left them to their own devices in His creation.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, or how good you got things. Sooner or later, shit goes wrong for everybody. Sooner or later there comes a time when all you want to do is shout ‘F- You’ to the world.” Johnny Lee Wombat
There are several conclusions to draw from Jesse’s (spiritual) struggles and misadventures:
1. You don’t get angry about things you don’t care about or don’t think exist. We start with the fact that for him, the existence of God is a foregone conclusion. A friend of mine shared with me that a girl she was dialoguing with revealed that she “only believed in God because I’m mad at God. When I cease to be mad at God, He might not exist for me any longer.” She was pissed that she lived in a society that marginalized women and sexualized their existence, pissed at the list of dos and don’ts people prescribed as the only way to please God, and pissed that we’re not allowed to be pissed at God. Questioning God, being angry at God, isn’t the issue. He’s capable of handling that and wants us to be honest with him. The ironic thing is that Jesse Custer never completes his intended task, but, as it is with all of us, it is the journey for truth that forms him.
“Folks don’t like the truth. That’s the point. It’s easier lyin’. Stops us havin’ to face up to trouble when it comes along to do wrong insteada right.” Jesse Custer
The search for answers from questions without answers isn’t all it's cracked up to be. As Jesse found out during the course of his journey, “what seemed so easy to figure back then has become a hell of a lot more complicated.” There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that it’s not like we’re owed any answers. We think we are, and the reasons for that I’ll discuss later. Many times, we don’t even understand the questions that we’re asking. (Again, we think we do. I have a four year old that loves asking me “why?” but when I turn around and ask him “why what?” all he can do is stare at me cutely because I’m supposed to explain to him the question as well as the answer.) For that matter, we probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the answers, because, as Jesse learned during his stint as a minister, “folks never believe more than what’s convenient.”
2. We ascribe human notions to a being beyond conception. Jesse does what many of us do, put human characteristics and motivations on God. “You got power, you got to use it right,” he says. You see, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with deep theology but, God is... big. In order to relate to Him, we project our own humanness on Him: sometimes our foibles and notions of right and wrong. We bring Him down to our level and put Him in an understandable box. So it becomes perfectly understandable that we forget his otherliness.
3. Part of our frustration stems from a feeling of broken trust. Why bring us into this world of pain, God? Do you even have a plan? If Genesis has the power to rival God’s, then why would God suffer its existence? Also, knowing what would happen to creation, why do it? We wonder why He has to be so cruel about going about His business. He strikes us as capricious by our way of thinking. Yet, is it really so much for a Creator to ask of His creation that we trust him?
4. We have a low vision of God and an entirely too high vision of ourselves. We’re so quick to blame God for what is wrong with the world around us that we let ourselves off the hook. We have free will and we have a responsibility to our fellow man.
“The Lord announced His great leap forward. Life on earth, not in Heaven, that could think for itself and decide its own spiritual destiny. Men of free will. Every angel in paradise knew what that would mean. Without the love of God around them—tangible, real, as it is in heaven—men on earth would turn from God. Go their own ways. Divide into factions, fight war upon war upon war...” An adephi.
God created man in His image and gave man free will so that we could choose to love Him. However, we, in turn, have created a God in our image. So that instead of God being complete unto Himself, the Trinity in eternal community—creating from an overflow of that dynamic love—we’ve come to see God as an egomaniac who feeds on love. That is why we presume that he needs a helping hand with His divine plan, that somehow we’d know better how to do things. We’ve fallen victim to our hubris that leads us to believe that the creation has outgrown the Creator and need to be free of His machinations. That is the same pride that believes we could do so much better left to our own devices, without Him.
Again, after all the evil that we’ve seen—the day-to-day violence and degradation that we inflict on one another, man’s ever inventive ways of being cruel to one another—the question becomes not ‘how can we believe in God?’ but ‘how can we keep believing in man?’
“Preacher features more than its share of blasphemy,” one reviewer said. Is this a blasphemous work? My Oxford American Dictionary defines blasphemous as profane talk. To profane, from the same dictionary, is to treat (a sacred thing) with irreverence or disregard. The idea behind profanity is to take something which is high and trample it underfoot. I don’t know if there is disregard at the heart of the book, and if we are to engage people where they are, many are at a place of disregard and outright blasphemy. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t to be engaged with.
Crass in its humor, vulgar in its satire, and hyperviolent, Preacher is not an easy book to wrestle with. You may not like the way in which the tales are told, but it asks challenging questions. Questions that we all ask and we need to be prepared to be held to book on.
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