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Good news from the pulpit: gospel of Calvin and Hobbes

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Twelve-year-old Andrew Mugler sat riveted on the front pew - not his usual seat at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church - as his comic-strip heroes flashed before him.

"He's been following Calvin and Hobbes since he could read," said his mother, Ann. "He's got every one of the books at home."The slide show was called "Short Meditations on Calvin and Hobbes and Christ." The speaker was author Robert Short, who topped the best-seller lists 32 years ago with "The Gospel According to Peanuts" and was now giving the popular boy-and-tiger strip from the 1980s and '90s the same type of theological spin he found in the '60s with Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

"For me," Short told the audience, "many of the pictures we see in Calvin and Hobbes make wonderful, present-day parables."

Using slides from the comic strip and reading the parts of both the mischievous boy and the enigmatic tiger, Short reeled off yet another poignant punchline, leaving Andrew and the rest of the Sunday night packed-house audience flushing with laughter.

"I thought the lecture was pretty creative," Andrew said, "and it made me laugh and everything, and I think I understood more about religion through Calvin and Hobbes."

Short's message is hitting its target. Laughter with meaning. God and the comics. A sermon in every strip. That's what Short is about, and for three decades - through five books and hundreds of lectures - he's gone about it with an uncanny ability to make even the most secular passage brim with gospel truth.

"I would have looked at that sequence and missed anything theological about it," said Rev. Kent Winters-Hazelton, Falls Church Presbyterian's pastor, after Short rolled through a series of strips in which Calvin finds a raccoon that later dies. "But he brought out some nice ideas."

While Calvin and Hobbes bear scant resemblance to their namesakes - cartoonist Bill Watterson named the characters after 16th century theologian John Calvin and 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes - Short has found the precocious Calvin to be a perfect example of sin-laden man, while the wise Hobbes, who comes alive only in Calvin's imagination, is often a metaphor for Christ.

"But don't YOU go anywhere," says a frightened Calvin to Hobbes after the raccoon's death.

"Don't worry," is Hobbes' comforting reply, and the strip ends with the two friends sharing a loving hug.

Short read those lines, then drove his point home.

"In other words," he told the congregation, "Calvin believes in something no one else sees - namely Hobbes."

Afterward, Short took the analogy a step further.

"Calvin does a good job of being a microcosm of humanity because he's lovable - and God loves humanity - but he can be extremely selfish and immature and mean," Short said. "Hobbes, his attitude toward Calvin is one of complete love toward him."

While Short's 55-minute lecture wasn't typical fare for the Falls Church faithful, complaints were few, mostly coming from some adults who felt the presentation was too light and too fast, without pause to reflect on the deeper meaning of some of his points. But then, Short would be the first to admit his message is perhaps best-suited to the soundbite generation.

"The attempt is to make good theology palatable, and to keep it light," Short said. "To lighten it up so that it never gets so heavy that people are going to go to sleep trying to get through it. Theology tends to be a dull and heavy subject."

Besides, for those who want to delve deeper into Short's self-described "radical middle" Christian philosophy, there are his books, all of which draw inspiration from comics, movies or other popular entertainment sources.

Fans scouring the bookstores for an expanded version of his latest hit lecture will be disappointed, however. There almost certainly will not be a "Gospel According to Calvin and Hobbes."

As for Andrew Mugler, he went home after Short's lecture and wrote an essay for his ninth-grade English class on Thomas Hobbes, making reference to the philosopher's feline namesake. He got an A.