Last week we looked behind the recent headlines about "Elvis Priestly," a Canadian Anglican minister who has integrated a jump-suited impersonation routine into his sacred services. We surveyed a few of the many points at which Christians have co-opted popular artistic forms in order to get their evangelistic message across.
This week, we ask the questions: how have Christians historically reacted to such forays into popular forms? And how successful have the resulting products been in themselves—that is, as songs, plays, novels, and so forth, quite apart from their message? Of course, we can only touch the surface of these issues. But with Elvis now in the (church) building, this seems a worthwhile use of a few minutes.
Let's begin with Christian novels. Despite the widespread churchly acclaim for Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), America's conservative Christians have not always been pleased with the novel as a genre. For much of the twentieth century, for many of the faithful, "novel reading, like other worldly amusements such as dancing, card playing, and attending the theater, was considered suspect." (Rabey and Unger, Milestones). Surely Jesus wouldn't waste his time with such trivial entertainments.
Yet something has happened in the past two decades. In 1979 and 1985, Janette Oke and Frank Peretti brought the erstwhile "secular" genres of the romance novel and the fast-paced thriller into the Christian mainstream with their novels Love Comes Softly and This Present Darkness. And whatever objections may linger, sales in the millions testify that these and a thousand titles like them—can you say Left Behind?—fill a need. The Old Guard's suspicions notwithstanding, the Christian novel is here to stay.
Fine. But a book is a static thing, and reading a private matter. What about Elvis, gyrating at the altar? Surely this is not just a potentially trivial or time-wasting pop culture invasion, but downright sacrilegious!
This reaction is not, of course, a new one. For example, in her 1942 radio serial, A Man Born to be King, the devout Anglican author Dorothy Sayers had an actor deliver gritty, colloquial lines as Jesus himself. For the time, this was a daring move, as it was illegal in England (and continued to be so until 1968) for a stage actor to portray any divine person. The proscription did not apply to radio, but outraged complaints poured in. As one shocked listener put it, "a sinful man" must not presume to "impersonate the Sinless One." To do so "detracts from the honour due to the Divine Majesty."
Though Elvis impersonation hardly blasphemes a sinless original, such pop-entertainment spectacles in church do raise similar questions of due honor to God. No doubt many among the twenty-first-century faithful, inured though we are to a stunning array of pop-culture evangelistic efforts, would echo the conclusion of that flustered listener to Sayers's radio play: "Could anything be more distressful to reverent-minded Christians?" One guesses such a reaction contributed to the Canadian Anglicans' decision to proscribe "Priestly's" act.
Others have argued that the problem with such Christian co-optations of popular forms may be not that they perpetrate sacrilege, but rather that they purvey saccharine. Sayers herself warned those tempted to use the play form to push for conversions, "If he writes with his eye on the spiritual box-office, he will at once cease to be a dramatist, and decline into a manufacturer of propagandist tracts. … He will lose his professional integrity, and with it all his power, including his power to preach the Gospel" (Dorothy Sayers, "Playwrights Are Not Evangelists").
Christian filmmaker David Cunningham, director of the gritty (and, by most accounts, aesthetically and narratively successful) To End All Wars, updates Sayers's warning by applying it to "Christian" films made not by filmmakers but by "evangelists trying to use film." Such efforts are bound to compromise story, realism, complexity, leaving only an unsatisfying pablum.
In the end, it may be that eager, culture-savvy preachers who use popular forms to convey the gospel risk foisting on the world impoverished—even laughable—expressions of those genres. And in so doing, they may well do what they would never wish to do: compromise the message of the gospel itself by hitching it to a poor-quality product.
So to anyone out there growing their sideburns and brushing up their sneer, in hopes of joining Mr. Priestly in leading "the king's" faithful to faith in The King, take heed: "Caveat gyrator." If you want to borrow from the world, as Jesus and Paul did, to get across the message they preached, be prepared to do the thing right. Gospel kitsch may get some notice in the short term, but it's only a matter of time before people notice it doesn't touch the deep things of life or the true grandeur of the evangelium.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net.Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
From Oratorios to Elvis | Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years (Jan. 10, 2002)
The Christian DNA of Modern Genetics | Though open to frightening ethical abuse, genetics has been a Christian vocation since Gregor Mendel did his famous pea-plant experiments in the mid-nineteenth century (Jan. 3, 2002)
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
No Humbug | A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story, but why? (Dec. 20, 2002)
'Tell Billy Graham the Jesus People Love Him.' | How evangelism's senior statesman helped the hippies "tune in, turn on to God." (Dec. 13, 2002)
Advent—Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 6, 2002)
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)
No Sex (Before Marriage), Please … We're Christian | Miss America preaches a 2000-year-old message. (Oct. 25, 2002)
The King Is Coming, Eventually | What if you announced the rapture, but God didn't show up? (Oct. 18, 2002)
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