Oh man, this is so cool. I did an image search for “rapture” and on the first page I saw the first picture I’d ever seen depicting it. (You can click it for a bigger version.) I picked it up while at youth group in high school and asked about it, and the leader answered my questions shortly, indicating, I think, that belief in this event was a sore spot between various parishioners at what was basically a mainline church. I was already well on my road to an adulthood of grouchy atheism, and I think this image—with its gloating cruelty that haunted me—drove me further that way. Christians say they believe in a Jesus of love and mercy, but then they have stuff like that just laying around. (Not all, I realize, or even most.)
I bring it up because I just finished what is probably the funniest book on the Rapture-obsessed evangelical Christian culture that I’ve ever read: Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. The book, as you can tell from the title, focuses on Christian pop culture, that weird, watered down imitation of real pop culture that’s sanitized of “dirtiness” and injected with Jeebus. Christian bookstores, contemporary Christian music ranging from heavy metal to rap, Christian comedy, Christian wrestling, and of course the entire abstinence-only industry with its side industry of fetus trinkets. For secular people, believers or not, this junk is embarrassing. You pity the kids whose parents make them listen to Christian rock in lieu of real rock. You wonder at people who can read a Christian horror novel with a straight face.
What Radosh found, though, surprised me. And I think it surprised him, too. The evangelical subculture has been around just long enough that changes are beginning to emerge, as the creators of it, being creative people, start agitating against the restraints that doom them to mediocrity. Which isn’t to say that it’s not mediocre—it is. But a lot of it wasn’t as bad as you’d think. And there’s signs of hope out there that the creative element in Christian pop culture could be exerting a positive influence on the evangelical community. But don’t take my word for it—Daniel has put up a really nice interactive site to go with the book, so you can sample a lot of the Christian pop culture yourself. Warning: There’s an extreme hokey factor. But there’s occasional gems, like Victoria Williams.
Instead of doing the usual review, though, I thought we’d have some fun and post an interview with the author instead. So, without further ado, here’s Daniel Radosh! My questions are in bold.
In your forays into the world of Christian pop culture, you found that lot of it was smarter, more diverse and occasionally more liberal than you would have guessed. And the performers were even more so. Do you think this indicative of a trend in evangelical Christianity or do you think that you were just drawn to the smartest guys/gals in any room?
That’s true. I kept looking for the kooks and more often than not found myself hanging out with some pretty cool people. It was partly a function of my focus on arts and entertainment. Creative people tend to be among the most thoughtful and open-minded members of any society, and a lot of Christian pop culture these days is genuine creative expression. Put it this way: the least smart, least compelling, least progressive stuff tended to be more propaganda than art — like Gospel Golf Balls, which are imprinted with Bible verses so that if you lose one at least your spreading the word, or Bibleman, the evangelical superhero who beats up bad guys with a light saber while quoting scripture at them. The really high quality and thought-provoking culture is the music, books, comedy, etc. that comes without an agenda other than to reflect the artist’s perspective on life and the world.
The thing is that Christians notice this too, so while there are still more shallow hacks out there than true artists, the artists are where all the vitality is. They’re building followings among young people and changing people’s attitudes for the better about what Christian culture should be and how Christians should engage with the rest of the world, whether politically or just as citizens and neighbors. So to the extent that there is a moderating trend in evangelicalism, pop culture is helping to drive it.
Don’t worry, though, there are still plenty of kooks in the book if you’re looking for that sort of thing. Like the pro-lifer who tried to persuade me that her fetus replica was better than the competition’s because it was “soft, like a baby.” Or the geocentrists who think ordinary creationists are sellouts. Or Stephen Baldwin.
Most of us tend to think of Christian pop as derivative schlock, but after you went to festivals like Cornerstone, you became a little more forgiving of it. Why the softer hand?
Well it definitely isn’t because I went native. I actually don’t think I softened or became more forgiving. I simply wasn’t aware before Cornerstone that there really is a lot of Christian pop culture — especially music — that isn’t like the stuff we’re all familiar with and (rightly) dismissive of. Bands like mewithoutYou, Over the Rhine, Pedro the Lion, the Myriad, Vigilantes of Love and the 77s don’t often get played on Christian radio — or on mainstream corporate radio. You really have to seek them out.
We’re all familiar with Christian bands that cross over into the mainstream, like Switchfoot or Flyleaf or Relient K. I happen to think those bands are all crap, but they’re crap for the same reason most of what you hear on the radio is crap. They’re not more derivative and schlocky than Maroon 5 or Linkin Park. The problem is that what allows them to get a mainstream hearing is that their expressions of faith are all so bland and vague — the classic “God is my girlfriend” approach. The Christian bands I found myself really enjoying, on the other hand, neither hide their faith nor sell it. These aren’t advertising jingles for Jesus, or anodyne praise songs, they’re complex meditations on the joys and struggles of ordinary people who believe — or at least want to believe — in the messages they find in the Bible. I may not share their beliefs, but I do find them interesting and there are elements of them that I can relate to. I heard several Christians at Cornerstone approvingly reference those King of the Hill and South Park episodes that many people here probably thought of when they read your question.
I’d think that Christian pop culture would create a concern that it just tempts believers into the hard stuff. You know, like you let yourself listen to a little Christian rock and next thing you know, you’ve got a stack of the sexier mainstream CDs. Did you run across this concern when interviewing believers?
That attitude was more common in the 1970s when Christian pop culture was still new. Today, the few fundamentalist churches that still rail against Christian rock are really fringy. By and large, people embrace Christian pop to supplement, not replace, their mainstream media diet. One survey found that while 78 percent of churchgoers listen to contemporary Christian music, only 7 percent listen to it exclusively, and only 1 percent watch only Christian television. I did meet a number of Christian teenagers who tossed out their secular CDs when they were born again, but not because they were afraid of the music — more like it just turned them off. I also met a number of people who kicked themselves for having thrown out their CDs and ended up buying them all again.
It seems nearly every evangelical Christian you disclosed your religion to replied with a gushy, well-intended, but insulting comment about the relationship between Judaism and evangelical Christianity. All I could think was it was a step up from what I heard growing up from fundamentalists, which is that the Jews killed Jesus. What do you make of their enthusiasm?
Well, yeah, I’ll take friendly enthusiasm over hostility any day, but it was a bit condescending. One guy said, “we stand on your faith.” Even taking it in the spirit that it was intended, I did feel like pointing out that Jews tend to value Judaism for its own sake, not as a pillar for Christianity. By the way, if people asked I explained that I’m a secular Humanistic Jew, which often cooled their ardor a bit. Evangelicals have very warm feelings for Jews, but not much direct experience. They know about the ancient Hebrews of the Bible and they know the prophecies about the role Jews will play at the end of days, but they don’t understand much about the 2,000 years in between. The fact that Judaism is a living, evolving culture hasn’t really sunk in.
Eventually, the enthusiasm began to irk me. It didn’t seem fair that I got a better response than if I’d said I was Buddhist or Muslim or nothing in particular. When I meet people whose view of the world is so starkly divided between Us and Them, it doesn’t exactly make me feel better to be thought of as Us.
How did being an outsider to evangelical Christianity help and hurt you with your research?
I’m sure I missed lots of nuances when it came to things like the the influence that the doctrinal teachings of various denominations might have had on people’s attitudes toward pop culture. I did plenty of background reading, but that’s no substitute for growing up in the culture. Also, it took me a while to get used to Christianese. The first time someone asked about my “heart condition” I worried that they knew something I didn’t. Turns out they were asking if I had Jesus in there, not plaque.
On the other hand, being an outsider gave me a fresh perspective and allowed me to see things, especially contradictions, that insiders tend to overlook or brush off. And while I didn’t set out to mock or attack anyone, I also didn’t need to particularly worry about offending the sensitivities of the church. A lot of Christians seem to be enjoying the book in part because it expresses something they may have felt but were never able or allowed to articulate.
Some more hopeful members of the liberal secular humanist community suggest that evangelicals are softening up on the hard right nonsense, pointing to the newfound environmentalism that’s taken root in the culture as evidence. Does your research shed any light on these hopes?
Definitely. I’m much more hopeful now than before I started this project. There are a few “liberal” causes that evangelicals have taken up with a passion, not just environmentalism but poverty relief, third world debt, HIV/AIDS (I met some hardcore abstinence junkies who are trying to undermine this progress, but the most prominent Christian humanitarian agency, World Vision, which has a big presence at rock festivals, etc, embraces condom distribution). But what I really noticed is not so much an increase in liberalism as a rejection of the religious right. Even Christians who may themselves have conservative politics are angry, upset and embarrassed by the self-appointed leaders who make it sound like if you’re a Christian, you must have conservative politics. They don’t like the merging of politics and religion, and they don’t like the obsession with “values issues” such as abortion and gay marriage. They think it’s more important to be decent people than to push their beliefs on the rest of society.
This shift is the subtext of a lot of the book, but one specific thing I can point to is the church’s attitude towards gay people. While I’m only cautiously optimistic about much of the apparent progress within evangelicalism, I am completely confident that within two generations, gays will be completely accepted in the white evangelical church. I could point to a number of reasons why I believe this, but I’ll stick to BibleZines. BibleZines are New Testaments designed to look like glossy magazines, with lots of sidebars featuring beauty tips and music reviews alongside the scriptures. Yeah, that’s funny, but culturally and theologically, BibleZines are solidly in the mainstream of the church. They’re published by a huge, multimillion dollar corporation that can’t afford to lose money by saying anything too controversial. So here’s what the Revolve BibleZine, for teenage girls, says about homosexuality:
It’s a sin, just like gossiping about your best friend is a sin. You need to stop acting on your impulses. Sometimes the church’s view can be a little harsher. Many people in the church see it like the worse of all evils. But they are looking at it through human eyes.
Becoming, for women in their 20s, takes a similar line:
God loves all people, regardless of race, gender, profession, economic status, and, yes, even sexual preference. God has also commanded his children to love people regardless. We are all struggling with the same disease — sin — and we have one choice: Love each other as Christ loves us. What a different world we’d be if we got over being “political” and learned how to love!
Now, you can argue that this love-the-sinner approach isn’t exactly enlightened, but what’s important is that it creates a space in which gay Christians can come out of the closet without worrying (as much) about being expelled from their families and their churches. And as more Christians do come out, and insist on continuing to identify as Christians, that is what’s going to lead to genuine enlightenment. Mainstream society didn’t become comfortable with gay people because it was taught to, it happened because it got to know actual gay people who are are happy and healthy and normal. Sooner or later, that is inevitably going to happen in Christian culture as well. Although the poor kids who had to go through those de-gayifying programs first may not be quite as healthy.
Of all the piles of Jesus junk you examined, what’s your favorite piece?
For me, it’s always the little details that put something over the top. Like those Gospel Golf Balls. The truly awesome thing about them is the pastor’s endorsement on the box: “This golf ball is the most effective outreach tool I have ever seen in golf.” I mean, how many golf-based outreach tools are there? Does someone make a Cleansed by His Blood ball washer?
Or take the Personal Promise Bible. It’s funny enough that it comes customized with the owner name (“The Lord is Daniel’s shepherd”) and hometown (“Woe to you, Brooklyn! Woe to you, New York!”). But what were they thinking including spouse’s name too? (“Gina’s breasts are like two fawns.”)
But I guess I have to go with one of the Christian T-shirts, or “witness wear,” like “Body piercing saved my life,” with a close up of the nail in Jesus’ hand. Now, probably the most revealing example of these is “Modest is hottest.” The tangled rationale — We can persuade girls to dress in a way that does not attract sexual attention by telling them that doing so will attract sexual attention, especially if they wear this form-fitting shirt — says a lot about the tension involved in bending Christian messages to pop culture forms. But for simple enjoyment, it would have to be one of those really tacky shirts that parodies a corporate logo, so you have to look twice to see that it’s, for example, “Amazing Grace” not “American Idol.” The absolute best of these is a parody of Mountain Dew’s “Do the Dew” logo that says, “Do the Jew.” The Jew being Jesus and “do,” in this context, meaning accept as your lord and savior.