Thursday, November 24, 2011

Anatomy of a "Gospel Tract"

I will admit it, one of my hobbies is collecting religious propaganda. Whether it be Christian, Muslim, New-Age, etc. I find them to be both troubling and hilarious, and whats more they provide a very useful window into the worldview of those who publish and distribute them. I'm not even talking about something as infamous as the "Chick Tract", nope the disturbing/hilarious dichotomy is just as present in your everyday tract left on a bus seat or on a pay phone.

I'm going to be using one I recently found entitled, "IS JESUS CHRIST YOUR SAVIOUR?", published by the Fellowship Tract League out of Lebanon, Ohio; it was distributed by the Pentacost International Worship Centre, a local Pentacostal congregation. The front is red, with an image of a cross set before a cave with a rock that has been moved from the entrance. It also features a quote from John 1:12, "But as many as recieved him, to them gave he power to become sons of God, even to them that believeth on his name." So lets begin with an examination of the front. Typically the tracts are tricolour, black white and red. The red is either an accent or features prominently on the cover. Since the most common means of distributing the tracts is leaving them where people can pick them up, it makes sense that an eye grabbing colour like red would be used. The title of the tract, again speaking in broad terms, is either a question or some kind of "offer". In this case, the question is fairly obvious. From the title, it is relatively easy to discern the message within; in this case the emphasis will be on the necessity of Jesus as a saviour figure. The image, as described above, is not as important in this instance, but will resonate with anyone who has even a little knowledge about Christian myth. Likewise, the scripture quoted relates to the question, and introduces the idea of just how "great" an offer is being made. This same theme, that of an "offer" is a recurring theme, usually around the winter holidays tracts adorned with red gift boxes tend to appear.

The inside of the tract is significantly less flashy than the cover, as the curious reader will have already been drawn in. To guide the reader, there are headings which are all in caps and a bold text. In this case there are four headings (three inside: "THE ONE SAVIOUR", "THE ONE SINNER", "THE ONE SOLUTION", and one on the back, "THE ONE SIN"). Each provides a topic which will be addressed in the subsequent paragraphs, but generally there is a common theme even in these titles. In this case, if it is not already clear, the concept of a singular "way" is being emphasized, highlighting the bifurcated worldview inherent in Pentecostal Christianity.

The first title, "The One Saviour", begins by asking a question: "My friend, are you saved?". Again, a common, "folksy" method of written communication is utilized through the inclusion of some imagined witness speaking to the reader. The first paragraph explains that this imagined, but seasoned Christian, knows that most people do not know what "salvation" means in a "Biblical context". The second paragraph explains what is necessary to be "saved": a belief in the Christian god as the only god, that said deity has agency to effect change in the readers life, and that the Bible is this deity's one and only means of communicating his desire for humanity. Then a scriptural excerpt is used to "prove" the above assertion, in this case Acts 4:12. The third paragraph explains that "salvation" is not an intellectual activity, but one from the "heart". It reinforces this idea by asking if the reader loves their spouse with their "head or their heart". The final paragraph is an interesting one, in which the witness throws out some famous "thinkers": Plato, Aristotle and Einstein, and shows how they "came up short", and that the only real source of knowledge is the Bible. Again, the anti-intellectual tone of this tract is in keeping with the literalist Pentecostal worldview.

The second title, "The One Saviour", explains what a "sin" is to the reader. The first paragraph again opens with our folksy witness asking the reader a question,"Have you ever sinned?". Seeing a pattern emerging? The question-answer provided on the readers behalf format is the standard one for Christian religious tracts. The first paragraph explains that "sin" is universal, and posits the "original sin" as infecting the rest of humanity. The second paragraph explains what it means to be "saved", and explains the necessity of being "saved" from "damnation". It then turns back to the witness asking a number of questions, and implying that anyone would "give up", but wait, you're not doomed yet!

The third title, "The One Solution", is what this whole tract has been building towards. It explains why the figure of the Christian messiah, Jesus, is so special, and explains how he was/is able to absolve the reader of their "sins". The symbolism used is that of blood and purity, and the dichotomy between the "first sinner", the progenitor of humanity in Abrahamaic myth, Adam, and that of the figure of Jesus, is made abundantly clear. It ends, once again, by asking the question of if the reader wishes to be "saved". Again, snippets of scripture are liberally sprinkled throughout, providing a "Biblical" basis for the points being made.

The fourth, and final title, "The One Sin", offers a final bit of explanation. The witness lays out why people go to "hell", which it turns out is because they reject the offer being made in this tract; namely "salvation through Jesus". It ends with the line, "It's your decision."

The final bit of text on the back is separated into two sections; the "prayer" and the "mailing address". The prayer is provided for those who have read through the tract, found it convincing, and have decided to "accept Jesus into their hearts". This is followed by a small note, asking that if you have been "saved", to write to the ministry which provided the tract. This is usually left blank by the publisher, and stamped with the name and address of the aforementioned church. Subsequently at the very bottom is the publishers information and some disclaimers about how the tracts are not to be sold.

So there it is, a quick overview of a four page Christian tract with a little bit of analysis as well. To continue on with that; I've mentioned it a couple of times, but this format is the "gold standard". A question is presented, it is then elaborated on and some evidence in the way of scriptural references are used to support a foregone conclusion. The context is then personalized by explaining why the reader ought to be concerned with the question, which is again backed up with scriptural references. The answer to the question is then provided, and the answer (regardless of the question) is conversion to Christianity, or at least which ever version of Christianity is providing the tract. Finally the personalization is reinforced and the choice is left to the reader. For those who have been convinced, a prayer and contact information is then provided. I can not think of a tract that doesn't follow this pattern, even Chick Tracts, wacky as they are, follow this basic format.

So now the fun part; because nothing says fun like a disembodied stranger explaining how awful you are and why they know better than you. I mentioned it before, but despite their simplicity, a lot can be gleaned about the worldview of the author (and generally the church distributing them). So from this tract I've picked out a couple of aspects I touched on in the summary: the logical fallacy of bifurcation, appeal to sola scriptura/ Biblical literalism and anti-intellectualism.

Fallicious bifurcation:

The reader is presented with a choice, but the choice is bifurcated: on/off, black/white, "saved"/"unsaved". In this case either you "accept Jesus as your personal saviour" or you are "doomed to hell". As complex as an entire worldview can be, it turns out many people seem to have a very simplistic perspective, and this is exemplified by this (and other) Christian tracts. Of course, what the publishers and distributors have going for them is western culture in general. The assumption is that whoever picks up the tract will have some degree of familiarity with Christianity or the figure of Jesus. With that "hook", the entire discussion is couched in terms which take for granted the model of the cosmos where you are either "saved" or "unsaved". Any other perspectives are soundly ignored, never entering into the equation. Those other perspectives, or more accurately, strawman depictions of them, are fodder for other tracts.

Sola Scriptura/Biblical Literalism:

The tract takes every opportunity to try and support the points it makes, or ground its explanation in Biblical scripture. As such, all arguments made are followed by some citation of a verse from the Christian Bible. Once again, the assumption made by the author, is that this will have some weight behind it. Which is not as odd as it may appear at first blush. Remember these tracts are written for an audience that is inundated, even infused with a cultural view which is coloured by the prominence that Christianity has had historically. Most readers of the English language will know what a "Bible" is, and so too its status as A, if not THE, most important book on religious matters. The author, however, takes it a step further, and here is where an observation can be made about the special place of privilege the Bible inhabits in the authors world view. The arguments do not rely on logic, or rhetoric, or even established facts; they rest on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Actually this needs to be taken a step further, the inerrancy of the Bible is the basis for all arguments. To quote, "God knew we needed something to go by, so He put everything there is to know in His Bible." This simply screams sola scriptura, that is in religious (and I suppose in every matter actually), the Christian Bible (and I think it is safe to say that it can be specified to whichever interpretation of whichever version of the Christian Bible the author accepts) is the final arbiter. It is the basis upon which their world view is constructed, and so is obviously going to be the standard upon which the writer bases their arguments. Regardless of how nonsensical or facetious the claim may be; after all there is nothing written about making ink, making paper, printing presses, computers, bus seats or telephones within the pages. This does tie into the final aspect of the world view.


This is the bit that got me hooked into collecting tracts in the first place, the sheer asininity of the arguments or statements contained within the tracts. Long before I realized they were small windows into the minds of their authors, statements like "Saved is a Bible word, not a term thought up by man.", "Plato, Aristotle, or Einstein could only think as far as their finite minds were able. They could not even solve the problems of this life, such as sickness, disease, pain, hunger, and death, let alone know anything about eternity." Though I think it is summed up perfectly in this quote, "Believing must come from the heart, not the head." So lets unpack these statements. The first one is a good example of cognitive dissonance; to claim that the Bible is not the product of human hands, human minds, human writers and editors, that the concept of "salvation" simply appeared ex nihlo, betrays a very basic ignorance of history and reality. The middle quote is as anti-intellectual as this particular tracts gets, and makes use of three very well known thinkers. Completely unaware of the fact that the writings of two ancient philosophers not only predate the Christian Bible, but are still in print and have been hugely influential in western thought, they are trotted out and shown to be lacking because they did not solve any of those problems. But hold on, if Jesus solved those problems, why are they still around? Is 2000+ years not enough time then? This is a very good example of "special pleading"; that these points disqualify these people, but not this other person. Why? Because I said so. That's really all there is to offer as a rebuttal, and advocates will fall back on a combination of jargon/rhetoric (Biblical ages, physical v. spiritual death, Biblical innerency, etc.) while offering nothing else as a basis to support their perspectives. The last quote is pretty clear in its intent, and while probably not a literal belief that "belief" comes from ones heart; the sentiment that feelings matter more than reason is implied. Of course, that goes by the wayside the minute ones "heart" finds itself at odds with "scriptural knowledge".

Well that about wraps it up, I hope this has been enlightening, or at least entertaining. Perhaps the next time you find yourself on a bus or walking past a phone booth and you spy one of these little pamphlets, you just might spend the two or so minutes it takes to read them. If not for the laudable goal of understanding someone else's perspective, then do it for the lols.

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