God in Vain

Posted by on May 3rd, 2010 at 7:58 PM

Let us begin with the generally accepted proposition that comic strips, the humorous ones at least, are not crusading entities. Before anyone can laugh at something, he/she must acquiesce to its premises. So humorous comic strips are not culturally or politically “out front” of the society in which they flourish: they are, rather, slightly behind—in a distinctly followership position. They follow trends; they don’t set them. Therefore, what we find as jokes in comic strips are things people are prepared by social milieu and mores to laugh at. The butts of the jokes are acceptable as butts to readers. What we see in comic strips is a kind of barometer of the temper of the times, its tenor, its attitudes, tolerances and intolerances, and the like. What, then, can we tell from these comic strips?

The first thing we can tell is that the Third Commandment has been broken: God’s name is taken in vain. “Oh, God.” And, elsewhere, “Oh, my God.” Or “OMG.” We see it everywhere: God’s name taken in vain. “In vain,” biblical scholars tell us, reflects a Hebrew term that is written in the absence of a distinct vowel sound; it means “emptiness.” So in addition to what most of us think of as a prohibition of cursing or swearing, “in vain” has the primary connotation of not using God’s name in an empty or worthless manner. The Third Commandment forbids profanity and false oath-taking in God’s name, but it also forbids frivolous usage, using the name of God for no real purpose.

Incidentally, the Ten Commandments are fully iterated in two places in the Bible—Exodus 20: 2-17 and Deuteronomy 5: 6-21. Some of them—the ones about God’s tendency to wrath and about keeping the Sabbath and some information about how to sacrifice—also show up in Exodus 34: 14-26. It’s here that we find out the name of God: it’s Jealous. That’s His name. “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Also a somewhat tautological god.

If newspaper comic strips are a barometer of our society’s feelings, then we can tell from instances like these that we’re not as religious a people as some—say, social conservatives and Evangelical Grumpy Old Pachyderms—say we are.

The assertions about our alleged religiosity as a society are therefore somewhat exaggerated. And most surveys reveal the same bent. According to a poll conducted by Parade magazine last year, only 69% of Americans believe in God. But although 45% of the respondents consider themselves religious, half of those said they rarely or never attend worship services. The math stumbles around a bit (as does the report, which, in another place, said 70% of the 45% said “they participate in organized religion sporadically or not at all”; so is it 50% or 70%?), but I think we can assume from these numbers that only about 20-25% of Americans go to church. And the report adds: “Keep in mind that academic researchers who actually count the number of participants believe that only up to one-half of those who claim to be in their houses of worship are actually there.” So does that meant we’re down to 10-12% going to church?

No wonder comic strips are getting away with jokes based upon religious notions. Here are a few more.

Scary Gary is actually swearing in the first example. (And what, by the way, is the joke here? How did apes get into it?) The “latter-day Saint Bernard” canine is not only poking fun at a major American religion but is using the well-known reversal of letters (G-O-D and D-O-G) often deployed by—who? Satanists? Dunno, but it’s in that bailiwick.

My favorite in this series is Jef Mallett’s Frazz, which manages to use imagery to play with religious ideas.

I’m not at all upset by this trend, by the way; I’m just making an observation about the tenor of the times that seems contrary to much of what we hear—about, say, abortion, or gay marriage from people opposed to both. Or either. For reasons they claim are essentially religious. Are they among that vast 10-12% of regular church-goers? If not, how fervent, then, is their belief?

Eventually, the jokes get around to being about God. Like these.

My instinct is that such manifestations of comedy are healthy. We need to be laughing at ourselves more, and what better place to begin than with matters that are profoundly serious?

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6 Responses to “God in Vain”

  1. […] studies: R.C. Harvey checks some cameos by God in various comic strips and concludes that the funny pages reflect […]

  2. Gavin Lees says:

    The Scary Gary strip is a reference to this – (although he gets it a bit wrong – in the movie, it was the humans who blew up the earth; “damn, dirty apes” is an earlier part – with equally ham acting from Heston)

    The interesting thing about these examples is that, if we take a more laissez faire attitude to blasphemy as granted (where words like “hell”, “damn” and “God” are not really taken as offensive any more) there is still an interesting divide in these strips. That is, between the religious and the atheist. Even though Argyle Sweater/ and Free Range use God in an irreverent way, they’re both built on religious foundations (like the 23% who consider themselves religious, but don’t go to church). But, if you look at Mother Goose… and the last of the panel gags, these are from not just an atheist, but an anti-religious stance – actively poking fun at those who believe. The fact that these kind of voices are emerging in what is normally a fairly safe area of cartooning, I think is healthier than merely “laughing at ourselves” as it’s giving acceptance to religious dissent.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Josh Tabon. Josh Tabon said: God and religion as a laughing matter – http://www.tcj.com/blog/god-in-vain […]

  4. R.C. Harvey says:

    Nice point, Gavin. I think you’re right, too. And a tip of the Rabbit Hat to you for explaining the apes. I never did see that movie. Or those movies. I saw Heston once, though.

  5. WLLilly says:

    …I’ve never seen Argyle Sweater before , but I , too , have noted an on-panel , face shown ,God/Jhvh/Iam (Pginge Harold Grey!) feqently appearing in gags , both newspaper and magazine-published ,