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Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture
By Daniel Radosh Scribner
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
An airfield in rural Kansas, September 2005. The last echo of guitar feedback pulsed through the afternoon air as tattooed roadies carried equipment off the stage and the mosh pit untangled. A lanky teenager made his way out of the crowd and ran to where his friends were waiting on the periphery, sweat smearing his thick black eyeliner. "Awesome performance." He grinned broadly. "They prayed like three times in a twenty-minute set."
I glanced around. If anyone else thought this was a strange criterion on which to evaluate a rock concert, they didn't show it. Not for the first time, I wondered what I was doing here, at a Christian music festival where the merch tables sold "Got Jesus?" T-shirts and Bibles that looked like beach novels. Dustin, the sixteen-year-old prayer fan, continued his rapid-fire appraisal of the hard-rock band Disciple. A black-clad girl named Amanda gazed at him admiringly, and I began to suspect that her T-shirt -- "I'm a sucker for guys in eyeliner" -- was not chosen by accident. Amanda's friend Alexis smiled mischievously at her. Alexis is my sister-in-law. These were her friends. This was her world. Teenage hormones, rock 'n' roll...and Jesus Christ? It occurred to me that I had never before been in a situation where everything felt simultaneously so familiar and so disorienting.
I had met Alexis only two days before. She's the much younger daughter of mywife's formerly estranged father and his second ex-wife. So it's not exactly a close relationship. The first time I saw her she was wearing a form-fitting black trench coat, studded knee-high boots, and a shoulderless red shirt, for a look you might call neogoth meets Harajuku girl. She was as chic as any sixteen-year-old should be, and I wasn't sure why this surprised me more -- because she lives in Wichita or because she is an evangelical Christian. I'm a liberal New York Jew in my mid-thirties, but we hit it off well enough, and I thought it might be fun to tag along for the trip to SHOUTfest in Neodesha, a hundred miles east.
Picking up my ticket at the gate, I looked over the dozen bands who would be performing on two stages. Jump5, ZOEgirl, Skillet, Disciple. I didn't recognize a single name. I wasn't expecting to, but it was still an unusual experience. I'm fairly pop-culture savvy. I download the latest singles from iTunes, my Netflix queue has five hundred movies in it, and I can name all seven Harry Potter books, all six James Bonds, and both of Britney Spears's husbands (at press time). And now I was getting a taste of a teeming subculture that was almost completely off my radar. Sure, I knew Christian rock existed -- was Stryper still around? -- and the words Left Behind had a familiar ring, but I'd never really given this universe much thought.
And it is an entire universe -- vast, complex, and with strange rules all its own, like a mirror universe from a science fiction tale, where everything is the same on the surface, only Spock has a beard and worships Jesus. As we made our way into the field, a volunteer handed me a yellow sticker that read "The Logan Show."
"Who's Logan?" I asked.
"Omigosh, he's the host. He's so funny! He's like the Christian Jon Stewart."
This is a book about popular culture. It's about entertainment, leisure, and shopping. It's also about politics and the culture war that engulfs America. And it's a little bit -- but not as much as you might think -- about religion. True, it is by definition impossible to draw a distinction between evangelical faith and the consumer lifestyle of evangelicals, but I drew one anyway. From the beginning of my research, I made a decision not to set foot in a church, mega or otherwise, unless it was to attend an event that any neutral observer would describe as performance rather than worship (even if the people hosting it might beg to differ). While you'll hear a fair amount about Christian faith and Christian values, both with and without scare quotes, this book is not primarily intended to be a critique of either.
By the end of SHOUTfest, I had a few reasons for wanting to write about Christian pop culture. First, I thought it would be amusing. Even people in this subculture will admit that it can sometimes seem pretty ridiculous. A few songs from the white rapper KJ-52 -- the Christian Eminem -- persuaded me of that. But I also thought it might be important. The modern world takes popular culture seriously, after all. Pretty much anyone would agree that you can't truly understand America without knowing who Elvis Presley, Stephen King, and Oprah Winfrey are. Depending on your definition, between 44 and 126 million Americans are evangelical Christians. Christian popular culture is a $7 billion industry, and it is increasingly crossing over to the mainstream. Wal-Mart now carries some 1,200 religious book titles and 550 inspirational albums, which regularly crack the mainstream bestseller lists and pop charts. Yet for everything I'd read and heard about the rise of the evangelical movement over the past two decades, I knew next to nothing about how this movement might be shaped by, or reflected in, its pop culture.
SHOUTfest gave me a small sense of this dynamic at work: The emotional manipulation of the lead singer for Seventh Day Slumber, who wrung tears from the audience by urging them to publicly confess their suicidal impulses before inviting them to come forward and accept Christ; the hipped-up doublespeak of sixteen-year-old punk princess Krystal Meyers, whose hit song "Anticonformity" promotes obeying God as a form of rebellion; the ominous militarism of T-shirts declaring "Soldier of Christ" and "God of Elijah, send your fire"; the unabashed earnestness of Logan, the supposed Christian Jon Stewart, whose patter turned out to be along the lines of "How 'bout Jump5! But more than that, how 'bout God for that sunset!"
Alexis and her trend-conscious clique were something of an anomaly at SHOUTfest. Most of the people wore baggy jeans or cargo shorts with camo baseball caps. They had bad haircuts and extra pounds. "Other Christians think we're freaks because we wear black." Amanda laughed mirthlessly. "We've been called Satanists." The irony is that for these kids, their alternative trappings are symbolic of a deeper embrace of faith, not a rejection of it. They are theologically, politically, and socially conservative evangelicals. And, to a remarkable extent, this worldview comes wrapped up in pop-culture ribbons. Amanda's favorite teen magazine is not CosmoGIRL but Brio, published by the far right Focus on the Family. Alexis was reading an inspirational book called Sister Freaks, about female martyrs. And Dustin -- don't even get him started.
"So, I'm curious," I got him started. "Why is how many times a band prays what makes a good set?"
"Because it's becoming more and more rare. A lot of so-called Christian bands are really what I call crossover bands. They write these songs where they replace Jesus with You, so you can't tell if they're singing about God or a girlfriend. They can tell Christian fans, 'Yeah, we're still believers,' but nobody else knows. I don't want to judge, but I think a lot of bands try to hide it. They don't deny their Christianity, but they don't talk about it at their shows. They claim their music should be the message, and think the music speaks for itself, but even their lyrics have very little spiritual meaning if any. And if they do, it's very, very vague and could easily be confused with other intonations."
"Um, okay, but Christians don't just have to sing about God, right?"
Dustin looked at me like I had two heads.
"I mean, I haven't heard any love songs all day. Christians fall in love, right?"
"Love songs are all a bunch of clichés," he said. "How many times can you sing 'My girlfriend left me, she broke my heart, so now I'm going to chop her up and bury her in the basement'?"
I guess some people have had enough of silly love songs. I thought about a Seventh Day Slumber song I'd heard earlier in the day. The chorus went, "I believe in Jesus / He rescued me." It sounded to me like, well, a cliché. Not to mention a little simplistic. Even if you believed the message, what could this formulation of it have to do with the messy real world? Dustin was clearly a bright guy, so I asked if lyrics like this didn't insult his intelligence. "The music I listen to thrives on ambiguity and irony," I explained. "What makes it rewarding is that you have to figure out for yourself what the singer is saying, or if he even means what he says."
"If they're really a Christian band, and they're trying to win people over to Christ, there's no blurry lines," said Dustin. "The truth is bold. I don't think people who hear a song should have to do something to find out what it means." He gave the matter one last thought. "Irony in Christian music would not be good."
"The Bible says, 'Do not cause anyone to stumble.' If someone interprets a song wrongly, the band is held accountable for that."
In so many ways, Dustin reminded me of friends I had in high school and college. He was a rock snob, only instead of scorning a song for being too melodic, he kept tabs on the number of times it mentioned Jesus. As for his convictions about the music he loved -- his ingrained belief that doubt was something to be banished rather than wrestled with, and that any questions must be swiftly followed by pat answers -- was I wrong to see in them a path to creationism and abstinence education? Much has been written about these and other political and social movements, but what if we can only really grasp their meaning by listening to teenagers talk about hard-core rock?
Not long after I returned from Kansas I happened to exchange e-mails with a stranger -- a reader of my blog -- who told me that she had grown up in a strict Christian family. I mentioned my SHOUTfest observations, and she understood my bafflement. "Most people don't understand that this parallel world exists," she wrote. "I think they have the idea of fundamentalists as sort of malevolent Amish, who have completely turned their backs on secular culture. Rather, they have co-opted the forms of secular culture and turned them to their own ends. Whether this hybridization will make their version of Christianity more resilient in the long run, or whether it means that they are, in essence, losing because they are tacitly accepting the secular rules of the game, is up for debate."
Over the next year, I immersed myself in Christian pop culture. I watched movies about the end times and read novels about spunky virgins-by-choice. I saw wrestling matches, raves, and standup comedy. I averted my eyes as Bibleman, the evangelical superhero, stripped down to his underwear and pulled on his spandex. I learned not to trust my first impressions. And I came out the other side with a very different perspective than I had going in.
This book is intended to be personal and idiosyncratic rather than comprehensive. It's organized as a series of adventures, each one investigating some broad aspect of Christian pop culture by focusing on one or two particular events or a handful of interesting people. There will be enough statistics and sociology to help make sense of individuals and experiences, but no more. Some of the people you'll meet in these pages are at the center of Christian culture and some are on its fringes. While I will try to provide context for my travels, I do not pretend to offer a definitive overview or history of this entire subculture. The chapters about contemporary Christian music, for example, will discuss some of the genre's seminal artists and some of its most popular contemporary ones, but it will leave out many more of both. I won't have much to say about Christian television or talk radio, two topics that could fill books of their own. Nor is there anything in this book about Christian mimes or graffiti crews, smaller but no less fascinating subjects. The reason, honestly, is that I decided to write about something else instead.
Christian pop culture in America is largely -- almost exclusively -- the domain of a particular subset of Protestants. In a 2006 Gallup survey, 44 percent of American adults, or about 86 million people, identified themselves as either evangelical or born-again. The terms are fuzzy. There are basic beliefs that evangelicals share, but there is lots of room for variation. For this reason, The Barna Group, the nation's premier evangelical polling firm, does not generally rely on self-identification when examining people's religious beliefs. Instead it asks whether they "have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and...believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they [have] confessed their sins and [have] accepted Jesus Christ as their savior." Broadly speaking, those who would answer yes are the same 86 million people who call themselves evangelicals and are the ones I am writing about in this book.
But Barna does not classify everyone who answers these questions as evangelicals, no matter what they call themselves. The vast majority of them Barna calls "born-again Christians." To qualify as an evangelical, in Barna's judgment, people must meet the criteria for born-again Christian plus seven additional requirements.
Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.
According to a 2006 Barna survey, only 8 percent of Americans, or 18 million people, meet these standards. Based on other Barna surveys about the disparate attitudes between "evangelicals" and "born-agains," it's reasonable to posit that the people Barna calls evangelicals are what many non-Christians would call fundamentalists (e.g., 66 percent of "evangelicals" favor a Constitutional amendment to make Christianity the official religion of the United States, versus 44 percent of "born-agains"). While 67 percent of Barna's evangelicals are politically conservative, only 38 percent of born-agains are; more born-again Christians are Democrats than Republicans.
One reason for this is that fully two-thirds of black Americans describe themselves as born-again or evangelical, double the share of whites.* Blacks, of course, are far more likely to be liberals and Democrats. Remove them from the sample, and the data shifts significantly. Sixty-three percent of white born-agains say they are Republicans; only twenty-nine percent are Democrats.
And for the most part I am going to remove African Americans from the sample, because as I learned early on, Christian pop culture, the focus of my exploration, is an almost exclusively white affair. Not that there aren't prominent black authors and artists in the Christian sphere -- pastor-turned-novelist T. D. Jakes, comedian Steve Harvey, filmmaker Tyler Perry -- but overall, blacks remain underrepresented in Christian pop culture. Black gospel music sells well, but not in Christian bookstores. Almost everyone I asked about this offered the same observation: "The most segregated hour in America is eleven o'clock Sunday morning." It was true when Martin Luther King Jr. said it, and it's true today when the church hour is extrapolated to the entire Christian culture. In the last fifteen years, organizations like Promise Keepers have done admirable work in casting racism as one of the most intolerable sins, but whatever effect this has had in reducing personal bigotry, it has done little to erase the cultural divide between black and white Christians.
The people I am writing about call themselves by many names: traditional Christians, conservative Christians, orthodox Christians, Bible-believing Christians, or even the saints. But mostly they just say Christians, and for the sake of simplicity, I've chosen to follow their lead. If you're a mainline or liberal Christian who has a problem with this, take it up with them. One word I'll use only very judiciously is fundamentalist. Not only because it's now considered largely pejorative but because it's hard to even nail down what it means. Three aphorisms I heard on my travels get at how tricky this terminology is. I was told that "an evangelical is a fundamentalist with a college degree" or, similarly, that "a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something." But I also heard that "a fundamentalist is anyone who is more conservative than you are." It's all a matter of perspective. When I do have to use this label, I try to make clear what I mean by it. Most likely something pejorative.
Every conversation and scene in this book took place as described. However, I have frequently changed the sequence of events and trimmed and rearranged dialogue in order to tell my story more clearly. When taking this literary license I have been careful not to alter the meaning of any individual event or conversation or the overall accuracy of this story.
Get Rapture Ready (.com)!
Throughout this book you may find that my account raises questions that prose alone cannot answer, such as, What can a Christian Eminem possibly sound like? That's why I've created an online multimedia appendix with photos, audio, and video of key people, places, and things mentioned in these pages, along with additional information about them and links to related sites. You can find it at getraptureready.com.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Radosh
Excerpted from Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Radosh. Excerpted by permission.
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