Thursday, September 16, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Jesus and The Punisher

In the unspeakably brilliant Gut Check Rocky IV white paper, I made passing reference to my annoyance with how carelessly literature professors will assign the Christ Figure title to any character that could possibly wear it. In a strange paradox, the pomo/reader-hermeneutic crowd loves using their literary revisionism to retroactively make every character either gay or Jesus. Or gay Jesus. Seriously, if you can convincingly identify a classic literary character as a gay Christ Figure, you have mad post-everything skillz.

However, there is one literary character to whom I have never heard either of these labels applied: Frank Castle. For my non-nerd readers, that’s The Punisher of really-awesome-comic and really-horrible-movie fame. If you’re not familiar with Frank, he is a superhero (in the loosest sense of the term), a one-time seminarian, a Vietnam vet, and (since the senseless slaugther of his family in Central Park—wrong place, wrong time) a one-man war on orgainized crime, disorganized crime, and semi-organized crime. The Punisher wears a skull emblem on his chest and takes no prisoners. He really ought to be called “The Executioner,” but that name was already claimed by Don Pendleton.

Okay, I need to throw out a disclaimer here: pastors probably shouldn’t be fans of the Punisher. And I’m not really a fan anymore. The stories took a horrible turn—from Rambo-style, shoot-em-up action to gore, more gore, profanity, and sex— sometime in the early noughties (that would be the decade between ’00 and ’09), at which time I jumped ship. I still have most of the classic issues, but I got rid of the few “Marvel Max” era issues I had. (I don’t even want to know about the current “Frankenstein” version of the character. Sigh...)

Anyway, I’m certainly not writing to endorse the comics or the character (or three of the worst movies ever made). No, I want to do something much worse: to suggest that there is a connection between Frank Castle and Jesus. Yes, this is a gimmick; the proposed connection is not in their characters per se, but in the way they’ve been represented.

By nature, publisher-owned comic book characters are drawn, inked, colored, and written by hundreds of different people over their lifetimes. As a result, they often differ significantly from one incarnation to another. But I would argue that Frank Castle, more than any other comic character, has been re-defined, re-oriented, and re-directed based on the worldview of his current writer.

To me, this is kind of funny. Why would you want a character who is essentially a mass-murdering vigilante to share your political/social opinions? I would be tempted to attribute my opponents’ views to The Punisher and portray him as the logical end of thinking like they do. This has been done to some degree, but more often than not, Frank Castle thinks like the writer of the current issue.

For example, in the early ’90s, The Punisher comics were largely penned (not to be confused with “inked”) by conservatives, particularly Chuck Dixon and Mike Baron. This Punisher fought against environmentalist extremists and animal rights groups. In one particularly goofy issue, he protected a right-wing radio host (who was obviously supposed to be Rush Limbaugh) by killing the radical feminsts and others who attacked him outside his studio. Frank thinks (or writes in his War Journal; it’s hard to tell the difference) that, after listening to this particular host for a while, a lot of what he says “makes sense.”

Now contrast that with Garth Ennis’s version of the character (circa 2001-2006). The Irish Ennis is a militant atheist and strident leftist. His version of the Punisher is quite vocal about his pro-homosexual stance, ridicules a Fundamentalist preacher, and declares himself “anything but” pro-life. Oh, and he once broke into the oval office and threatened to kill President Bush. No, I’m not making that up; it was published two months after September 11. Apart from his obvious affinity for capital punishment, this Castle is basically a buffed-up version of Al Franken.

At this point, I hope you’re thinking that to suggest a connection between Jesus and the Punisher is kind of crass. And I would agree that it is, but it’s legit all the same. What Mike Baron and Garth Ennis have both done to the Punisher (taking his back story, general motivation and mission in life, supporting cast, etc. and filling them in with their own views, values, and passions), we all tend to do with the person of Jesus Christ. But here’s the problem: Jesus isn’t a fictional comic book character to be re-invented every few years. He’s the Alpha and Omega, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, through whom everything that exists was created.

Jesus hung out with sinners. He did miracles. He defied the religious leaders of his day. He died on a cross. He rose again. We humans have found it really easy over the last 2,000 years to fill in all the Jesus details with our own desires, values, goals, and passions. And it’s not hard to find two “versions” of Jesus that differ as much as the two versions of the Punisher described above. For example, compare the pro-capitalism, God-and-Country version of Jesus trumpeted by James Dobson or Gary Bauer with the Jesus of liberation theology or Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren’s disaffected hippy Jesus. It’s incredibly easy to re-make Jesus in our own image, even when we all accept the same origin, back-story, supporting cast, etc. (although the Jesus Seminar crowd wants to remove certain back issues from continuity and I think McLaren, et. al may be going for a full retcon).

Of course, the difficulty is that we can easily spot everyone else doing this, but most of us assume that we’re not. We’re just taking the Jesus of the Bible at face value. We’re not importing any of our own ideas, motives, or baggage. Are we?

I want your thoughts on this. (Let me be clear: this comment thread is for discussing the issue at hand, not to question whether Jesus really lived or attack the doctrines of the Christian religion. All off-topic posts or attempts to start unrelated arguments will be zapped). How can we guard against re-defining Jesus in our own image? How can we remain true to the real Christ—not the one you find inside yourself, but the one outside of us who died on a cross for the sins of the world? We can all write the standard general answer in our sleep. I want to hear your specifics.

Here’s my two cents to start us off: one way to ensure that we will re-define Christ as we wish he was is to stop believing in authorial intent and absolute Truth. If the Truth is really inside you, then you will bend it (and Christ) to whatever you want them to be.

Are you reading Jesus like you want him to be? One indicator might be if you find that Jesus thinks just like you most of the time. You are never scandalized by what he taught or how he lived. If we’re following Christ as he is, we should expect that we will have to change (read: be changed) in order to think like him (having the same mind in us that is in Christ Jesus). Otherwise, we’re likely modifying him to have the same mind that is in us.

I fear that excessive length + nerdy excusus = no one reading to the end and, hence, no one commenting.

Prove me wrong.


3 reader comments:

Erin said...

I guess the most obvious answer to the dilemma of remaking Jesus in our own image would be to continuously read the Scriptures, but even then we see Him through our own lens. So, what about having a Scripture reading partner who is unlike yourself? What about finding a friend who reads the same Scriptures through a different lens. So, since I read from the standpoint of a fairly privileged, almost-middle-aged, moderately conservative, white, married mother who is a college graduate and works in a white collar industry, I might try to find a Bible study buddy who is not those things. Then we can point out to each other the ways in which we twist the text to fit our lives and views.

Cory said...

I think Erin gives a great suggestion. I would also say that something that is really hard but necessary for not seeing Jesus the way we want to (vs. the way he is) is to resist the temptation to develop a canon within the canon. By this I mean taking portions of the Gospels (or the NT or the whole Bible) and making them the "really important" stuff that everything else is measured against and interpreted by. What ends up happening is that if someone doesn't mention our favorite passages while talking about Jesus, then they're probably headed for heresy (we think), and it gives us an easy way to gloss over the stuff Jesus says and does that doesn't light our fire or that makes us uncomfortable somehow (including intellectually). Taking all of his word as the word instead of some of it as more wordy than the rest keeps us from reading Jesus the way we want him to be, I think.

Scott said...

You're right. Jesus and the Punisher both have some confusing backstory. I often like to concentrate on obscure parts of the backstory, like bachelor Jesus or... well, I don't really follow the Punisher, but did you know he fought Nightcrawler early on in both their careers?

I also like to share my ideas with others, at least online. At least I get strong correction from those who follow the Punisher.