Jesus doesn’t sit still very often in David Hayward’s cartoons. He’s on the move: rescuing gay sheep, spray-painting church signs, and – on the cover of Hayward’s new book, Flip it Like This – showing a woman how to upend money-laden tables.
Remember those plastic bracelets from the 90s asking “WWJD?” The question always had, at least for me, a censorious tone, focused on the limits of what’s permissible for contemporary Christians. Hayward answers the same question but his pen and ink Jesus is a rabble-rouser, intent on challenging every human boundary. What would Jesus do? According to Hayward, who calls himself the NakedPastor because he seeks “to tell the naked truth,” Jesus shares pizza with a black sheep. Jesus sits at the emptiest lunch table. Jesus calls the prosperity gospel an oxymoron. And Jesus coaches someone on how to give the middle finger. You might squirm at some of his choices, but there’s no denying that Jesus is, for Hayward, real and active in the world today.
The church is influential, too. But it is generally the villain in Hayward’s cartoons. And these images are far more likely to make us uncomfortable than the ones about Jesus. The pen and ink “church” silences women, showcases celebrity pastors, hands out smiley-face masks at the door, forbids questions, chases money, stones LGBTQ believers and perpetuates abuse. Hayward pulls no punches.
In one cartoon, Jesus and the church are sitting in a car, with Jesus in the passenger seat, saying, “Remember when you used to let me drive?” That sums up what Bruce Cockburn calls Hayward’s “prophetic critique of the modern church” – a critique so pointed that it’s painful. Hayward’s tone can be crass – what my Dutch grandparents might have called spotten (jeering, blaspheming) – but his insights into the church’s failings are spot on. Anyone who simultaneously loves the church and is let down by it will be able to relate.
The person behind the pen
From his home in Saint John, New Brunswick, Hayward paints, draws and maintains a lively online presence, including host to an online community of a few hundred “deconstructing Christians” who pay a monthly fee to participate. He has over 30,000 followers on Twitter and more than 114,000 on Instagram, and he’s quick to respond when I reach out to him for an interview, which we set up for the very next day.
After discovering that we were both born in Newmarket, Ontario, I ask about his faith background.
“I’m my own ecumenical movement,” Hayward says. “I was born and baptized Anglican; I was circumcised by a rabbi; then we were Baptist, then we were Pentecostal. I met my wife at a Pentecostal Bible college. Then I went to seminary and was ordained Presbyterian.” Hayward spent 30 years in pastoral ministry overall, including several years at a Vineyard church. He left church ministry in 2010.
Though he regularly hears from fans all over the world, including pastors, “full on believers,” imams, rabbis, priests and atheists, Hayward says that he “flies under the radar in Canada.” His biggest audience is American; no one in Saint John’s knows who he is.
Hayward turns to metaphor when I ask if he still calls himself a Christian. “I tell people that my home is in Christianity but I have cottages everywhere. It’s in my DNA, it’s my family of origin, so I don’t reject that family but neither do I let it limit me. I’m very open.”
I ask if there’s a line he won’t cross with his cartoons. He thinks for a moment, then says there are two.
“I punch up, not down,” he says. “I try to stay in my lane. I get people nearly every day saying, ‘Why don’t you say something about the Muslims?’ Well, I know about Christianity and the church and Christians, therefore I know a little bit about religion in general, but I’m not going to go into someone else’s camp and start criticizing when we have our own issues. The log in my own eye before the speck in theirs. The second thing is I don’t want to mock or make fun of the way people express their faith. I don’t care about whether you’re dancing and screaming and roaring like a lion or in robes and incense, that’s just style, I don’t make fun of that. What I do go after is harmful or stupid or self-destructive practices.”
Hayward’s site sells prints as well as mugs and T-shirts of his most popular cartoons. The “Jesus Eraser” (on this page) is, he says, everyone’s favourite, along with the cartoon on the cover of his new book, Flip it Like This. Which cartoons, I wonder, get him the most flak? He says there are three types.
“When they’re explicitly feminist,” he says, “that’s number one. You empower women, you’re in trouble. Number two is when I question the inspiration of Scripture, and number three is LGBTQ.”
“A lot of people think I’m anti-faith, anti-Christian, anti-church, but I’m not,” he says. “I’ve had wonderful experiences in church and I wouldn’t be where I am without it, so I’m very grateful. I only wish that church would do church in a healthy manner. That religion would live up to its mandate and intended purpose.”
That hope comes through in Hayward’s cartoons, cynical though they seem. The little church sketch makes (terrible) mistakes, but Jesus doesn’t. His love for people comes through in every line.
Hayward’s cartoons cover a lot of territory. My reactions vary from wincing to wanting to cheer, and sometimes thinking “Ok, that’s over the line.” Humour is subjective, and he’s experimenting. When my teenagers picked up his book, it prompted good conversation about what we thought each cartoon was trying to convey and if the critique felt fair.
–Angela Reitsma Bick