04 December 2008

I wish we'd all been Ready

The cover of Daniel Radosh's book Rapture Ready:  Inside the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture looks like one you might find in a Christian bookstore, although you probably cannot.  It depicts a grossly out-of-scale scene of a pre-teen girl in a pink dress smiling and floating happily above a row of trees and into the blue sky.  And there are sparkles.  Always with the sparkles.  Unfortunately, it also betrays the serious nature of the book, which begins with a jaunt through the world of gospel golf balls and other "Jesus Junk" but develops into a serious meditation on the possibilty of Christian culture as a moderating bridge to the rest of the world. 

Most people are familiar with the existence of "Christian rock" music, but the world of Christian culture hardly begins or ends there.  For virtually every kind of popular entertainment you can imagine, there is probably a comparable "Christian" version of it.  Books, movies, comedy, skateboarding, raves, superhero comics, you name it.  As far as I know, there are no Christian sports leagues; just professional wrestling.  While the quality of most of these ventures is about what you'd expect, Radosh often has a more forgiving verdict; the Christian wrestlers, he notes, put on "a hell of a show."  

Radosh, a humanist Jew from New York, began his journey with few expectations that he might find anything redeemable.  Curiously, it's his encounter with Christian music, the erstwhile whipping post of the secular world, that gives Radosh his minor epiphany.  Specifically, Radosh lands at Cornerstone, the music and art mega-festival in Bushnell, IL hosted by Jesus People USA, the original Jesus hippies.  Not only does he find more talented performers making genuinely good art, but also people eager to challenge right-wing Christian orthodoxy.  Logic would tell us that these two things are not coincidental, and Radosh notes several cases of the Christian culture industry's struggle to keep its artists on the straight and narrow path of promoting social conservative values. 

Radosh becomes greatly enamoured of Cornerstone and many of the people he finds there, including the incomparable Aaron Weiss of the post-hardcore band mewithoutyou, recalling it fondly in many of the subsequent chapters of the book.  He argues that embracing "transformational" Christian artists who are less concered with proselytizing than about creating reflections on personal faith is a way for the secular world to encourage a moderating trend in the Christian world at large.  

It's a nice sentiment, but probably unrealistic.  Notably absent from Radosh's discussion of Christian musicians is Sufjan Stevens.  This is largely because Radosh gets entangled in the oft-debated question of what qualifies as Christian music.  There is a simple answer in practice; Christian music is produced by anyone who has even the most fleeting association with the Christian music industry, even if that only means playing Cornerstone festival and nothing else, which is true in a good many cases.  Stevens doesn't, so he isn't counted as Christian music, even though he was a member of Danielson Famile, which is.  It's complicated.  The point is, even though Stevens has become an indie superstar, he's still largely unknown to the general public.  The mainstream public, like the Christian public, likes its art easily digestable.  Radosh may enjoy Over the Rhine as a hipster-aware New Yorker, but getting them beyond that point is probably a lost cause.

Radosh also has many flattering things to say about the world of Christian comedy, where he finds many surprisingly frank commentaries on living with faith.  And his daydreaming of an honest Christian sitcom probably has a greater chance of coming true, with Hollywood chasing the post-Mel Gibson Jesus dollars.  Again, though, it won't come to fruition until the current gatekeepers--who are naturally more concerned with portrayals of non-conforming Christians than any kind of secular depravity-have passed on.  

Reading Rapture Ready felt like going through a time warp.  I saw mewithoutyou play supporting their first album six years ago this winter.  I've also seen Over the Rhine and Bill Mallonnee of Vigilantes of Love, who Radosh touts in the book as well as the companion website.  Any of them stack up quite well to comparable non-Christian counterparts, though it's quite unfair to make the distinction.  Luckily, though, I've never been to a Bibleman live performance.  Let's hope it stays that way.  

Christian pop culture is becoming more pervasive; fifteen years ago none of this stuff was visible in my hometown, and the Christian bookstore still primarily sold books.  Now, my family is dragging me to the Creation Museum.  However, there is a chance that conservative evangelical forces will be eaten by their own monster.  Many members of the "emerging church" of younger evangelicals cut their teeth on Jesus junk as kids, and have set out to erase the distinction between Christian and secular culture, just as fundamentalist skeptics of embracing popular culture warned against.  Never tiring of imitation, however, reactionaries are even copying the tattoos-and-beer-drinking ethos of the emergants into their old authoritarian package.  This chameleon is difficult to quash.