One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows a game show in progress. The three contestants include an old man with yards of white hair and beard. The emcee is saying, “That’s right, Wisconsin! And so it looks like God has 500 points while Norm, our current champion, has zero!” It’s a wonderful and creative statement of the omniscience of God and, in comparison, the foolishness of man. You would not want to go on Jeopardy against God. In fact, anyone against God is in jeopardy!
Or take my favorite “Wizard of Id” comic strip. The dwarfish king of Id enters the Wiz’s workshop to find him staring through a telescope. “Whacha looking for, Wiz?” he asks. The astrologer says, “The center of the universe.” The little king calmly says, “Speaking.” Again, it’s a powerful and entertaining expression of self-centeredness so much in vogue today. Both of these little sermons were preached by cartoonists.
What is it about preachers and cartoonists? They seem to have a mutual attraction. It’s a mite paradoxical, isn’t it, that those people called of God to do the most serious work in the universe — proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ — almost unanimously enjoy the fun of a good laugh from a cartoon. Perhaps the wit was on the mark who said life is too important to be taken seriously.
Yet I wonder if we preachers give the cartoons and their creators enough credit for what they’re able to do. Most people take these drawings as mental bubble gum, enjoy the point they make or the smile they evoke, then exit for the left side of the brain where we do the heavy lifting of sermon work. That is a big mistake. The craft of the cartoonist has a lot to say to the work of the preacher.
I started drawing cartoons as a pre-schooler, and began preaching as a senior in college. At the age of 59, I still do both every week of my life. I’ve noticed that the two activities share many traits in common. Everybody is an authority on both, regardless of whether they can give a talk in Sunday School or draw a stick figure.
Get a few cartoonists together and soon they will bring up a pet peeve about people with no sense of humor who don’t have a clue as to how to read a cartoon, yet who feel qualified to fire off criticisms to editors and tirades to syndicates. We preachers have been there and done that. How many times we have wished our critics could try sermon preparation and delivery for just one month — twelve messages for many of us — to see how difficult it is and how impossible to please some people in the pews. Let them have the experience of waking out of a sound sleep with the sermon motor going, stumble into the study to jot down an insight before it slips out into the night, and then try to get back to sleep. Let them experience the Saturday night panic and the Sunday night depression. Just once.
Ahem. Sorry. Now, back to my subject. Preachers and cartoonists share a lot in common. They live by deadlines, they need to be wordsmiths, everything is grist for their mill, their craft (i.e., sermons and cartoons) works on different levels and rarely does one hit everyone in the target audience. When they do their work really well, they may expect someone to be offended. One more thing: both groups do a lot of their work sitting at a table or desk staring at a blank sheet of paper.
Thinking time convinces wives, secretaries and co-workers that this is a good time to interrupt us, that we weren’t doing anything. Cartoonists who work at home invariably gripe that their wives do not think they have a real job, that sitting and staring at white paper makes them fair game to take out the trash, help rotate the mattresses, or babysit the kids while she has coffee with Marge. Every pastor knows the feeling.
Successful preachers and cartoonists are originals, different from the others in the field each in his own way. Some are truly artists; others not so talented. But each has learned how to do his best, to speak with the voice and use the abilities God gave him.
That said, it appears to me that good cartoonists can teach many of us preachers some things that would benefit our sermons.
1. Grab Their Attention. A magazine cartoon aims to evoke a laugh from a total stranger within seven seconds. Think of the distractions the cartoon has to contend with: noise in the doctor’s waiting room, clutter at the breakfast table, or the activities in the smallest room in your house.
The pastor stands at the pulpit, ready to begin his sermon. For a few moments, like the proverbial cross-eyed javelin thrower, he has the complete and undivided attention of his audience. What he does next has much to do with the effectiveness of the entire sermon. I think of our Lord beginning His famous sermon with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Common to us, those words were revolutionary to those hearing them for the first time.
2. Milk the Familiar. As a preacher, a particular failing of mine has been a love for the exotic and unusual — interesting stories and Scriptures few people knew were in the Bible. Watch the cartoonist. Everything is fodder for his creativity. Much of his effectiveness results from taking the mundane and showing us a new aspect. The cartoonist sees a crack in the sidewalk and imagines an ant family taking a photo beside it, in a Grand Canyon sort of way, or an evangelist trying to heal it.
Look at the preaching of our Lord. He spoke of farmers and crops, trees and fruit, fishermen and nets. He took everyday items like rocks and birds and flowers and drew lessons from them no one could ever forget.
3. Go for Simplicity. In the Nineteenth Century, Thomas Nast was the trailblazer for today’s political cartoonists. His work is far too complex for today’s readers. Each drawing might have half a dozen word balloons, each with tiny writing. Even then, people had difficulty following all his points. Pick up any good daily paper or weekly newsmagazine and notice the simplicity of the editorial cartoon. Today, the artist has one point, a point he makes with great skill. Today’s reader is not willing to give ten minutes to decipher a drawing the way they did a century ago. It must get to the point.
Recently during the Clinton impeachment proceedings, a cartoon appeared in print showing a huge sailing ship, representing the movement to impeach the president, stuck in the middle of a great desert. The point was clear: it’s going nowhere.
Simplicity in a sermon is not easily achieved. It is the end result of a lot of things: a clear theme, carefully chosen and well-studied texts, and a thorough understanding of what one is trying to say. My own experience is that quickly developed and hastily preached messages are rarely clear. Only when I’ve given the subject sufficient time and thought and prayer and study does the sermon come across as easy to follow and to comprehend.
4. Choose the Right Word. As a general rule, the more space one has to fill, the less careful he tends to be in the selection of specific words. A talk show host with three hours of radio time before him or her may enter the studio with nothing but some general ideas and a handful of clippings. The preacher has a block of time that may be as short as fifteen minutes or as long as an hour. The cartoonist may have space for one sentence, two at most. He must get it exactly right if the effort is to succeed.
No preacher can give to each sentence the attention to detail the cartoonist does. I can recall years ago hearing pastors of big city churches claiming to spend an hour in the study for each minute in the pulpit. My personal reaction is to put them in the same class as those preachers at the other extreme who do zero preparation and expect God’s lightning to strike them with a sermon once they arrive in the pulpit. I don’t care to join either group. There has to be a middle ground.
How does the cartoonist know when he has found the right word? When it says just what he wishes, sounds right, is understood by everyone, and does not draw attention to itself but keeps the reader’s mind on the point he is making. Preachers will do well to isolate key sentences in their sermons and attend to their structure and word choice. Opening and closing sentences, remarks following a story, and the main points of the message can all benefit from attention to detail. Who among us has not remarked on the brevity and excellence of word choice by the gospel writers? A story Mark tells in five verses may take me ten minutes to relate. It’s all about word choice.
5. Humor Helps. Most editorial and religious cartoonists love to teach, to challenge, and to confront. If they can do this while provoking a laugh at the same time, so much the better. When an artist’s cartoon scores a direct hit, the accompanying humor helps to soften the impact while lodging it in the reader’s personal memory bank. It makes sense to believe that the God who made us this way did not leave out humor from His great Book of teaching. As Sarah said to Abraham, “God has made laughter for me” (Genesis 21:6 NASB).
People love to ask their pastor if Jesus ever laughed. They will point out that nowhere does the Bible say He ever laughed. A friend of mine has a good answer to that. “I don’t know whether Jesus ever laughed or not,” he says, “but He sure fixed me up so I could!” I venture to say that all of us are “fixed up” to laugh. And wise is the pastor who recognizes the value of the proper seasoning of humor in a sermon. And like all seasonings, he must beware of using too much lest the serving be inedible and unfit for consumption. The pastor who tells too many funny stories in his preaching should recall the reaction of Lot’s sons-in-law as he tried to warn them of the coming judgement: “He appeared to them to be jesting.”
6. Be Yourself. A quick glance at today’s comics page reveals that no two cartoonists’ work looks the same. Each is true to his or her own vision. The fact is that a lot of artists do copy the styles of others, but the syndicates cull them and we never see their work. Editors and syndicates are always searching for fresh material by artists who have their own styles. Say what you will about the artistic deficiencies of comic strips like Dilbert and Cathy — some art lessons could improve both strips — their creators are bright and original and themselves. They communicate. As a result, Scott Adams and Cathy Guisewite have won practically every award available to their profession.
Most preachers started by imitating their home pastor or a favorite professor, at times even copying their idiosyncrasies. Gradually, as they stayed with the work of preparing and delivering several messages a week, they found their own voice, and dropped the artificial tones and styles of others. Jeremiah picked up a theme from Hosea’s preaching — calling on Israel to “break up the fallow ground” — but he made it his own and preached it his way. After God gave to Moses a revelation about Himself found in Exodus 34, several Old Testament preachers — Nehemiah, David, Jonah, and others — all quoted it, but each did so in his own voice. God uses the Chuck Swindolls and Charles Stanleys among us. But it appears that He makes only one of those for each generation. He apparently expects each of us to be the person He made us.
7. Preach the Great Stories. Another of my failings (I have many) in nearly forty years of preaching has been to shy away from the Bible stories everyone in the congregation already knew by heart. A true failing it is, for those stories became familiar for good reason: they are the best. No one has ever improved on the narrative of the prodigal son to illustrate man’s fall into sin and the welcome he receives when he comes home. Then there’s the good Samaritan and Zaccheus. Who doesn’t enjoy hearing of the four men who unroofed a house to get their friend to Jesus? It finally hit me after a number of years in the Lord’s work that each story lends itself to a variety of usages. At one point I attempted to collect all the different sermons I encountered on the four-friends-on-the-rooftop miracle. Eventually I abandoned the effort, and decided there is no end to the variety of applications so long as God makes each preacher an individual with his own unique perspective.
Cartoonists have stock situations they return to again and again. You’ve seen these and many others: a fellow stranded on a desert isle, a prisoner before the judge, a kid showing his report card to his dad, a pastor at the door greeting worshipers, a waiter handing a menu to diners, and a wife talking to a husband whose head is buried in his newspaper. The simple fact is cartoonists delight in taking these old settings and finding new applications and interpretations. By now we may conclude there is no limit to the variations one may find on these themes. To make the point, Michael Duduit has agreed to give me all the cartoon space available in this issue. You will notice the same drawing throughout the magazine, a fellow standing at a pulpit on a desert isle. But the captions are different. There is of course a lesson here for the preacher.
Have you preached the Christmas story to death? The Prodigal Son? Salvation by grace? Does the congregation run when you whip out your old faithful stewardship sermon? We would do well to take a tip from our cartoonist friends and look for a fresh slant on these great old themes. Our Lord did this frequently. “You have heard that it was said,” He began, “But I say unto you….” When challenged to prove the resurrection by the Scriptures, Jesus came back with one of the most familiar lines from the Old Testament: “God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Then He said, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Zing! A great old text they all knew by heart, now reinterpreted in a way none would ever forget.
8. Use Indirection When on Dangerous Ground. Ventriloquists may put caustic remarks in the mouths of their dummies and people laugh. A playwright creates an off-center character to say controversial things which the audience absorbs unwittingly. Likewise, a cartoonist can put his philosophy inside a bubble above a character’s head and get by with it. He can score a point for his side but without stirring up negative emotions and hostile reactions he might provoke were he to stand at a podium mouthing those same thoughts. By this method Johnny Hart frequently witnesses to his Christian faith in the “B.C.” strip.
Most of my pastoral ministry has been spent in the Deep South. Thirty years ago when I dealt with racism and prejudice from the pulpit, I was often treading on sensitive territory. I learned gradually that people grow defensive about their hallowed traditions and that the indirect approach often achieves excellent results. So, telling of a conversation between two fellows where one of them makes my point will often be received better than a bold proclamation of mine.
The prophet Nathan and John the Baptist were each called on to confront a king over his adultery. Nathan chose indirection by telling the king a story which allowed him to see objectively the cruelty of his act and in so doing won a convert. John, con-versely, attacked the problem head on, denouncing the adultery of the king and lost his life for his trouble. There is of course a time when only confrontation will do the job, but an effective preacher will also know the value of a little third-person story to make the point. Our Lord did it all the time. “A certain man had two sons….”
Occasionally over the years as people have watched me draw and then learned I am the pastor of a church, someone would comment, “You must be a fascinating preacher to listen to.” Invariably, pangs of guilt would stir inside me. What do they mean, I wondered. Do they mean because my cartooning is right-brain stuff that my sermons should be also to the extent that Calvin Miller comes to me for advice? Am I supposed to be as graphic with words as with a pen? Or as entertaining? I always thank the observer for his or her remarks and then sit there wondering if my preaching has sufficiently benefited from whatever this inner quality is that allows me to draw and entertain people. Exactly what can the preacher in me learn from the cartoonist in me? This has been an attempt to nail it down. If it helps others, so much the better.
Attempt to nail it down.

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