Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Daniel Radosh: Rapture Ready! Adventures in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture

Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (New York: Scribner, 2008), 310 pp. (review copy courtesy of Scribner)

Now here’s a fun bit of weekend reading. Daniel Radosh, a liberal New York Jew (who blogs here), sets out to discover what Christian pop culture is all about. Americans spent more than $7 billion on Christian products in 2006. This is big business, and, as Radosh soon learns, there’s an entire parallel world out there, a vast alternative to mainstream pop culture, “like a mirror universe from a science fiction tale” (p. 2).

The book does not attempt a systematic analysis of evangelical pop culture. Instead, it unfolds as a series of quirky “adventures.” Radosh wanders across the landscape of American Christianity, describing numerous colourful characters and events along the way. Although he begins his journey with considerable cynicism, he remains an open and inquisitive adventurer.

Indeed, the book’s real charm lies in Radosh’s capacity for surprise – he frequently revises his view of Christian pop culture; he is easily impressed by the good in people (even when they’re a little crazy); and he’s quick to offer a generous interpretation wherever possible. The result, then, is a good-humoured and surprisingly sympathetic sketch of this strange parallel universe.

Of course, Radosh has no sympathy for some aspects of Christian pop culture. He has nothing good to say about the absurdly sincere born-again actor, Stephen Baldwin (he satirises Baldwin in a hilarious staged interview, one of the cruellest and funniest parts of the book). And when he visits a Christian wrestling match, he can finally only shake his head: “I decided that maybe some forms of pop culture really can’t be made authentically Christian” (p. 248). Let’s hope he’s right.

Similarly, Radosh has nothing but contempt for the phenomenally popular Left Behind series – a series of books whose theological inanity and ethical debasement are matched only by their abysmal literary quality. Commenting on the rampant religious violence of the novels (he quotes the final novel, where Jesus returns in glory: “Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor…”), Radosh offers the wry conclusion: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, motherfucker” (p. 78).

Radosh is also rightly critical of the dehumanising effects of the evangelical abstinence movement, with its gender essentialism (men are aggressive by nature, women submissive), its “virginity fetish,” and its depiction of women’s bodies “as objects to be managed by men: first by fathers then by husbands” (p. 253). Following in the wake of the abstinence movement comes the Christian sex advice movement, with its belated attempt to help evangelicals overcome their deeply ingrained sexual inhibitions. Although Radosh is sympathetic with the aims of this movement, he is discomfited by its simplistic biblicism. It might be amusing to hear a sex manual using the Song of Songs to provide a clinical explanation of the mysteries of oral sex and genital fondling. But Radosh wonders whether the Bible is really “a universal instruction manual” of this kind; whether something important is lost when the Bible is turned into a mere self-help manual for married couples. “Paradoxically, by trying to read the Bible as all-encompassing, pop Christianity actually diminishes it” (p. 275).

There is, then, a close relationship between the various Christian chastity/sex movements and the otherwise very different phenomenon of evangelical creationism. In one of his most unsettling adventures, Radosh encounters Ken Ham (who frightens him, and strikes him as a “borderline sociopathic” character), together with other leading creationists. In a visit to the Creation Museum, Radosh is confronted by the chilling portrayal of an entire alternative universe in which the history of the cosmos is constructed through a quasi-scientific reading of Genesis. Again, the Bible is diminished – and, frankly, rendered incoherent and ridiculous – through such an all-encompassing application to contemporary questions.

Although Radosh rightly critiques (and occasionally ridicules) these diverse aspects of Christian pop culture, his overall impressions remain hopeful and positive. In most of his adventures he is surprised by what he encounters. For instance, he is expecting the worst when he meets spiritual warfare novelist Frank Peretti, since Peretti’s novels rail venomously against liberals and leftists. But Peretti offers a surprising and touching confession. Discussing his novels from the 90s, he grows suddenly sad, and then admits: “I was very angry when I wrote that…. I lashed out a lot at people” (p. 116).

Again, Radosh is charmed by a prominent Christian supplier who talks with candid regret about the poor quality of much Christian merchandise – referring to some Christian paintings, for instance, the supplier remarks: “You had to love Jesus in order to hang this on your wall, because it was almost a sacrifice” (p. 102). And when Radosh explores the strange world of Christian comedy, he is led to wonder whether “our culture war could be eased just a bit if the public face of evangelicalism was a good-natured, tolerant, funny ordinary guy instead of James Dobson” (p. 233).

Above all, Radosh’s adventures are marked by a glowing portrait of Jay Bakker – a progressive New York pastor, and son of disgraced fundamentalist preacher Jimmy Bakker – who emerges as the book’s real hero. In Radosh’s eyes, Jay Bakker represents the future of American evangelicalism, and his growing friendship with Bakker seems largely responsible for his hopeful evaluation of the future of Christian culture.

Most of all, however, Radosh’s hopeful outlook arises from his confidence in consumerism itself. Concluding the book, he suggests that the problems in evangelical pop culture – its tendency towards intolerance, for example – will be resolved as Christian pop culture is more fully assimilated into the mainstream market. The weirdness and bigotry that characterises some aspects of evangelical culture will thus eventually be smoothed out – not so much through dialogue, discussion and reflection, but merely through the levelling operation of market forces. The result will be a more liberal and more tolerant Christian culture – in short, a more precise mirror of the values of mainstream culture.

By and large, this analysis is probably correct: in the setting of late capitalism, the creation of a vibrant and distinctive niche market goes hand in hand with the emergence of mass homogeneity. But I’m not so sure this is a comforting prospect. Instead, it ought to raise some disturbing questions about the nature of evangelical culture. It seems to me that the only flaw in Radosh’s analysis is his assumption that evangelical consumerism can be neatly distinguished from evangelical identity – as though the modification of evangelicalism’s consumer culture would not also be a modification of its religious identity.

The issues involved here are, to my mind, far more urgent than Radosh’s concerns about helping evangelicals to become nicer and more tolerant. We should perhaps ask what it means for religious believers to identify themselves by the merchandise they consume; what it means when we allow ourselves to become not a community, but a sub-culture, and thus one more market niche alongside others.

As Slavoj Žižek has observed, the logic of late capitalism presses towards the commodification of a niche identity for its own sake; the Christian merchandise I buy is not itself the desired commodity, but it is merely an ephemeral signifier of the real commodity, which is my identity as a particular sort of Christian. In this case, the product I am really purchasing is radically non-material, wholly spiritual; I am purchasing religious meaning and belonging, religious “community” (since the merchandise allows me to participate in a specific market niche). Here, any neat separation between my “faith” and my “consumer culture” is simply fictitious. To change the latter simply is to change the former.

So what we need today, I believe, is a sustained theological critique of this commodification of Christian identity, and a recognition that the spiritual identity provided by a consumer sub-culture is a seductive simulacrum, an obstacle to the risky venture of Christian faith. If we are to find authentic Christian identity, it will arise not from the benevolent operations of the market, but in a community which creates a new economic space within the world, with its own practices and its own ways of belonging. (More on this to follow soon in my review of William Cavanaugh’s excellent new book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.)

In conclusion, I think Daniel Radosh provides valuable insight into the workings of American evangelical pop culture. The book is a real page-turner, littered with surprising discoveries, zany characters, humorous observations and wise insights (it also has an excellent companion website). In the end, though, I just can’t share Radosh’s optimism about the future of Christian pop culture. Instead, my hope would be for the demise of this pop culture, and for the appearance instead of a church that knows its own identity – not an identity that can be bought and secured, but one that comes freely and without guarantees, only because it is sheer gift.

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