Patrick Gray on the Far Side of Heaven & Hell
What do Americans believe? Public opinion polls are notoriously unreliable. People lie to pollsters about religion, and even when they tell the truth, different people mean quite different things by the words God, heaven, and hell. Is there a better way to take the spiritual pulse of the populace?
Perhaps the answer is in the comics section. Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” was arguably the most popular cartoon of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Published from 1980 until its retirement at the end of 1994, it was eventually syndicated in over 1,900 newspapers, and volumes of Larson’s collected cartoons have repeatedly topped the best-seller lists.
By my conservative calculation, about four percent (six months’ worth) of the 4,000 or so panels in The Complete Far Side, published a year ago, deal with conventional religious themes. Four percent may not sound like much, but it is much higher than the percentage of religion-related content in the rest of the newspaper. In The Complete Far Side, Larson and his editor recount their efforts to avoid losing the audience through obscurantism or unduly offending its sensibilities. The substance and tone of the series therefore reveal something about the average reader’s cultural literacy and what is deemed acceptable in public discourse about religion.
But you can’t please all the people all the time. Larson has included dozens of letters objecting to his work. Very few of these address the entries treating religious themes. (Most common are letters from readers who claim he encourages cruelty to animals.)
References to contemporary religious phenomena appear on occasion. For example, Larson offers soft jabs at creationism and televangelists. By and large, however, the subject matter is biblical. Given Larson’s fondness for animal subjects, it comes as no surprise that Noah’s Ark is among the most frequently recurring motifs.
Larson’s God is the vaguely Judeo-Christian deity of the American civil religion, and several entries engage in theological speculation: Are there limits on God’s omniscience? (How would he fare on a TV quiz show?) Might process theology help explain God? (What was God like as a kid?) Is God benevolent and all-loving, or is he ever capricious? (Is there a “smite” button on the keyboard of God’s computer?) Where do humans fit into the divine plan? (Did God see the good work he had done in forming the animals only to stop and think, “Well, now I guess I’d better make some things to eat you guys”?)
This is clearly not the “god from afar” of ancient Israel described by Max Weber. Rather, Larson is answering the grammatically incorrect question posed by Joan Osborne in her 1996 pop hit “What If God Was One of Us,” only without all the teenage angst.
Heaven & Hell
Whether or not all is right with the topsy-turvy world of “The Far Side,” God is in his heaven, but getting in is not easy. St. Peter tells one poor soul that he can’t enter unless he can solve an especially difficult word problem. An even darker omen greets Colonel Sanders: The pearly gates are adorned with images of chickens.
Larson often plays on common worries that heaven will be boring. Sitting alone on a cloud, one new arrival grumbles, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.” In Larson’s heaven, no one appears to be fulfilling the purpose of human life in the words of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession, “to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.”
Hell provides much more intriguing material, if the space Larson devotes to it is any indication. Over two months’ worth of material is set in the nether world or focuses on the devil. Hell is hot and it lasts forever. Sweating souls file by a sign reading, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” as they enter. Everyone has to pass through one of two doors labeled “Damned If You Do” and “Damned If You Don’t.”
Fewer animals inhabit Larson’s hell than his heaven, but there is a “Dog Hell” where condemned canines are forced to work as mail carriers and to clean up their waste. (Some readers wrote letters objecting—not to the trivialization of hell but to Larson’s inhumane inclusion of dogs.)
Whether animal or human, the dead retain their individual identities in Larson’s hell just as in heaven. They do not lose themselves by merging with the great spirit in the sky, nor do they simply cease to exist rather than endure everlasting torment. The punishments handed out make this point most vividly. Jazz legend Charlie Parker is forced to listen to New Age music for eternity. A scientist is condemned to attend an astrology discussion group. So what do we learn from “The Far Side” about the religious beliefs of Americans that the polls and surveys miss?
Although a solid majority of Americans believe not only in God but also in heaven and hell, the absence of any outcry against Larson’s treatment of these subjects suggests that most Americans find it inoffensive. Interestingly, “The Far Side” is almost totally devoid of references to the political. Broaching political subjects apparently risks alienating a portion of the readership to a degree broaching religious subjects does not.
A Jocular Majority
There are three possible ways to interpret this newfound jocularity, especially when it comes to so grim a topic as hell.
First, fans of “The Far Side” may be laughing because they recognize Larson’s caricatures of popular ideas about hell for what they are. Like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who observed that laughter turns to bitterness when it seeks to deal with the ultimate issues of life, perhaps they realize that eternal alienation from God is not very amusing. Only a person with an acute case of Schadenfreude could chuckle when faced with the consequences of the soul’s adherence to its own will. Christianity’s “cultured despisers” may therefore see our ability to laugh at “The Far Side” as a sign that we have collectively put away childish things, like belief in a literal hell.
Second, our laughter may be a kind of defense mechanism. Lots of people say they believe in hell, but very few expect to experience it. Of those who believe in hell, many are loath to be reminded that it is one of the two possible destinations for every soul. It is now considered in poor taste, even by many Evangelicals among whom the belief is strongest, to ask, “If you were to die today, can you say without a doubt that you would go to heaven?” Sometimes we laugh in order to distract our attention away from questions that make us uncomfortable.
Third, the willingness to joke about something so grave may be an indicator that belief in hell among the general public is indeed wide but not very deep. Undisturbed by such weighty matters as the reality of evil, nothing hinders us from laughing at a demon who replies, when accused of being a wimp, “To heck with you!” But this is not the laughter commended by Martin Luther, who said that “the best way to drive out the devil . . . is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Rather, it is the cynical laughter of the ironist for whom little is profane because nothing is terribly sacred.
Even many Christians will regard the erosion of a once robust belief in hell as no great loss. Some will even regard it as a theological improvement—addition by subtraction. But C. S. Lewis’s remark that he had never met a person with a fervent belief in heaven who did not also hold a fervent belief in hell captures something about the current state of the culture. Watch an episode of Touched by an Angel or attend a meeting of the Christian Bookseller’s Association if you doubt Lewis’s anecdotal evidence.
The contemporary failure to take hell seriously is part of a more general thoughtlessness with respect to final things. Lest one think this is of interest only to Christians, Aristotle reminds us that a clear vision of one’s end—in the sense of conclusion as well as purpose ( telos in Greek can mean either)—is essential for a meaningful and well-ordered life. Without a positive idea of where one wants to go, one cannot find a way to get there.
Building more and more roads—that is, discovering ever more varied lifestyle options—gets us no closer to our destination because we never bothered to find it on the map in the first place. Maybe somehow we will just know it when we get there, if we do. More likely, we will stop at the most convenient place and try to convince ourselves and others that it is where we were headed all along.
Larson is hardly to blame if this third reading is the correct one. He is simply holding up a mirror to the public he seeks to entertain. As in “The Far Side,” real life is marked by hilarious incongruities on its surface. Our laughter, according to Niebuhr, can serve as a prelude to faith. But “if we have no other resource but humour to deal with those which reach below the surface, our laughter becomes an expression of our sense of the meaninglessness of life.” In this respect, the world of Gary Larson may resemble ours more closely than we’d like to admit.
Patrick Gray teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and their two children.