Stories permeate religious discourse, and among the most important stories in the history of Christianity are those which recount the life converted. Shared features have emerged over time—a search for meaning, a recognition of self-limitation, choices that signal self-denial and dependence on another. These moments, which reappear through time and across cultures, signal shared understanding of faith and community, and provide theologically rich sources of reflection on God and the self. But while some evangelical conversion narratives became formulaic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many recent “spiritual autobiographies” or “life writings” have broken convention with remarkably powerful results.
Craig Thompson’s stirring narrative breaks two familiar aspects of the genre: Blankets not only recounts his “loss” of faith (more on that in a moment) but also relies on the graphic novel format to tell his story.
Blankets recounts the story of a boy transitioning from innocence to experience. As a child, Craig plays beneath the blankets with his brother, imagining scenes of warfare and discovery on the “high seas” of his bed, yet struggling to find his voice in a family of demanding religious expectations. Eventually, Craig meets Raina, a beautiful and carefree girl from another state. The two fall in love and spend time together at her home. Here, beneath new blankets, Craig finds comfort in Raina’s arms and confronts his own fears of divine judgment. In a particularly powerful image, Craig faces the image of Jesus Christ looking down on him from the wall of his bedroom. He expects condemnation, but discovers approval instead—not approval of his actions per se, but a blessing of his humanity and need for genuine love in the embrace and acceptance of another. Unlike so many other conversion narratives, Craig’s repentance is not measured by his rejection of Raina or acceptance of the church. In fact, he gradually recognizes that the teachings of the church of his childhood are bound by fear, a fundamental denial of creation, and the rejection of the arts (and the creative gifts of the artist). These teachings—a false gospel that distorts faith and the search for meaning in the world—must be set aside along with the other blankets of his childhood.
The unique storytelling capacity of the graphic novel is hardly new—as any reader of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus (1991) can attest. But Thompson’s work deserves continued attention for so effectively conveying personal crisis and the yearning for meaning in the embrace of the other. Blankets is certainly not a work for children and could trigger painful life episodes for some readers. Thompson’s story images episodes of traumatic, childhood abuse set in stark contrast with the collision of sinuous teenage bodies searching for meaning through sexual discovery. Craig’s loss of faith, in broader perspective, narrates the rejection of a distorted religion, a liberating embrace of doubt, and the extraordinary movement from powerlessness and chaos to self-determination and freedom. With extraordinary drawings, theologically rich metaphors (including a complex account of the Eucharist), and a compelling storyline, Blankets merits attention in any examination of religious life writing.