In high school, I read a book where the main character was super nonconformist, to the point where he would wear his shirts inside-out if they had a brand name on them. Mostly so he could sound all cool and anti-establishment, but also because, as he put it, “If I’m going to be advertising for someone, they’d better be paying me, not the other way around.”
I latched on to this idea, but since I didn’t want to bother with the whole inside-out deal (people would always be trying to tuck in my sticking-out tag), for the next three years, I refused to buy any clothing with a brand name or logo on it. Nothin’.
This led to some stellar choices, like a complete avoidance of all Abercrombie and Fitch and Hollister apparel. (“Oh, hey, let’s charge $60 extra for a T-shirt with our own advertising on it. People will totally fall for it.”)
But my boycott had its downsides. I distinctly remember looking longingly at some funny print T-shirts I wanted to buy…but they were emblazoned with some image of corporate evil (aka Toy Story or Oreos or Captain America). Being an idealist of the incredibly stubborn variety, I always refused.
Except for one lone pair of Snoopy pajama pants. I reasoned that this was an acceptable compromise because no one other than my family and a few friends would ever see me wearing them. Not advertising, therefore…acceptable.
If I had to make one exception, it makes sense it was for Snoopy, because Charles Schultz’s Peanuts characters are on basically any kind of merchandise you can think of, from figurines to lunchboxes to entire sections of amusement parks. More recently, in a blitz to promote the upcoming Snoopy movie, I saw what at least half my Facebook friends would be like as Peanuts characters.
Which reminded me…have you ever wondered why, if Calvin and Hobbes is, objectively, the best comic series ever introduced to mankind, there are no T-shirts depicting its main characters?
It’s because Bill Watterson flatly and repeatedly refused to license his characters. In parody strips and interviews, he maintained that artists shouldn’t be bought out by commercialism, that if there were little Hobbes plush toys or Spaceman Spiff cereal or a line of Dear Susie Valentine’s Day cards, the comic strip would lose what gave it value. Unlike Schultz, Watterson didn’t see his strip as a product for people to consume, but an art for people to appreciate. (For more on this, check out this article.)
Nonconformist Amy, already introduced to you, instinctively loves this position. Devil’s Advocate Amy, who occupies another significant portion of my personality, can find plenty to criticize about it. After all, icons become icons by being seen. Sure, the current image of Sherlock has details (“Elementary, my dear Watson” and a deer-stalker hat among them) that weren’t present in the original. So what? It’s the price you pay for becoming instantly recognizable in pop culture.
And what’s wrong with compromising a bit to make money from your art? So Peter Jackson made up a random female character and a bizarre romance in The Hobbit and stretched it out into three movies with slapstick action scenes. It’s what sells! It still teaches valuable lessons, and without those films, most people wouldn’t even know who Bilbo was.
(Okay. Now we’re starting to hurt a bit. Nonconformist Amy is getting a little uncomfortable with the way this logic is heading.)
And what’s wrong with knowing your audience and delivering what they want? So churches are getting too commercial and trying really hard to be relevant. You call it pandering, I call it “being all things to all people.”
Stop. Stop. This is not okay. No part of me agrees with this nonsense.
If we apply this logic to Christianity, on one extreme you have the Hobbes approach to faith, where everything is a bit elitist and can come across as snobby, where you use big-ticket theological terms without defining them and don’t make an effort to show how the Bible relates to our everyday life. On the other you have the Snoopy approach to faith, where there are pithy slogans and great coffee and inspirational quotes, but not very much hard truth, deep doctrine, and uncomfortable messages.
As usual, I think the key is balance. And on a personal level, though, I’m thinking about these questions. Feel free to join me.
Snoopy Problems: Where do I treat my faith like a consumer? (Wanting church/other believers to meet my needs and do things my way.)
If my life is a viral social media campaign for Jesus (which is basically the concept of a living testimony/witness), am I accurately representing him?
Hobbes Problems: It’s fine to critique things like Christian music or movies, but am I sarcastically tearing down efforts that God can and does use to encourage others just because I’m a snob?
When I use big words and concepts in prayers, Bible study discussions, or on my blog, is it just to impress others or show off?
There are probably more questions, but these are plenty convicting for now. You see, I felt much safer when I was talking about the Christian culture as a whole, something where I can contribute commentary but not change. Something big and far off, with headlines that interest me but don’t impact the tiny things I do every day.
But does that really matter?
It’s kind of like talking about art as a whole. What is art? What is the state of the comic industry? What challenges do cartoonists face in a consumerist culture?
Those might be good things to think and talk about, but the reality is that what matters is what you draw into your daily strip, how you interact with the characters around you, and the message you send through the words you choose.