Brendan has a problem. In fact, everyone he’s ever met seems to have the same problem. He feels empty inside, driven to search for something he’s missing but unsure of what that could be. His friend Eric, on the other hand, is mostly driven to search for the next party. In the graphic novel The Truth is Out There: Brendan & Eric in Exile, a Maronite monk writing under the pseudonym Amadeus lays out the reasons Brendan is unhappy, and takes him (and us) on a journey to fulfillment.
The Truth is Out There presents, in comic-book format, a basic introduction to Catholic philosophy and theology. The story concerns two interplanetary deliverymen: Brendan, who begins asking tough questions about life, God, and purpose, and Eric, his rowdy and carefree but loyal friend. Brendan pursues his inquiries through a series of debates with the likes of a philosopher, a billionaire, and a priest, while Eric remains boisterously skeptical. Eric explores some deeper themes himself, such as a debate between his body and soul – though he rarely chooses wisely. When the two friends are arrested for a crime they didn’t commit, it challenges and incentivizes Brendan’s grappling with God’s place in his life.
The plot of Truth is thin by design, solely a vehicle for the philosophy within. It does suffice, however, to connect the discussions and make them interesting. The art does even more to add momentum – characters are drawn with attention and personality, and many background details provide touches of humor. Some of the places Brendan and Eric encounter are concretized metaphors, such as when Eric visits an empty restaurant called The Good™ Café, but leaves it for the jam-packed Good ‘Nuff Bar & Grill. The style is a mix of both western and manga influences, with chibi versions of characters at time accompanying their flights of fancy. Though most of the book is black-and-white, its prologue, epilogue, and a few interstitial chapter openers are in color. At just over a hundred pages, Truth is slim without feeling sparse; it doesn’t overreach itself (since at least one sequel is planned), but sticks to introducing the basics of reasoning, starting from whether the soul exists up through Christ’s establishment of the Catholic Church.
Amadeus’ book is particularly strong when dealing with issues prompted by mankind’s inner restlessness. While Eric takes this ennui as evidence that the universe is disorderly and true happiness a fairy tale, the book excellently reframes this feeling as a natural symptom of our yearning for virtue, and ultimately for God. The emptiness that can plague us is our soul’s way of asking to be fed, just as hunger is our body’s. And our lack of complete satisfaction with even the higher pleasures this world can offer is evidence that we were made for greater things. Truth also presents coherent ways to rephrase the idea of “virtue” as something fulfilling its intended function in the fullest possible way. A cup which holds liquid well has more “integrity” than one that leaks or falls apart. In the same way, people are all intended to be brave, honest, and kind, so a person who grows in all those virtues feels more satisfied and closer to ultimate happiness than one who doesn’t. Wisely, the book refrains from vilifying Eric, or reducing him to just the Goofus to Brendan’s Gallant. Though he always prefers the shallowest thinking and the easiest choice, he lacks malice, and is affectionately used as comic relief.
As the book progresses, Brendan examines the idea of Christianity, and Catholicism specifically, with Fr. Raphael, their prison chaplain. The debate over Jesus’ divinity veers more into answering challenges to His historicity, rather than the ontological focus of the earlier chapters. Eric speculates that the Biblical accounts were embellished over time, or that they resemble pagan myths too closely to be true. Fr. Raphael counters these objections well (e.g. most of the pagan legends Eric cites are being bent in the retelling to resemble Bible stories more closely, but historically were significantly different; we have ample and consistent documentation about what the earliest Christians believed), but this section feels a bit leaner than the others, perhaps because there is so much more to discuss than could possibly be touched on. The transition could possibly have been smoothed by a longer digression into how Jesus fits into the plan of salvation: not just the Old Testament prophesies, but the ways He was prefigured throughout the Bible, and the New Covenant’s fulfillment of the many covenants God previously offered the human race – none of which we excelled at keeping. Granted, this will likely be covered in the event of a Volume 2, but it would have been welcome here. Likewise, the chapter on theodicy (the question of why God allows evil and suffering in the world) only partially separates the question of free will (the reason God allows someone to mug you) from other kinds of suffering (such as why He allows cancer and hurricanes).
The Truth is Out There is an excellent resource for introducing basic philosophical and theological reasoning to those who are unfamiliar with it, or rusty. Primarily aimed at pre-teens and teenagers, its ratio of story to lessons would likely confuse or frustrate those younger than twelve, even if their reading level was up to the challenge. Amadeus accomplishes the difficult feat of avoiding corniness while not making the mistake of overtly trying to make the book “cool” (which almost never works). Truth would be ideal for use in pre-Confirmation or other religious-education curricula – not only would it provide an entertaining way to stimulate discussion, but far too many of these classes place their entire focus on resisting social vices such as drugs and sex. If kids are never presented with reasons to believe – never taught that their rational mind is to be fed, not ignored – they are unlikely to assume these reasons exist. Truth alludes to religion’s list of prohibitions of bad behavior as a user’s manual for our bodies and souls – how to get the best use out of them and avoid damaging their integrity. This is a more refreshing take on these proscriptions than many youths have likely been presented with.
It would be a mistake, however, to use the graphic-novel format to try and trick the reader into absorbing its message. Parents who present it to their kids as a fun space-adventure, and fail to mention its purpose, will not fool them for a second. It is far more prudent to be honest about the fact that it exists as a fun way to learn about theology. (Of course, all Catholic parents should be having the kind of conversations Brendan inspires with their children regularly anyway.) It’s not only teenagers who will benefit from this book, though – even those strong in faith and educated in basic philosophical principles will enjoy the refresher. Its metaphors and phrasing stick easily in the mind, such as Eric’s choice of the ‘good-enough meal’ (i.e. transient earthly pleasures) making him thinner the more he eats, or his soul and body arguing, and insisting that whichever one he decides is more important has to come first in his every decision.
Not every metaphor is perfectly phrased here, and it would be easy for the skeptical to pick apart the wording or examples used to back up Truth’s chain of logic. But the same is true of any religious discussion, and it is vital for young Catholics to know that honest questioning is encouraged, and that their faith can stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Of course, very little in life is irrefutably provable and faith is an essential complement to reason. So it is perhaps appropriate that the title of The Truth is Out There appropriates The X Files’ famous subtitle, thus calling to mind the show’s other catchphrase: I Want to Believe.
The Truth is Out There is available at Kaufer’s for $12.95. A portion of the proceeds goes to help the Maronite Monks of Adoration in Petersham, MA.