A humanistic Jew spent a year immersed in the Christian entertainment world. When he came back up for breath, Daniel Radosh wrote about the $7 billion industry.
In Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, Radosh describes his experiences with the Cornerstone Music Festival, Christian comedians, creationist Ken Ham, Bibleman, Ultimate Christian Wrestling, Jay Bakker, and others.
Actually, he concludes, merging pop culture and Jesus isn't as bad as he expected:
"The best aspects of Christian culture the unabashed celebration of the transcendent, the challenge to crass materialism, the commitment to personal responsibility helped me see more clearly what is too often lacking in secular entertainment and media," Radosh writes. "Jesus' radical message of brotherhood, selflessness, and dignity may be just the antidote to our contemporary ethos of shamelessness and overindulgence."
Radosh is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and a contributing editor at The Week magazine. He also blogs at Radosh.net.
What prompted you to work on this book?
The initial idea for it came because the world is totally unfamiliar to me as a secular Jewish New Yorker. But I have a teenage sister-in-law who is a born-again Christian, and I met her for the first time visiting my wife's family in Wichita and tagged along with her and her Christian friends to a rock festival. At that point I really wanted to try to understand what was going on in this society, and how I could have missed it all these years.
Did you have something you wanted to accomplish, or was your intent pure observation?
Honestly, I did it because a lot of it is quite funny. I think even many Christians will recognize how humorous a lot of Christian pop culture can be, especially from the outside. But I also thought they were interesting ideas to explore. We think about pop culture as something ephemeral and superficial, and I wanted to try to understand how that could be combined with something like faith, which is eternal and deep. Even Christians consume this culture and participate in this culture but don't give as much thought as they might to what it means for their faith life.
A lot of people in your book a lot of them are really concerned with distinguishing themselves from "those other really crazy Christians," especially others in the Christian entertainment / pop culture world. Are they successful in making that distinction?
Unfortunately, from the outside, no. Everybody gets lumped together to the extent that the non-Christian world is aware of Christian pop culture. It tends to be the most outlandish, and in many cases, the most obnoxious voices that are the loudest and get heard. People aren't really aware of the more interesting and more authentic and more meaningful strains of the culture. People do get lumped in, and I think that's why so many people said to me, "I'm not like these other people that you may have heard of." Now, that is not entirely their fault. That is in many ways our fault as non-Christians for not making the effort to make such distinctions. If the awareness is not there, it's partly because these people are often choosing not to identify as Christian in the same way, partly because they don't want to be tarred by that brush. And I think that's unfortunate in many ways because I think what they're doing is very Christian in the best ways, and that by ceding that word to the forces they don't particularly like, they're doing a disservice to the faith.
The Christian pop culture world can be pretty bigand as you note, there are many segments of it that don't want anything to do with other segments of it. How did you choose which groups or individuals to write about?
They do intersect in important ways, and even if those intersections are often antagonistic, I think they're revealing, and I don't think you can understand one without the other. for example, the Cornerstone ethos is that the way to honor God is to create the best possible work of art that you can. This only becomes meaningful when you compare it with the point of the person who plays Bibleman, which is, "We do the best we can artistically, but at some point we say we've done enough because what is important is not the production but the message." While contradictory, I don't think you can really understand what they mean without realizing that the two views illuminate one another. The truth is that there is a lot of interplay.
You seem to see Jay Bakker as a good trend (a moderating strain) and Hell House as a bad trend (or a mean-spirited strain), but trends within the same Christian movement. What makes you think that they're part of the same movement, rather than parts of different movements?
Those are certainly the extremes. Jay's ministry is in large part a reaction to the history and tradition of things like Hell House. To understand where he's coming from, you have to understand where his parents [Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker] came from and where much of the church came from. He has, in many ways, a very reactive strain of Christianity. So his view of the world is informed by this kind of tradition. In that sense they are part of the same world. I've heard a lot of people say, "I never set foot in a Christian bookstore. That's not what Christianity is to me." In a way making the decision to never set foot in a Christian bookstore says something about the role of Christian bookstores in the culture, and what that person does says something else.
You also wrote, "I learned not to trust my first impressions." So what were some of your more unexpected experiences in the Christian subculture?
I did have some expectations about what I would find, and my initial experiences heightened those. I thought that the culture would be very conservative politically and socially. I thought that a lot of pop culture would be very agenda-driven, and in many ways, a little more than kind of a delivery mechanism for a conservative agenda or not necessarily a conservative agenda but a religious agenda an agenda. And it was very eye opening to find a Christian culture that was not trying to sell anything, that was not designed to be evangelistic or to enforce any kind of moral code, but that was really an expression of the artist's Christian worldview in honest terms with no sense of utilitarian purpose. I wasn't expecting that, especially after my first experience at that Christian rock concert.
One of my sister-in-law's friends came up after one of the band sets and said, "That was an awesome performance. They prayed three times in a 20-minute set." I thought, well, the whole point of Christian rock is not to perform rock and roll; it's to lead prayer. Rock is sort of the bait on the hook. But there are a lot of Christians who say that not only is that not what they're trying to do, but that treating art in that fashion actually cheapens God's creation. That was a way of looking at the world that I was not familiar with and that I found very compelling.
What do you think should change in the Christian subculture?
I think that Christian culture has a role to play in society at large, and I think that's the trend that needs to be encouraged, which is to get out of this Christian bubble that has been created over the decades. I think the most interesting artists are the ones who do not want to be limited to a particular sphere. That's a difficult call to make because it's easy to make money and to not have as many challenges by branding yourself for this small middle world. But I think that makes for less interesting and ultimately less viable art. I think there's a way to live your faith in the world. And I think that for those of us who are happy not being Christian, it's still a valuable perspective to see and it's a valuable worldview that will ultimately benefit the wider world, too, as their sort of cross-fertilization occurs.
Did you see any examples of how Christian pop culture industry influences how evangelicals actually live on a daily basis?
The truth is that a lot of people spend more time consuming Christian media than they spend in church. And they're getting theological lessons from the Christian radio they listen to in the car every day, whereas despite what they might tell pollsters and their pastor, they don't necessarily read the Bible every day. I know that people told me that this music was important to them in helping sustain their faith and explore their faith, and even sometimes explore their doubts. There are some people, certainly, who consume Christian culture just because they want a safe alternative to the mainstream culture, which seems to me getting back to a form of utilitarianism.
How is the Christian pop culture industry fundamentally different from the rest of pop culture?
Christian pop culture is to its detriment often imitative, and it is often utilitarian. They want to achieve some kind of purpose with their art, and often one that I think results in subpar art. But there's also the idea that pop culture is ephemeral and superficial, whereas a lot of producers of Christian culture see what they do as a ministry and as another way of living their faith. In that sense, there's in some ways more significance attached to it for the people who produce it and consume it, which is why I think I met so many people who were able to speak articulately about their roles in this culture. That would have been harder to do if I were writing a book about mainstream pop culture, because a lot of fans or artists don't give much thought to what it means. Some Christians spend a lot of time considering those things.
Did the Christians you talked to view entertainment media differently from others in the entertainment industry?
I think producers of much Christian culture and most mainstream culture would say, "All we want to really do is entertain people." And that's a perfectly legitimate goal for pop culture. In that case there would be agreement, although people might disagree on what is entertaining or what one ought to do in the name of entertainment. But when you get to the two other ends of the spectrum within Christian pop culture, the one that says we are not just to entertain, we are out to spread the gospel. Or on the other end of the spectrum, the people who say we just want to produce great art for art's sake, at the same time that is connected to their faith and is drawn from their relationship with God. That makes it different from secular artists who say they just want to produce great art. I don't think one is more valid than the other, but I think they are useful and interesting ideas.
What do you want people to take away from your book?
I wrote the book from the perspective of an outsider, and if other outsiders can pick this book up and find an accessible way into the diverse evangelical world, that would be great. For Christians I hope that people might gain a great understanding of how their world looks from the outside, and see some of their perceptions of the outside world. You may be somebody who participates in this culture, who shops at Christian bookstores every week, but never really thinks too much about where these products come from or why they're important to you. Or maybe you're somebody who wishes that these things didn't exist and tries to sweep them under the rug. But I think that engaging these issues can help Christians understand something about their own culture.
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Radosh offered a list of "10 great Christian rock songs" in The New York Times.
Hanna Rosin reviewed the book for Slate. Robin Abrahams reviewed it for the Boston Globe Magazine. Brad Greenberg discussed it on CT's liveblog. Timothy Beal reviewed it for SoMA Review. Tim Challies reviewed it on his popular blog. Ben Myers reviwed it at his Faith and Theology blog.
Excerpts of Radosh's book include
In The Beginning (Rapture Ready site)
Holy sex! | Welcome to the Christian sex advice movement, where brave souls tackle the stereotype that evangelicals are prudes (masturbation is still iffy). (Salon.com)
The Good Book Business | Why publishers love the Bible. (The New Yorker)
The Gospel According to Aaron | Christian rocker and mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss preaches anti-consumerism, environmentalism, and progressive ideas (The Utne Reader)
A Wild and Crazy God | Daniel Radosh tours the Christian comedy circuit (Radar)