Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture

Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture

by Heather Hendershot

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In 1999, the Reverend Jerry Falwell outed Tinky-Winky, the purple character from TV's Teletubbies. Events such as this reinforced in many quarters the common idea that evangelicals are reactionary, out of touch, and just plain paranoid. But reducing evangelicals to such caricatures does not help us understand their true spiritual and political agendas and the


In 1999, the Reverend Jerry Falwell outed Tinky-Winky, the purple character from TV's Teletubbies. Events such as this reinforced in many quarters the common idea that evangelicals are reactionary, out of touch, and just plain paranoid. But reducing evangelicals to such caricatures does not help us understand their true spiritual and political agendas and the means they use to advance them. Shaking the World for Jesus moves beyond sensationalism to consider how the evangelical movement has effectively targeted Americans—as both converts and consumers—since the 1970s.

Thousands of products promoting the Christian faith are sold to millions of consumers each year through the Web, mail order catalogs, and even national chains such as Kmart and Wal-Mart. Heather Hendershot explores in this book the vast industry of film, video, magazines, and kitsch that evangelicals use to spread their message. Focusing on the center of conservative evangelical culture—the white, middle-class Americans who can afford to buy "Christian lifestyle" products—she examines the industrial history of evangelist media, the curious subtleties of the products themselves, and their success in the religious and secular marketplace.

To garner a wider audience, Hendershot argues, evangelicals have had to carefully temper their message. But in so doing, they have painted themselves into a corner. In the postwar years, evangelical media wore the message of salvation on its sleeve, but as the evangelical media industry has grown, many of its most popular products have been those with heavily diluted Christian messages. In the eyes of many followers, the evangelicals who purvey such products are sellouts—hucksters more interested in making money than spreading the word of God.

Working to understand evangelicalism rather than pass judgment on it, Shaking the World for Jesus offers a penetrating glimpse into a thriving religious phenomenon.

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Shaking the World for Jesus

Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture
By Heather Hendershot

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-32679-9


Nonbelievers often respond to evangelical Christians with fear or ridicule. When conservative Christian candidates dominated the elections in 1994, many Americans panicked. Of the six hundred national, state, and local candidates supported by religious conservatives, 60 percent won. Evangelicals weren't simply marginal "kooks," it seemed; they were voters with political muscle whose policies threatened the separation of church and state. Four years later, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell outed the children's TV character Tinky-Winky as gay, everyone had a good laugh. Evangelicals were in the spotlight again, but this time they were out of touch and feckless. Falwell was instantly targeted by stand-up comedians, and a wag in the New York Times not only postulated that the Teletubbies were "operating in league with a global cabal of gay television executives and purse manufacturers, bent on nothing less than world domination," but also raised questions about the sexual orientation of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bert and Ernie, and Yogi Bear and Booboo. Rather than simply laughing at Falwell, we might have wondered what the whole brouhaha revealed about the culture's overwrought anxieties about children and sexuality (or why many of the anti-Falwell jokes were no less homophobic than Falwell himself). Laughter, however, was the easy response.

Reducing evangelicals to caricatures does not help us understand their spiritual, political, or cultural agendas. Many historians and sociologists, of course, have avoided caricature, producing a substantial literature on evangelical history, politics, and theology. Scholars such as Colleen McDannell, David Morgan, Diane Winston, and Leigh Schmidt also transcend caricature in their studies of the material culture of Christianity. Rather than critiquing religious commodities as evidence of how commercialism dilutes faith, these researchers explore "the subtle ways that people create and maintain spiritual ideals through the exchange of goods and the construction of spaces." Research on material culture takes seriously the artifacts (mass-produced pictures of Jesus, religious trinkets, etc.) that many nonevangelicals laughingly dismiss as kitsch.

Admittedly, "evangelical" is a broad, somewhat amorphous category. Who exactly are evangelicals? Often referred to as born-agains, evangelicals are hard to pin down as a discrete subculture. They don't go to conventions. They don't have membership cards. Most don't see themselves as part of a political movement, although many do believe that there is a spiritual revival occurring in the United States and that God's power is driving it. At the most basic level, the evangelicals targeted by the Christian cultural products industry are Protestants who have been transformed by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal savior. They emphasize "the role of human volition in the salvation process," as Randall Balmer puts it, exalting "the individual's ability to 'choose God' and thereby take control of his or her spiritual destiny." They believe that it is important to share the "good news" of the Gospel with others, often through giving testimony of their own personal conversion experience; they understand the Bible to be the true, infallible word of God; and they are frequently morally and politically conservative, distancing themselves from any kind of liberal thinking, whether political or spiritual. Asked about liberalism, one evangelical cited in Smith declares, "Absolutely not, I am not a liberal. A liberal is someone who takes the Word of God loosely, takes the Bible loosely. He says that it may not be inerrant, that it may be fallible." Evangelicals are more likely to call themselves "Bible-believing Christians" or simply "Christians" than "evangelicals." Many see "fundamentalist" as an insult. Although nonbelievers often call conservative Christians "fundamentalists," the group that this book looks at is more accurately described as evangelical; fundamentalists are, strictly speaking, more separatist than evangelicals and tend to emphasize more adamantly the differences between believers and nonbelievers. Like fundamentalists, though, evangelicals tend to see themselves not as a type of Christian but as the only true Christians; they have found the one true path to heaven. Throughout this book, I use "evangelical," "Christian," and "born-again" as synonyms unless otherwise noted. Although there are obviously many types of Christians, both evangelical and nonevangelical, I have opted to echo my subjects' appropriation of "Christian" to refer only to conservative evangelicals.

Shaking the World for Jesus examines the vast industry of books, films, videos, and magazines that have targeted the conservative evangelical American middle class since the seventies. While a sizable number of studies have examined the growth of televangelism, few have paid attention to the Christian cultural products industry-the thousands of films, videos, CDs, and magazines sold to millions of evangelicals via mail order, the World Wide Web, Christian bookstores, and increasingly, in secular bookstores and national chains such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart. The growth of evangelical media also has been virtually ignored by film and media studies researchers, with the notable exception of Julia Lesage and Linda Kintz's Media, Culture, and the Religious Right, and even this impressive collection focuses mostly on overtly activist media, largely bypassing the huge, rapidly growing market in less politically oriented entertainment media. More often, it is not evangelical media products but evangelical politics-evangelicalism as a "social movement"-that are subjected to scholarly investigation. Researchers such as Chip Berlet, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, David Bennet, Didi Herman, Clyde Wilcox, and Rebecca Klatch have examined fundamentalism as a right-wing political force, often emphasizing the dangers of Christian activism. If such researchers consider evangelical media at all, they view it as propaganda-overtly political, painfully unsubtle, and inherently dangerous.

In my experience, however, most evangelical media are not propaganda designed to induce a political or spiritual conversion. Of course, when a TV preacher invites viewers to be saved, even to put their hands on the monitor to "touch" the preacher's hand, media are intended as a conversion tool. But outside of the televangelical context, Christian music, videos, films, and magazines are not uniformly designed to convert consumers. More often, consumers are assumed to already be saved, or it is hoped that this media might soften the unsaved consumer's heart so that a one-on-one encounter with a saved friend, family member, or coworker might be more effective. Media such as Christian videos are not considered as powerful as personal testimony, but they might plant the proverbial mustard seed, an idea about salvation that might someday take root if properly nourished. This is hardly the hard sell approach that one would expect from "propaganda."

Shaking the World for Jesus moves beyond the propaganda paradigm to take a closer look at Christian media, examining that media's industrial history, the subtleties of the products themselves, and their success in the religious and, increasingly, the secular marketplace. In other words, this book brings together industrial and textual analysis in order to understand how Christian media are produced and what they try to communicate to consumers. Shaking the World for Jesus thus seeks to begin to fill an enormous gap in our understanding of both media history and contemporary culture. Serious study of exploitation films, home movies, industrial films, and other previously ignored genres by film and media studies researchers is recent. This book strives to contribute to this growing body of research on previously undervalued media artifacts.

In addition to books, CDs, and videos, religious bookstores are now packed with Christian tchotchkes, jewelry, and even junk food. To nonevangelicals, products such as Scripture Candy and Testamints may seem profane. But to dismiss such products is to ignore how they figure in the daily lives of evangelicals. Born-agains place religion at the center of daily life, believing that one can serve the Lord through the most mundane acts-being on time to class, playing ball with your son, even picking up your husband's dirty socks. Similarly, when young Christians produce a five hundred gallon milkshake in honor of the Teen Missionaries International theme, "Shake the World for Jesus" (from Ezekiel 38:20: "All the men that are upon the face of the earth shall shake at my presence"), they do not see themselves as belittling the Lord. Rather, the milkshake is taken as a potent symbol of missionary commitment to the Gospel. Everyday cultural products such as Christian music and magazines can also help trigger and maintain this kind of commitment. Chastity, too, can be sustained with the help of products such as "True Love Waits" gold pendants and psychedelic "Virtuous Reality" posters. Thanks to such Christian lifestyle products, the consumption of mass-produced goods can now be justified as serving a holy purpose.

While the "Christianization" of secular media such as heavy metal music and science fiction films is new to American culture, the existence of a highly permeable boundary between the sacred and the secular is not. Evangelicals, and their more separatist fundamentalist cousins, have always had a complicated relationship with the secular world. One result of the 1925 Scopes trial-in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution-was that evangelicals acquired an "antimodern" reputation; supposedly, these were people opposed to scientific progress, mass media, and new technologies. But in fact, evangelicals have embraced-although often not without debate-any "modern" means that could be used to spread the Gospel. As Quentin J. Schulze has observed, American evangelicals have made use of

every imaginable form and medium of communication, from Bible and tract printing to tent revivals, gospel billboards, books, religious drama troupes, radio and television broadcasts, parade floats, motorcycle evangelism, periodicals, and even Rollen Stewart ... who holds up Scripture signs ["John 3:16"] in front of the TV network cameras during sports events. American evangelicals were often leery of new media, especially those that provided "worldly entertainment," such as the stage and, later, film. But they also pioneered one form of mass communication after another.

In the 1920s, some Christians had reservations about creating radio programming, since sending messages through the air seemed almost supernatural. The Bible, after all, refers to Satan as the "prince of the power of the air." Such doubts were short-lived. "Modern times," Joel Carpenter has explained, "demanded modern technology, so what the church needed was to adapt to the automobile age and then 'step on the gas.'" Thus, Christians quickly became major players in early radio broadcasting.

In its simplest form, secularization theory would have us believe that religion inevitably fades in modern societies. But if modern life dilutes religious belief, how can we explain not only the continued presence of evangelicals in America but also the fact that their ranks seem to be growing? Evangelicals have clearly not been stamped out by the "secularizing" influence of the modern world. For all their reputation as intransigent Bible-thumpers, evangelicals have survived by being flexible and making accommodations to modernity. As Carpenter argues, "rather than viewing evangelicalism as a throwback, as a religion of consolation for those who cannot accept the dominant humanist, modernist, liberal, and secular thrust of mainstream society, perhaps it is more accurate to see evangelicalism as a religious persuasion that has repeatedly adapted to the changing tone and rhythms of modernity." American evangelicals are, as Christian Smith explains, both "embattled and thriving." If today's thriving Christian cultural products industry illustrates anything, it is that evangelicals continue to spread their messages using "the newest thing," be it film, video, or the Web. The growing Christian market in films, videos, and Web sites, then, is not evidence of the "secularization" of evangelical culture but rather of the complicated osmosis occurring between the "secular" and the "religious."

This book strives to complicate the by-now familiar narrative of evangelical adaptation to the "rhythms of modernity." The story I tell is new on several fronts. First and most obviously, as stated above, many Christian films, books, videos, magazines, and other cultural products have until now received only scant scholarly attention, and so my study serves as a corrective. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I believe that examination of the contemporary Christian media industry reveals a new development in the way that evangelicals have made accommodations to secular culture. To the untrained eye, it might seem as though evangelical media have simply become "more secular" as they have grown. This would account for the recent Top Forty success of "Christian" songs like Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me," which doesn't mention God, Jesus, or, for that matter, anything overtly religious. I would argue, however, that over the course of the past thirty years Christian media have become not more secular but more ambiguous, and that a wide variety of products must be examined to formulate an accurate picture of the different levels of evangelical intensity in today's Christian media. Some products seem deliberately fuzzy about their religious intentions, whereas other products remain overtly, even dogmatically, evangelical, such as Willie Ames's popular straight-to-video Bibleman superhero series for children. Still other products, such as VeggieTales children's videos, are produced by evangelicals but are only gently "religious," promoting an ecumenical belief in God. In sum, contemporary Christian media are incredibly uneven in the degree to which they overtly proclaim their faith.

Of course, Christians and their media have always come in all shapes and sizes. Listening to a right-wing, redbaiting fundamentalist radio broadcast by Carl McIntire in the fifties would have been different from listening to the evangelical Rev. Billy Graham deliver a radio sermon in that same decade. But at some point both men would have spoken of salvation through Jesus, and it is unlikely that a listener would have mistakenly assumed that he or she was listening to a secular broadcast or that the speakers were Roman Catholic or Jewish.


Excerpted from Shaking the World for Jesus by Heather Hendershot Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Heather Hendershot is associate professor in the media studies department at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Censorship before the V-Chip and editor of Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America's Only TV Channel for Kids.

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