The history (and humor) of "incompatibility"

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Rev. Charlie Baber is the creator behind Wesley Bros Comics, an online world where historical church figures all exist at the same time, in today’s world, not unlike the communion of saints where past, present, and future collapse into a moment. Published as Submitting to Be More Vile, Rev. Baber's “webcomics” are collected in printed form with new group-discussion guides to help lovers of John and Charles Wesley find a little humor in the present state of the church, and learn a lot about church history, theology, and Methodist identity.

We sat down with Rev. Baber to talk about his newest comic series, an ongoing series about the history of the "incompatability" language at the heart of The United Methodist Church's current divisions. This series is well-researched and told in the surprisingly fun(ny) style we've come to love about Wesley Bros. You can catch up on that series here, but be sure to read our interview below.

Cameron: Charlie, your newest series with Wesley Bros explores the history of the “incompatibility” language at the center of our ongoing debates in The United Methodist Church. How did you come to this project and wanting to explore this history over an extended series of comics?

I've been creating weekly comics for nine years now to teach Methodist history and theology, and poke a little fun at our issues. Usually, each week's comic stands alone as its own story, though occasionally I've done series exploring the Quadrilateral, the means of grace, or longer storylines about John Wesley's life experiences. In the past I've given attention to racial issues, particularly mass incarceration and the Black Lives Matter movement, and their intersections with Wesleyan theology.  While those issues are continually relevant, the imminent schism in The United Methodist Church has shifted my focus some. So more recently, my comics have become a little more outspoken about Wesleyan-rooted full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people into the life of the church.  
Cameron: And I would imagine that you’ve heard back about that, even with your audience! I hope that somewhere in that outspokenness, there has been some good responses, too.
Sometimes my comics get trolled by my Christian brothers and sisters who have neither read the comic nor the article, but use the comment section as a platform to say some very nasty and hateful things about these issues. I've gotten to a place where I can tell if a person genuinely wants a conversation or if they just want to have the last word. One particular commenter said that he wished he could support LGBTQIA+ full inclusion, but he didn't see how you could support that if you take the bible seriously. He was open for a genuine conversation, and I began sharing with him the history of translations and development of beliefs over centuries. I realized that I didn't need to change his mind, I just wanted to share with him some history and let him come to his own conclusions. I realized that Wesley Bros Comics was a great platform to do that work for a larger audience, so I began reading all the research I could get. I knew this was the kind of story that would need to be a series, and my hope is to be able to present it as a complete comic book when it's all done. And to answer your question, yes, I've gotten so much affirmation for this present series. It's a history that very few people know about, and each week people seem eager to learn more.

Cameron: And how did you come up with the structure you’re using to tell this story?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted to tell this story in three parts. My primary audience is comprised of United Methodist people, so I thought the best hook to start off the story was teaching the history behind the 1972 General Conference, where the Incompatibility Clause was introduced into the Book of Discipline. I've found that most people who are un-affirming or on the fence about gay relationships tend to assume (or boldly claim) that the church has "always" believed one thing. If I've learned ANYTHING in almost ten years of researching church history for the Wesley Bros project, it's that the church has very rarely "always" believed one thing on just about any issue out there.
Cameron: “Always” really is a dangerous word—rarely justified and nearly always harmful in its use. 

It is—and for instance, many Protestants don't realize that prior to the last century, Christians deeply believed that all non-procreative sex acts (even between a married man and woman) would have been considered incompatible with Christian teaching.
We forget that in the 1960's and 70's, white Christians were arguing that integration was incompatible with Christian teaching (and using scripture to defend it)! The second arc of my story explores religious, political, and scientific transformations that have impacted views on homosexuality. The middle part of this story searches more broadly through centuries of church teaching on human sexuality, and especially the last century of American Christian history. 
The final movement of the story will explore a Wesleyan theology rich enough to entertain the possibility that God is presently and actively blessing queer relationships and calling queer people into successful and fruitful ministry. I plan to use John Wesley's theological moves from his famous Thoughts Upon Slavery abolitionist tract. It's interesting that some commenters make snap judgments about this work I'm doing and argue that the real John Wesley would NEVER agree with me, even that I should stop using the name Wesley Bros because my work is just my opinion and doesn't represent the real Wesley. That doesn't bother me. This project has never claimed to be a biography, and the 18th century John Wesley didn't have the knowledge or experiences we've had in the last 200+ years. It's impossible to know or claim what the real John Wesley would have done or said about these issues if he were alive today.  But we do know that he valued history, he valued scientific discovery, and he most definitely changed his mind over time on different issues in his context.

Cameron: What have been the most helpful resources for you as you have thought about this story you’re telling?

I've probably read 30+ articles, essays and books preparing for this story. I was thrilled to find the actual journal of the 1972 General Conference with point-for-point details on the different motions that led towards the acceptance of the Incompatibility Clause. I was also thrilled to find a detailed research paper exploring the events prior to that General Conference that significantly informed the man who wrote the language that is now in our Book of Discipline. But hands down the two best resources have been Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality by Ashley Boggan Dreff (of General Commission on History and Archives), and Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church by Bridget Eileen Rivera. Both books have opened my own eyes to the historical intersections between racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. I'll come across some little tidbit from our history that sends me down another rabbit hole of research. 
Cameron: And have you come across aspects of this history that surprised you?

I think the thing that stood out to me most is the tremendous historical failure to acknowledge our intersectionality. The push for American freedom ignored black freedom. The push for abolition ignored women. The push for women's rights ignored black rights and gay rights. The push for marriage equality ignored trans rights. It's like we never learn. Or maybe we've created systems in the church and the world where we believe it's all or nothing, and we can only make space for changing one major issue at a time.

Cameron: I can’t think of any other resource that explores this history and theology in a graphic-based format, and yet now that I’ve seen what you done, it almost seems obvious to do so! What do you think are the strengths that a comic brings to communicating the struggles and complexities of this history?

As a comic artist, I have been thrilled to see the widespread acceptance of graphic novels in education. Teachers everywhere find that comics help engage readers on a different level. The format demands the artist to make very intentional choices about what to say and illustrate within limited space. My full-time work is as a youth pastor, so I'm always trying to teach complex theology and deep biblical study in ways a middle school youth could understand. This is not watering down, it's translating. My job in youth ministry and in comics is to translate nuance and complexity in short sound bites that make sense without mansplaining, that expand the imagination instead of making the world smaller, and challenge the reader or the student to think critically about the world. 
Cameron: So how do you go about that translating—can you tell us a little about the process of making the comic? Where do you start, and how do you choose what to depict?
Every comic starts with an idea. I've been inspired by current events, quirky things that happen in my church, and constantly reading history and theology books. When something grabs me, it's either something that I just think is funny, or it's something that I wish more Christians were thoughtful about. I start jotting down a possible script, which determines how long or short the comic will be.  These days, I pretty much do the entire cartooning process on my giant Wacom Cintiq tablet using Adobe Photoshop.
After the script, every image and even the layout design and color choice communicate more deeply my interpretation of what's being taught. For example, I illustrated the year of the General Conference, 1972, with groovy patterns and famous icons from the time period to help place readers into the context of the story. I think pictures help remind the reader that these aren't just facts and ideas, these are all grounded in actual lived human experiences.

Cameron: Have you heard from some of your audience about how they are engaging with the series? I have to believe that some of them are doing some creative things with such a creative resource. And have you had any plans for how churches or individuals could use your work beyond what you’ve offered already?

I definitely hope this series will be used as a resource in churches and in church history classes! For years, pastors and professors have been using Wesley Bros comics to help bring their lessons to life.  In 2019, Abingdon Press published a collection of my comics in a book called Submitting to Be More Vile: The Illustrated Adventures of John & Charles Wesley. We designed the book to be applicable as a resource for personal and small group use. With this current series, I've had pastors and professors reach out for permission to use these comics in art installments in church hallways, discussion starters for conversations around faith and sexuality, and assigned reading in history courses. My goal is to either find a publisher or self-publish this collected storyline in a way that can be easily downloaded as an e-book or held in hand like a regular comic book.

I do not think my work on this series will change the hearts or minds of anyone who has made up their mind against LGBTQ inclusion. I can only follow the lead of the Holy Spirit in my life, my ministry, and my cartooning, and trust the God will enable the seeds to grow.  My hope is that this work will inspire anyone who is curious and open to the possibility that LGBTQ people do not have to become straight to belong to the kingdom of God.  And for those who are already affirming, I hope this work will strengthen their commitment to the very Wesleyan gospel that no one is incompatible with the love of Christ.

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