In Brief: The Contract with God Trilogy

Title: The Contract with God Trilogy
(click image to view in Amazon)

Author: Will Eisner

 

I am treading on hallowed ground with this review. Will Eisner is nothing short of an icon in the world of comics, and in particular the graphic novel. The Contract with God is widely considered the very first graphic novel. The Trilogy is a work composed over a lifetime, a work Eisner revisited and completed across decades.

The framework itself is, I believe, quite genius. The centerpiece of the story is not a particular person or group of people, but rather the life cycle of a particular spit of land. Dropsie Avenue, a neighborhood in the Bronx, NYC, is fiction rooted in the experiences of Will Eisner. The novel traces the land and the personalities that came to call the land home. The bulk of the time is spent in the early 20th century. Time is best marked by the Great Depression and the various wars mentioned throughout.

 

“The tenement… always seemed to me a “ship afloat in concrete.” After all, didn’t the building carry its passengers on a voyage through life? (Eisner) 

 

Book One, A Contract with God, traces the stories of four individuals – the Jewish man, Frimme Hersch, the man who made the contract with God; the Super at Dropsie Avenue, Mr. Scuggs; a lowly street singer; and a collection of individuals from the neighborhood on the farm for the summer. Book Two, A Life Force, features Jacob Shtarkah, a man whose stories are inspired by Eisner’s neighborhood. The third book, Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, was written almost 20yrs after the publication of the first, an effort to trace the history of Dropsie Avenue, the immigration & integration, the rise & fall, the circle of life. Because the story traces a century, there is no one protagonist, though certain figures do play prominent roles over the decades.

The book is masterfully illustrated. Eisner is a legend, and so this should come as no surprise. It is the kind of book you can read quickly, while at the same time being the kind of book from which you can appreciate every pen stroke. He uses negative space with brilliance – probably my favorite aspect of the artwork. From a pastoral standpoint, I am most disappointed in what I would consider excessive nudity in the first third of the Trilogy. I get it, art often includes nudity for one reason or another. But I would argue the nudity in this work is gratuitous and often unnecessary. However, it serves to feed the story, the arc of which I can only describe as an unfortunate exploration of depravity and empty religiosity. I found myself often describing the book as void of all hope. Dropsie Avenue is depicted as a neighborhood where many are born, barely survive, and die. Perhaps the only source of hope is for the few who escape. 

Though not prominently featured throughout, the recurring character of most significance (or so it seems) is the cockroach. The cockroach is described as living millions of years, never changing, always surviving. Generations of humanity as well pass through Dropsie Avenue – of varying ethnicity & socio-economic background – portraying the same bleak outline. Never changing. Always – though often barely – surviving.

 

Contract Samples

 

 

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-9 (ESV)

 

As I closed the Trilogy, I realized that it stands as a powerful, and therefore very sad, depiction of the themes of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth, the Preacher/Teacher of Ecclesiastes, spends a dozen Old Testament chapters trying to find meaning in all that the world has to offer, only to find that all is vanity – chasing after the wind. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that humanity, viewed strictly within an earthly context, has no meaning. Purpose, therefore, must find its source outside this world, because even the most thorough exploration of this world yields unhappiness. Self-indulgence, wisdom, work, wealth and honor are cast aside by Qoheleth as ends in and of themselves. The residents of Dropsie Avenue chase these dead ends with reckless abandon in their efforts to survive. All along the way they question God’s existence, his motives, his purposes, but without the humility that yields godly fruit or any remote glimpse of righteousness. Every question, selfish in motive and tone, only presses the passengers aboard the tenement further into their own depravity. How could there be hope in such a story?

I considered putting the Trilogy down a fraction of the way into book two. I struggle pressing into empty hopelessness. I insisted on finishing for a few reasons. First, I bought the book. In my frugality (Bob is cheap!), I find encouragement to press on! Second, when a work is celebrated, I often want to know why. Third, because I have hope, I move forward hoping to find hope.

I am glad I finished the work, but not because I found what I was looking for. In fact, I am glad because I didn’t find what I was looking for. I couldn’t help but muster a faint smile upon realizing that Ecclesiastes is absolutely true. My heart is sad that so many, in the absence of hope, press inward rather than Godward. Yet my heart rejoices that, for those who are drawn near in his grace, God reveals a hope more glorious than words can describe. I am sure there are countless neighborhoods just like Dropsie Avenue around the world, though each may take a different shape and supply a different flavor. After all, Qoheleth teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun.

Had the novel attempted to provide an answer outside the solution of Ecclesiastes & the breadth of Scripture, I might not have been able to smile. But the overwhelming conclusion that the stained cycle of fallen life is indeed perpetual and inescapable by human means affirms everything the Scriptures reveal as a doctrine of man.

At the beginning of the Trilogy, Frimme Hersch makes a contract with God. He makes the contract based on his own expectations; expectations which were cultivated over years of misapplied promises. So many of us are guilty of believing that it is we who draft the terms and conditions of the relationship between God and man, when it is God – and God alone – who has determined the conditions of his gracious covenants with his creatures born of dust.

Because we are prone to misinterpret, misapply, and otherwise misunderstand God’s truth, I can absolutely see why a book like this is appealing. There is, after all, a healthy dose of earthly reality preserved in the ink. But it is an incomplete reality. It is a reality that points the finger at God without any attempt to know him. With the cycle of sin and devastation humanity has wrought on the earth, still God remains in perfect righteousness, love, and justice. The devastation of sin met the depth of divine love at the cross of Christ, justice and mercy at the intersection of two beams of wood where earth’s only pure and innocent blood was shed. Therein lies the hope the Trilogy, and humanity, so desperately needs – heavenly hope.

 

Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I recommend this book? Probably not. For those who struggle with images of the flesh, either for reasons of offense or temptation, I certainly do not recommend the book. It is in many cases offensive for my taste, and probably far too tempting for  many. Beyond that, I can hardly say it is edifying to explore meaninglessness as an end. Ecclesiastes, for all its despair, is seasoned with glimmers of hope, a feature sadly avoided in this classic work.

 

 

 

 

 

On Eternal Perspective: The Great Divorce #8

George MacDonald 1860s.jpgIf you’ve been reading along, chapter 9 is by far the longest, and perhaps the most intriguing yet. The Writer finally encounters his Bright Person, a favorite author named George MacDonald. Yes, this is a real author who lived mostly in the 19th century, though his life did venture into the 20th! It would be easy to spend weeks here, but we have a schedule to keep…

Rather than simply listening in on the conversations of others,the Writer is finally able to ask some questions and receive answers – challenging though they may be.

 

“But ye can get some likeness of [eternity] if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective.” (MacDonald)

 

If I could sum up MacDonald’s description of the relationship between life and death, heaven and hell, temporal and eternal, it might sound like this: We are eternal creatures. Though we experience things in the temporal world now, everything we do intersects eternity. Our current perspective is incomplete because it lacks experience and understanding. Our final perspective will flow from our experience of the eternal, when we will see more clearly all that has ever happened in our lives. For those whose final perspective is heaven, heaven will necessarily color every experience – even the temporal. For those whose final perspective is hell, hell will necessarily do the same.

(To get caught up in the details of MacDonald’s words here could be maddening. The difficulty of a fictional book like this is that it is colored by the author’s theology – or in this case, MacDonald’s theology! And while I know works of fiction do not typically have chapter and verse citations of why an author would choose certain words and phrases, they sure would be helpful. In the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on the sense of the chapter rather than the details, for the sake of my sanity.)

Lewis’ intersection, his offer at this point, is to lift your gaze from yourself, to fix your eyes on the mountains (so to speak),  and to take steps towards the heavenly – that is, towards Christ. The alternative is to fix your eyes on yourself, which is something of a descent towards hell.

 

“Ah, the Saved… what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage.” (MacDonald)

 

Lewis strikes a chord here as he describes the perspective of the damned and the saved. Of course, he describes this perspective as flowing from a perfected eternal experience, but I believe there is a great application for us here and now. There are certain biblical truths which are glorious and yet extremely difficult to accept. One truth is found in Romans 8:18-30. The heading in my Bible reads Future Glory. The passage speaks of a future glory which will necessarily overshadow any of the trials of this life. The passage speaks of the groanings of creation, longing for all things to be made new. The passage speaks of God’s participation in our prayers as we cry out to him.

We then see Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” 

This is a verse that is often misquoted – or more specifically it is often truncated, cut short and therefore misquoted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “it’ll all work out for the best.” I’m not sure if there’s a name for quoting 1/3 of a Bible verse and totally ignoring context, but this is a prime example. There are two super-important qualifiers on that little phrase. For those who love God and for those who are called according to his purpose. The qualifiers alone are a reminder that all things do not work together for good… for everyone.

Context is the stuff around a verse. The immediate context of Romans 8:28 tells us who should be comforted by the knowledge that all things work together for good. The extended context tells us the light in which we should view the promise. In other words, as we long for future glory, as we cry out to God for his eternal presence, we are enabled by our calling in Christ to see current suffering as a wellspring of life. Even further context reminds us that there is nothing that can separate (including current suffering!) the redeemed from their Redeemer, and that we are indeed conquerors through the love of God in Christ.

This promise is of supreme comfort, but those qualifiers… those qualifiers produce a chill in me. The qualifiers say that there are some for whom the trials of life will not ultimately end well. Oh, that the gospel would bring countless hearts to faith in Christ!

 

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.'” (MacDonald)

 

And that draws me back into the story. MacDonald seems to be painting such a picture. There will come a day when eternity will be set, the future course unchanging. (I don’t even want to get into the possibility of choosing life after death, for I do not believe the Scriptures guarantee any such opportunity) When the dust settles on this life and the eternal is all we know, our perspective will indeed be complete. The Christian can taste this perspective now by the grace of God, seeing trials as life-giving waters drawing us near to our Savior. The Christian can say, even now, with confidence, that things will work out for good. What a blessing!

Even greater is the news that our worst trials, and even our finest hours, will be but a faded memory when we have the opportunity to gaze upon our Lord face to face.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Come Lord Jesus!

 

 

You can visit the Summer Reading page by clicking here, or by opening the menu at the top right.

 

 

 

 

I’d Like to Speak to the Manager: The Great Divorce #6

The capitalistic endeavor of the intelligent man in the bowler hat continues as he labors off with the smallest of golden apples. This is the ghost determined to bring heaven to hell, to introduce a real commodity in a place with “no scarcity”, and maybe to turn a little profit in the process.

Lewis has a knack for description. Providing detail, yet all the while leaving endless room for imagination. A thunderous yet liquid voice. Rarely calling anything or anyone by name, he relies on engaging description to keep your mind wondering. As he described the efforts of Ikey, I couldn’t help but feel small. Literally small. As I imagined the scene, I imagined things being great in size. I couldn’t help it. I had to read paragraphs again to bring them to a manageable scale in my mind. I thank Mr. Lewis for this, because it is his ability and his gift to describe scenery in such a way that invites me and surrounds me.

The presence of the Water-Giant is exciting.

 

I saw now… that it was also a bright angel who stood, like one crucified, against the rocks and poured himself perpetually down towards the forest with loud joy. (the Writer)

 

The Writer became self-conscious in the presence of the Water-Giant. How fitting. It is exciting to me that this short chapter shadows the presence of the Lord, all the while portraying his brilliance.

 

 

 

Here we encounter the hard-bitten ghost, an opinionated skeptic through and through. He is defined by what he already believes to be true. He proudly carries his presuppositions into every situation, and carries them back out again unscathed. His earthly life as a traveler was, in the end, wasted, because he had no interest or appreciation for his circumstances. He already knew what he was going to see, and so he never really saw anything. His eyes and his understanding were darkened, and so his years were, in the end, fruitless. Oh, how often we miss moments because we refuse to see that there’s something to see.

This ghost even knows Management. As a side note, kudos to Lewis for capitalizing the final occurrence. As if to cement the hard-bitten ghost’s defiance of God, he subtly magnifies the final complaint by giving Management a sense of significance.

 

“What would you say if you went to a hotel where the eggs were all bad and when you complained to the Boss, instead of apologising and changing his dairyman, he just told you that if you tried you’d get to like bad eggs in time?” (the Hard-Bitten Ghost)

 

It is a loaded complaint. The assumption is that the eggs are, in fact, bad. What if, instead of the eggs, it is your tastes that have been corrupted? We’ve talked before in this series about the difficulties of relativistic thinking. The hard-bitten ghost has fallen into the trap of thinking that what he thinks is true, simply because he is the one who is thinking. He cannot see the possibility that his presupposition is wrong, that the eggs are in fact good and that his tastes have somehow been perverted.

If the Bible is true, then our tastes have been compromised. Sin has darkened our heart, causing us to view God and his absolute Truth as narrow, stifling, and judgmental. In response, we place ourselves on the throne, living according to definitions of right and wrong that we’ve concocted (and, on occasion, borrowed from God without giving him due credit). By keeping God out of the equation, we build our straw houses with tons of room to wiggle in and out of any solid definition or standard of right. (Romans 1)

We think we know.

The hard-bitten ghost wants Management to give him something that suits his darkened heart. Something to spice up his sinful straw house. The ghost wants a god that he can tote around in his pocket, one who bows to his every whim – not only answering his questions, but reading hollow answers from cue cards crafted in the ghost’s sinful core. In short, the ghost has already found the god his heart desires right in the mirror.

What if Management could give a new heart to appreciate the eggs? What if Management could replace a cold, dead heart with a living, beating heart, and open eyes to boot? To the hard-bitten ghost, this would probably seem like the ultimate joke at the end of a bad dream. But then again, that’s exactly what the cold, dead heart would think.

I’m thankful this morning that the one true God of the universe is in the business of removing hearts of stone and giving hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:22-38) I’m thankful that he is in the business of opening eyes and ears to the truth of the gospel. But then again, as one who has found life and life abundant in Christ, that’s exactly what I would think.

 

“I prefer it up here.” (the Writer)

 

The fading hope in the Writer, stressed under the weight of encounters with ghosts who remind me all too clearly of my own clinging sin, now carries me, wondering, to the next chapter.

 

 

You can visit the Summer Reading page by clicking here, or by opening the menu at the top right.

 

 

 

 

Domain: In the beginning (part 4)

(excerpt from a recent sermon on Genesis 1:1)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

I want to finish this series by thinking about the heavens, not as things seen (like space ‘n stuff), but as things unseen. The heavens. The realm of the heavenly. The abode of God. The heavens are God’s domain.

So much of our understanding is unseen. Ideas. Thoughts. Concepts. Our faith, also, is an unseen entity. We walk by faith, not by sight. Even so, God has gone to great lengths to reveal himself and to make himself as visible as our oft-as-pea brains can handle.

Think about the ways God has manifest himself throughout history. As a voice in a bush that was burning, but that wasn’t consumed by flame. Neat. A voice on the mountaintop in thunder and lightning. Neat. A pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. These things are spectacular, and quite honestly beyond my wildest imagination. Mostly, though, God shows us the effect of his presence. The red sea parted. Manna appeared every morning for 40 years. Water poured from a rock. Droughts. Rain. More lightning. Countless lives convicted, changed, transformed, empowered. Countless enemies brought low, defeated, conquered. These are the effects of his presence.

Then Jesus changed everything. The invisible became visible. The intangible became tangible. The Son of God took on flesh and became a man.

John 1:14 says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Hebrews 1:3, “Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,”

Colossians 1, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

This is special revelation. This is the stuff you can’t find out from a science experiment. And here’s what it says:

Jesus is God.

He said so. (John 8:58)

His friends said so. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

His Father said so. (Matthew 3:17)

He became flesh and walked around.

For a brief window in the fullness of time, God walked the earth as a man and demonstrated his Lordship of the visible and the invisible. He gave us a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom, and a promise to bring the kingdom in full when he returns. In the meantime, he promised to make the kingdom evident as he redeems and saves sinners, restores the image of God, and makes them to look more and more like himself.

The incarnation was amazing, but it was the preview/ the trailer. The fullness is yet to come.

Until that day, we are once again seeing God through the evidence of his presence, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the gift of God, his down payment and his guarantee. The Spirit is the seal of life everlasting upon the Christian. The unseen but true; the third Person of the Trinity.

Jesus brought the kingdom of heaven to earth, and he proved that the unseen is God’s domain, too.

So what does this mean?

I often say, if Genesis 1:1 is true, then the whole Bible becomes quite significant. If this verse is true, God is sovereign over everything you see, everything you don’t see, everything you imagine, and the time in which you see, don’t see, and imagine.

A God who is so sovereign is terrifying… unless he gives you a reason not to be afraid.

If Genesis 1:1 is true, Jesus gives rest from the terror of a holy God.

Jesus is the rescue for sinners.

Because Genesis 1:1 is true, here is truth.

God is perfect. One God, eternally existing as three persons: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Man is sinful. Every man deserves death in this life and the next because God’s holiness cannot be compromised. The bigness of sin is not measured by how bad I behave, but by the significance of the one I’ve sinned against. Sin against an eternally perfect God, you’ve earned an eternal death sentence.

The good news continues. Jesus lived a perfect life in fulfillment of God’s law. He did what no other man could, because he’s Jesus.

Jesus revealed himself to be the God of Genesis 1:1, and offered himself as a perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin. He died on a Roman cross, bearing the wrath that sinful humanity deserves. His shed blood perfectly satisfied God’s justice and wrath. His sacrifice is so perfect that any who take it upon themselves are redeemed by it.

This sacrifice is applied to your account when you turn to God in repentance and faith, turning away from sin and trusting in the work that Jesus accomplished on your behalf. When the blood is applied to your account, not only are you brought out of the red, debt paid, but you are also placed infinitely in the black as Christ’s perfect life and righteousness are given to you as a gift. You are viewed as perfect in God’s eyes by grace through faith IN CHRIST.

The Word says that all who turn to God through Jesus Christ are given the Holy Spirit, not only to seal our future salvation but to transform our lives now. God promises to make us over to be like Jesus… never perfect in this life, but ever moving forward.

Life itself pivots at Genesis 1:1. May we never fail to appreciate the significance of a Sovereign Creator!