All cartoons are courtesy of ASBO Jesus’ Jon Birch. Click on the image to view the cartoon in full, and check out all of Jon’s work at http://asbojesus.wordpress.com.
By Amy Sondova ASBO Jesus is a phenomenon not even founder Jon Birch saw coming. His site speaks about controversial issues in the church such as female pastors, cutting, abuse, but Birch uses few words—he lets his cartoons tell the story. And just because they’re animated doesn’t mean they’re so easily dismissed. Millions flock to The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus each week to check out the latest cartoons, comment on social issues, and find encouragement in the community. Jon, who lives across the pond (that is, in Great Britain) took time out of his work to do a Q&A via e-mail.
Not everyone is familiar with ASBO Jesus, what exactly is your site about?
It’s a blog where I put up cartoons on issues of faith and the church. Sometimes satirical, sometimes empathetic, sometimes ridiculous. Over time, quite a community has grown, so I’ve used the cartoons to stimulate discussion. The purpose of the site is to say things, or bring things up for debate or thought which are often thought yet seldom said (at least not in public) by people of faith. Having said that, the site is open to people who have lost faith, or are still working it all out (Aren’t we all?)
ASBO, itself, is a British term for “anti-social behavior disorder”–why use this term in conjunction with your cartoons?
It was my wife, Clare, who put the two words ‘ASBO’ and ‘Jesus’ together to make a title for the blog. It came out of an interesting conversation we were having about ‘if Jesus were alive today, in our culture, would He be given an ASBO’. We concluded, rightly or wrongly, that He probably would. It seemed to us that He was killed for being what the religious authorities and others deemed ‘troublesome’, so at the very least He would be given an ASBO.
Also, in Britain, ASBO’s generally end up being given to those on the margins of society. Jesus very much identified with those on the margins, so the name ‘ASBO Jesus’ seemed to me to fit the bill beautifully. It is quite possible that the intriguing, possibly controversial, name is one reason why the blog started to get a lot of hits. That is more of a happy accident than a pre-planned thing.
Where did you get the inspiration for the site?
I did cartoon # 1 just shortly after my mother died. Still shocked and beginning the process of coming to terms with a profound (and very sudden) loss, I started cartooning. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was a welcome distraction, perhaps it was the need to try and say meaningful things.
I do know my mother understood the empathy I have for the marginalized and in the last conversation I had with her she encouraged me to carry on being myself, to carry on loving those who others might judge. These things are hard to put into words, but she told me of a wonderful gay doctor who had been very good with her. She smiled and said, “You would have loved him.” My mum was cool; I’d like my life to do her justice.
There are, of course, many inspirations for the cartoons I do. Not least, these days, the conversations that go on at ASBO. Sometimes it is the conversation that sets the agenda for the next cartoon. I hope my site is a service. I hope it is edifying and helpful. I also hope people find it funny… at least sometimes; I do.
How have your cartoons made a difference in how Christians think?
Wow… I don’t know for sure that they have. I do know that some cartoons have made people think though, because people have said as much on the blog. I would like to think that sometimes the cartoons enable people to think again about things that maybe they thought they knew. There are some subjects that some people have entrenched views on, but hopefully through the cartoons and through the ensuing conversations; there is a way for them to at least hear another view.
I’d like us all to think again really, about all sorts of things. We are, none of us, always right. We are, all of us, sometimes wrong. I am no expert and I don’t pretend to be. My own cartoons often lead me to ponder things that I otherwise might not. I am often learning from the insights and experiences of people who contribute to the comments on the site. Without their input the cartoons would have dried up a while ago.
Why do you think your site has become so popular?
I think it is, in part, because from the start I tried to make sure I joined in with the conversation. To begin with, in the blog’s infancy, I would simply say ‘thank you’ if someone left a comment. Later, when people got brave and started offering views, I would try to engage. Essentially, I like people; and I hoped to make sure people who took time out to respond would feel appreciated.
As I said before, the name of the site has in some ways helped. Also, I have found that very often, people will use an ASBO cartoon on their own blog and link to my site; this has generated a lot of traffic. There are a few very well known bloggers who have referenced my work or used a cartoon; this has flagged the site up for people’s attention.
I also think that people return because they are interested in the comments left. Some of the conversations have been truly inspiring and involving. I am amazed at the willingness of some, to be honest and soul searching. Somehow, although the blog is open to anyone, it seems to have become a safe space to debate, try out arguments, empathize and also to have some fun. Long may it remain that way.
Sometimes though, I think that people enjoy a laugh in the day. ASBO sometimes provides that. Life is often intense and we all need some relief.
What cartoon has been the most controversial to date?
Cartoons on sexuality always stir things up. Sex sells, even in Christian circles. It is interesting that a cartoon which is controversial to one person isn’t at all controversial to another. The one that brought the most comments was a cartoon about gay partnership and marriage. This was too much for some. Although the cartoon was not prescriptive, it was done to elicit a response. However, I have to say, that the majority of the conversation was positive and fruitful. There are some lovely people in the ASBO community who I can trust to set the tone of the conversation. ASBO has become for me as much about their personalities as it is my own.
Christ was controversial. A cartoon site which searches for Christ is bound to be controversial. Some subjects are controversial simply because we are afraid to discuss them. I find this a little ridiculous and try to be open to bringing up anything which I think ought to have an airing. Some of the stronger (maybe not even funny) cartoons I have done are the ones I am most pleased with. A cartoon on self-harming, which I was prompted to do, is still my favourite. I did a lot of heart searching before I posted it, but again, the conversation that ensued told me that this was a subject that really needed to be out of the closet, I was pleased and amazed by the warmth and sensitivity of many of the comments.
When you raise a subject like this, you will probably be affecting those for whom this is an issue. I would only want to have a positive impact; I would want to help the situation, not worsen it. I hope that is what happened. I can only judge by what I read in the comments, but given the amazing variety of people who commented and the things they said, I think it was helpful. I am very pleased I managed to pluck up the courage to post it.
It seems that drawings can communicate a very real message in a less intimidating way, why is this?
Maybe ‘a picture paints a thousand words.’ Maybe they are a bit like parables. Maybe the simple characters are appealing in some way. Maybe it makes a refreshing change for people. Maybe it invites comment and response. I am not entirely sure. I do think though, that a simple picture can encapsulate a lot. Certainly in Britain, there is a strong tradition of cartoon satire; it is a well understood medium of communication. Also, even a simple cartoon can draw you into its world, so you get a different way in to thinking about the world we live in. these are just some thoughts; I don’t really know.
I’m sure there are some days when you get a ton of complaints and you just feel down, why do you keep going?
I’ve not had tons, but I’ve had a few. Complaints don’t really worry me, provided people are complaining about what I’ve said and not what they thought I said. I’m making comments on things, so I guess I’m fair game for those who disapprove. I’ve not censored any comments (except spam). Someone once wrote something like ‘why don’t you do something with your life, like kill yourself or die or something?’ I didn’t even censor that. It’s there still. That sort of silliness is very rare; you can’t let that sort of thing bother you. I do sometimes get down, but that’s me, it’s never anything to do with ABS Jesus. To be honest, I’m my biggest critic.
When you’re not making the ASBO Jesus cartoons, what else do you do?
I make a lot of animations, produce a lot of music and run proost.co.uk with my partner in Christian crime, Jonny Baker. I’m a trustee of a Christian youth charity in my home town. I’m about to start work on a graphic novel with a very good writer friend of mine. And I’m trying to get our home sorted out… it’s looking a little less like a building site than it was a while ago. I have a wonderful wife called Clare, a scruffy dog called Gromit, and am blessed with wonderful friends and family. Right now I’m finishing off a few animations and preparing stuff for Greenbelt (a big UK festival)… I have the Olympics on in the background as I work.