The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 4, Chapter 11: "The world seems like a pretty mean place."

Matthew 18. 1-5
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me."

I noted in the last chapter that power sits behind the satanic influences in Calvin and Hobbes. In the character of Mo we see power as physical violence. This kind of power seems self-evidently satanic.

Yet Calvin and Hobbes also offers up a more subtle commentary on power. These forms of coercion and violence are more distributed and diffuse. Thus, as forms of systemic violence there is no "bad guy" to blame as there is in the Mo strips. And yet power is being deployed, coercion is in play.

In Calvin and Hobbes we see the world through Calvin's eyes. That is, we see the world through the eyes of a child. A great deal of this view is preoccupied with Calvin's immaturity (see the chapters in Part 1). Yet, because Calvin is a child he is also the least powerful person in the strip. Seeing the world through the eyes of the child allows us to see the world through the eyes of the powerless. This view from the bottom of the power hierarchy dominates much of Watterson's strips.

To begin, we often see Calvin struggling with his parents. This takes many forms, but here are a few of my favorite running themes:

First, I love Calvin's constant struggle with his mother about taking baths.

I also love Calvin's "Dad polls." Obviously, Calvin cannot, because of the power differential, make his Dad do anything. Thus, Calvin resorts to conducting polls to give his Dad feedback on parenting.

I enjoy these polls as they humorously illustrate how impotent Calvin is. Calvin can give feedback through these polls but, at the end of the day, we know his father is going to dismiss them out of hand.

Finally, there are the numerous strips where we find Calvin's parents forcing Calvin to conform to society's demands.

Matthew 19. 13-15
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

Obviously, we aren't going to fault Calvin's parents for making Calvin take a bath, go to school, eat his food, or behave in public. But the view of the world from the child's point of view does offer a commentary upon power. That is, because Calvin is the hero of the strip we tend to identify with him over against the parents. It's not that we think the parents are wrong or evil. It's just that we identify with being forced or coerced to do something.

Generally, this coercion is for our own good. But Watterson ramps up the criticism of power by bringing in Rosalyn the babysitter. Here are the first Rosalyn strips:

Calvin's battles with Rosalyn become epic encounters. Some of the funniest stories in Calvin and Hobbes focus on Calvin's attempts to undermine Rosalyn's power. Here is one of my favorites:

These battles become so difficult for Rosalyn that she starts demanding more and more money from Calvin's parents:

Like Mo, Rosalyn functions as a satan figure for Calvin. She's the adversary. Here, in contrast with Calvin's parents, Watterson's commentary on power becomes clearer. Rosalyn doesn't necessarily use her power to help shape Calvin. Her use of power is more arbitrary and self-centered. There is no relationship between Rosalyn and Calvin. Well, there is a relationship, it’s a power relation driven by, as Watterson highlights, economics.

Here then, with Rosalyn, we begin to see a subtle form of commentary upon the economically driven power relations governing modern society. Our market economies created Rosalyn-type interactions where money dictates who's in charge. And, too often, the powerless get trampled beneath these market forces.

Mark 9. 33-37
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."

He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

In might seem a stretch to see in Rosalyn a critique of market-based power structures. However, when we confront Watterson's school strips such an interpretation grows more plausible.

Beyond Calvin's parents and Rosalyn, we see power dynamics depicted while Calvin is at school.

As with Calvin's parents, we might not always see these student/teacher power confrontations as all bad. Calvin, as a child, needs to learn some things. But Watterson goes further than this. In many strips Watterson uses "school" to portray the world we live in. A world of violence, rules, coercion, and constriction.

We begin to see Calvin as a small mouse caught in a cage. His smallness, his powerlessness, is tragically highlighted. We feel him getting ground down by the system.

Sometimes we see these forces bring Calvin to despair:

If the evil of the world is violence, from physical assault to distributed social structures, then the Kingdom of God is found by standing with the child, the powerless one. We see in Calvin and Hobbes much of the tragedy of life. How people without status or power are pushed around, beaten down, ignored, abused, or crushed. Through Calvin and Hobbes we begin to identify with the child, to empathize with his experience. And, by standing in solidarity with Calvin, we begin to enter the gospel story. As Jurgen Moltmann has written:

The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him. Thus Christian theology must be worked out amongst these people and with concrete terms amongst and with those who suffer in this society.

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4 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 4, Chapter 11: "The world seems like a pretty mean place."

  1. I was also thinking of the fact that, in Calvin and Hobbes, we don't expect Calvin to have to earn our solidarity with his powerlessness. We all know that in the next strip he is going to tease Susie, mock his mothers food, etc. but that doesn't seem to cause us to withhold our compassion. I'm thinking of the ways that many strains of Christianity seem to expect a change of behavior as a prerequisite or at least a consequence of compassion and help. Putting it in terms of Calvin and Hobbes actually seems to open up the discussion a little more clearly. Just (re)discovered the blog and happy to see Calvin and Hobbes front and center!

  2. giancarlo,
    I think that's right. Our sympathy with Calvin exists despite our knowledge of his shortcomings. This idea parallels a big theme from Part 1 of these essays, the notion of the "democracy of sinners." I think Christians would be in a better place if they approached the world as participants within the democracy of sinners rather than standing outside it as "the Saved."

  3. As a huge Calvin fan I have throughly enjoyed your analysis of Watterson's genius. I do hope you will comment on the role of TV in the strips. We often see it bouncing up and down and blarring away and Calvin offering a bowl of Chocolate frosted sugar bombs in homage to the great TV. Thanks again for your enlightening work!

  4. I would question whether Rosalyn represents a Pharisee or big brother in the prodigal son parable (religious type who uses strict adherence to rules as method for acceptance) as opposed to a Satan Figure. If you accept this suggestion It might result in taking a closer look at the end of result of Augustine theology as redemption out of depravity by grace rather than obedience to rules. Overall great analysis, however you seem to do a slight of hand to make the analysis abruptly transition to a universalism spectrum, kind of lost me there.

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