David Wilkie, Coffee with Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 118 pages.
I would like to thank IVP for providing me a review copy.
David Wilkie’s book, Coffee with Jesus, is a collection of his comics by the same title originally posted at Radio Free Babylon. Many of his comics get shared regularly on Facebook and other forms of social media. My first introduction to Coffee with Jesus was through Facebook and when I saw that IVP was publishing the whole collection, I was very eager to get my hands on a copy.
The strips are sorted according to theme, not date. There are six chapters about (1) getting to know Jesus, (2) spiritual disciplines, (3) relationships, (4) culture, (5) church, and (6) suffering, temptation and comfort, and an appendix with strips for “special occasions” (e.g., Christmas, Valentine’s Day). Each chapter begins with a short reflection on the theme of the chapter, a lyric written by Wilkie, and a page describing one of the main characters with whom Jesus interacts: Lisa, Ann, Carl, Kevin, Joe (a pastor), and Satan. There are three strips to a page and about 75 pages of strips—you do the math.
Wilkie writes in his introduction that he “felt the need to portray Jesus as I know him.” I suspect that the success Coffee with Jesus has already had on the internet is largely due to Wilkie’s very real portrayal of Jesus (and I am certainly not talking about the visual portrayal). This really does seem like the Jesus of the gospels. Loving, merciful, kind, gracious, sarcastic, funny, challenging. Tom Wright has famously commented that most scholarly descriptions of Jesus simply cannot make sense of the crucifixion. Any attempt to describe Jesus has to account for both his popularity and his eventual death. Wilkie’s Jesus comes very close. This is a Jesus divides. One who will not tolerate idols in whatever form they take, but who nonetheless is loving and gentle to the humble and contrite. This is a Jesus who could be popular and dangerous—king and crucified.(Unsurprisingly, Wilkie has received a good bit of criticism and praise for his portrayal of Jesus).
There are some great zingers among this collection—strips that gently make fun of other Christians. You will find yourself having the same sort of experience as when you hear a really good sermon application and think, “Man, I really hope ____ is listening to this, because he/she really needs to hear it!” In fact, I suspect that a good bit of the Facebook sharing is done with the hopes that the “target” (real or imagined) of the comic will read it. For instance, consider the following:
And there are some strips that might hit a broader target and make us feel a bit uncomfortable, defensive, or convicted.
For the most part, Wilkie’s Jesus seems pretty accurate and if my understanding of Jesus is anywhere near correct, I imagine Jesus is sitting on his throne sipping (pick one: coffee/tea/wine/beer/sake/mango juice/filtered water/whiskey on the rocks/whiskey neat) and smiling with amusement. Nonetheless, a few friendly criticisms are warranted. First, Jesus seems inordinately concerned with the advertising industry, which reflects Wilkie’s past involvement in that industry (p. 65).
Second, Coffee with Jesus was originally started as a political (i.e., apolitical or anti-political) cartoon, due to Wilkie’s frustration with the politicization of Christianity in America. While I sympathize with much of Wilkie’s frustration (expressed through Jesus), I find the “Jesus doesn’t take sides” a bit tedious and I wonder if it is a sign of privilege that we can make such a claim. To put it another way, if the unborn children facing abortion could speak, would they agree that Jesus doesn’t take sides? Would black South Africans during apartheid? Jesus is certainly not a card-carrying Republican just as much as he is not a card-carrying Democrat (or Libertarian/Constitutionalist/Green Party/What Have You. For what it’s worth, I think it is much easier to say for whom Jesus wouldn’t vote, than to say for whom he would vote). Wilkie is not shy about taking swipes at particular political issues (drones come up a few times), but the overall tenor is that Jesus doesn’t take sides. While I agree that we ought not to ask whether Jesus is on our side, but whether we are on his side (see Josh 5:13–14), I still believe that Jesus has some pretty strong thoughts on politics and whom we should or shouldn’t vote for.
Some people will hate it; some people will love it. Coffee with Jesus, like Jesus himself, will divide and unite. For my money, it is a great read and the strips that make me uncomfortable force me to ask why I am uncomfortable. Wilkie has done a commendable job giving us a picture of what coffee with Jesus might actually be like. Someday we will know for sure. In the mean time pick up a copy! Get several while you’re at it—they make great Christmas presents. If you have already purchased your Christmas presents, then give them for Epiphany, Valentine’s Day (ok, maybe not), or a birthday.