Coloring the Story

THE GRAPHIC NOVEL Radical Jesus, edited by Paul Buhle, has three distinct sections offering different expressions of Jesus’ life and social message. The brevity of the graphic novel medium allows the writers to construct a clear and distinct message in a moving art form.

Part one, “Radical Gospel,” illustrated by Sabrina Jones, uses biblical quotes to construct a visual story that connects the words of Jesus to modern situations. The black and white ink styling is simple yet profound.

While Jesus and his disciples are portrayed as first century Jews, the people Jesus interacts with and tells parables about are all in modern dress. This puts Jesus in an accessible conversation not only with his disciples, but also with the reader. In a collection of Jesus’ sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, the art drives home the emotional impact of his words.

Jones does not shy away from the radical implications of Jesus’ message. My favorite of her modern interpretations is an image of the destruction wreaked by the 9/11 attacks, contrasted with Jesus’ reference to the temple in Jerusalem, where he exclaims, “The day will come when there isn’t one stone left on top of another that is not thrown down.”

The second section, “Radical History,” moves from the words of Jesus into the history of the Radical Reformation, continuing the narrative of people living into God’s dream for the world. The illustrations by Gary Dumm (with coloring by Laura Dumm) imitate the style of medieval art, with full-bodied pastel colors and static but emotional characters.

Presented as an anthology of stories by several authors, the assortment is anchored by an interpretation of the beginnings of the Anabaptists, a people who rejected infant baptism, seeing baptism as properly a sign of adult conversion and faith.

Starting with John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into common language, the authors track movements of believers who put authority in scripture rather than church leadership or traditions. In standing up for their beliefs, they faced persecution and harassment from both authorities and neighbors.

The story of one imprisoned Hutterite group includes this simple but powerful definition of their faith: “We wish to follow the path Jesus walked: the way of peace, humility, simplicity, and love for all people. For those convictions we are prepared to suffer and die, just as Jesus did.”

In “Radical Resistance,” the final section, the social message of Jesus emerges through a present-day faith conversation hosted in a living room. Artist Nick Thorkelson employs a full range of colors, using more colors (and more vibrant ones) to represent today and a more limited, muted color palette the further the stories reach back in history.

Through life stories shared at a small group meeting, the gospel plays out in a wide network of modern movements: from abolitionism to mass incarceration; from war resistance to conscientious objection; and from community organizing to accompanying the poor. An opening quote from Isaiah—also the text of Jesus’ first sermon—leads to stories about Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, the Catholic Worker movement, and others.

This collection is not just for young adult readers; the faith questions and life implications in these true stories can lead readers of any age to a new understanding of what Jesus’ call to radical living means for daily life. Given the promise of the reign of God, Radical Jesus reminds us that “we can prepare for it, by making the world more peaceful, more fair, more just.” 

Ben Sutter is the online assistant at Sojourners.


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