What Do Evangelicals Listen to on Their iPods?
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Reviewed: Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Popular Culture by Daniel Radosh (Scribner, 2008).
The president of the United States may be a mental midget, but we are all a little smarter because of him. The Bush years have been graduate school for Americans on a host of previously arcane subjects. Before the Supreme Court settled the 2000 election, few nonspecialists knew anything about sectarian splits within Islam or could locate the cities of Kandahar and Basra on a map. On the domestic front, the Bush years have seen painful learning curves on everything from Florida voting law to the ABCs of military subcontracting, to the federal courts' role in safeguarding our constitutional rights.
And of course the Bush era has been a crash course for those of us who knew little to nothing about the tens of millions of evangelical Christians in our midst. This awareness peaked dramatically after the much-hyped role of "values voters" in Bush's improbable 2004 re-election. For secular and moderate religious Americans alike, questions about the GOP "base" gained new urgency: Who are these people? What do they want? How scared should we be?
There was no shortage of volunteers ready to address these questions. More like a stampede. Often placing an unfair emphasis on the fundamentalist end of the evangelical spectrum, publishers have cranked out dozens of dire and earnest books about the threat posed by these American Fascists (Chris Hedges) and The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Michelle Goldberg). There have been major television events (PBS's The Jesus Factor ; HBO's Friends Of God ) and too many magazine features and public radio segments to count. Then there was Jesus Camp , which lit up the art-house circuit and probably would have won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary if not for An Inconvenient Truth .
The books about evangelicals and politics, meanwhile, keep coming like Old Testament locusts, from every direction and with no end in sight.
I, for one, am sick of it all. Call it Fundie Fatigue or Baptist Burnout -- I just don't want to read or think about evangelicals for a while. Especially now, with Mike Huckabee relegated to sulking on the creationist lecture circuit, the evangelical moment feels, if not passed, at least ripe for an extended pause. A breather in this "national conversation" is warranted and deserved. America -- red, purple and blue -- has earned it.
Depending on how chronic is your own Fundie Fatigue, you may or may not want to make room on your summer reading list for Daniel Radosh's just-released Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture . While in one sense the book is just-another-book-about-evangelicals-for-secular-liberals, it distinguishes itself from the pack by not caring how evangelicals vote or why. His subject is how they relax-where they vacation, what they read, and what's on their iPods.
The sum total of all this divine downtime is more than the marginal and amateur market you might imagine. Christian pop culture is now a $7 billion industry that includes a vast, growing, and diverse publishing sector; Christian comedy circuits and sex advice seminars; creationist theme parks that compete in the shadow of Disneyland; a thriving music and recording industry; and enough Jesus-branded T-shirts and trinkets to keep all the prison-factories in Godless China busy until the Rapture. (These trinkets, Radosh reports, are referred to affectionately if quietly in the industry as "Jesus Junk.")
Rapture Ready! isn't the first book on Christian popular culture, but it is the breeziest. Radosh, a veteran magazine journalist and a former editor at Spy, is a good comic writer and thus a refreshing guide to a world where most people believe homosexuals burn in an eternal hell of unforgiving flames. One of the problems with the Michelle Goldberg-types who navigate this parallel world is their heavy touch and perma-furrowed brow. Murdered abortion doctors and organized attempts to fulfill prophecy through U.S. foreign policy are not things to take lightly, but there's also no getting around the fact that much about evangelical culture is, among other things, very funny. At least it is to the kind of people these books are written for and marketed to. Christian culture is as funny to seculars as secular culture is horrifying to Christians. No one writing on this stuff should pretend it isn't.
Often the humor is mixed with pathos. As Radosh demonstrates in a chapter on the Christian publishing industry, evangelical culture constantly strives to create G-rated oases in an increasingly X-rated dominant culture. Consider this list of diction do's and don'ts prepared by Steeple Hill, the Christian division of Harlequin, America's leading publisher of romance fiction. The list taboo words include "Gosh," "Golly," "Gee," "Dang" and "Heck." Also blacklisted is mention of "undergarments of any kind." The word "poop" is excused in Christian mommy-lit, but only as a literal noun; the expression "Oh, poop" is verboten.
No comment is necessary in relaying this sort of thing, in which adults are infantilized by Christian culture keepers. But Radosh picks this low-hanging fruit sparingly. He is aware that spending 300 pages pointing and laughing at evangelicals would get old fast, not to mention make him look like an asshole. He avoids this trap by highlighting members of the Christian culture industry who themselves chafe against the current boundaries of commercial Christian endeavors. Radosh sympathetically profiles several younger evangelical figures attempting to redefine the politics of the acceptable in Christian culture. Early on, Radosh introduces Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, now the face of a gay-friendly hipster evangelist church called Revolution. Bakker's early outreach program included T-shirts that said "Religion kills" and stickers that read "As Christians, we're sorry for being self-righteous bastards." (As a secular humanist, I forgive you.)
Bakker may not be the poster boy of 21st century evangelism, but he does represent a tendency that is real and, if Radosh's picture is accurate, growing. Another creative force in Christian pop culture asking hard questions is Aaron Weiss, frontman for the Christian rock act MewithoutYou. Radosh is understandably smitten with Weiss, who he met at a Christian rock festival, and gives him several pages to hold forth his vision of a more tolerant evangelism that produces culture that crusades for social justice more than it rants against gays and abortion. Weiss says what Radosh cannot. "Christian pop culture errs of the side of Jesus is my best friend," says Weiss. "It's almost become a joke, Christianity's attempt to make Jesus so palatable Whatever you want, Jesus will do for you . The problem [is] that Jesus demands that we sell our possessions and give to the poor."
Weiss and other Christian rockers wrestle constantly with the question of what constitutes Christian rock. Is it how often you invoke Christ? How often you call for prayer during a set? Is it the devotion of the musicians? Where is the line between Christians playing music and Christian music? For any musician interested in mainstream commercial success, these are important questions, and have led to a schism in Christian rock circles between "separational" and "integrational" artists.
The same schism can be found in the small world of New Testament Techno. In one of the book's most fascinating and touching scenes, Radosh attends a sparsely attended night of "DJ-led worship" at a rented ballroom in West Reading, Pa. The organizer of the event, a Brit named Andy Hunter, is the genre's biggest crossover success (ranked the world's 117th best DJ by DJ Magazine ). Hunter describes DJ equipment as a "way of entering the throne room and meeting Jesus." But his enthusiasm for dancing only goes so far. The frozen poses in break dancing, he tells Radosh, are Satanic, as they are done for the benefit of spectators. "Heaven is going to be great," says another of the party's DJ's. "It's like the ultimate in intelligent lighting!"
Another scene explored by Radosh that people may not know much about is the Christian comedy circuit. Radosh attends a meeting of the Christian Comedy Association and relays some of the better jokes he hears -- "I got a bumper sticker for my car: My kids are homeschooled and we have no idea how they're doing" -- as well as some of the poorer ones. Aside from seeing that evangelicals are as eager to laugh at themselves as anyone, Radosh finds that evangelical culture isn't as humorless or un-self-critical as it might seem from the outside. Did you know there was a Christian version of Punk'd? It's called Prank 3:16 . According to Radosh, "In one episode, the pranksters fake the Rapture, instilling panic in a poor girl who thinks she's been left behind." Even Richard Dawkins has to laugh at that.
Then there is the world of the Christian sex advice movement. More evangelical energy is still poured into abstinence education and a studious avoidance of even thinking about sex-and Radosh does report from the annual convention of the National Abstinence Clearninghouse, where kissing is still considered a "gateway sin" -- but more interesting are attempts to fix the psychological damage inflicted by evangelical Christianity's sexual hang-ups. This investigation takes Radosh to a conference held by Intimate Issues, a pro-sex ministry that seeks to help Christian women enjoy sex and figure out what the Bible says about everything from oral and anal sex to masturbation. Much of the discussion revolves around teasing out the meaning of Song of Solomon, which contains the Bible's most sexually explicit verses.
The goal of the women behind the ministry is to move the culture beyond the lab-coat language of mainstays in Christian sex advice like Tim and Beverly LaHaye's 1976 The Act of Marriage . Still in print, The Act of Marriage contains the following passage, relayed by Radosh:
Gradually, the husband should move his hands gently down his wife's body until he contacts the vulva region, mindful to keep his fingernails smoothly filed to avoid producing any discomfort (which could cause her heating emotions to become suddenly chilled.)
The efforts of more modern traveling ministries like Intimate Issues appear to be working, reports Radosh, allowing Christian women to freely explore their sexuality (and related issues of guilt) for the first time in a supportive Christian setting. The internet has also helped. Christian sex sites like The Marriage Bed allow women to anonymously make the Biblical case for, among other things, the use of strap-on dildos. (Not to worry: Christian sex toy companies strip all nude imagery from their catalogs and packaging, so as not to excite extramarital lust in their clients.)
Not all of Rapture Ready! is so juicy. There are chapters about Christian professional wrestling, Christian theme parks, and Christian supply megastores that, despite Radosh's best efforts, drag. You can only meet so many savvy Christian businessmen and Stepford fundamentalists shaking pamphlets in the author's face before the instinct to flee kicks in hard. Even in the hands of a talented writer, most of Christian culture is still a stale, air-conditioned world that doesn't infuriate so much as bore. Hanging out in this world soon begins to feel like being trapped in a Cracker Barrel gift shop stuffed with Jesus Junk.
Radosh knows this, and makes sure to pace the book so that the trips to Cracker Barrel are separated by rich mini-histories of the modern evangelical movement -- the story of how the 1909 Scofield Bible popularized the idea of the Rapture is especially good -- and profiles of dissenters, or "evangelical modernists," like Jay Bakker and Aaron Weiss.
Radosh concludes on a note he did not expect to hit when he set out to write this book (but one that will be familiar to readers of other books in the meet-the-evangelicals genre). He ends by arguing for a tentative embrace, or at least openness, on the part of secular culture when it comes to its Christian counterpart. "It is precisely insularity that breeds intolerance," writes Radosh. "Even if mainstream radio doesn't expand its embrace of Christian rock and Christian comedians never get their own sitcoms, Christians are going to continue to create Christian culture. When their only audience is other Christians, though, the feedback loop amplifies narrow-mindedness and inhibits self-examination."
At the same time, Radosh realizes that the scope for this encounter is limited by the fact many evangelicals do not want accommodation or cooperation with secular culture for the simple reason that they think this culture is evil -- literally in league with Satan. Once Satan enters the picture, cross-cultural conversations tend to fizzle fast.
That doesn't mean the parallel world Radosh explores in his entertaining book will remain frozen where it is in relation to the dominant secular culture. As he shows, both Christian culture and its secular counterpart are fluid and overlapping; they are constantly interacting, with leading figures in each groping toward some kind of understanding (and higher sales). Americans on both sides of the Jesus divide will increasingly be forced to reckon with each other, in presidential elections and bestseller lists to come. But I still won't be reading another book about evangelicals for a while. Something tells me Radosh won't be writing another one anytime soon, either.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.