Sunday, November 9, 2008

This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours

Wooden Jesus, where are you from? Korea or Canada or maybe Taiwan Well I didn't know it was the Holy Land But I believed from the minute the check left my hand And I pray Can I be saved? I spent all my money on a future grave Wooden Jesus I'll cut you in On twenty percent of my future sin --Temple of the Dog, "Wooden Jesus" I picked up a copy of Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!* at the suggestion of the eminent evangelical blogger Fred Clark. It's a fantastic book by a liberal Jew who decided to wander around in the Christian subculture for a while. In many ways its like Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau's Killing the Buddha, but rather than trying to understand religion as a whole, Radosh tried to specifically understand what the deal is with, well, the sort of people I used to hang out with. He starts, appropriately enough, in the crass Christian Commercialism of the Christian Booksellers Association convention, sorting through the Jesus junk in an attempt to understand why anyone would bother to buy in to such a world. It's actually entirely possible to learn everything you need to know about the current state of evangelical Christianity from the second paragraph of the first chapter. That doesn't mean the book should be put down after that, because the journey just gets more bizarre from there, but the story of the guy trying to tap in to the pirate zeitgeist to save your immortal soul pretty much tells the tale (er, sings the sea shanty?) of the world I was so glad to leave behind.
[Hugh] Sparks is going to ensure that in the year to come, Christians bookstores across America will carry his company's new line of Jolly Roger auto decals, with messages like "Christian Pirates: Bound to the Code" and "Dead Man for Christ." These stickers will then be purchased by some of the 100 million Americans who shop in Christian stores, so that one day, when you are driving down the highway, you will see one on the car ahead of you. Perhaps you will have just watched the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and you will think to yourself, Why, yes, being a Christian is a lot like being a free-spirited rogue who sails the seven seas in search of adventure. By tapping in to the pirate zeitgeist, the Christian in the car in front of you will have planted a seed in your heart, and then one day -- Blam! You're saved. And the next thing you know, you're buying a Christian decal to put on your car.
Seeing as how the visit was in 2006 and I have yet to see Christian pirates rival "Warning: In the Case of Rapture, Car will be Unmanned"** stickers, I don't think Mr. Sparks has gotten too far. However, the fact remains that there are plenty of crappy, crappy Christian bumper stickers in the world, along with Jesus fish, Jesus t-shirts, Jesus Guitar Hero, Jesus Dance Dance Revolution, and whatever the hell this thing is out there in the world. The saddest thing about most of the Jesus junk is that there are any number of poor, misguided souls who actually think it's a valuable witnessing tool to the blathering mob of idiotic heathens who make their decisions based on a five dollar rectangle of plastic permanently glued to the bumper of the car parked in front of them during rush hour. However, and this is why Radosh's book should be read for more than a single paragraph, he brings up the much more interesting topic of Christian postmodernism later on in the first chapter. In it he quotes a professor William Romanowski, on the benefits of the use of postmodernism:
...[S]houldn't Christian perspectives be afforded a place in our public discourse? [In postmodern society] Christian artists and critics should not adopt an attitude of "This is what we believe and it's true. Take it or leave it." But something like, "This is what life looks like from our perspective. What do you make of it?" (Second bracket's Radosh's.)
The interesting thing is, as someone who was completely bought in to the Christian postmodernist movement, I can say unequivocally that this is completely wrong. And it's more than a little annoying. But, as with a lot of the problems with evangelical Christianity these days, you have to be outside the bubble to see the problems. I met someone not so long ago. He seemed like a decent enough guy. One day I was talking to him and I attempted to make a reference to the Wheaton Public Library, but instead slipped and said, "Wheaton Bible Church," probably because this was right about the time that I was best man in a wedding at said church and was experiencing the Monstrosity on North for the first time. It was just a more immediate three-word place name starting with "Wheaton" than the town's top-ranked public library. I basically watched his eyes light up when I used the word "church" and saw him verbally pounce on it and all I could think was, "Oh, shit." Suddenly I was roped in to a conversation on the topic of religion. This, of course, is where the, "Oh, shit," came from. Because I didn't just know the playbook he was using. I wrote that playbook for a couple of different ministries. Quite frankly, if anybody deserves to be hoisted by his own petard on this issue it's me, but that doesn't make me feel any better about it. I eventually managed to shoo him away after he'd made any number of offers to, y'know, be friends and hang out and talk about religion. Or football. Or whatever. Now whenever I see my own personal reminder of the stupidity of the religion I once knew I try to avoid being seen by him, for I know I'm about to get this extremely fake, "Hey! How are you doing?" It's like a mini purgatory, but I'm alive to enjoy it. However, I realized something interesting about the whole thing a little later. The move to abandon traditional apologetics and move to the postmodern stance as articulated by Romanowski is a tacit admission of the failure of traditional apologetics, but the postmodern lifestyle evangelism approach is actually less likely to work. What the lifestyle evangelist basically does is set his or her personal narrative against my personal narrative and in the completely subjective world of personal narratives, mine always trumps yours (and, um, that's the editorial "mine" and "yours"). There's an additional level of difficulty the lifestyle evangelizer bring upon him- or herself in that they are compelled to hold to a limited framework -- often made even more limited by a lack of understanding of any church tradition that existed before, oh, last week -- while the evangelizee has no such difficulty and is free to basically make up any personal narrative they want and incorporate anything from the Bhagavad Gita to then newest album by The Killers. This is, of course, absolutely nothing new. American attitudes towards religion in the 21st Century can be considered analogous to Roman attitudes towards religion in the 1st Century. The idea of religious festival as public spectacle/mystery cult is largely missing from the American religious framework, but the Romans did get the benefit of Alexander the Great's innovative bit of cultural conquest wherein he co-opted local gods as aspects of the divine that were also present in the Greek pantheon. The Romans brought that concept in to their own conquests because it was a highly useful form of assimilation. Meanwhile, this is why we have a bizarre and obviously out of touch Christian subculture with its own language, ideals, and an inability to understand why Sarah Palin is not the Vice President-elect right now. There is a growing parallel Christian pop culture that wants to believe it is capable of matching itself to secular pop culture. Unfortunately, as with the pirates for Jesus idea, it is often a culture created by ripping off regular pop culture in a sort of deaf and blind, five years out of date way. For instance, they ooh and aah over Kirk Cameron and Stephen Baldwin while the rest of us say, "Huh. He's still alive. Look at that." Moreover, the eternal need to focus relentlessly on Jesus and the weird system of check-marks by which the Christian pop culture is judged (Radosh tells a story of going to a concert wherein a teenager got excited because the band prayed three times during a twenty-minute set, for instance. As a veteran concert goer I can tell you that excitement would not by my reaction to that scenario) forces every last damn thing to have a cross on it. This is complete and total brand overkill, and that's a statement coming from a guy who owns two Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers t-shirts, an RCPM keychain/bottle opener, an RCPM necklace, and who totally wants the RCPM flask (and I don't even know what I'd do with a flask. Those things scream, "I'm a drunk on the go!" and that's not a message I necessarily want to send). The thing is, though, I own a lot of things that have nothing to do with Roger Clyne or his Peacemakers. Also, the crass commercialism of Christianity does something that RCPM's online store can't do: it creates a watered-down message and flirts with or jumps across the line of sacrilege. Sometimes with reckless abandon. Not only that, but the prime participants in the sacrilege are evangelical Christians themselves. Were I of a mind to take offense at such things these days, I think I would be less offended at some modern artist placing the cross in a jar of urine to "make a statement" than a herd of plaid-shirted tourists lumbering over to stare slack-jawed at and take digital pictures of the daily passion exhibition at the Holy Land Experience. I had a running conversation with a friend back at college (and since, I guess) that always went back to the question of what sort of person would actually want to buy the DVD of The Passion of the Christ so they could make popcorn and watch it on a Friday night. The sad thing is, we actually knew someone who counted it among her favorite movies, although to this day I couldn't tell you if it was because she actually liked it or because she thought that would be a relevant Facebook evangelization tool. I hated that movie when I was still a Christian and took it as a point of pride that I'd never seen it and wasn't intending to. It's weird. Back then I only saw it as odd, artless, and ultimately pointless. Now that I'm no longer religious, I see it as sacrilege. I think that removing myself from Christianity has given me far more respect for the religion than I ever had before. I think it's because the Christian pop culture doesn't respect its own symbols and does nothing to defend itself from kitsch and stupidity, instead believing that all of the Jesus junk, all the stupid trinkets, cheap rip-offs, and crappy sloganeering is useful or even good because it plants a seed. An oft-used passage from the New Testament is the story of the four soils. Jesus tells a parable about seeds, some of which fall on the road, some among the thorns, some in shallow soil, and some in rich soil. The ones in the road are carried off by birds, the ones in the thorns choked before they can grow, and the ones in the shallow soil can't take deep root. The ones in the good soil, of course, grow and give back a many-fold crop. The way this passage is often used is to basically blame the non-Christian for being a non-Christian. "We have these great seeds," it says, "So if the seeds don't take root it must be the fault of the soil." So, for instance, my personal lifestyle evangelizer gets to pat himself on the back for planting the seeds, shrug, and assume that if I don't come around its my own fault. I wonder if he'll ever understand that after twenty-odd years of trying my damnedest to be the good soil I eventually gave up. There's just nothing of value in the seeds of evangelical Christianity. And the planters are responding by making themselves even more irrelevant. Unfortunately, it also allows them a completely unwarranted feeling of superiority. The former doesn't bother me much, but the latter bugs me a whole lot. *While searching for the Amazon entry on Rapture Ready! I found a book called Oh, Shit! It's Jesus. Just thought I'd point that out. Don't consider this a recommendation, as I know nothing of the book except its name. Which is awesome. **I have a massive problem with this sticker and the elevator/fire warning from whence it was ripped off. Although it's technically grammatically allowed "In case of fire, use stairs" primarily says, "Never use the elevator just in case the building catches fire while you're in it." Saying "In the event of fire" would be much better.


big a said...

"I think it's because the Christian pop culture doesn't respect its own symbols and does nothing to defend itself from kitsch and stupidity, instead believing that all of the Jesus junk, all the stupid trinkets, cheap rip-offs, and crappy sloganeering is useful or even good because it plants a seed."

I believe this primarily roots from the fact that the current evangelical interpretation of God and Jesus is that they're both heaping cream puffs of love. The North American evangelist then translates the word "love" into "nice" (specifically the being thereof) and since being in any way critical or confrontational of another's actions is being "mean", even the evangelical christians who are sane enough to recognize blatant sacrilege have a tendency to write it off or downplay because the source's "heart is in the right place".

In the secular world, however, there's a reason you stopped getting "credit for effort" in the 3rd grade, and that's because most of the world adheres to some basic standard of behavior and activity (albeit different parts adhere to different standards, but the fact is that most HAVE them).

It's like if you walk into a restaurant and sit down. You then discover there are cockroaches in the kitchen and the food is rancid and poisonous. In normal circumstances this warrants a stern word with the proprietor and call to the health inspector.
Now if the restaurant is owned and operated by Christians who are sincerely "trying their best", most evangelical Christians will politely wolf down the food. (Remember this is an analogy and not an actual postulation).

The problems with the Christians eating the food are three-fold: 1. the Christian consumers walk around with vicious stomache aches all the time. 2. The proprietor believes his food is actually glorifying God or, worse still, believes the non-christians who enter his establishment and bitch about his piss-poor health standards are "attacks from The Enemy" (because if you say the word Candyman, erm I mean Satan three times he'll appear!). and 3. The outside, non-christian community thinks that all these christians poisoning themselves are batshit crazy (simply because they are!)

Returning to reality, the honest fact is you're unlikely to encounter a lot of Christians willing to poison their stomaches to support a fellow Christian, but they'll make similar compromises constantly in most any other area of their lives. This includes preached messages, evangelism tactics, movies, television, music, books, blogs, and anything else that's actually meant to share Christianity with the outside world.

The fact is they've been sharing very effectively, and everyone else wants to know why they keep eating shitty food.

Tayi said...

I think you're right about the character of modern American Christianity. The question for me is whether or not this is a bad thing. While this shallow and sacrilegious Christianity does give Christians unwarranted feelings of superiority, which is annoying, I have to say that in some ways I think I prefer it to a serious, meaningful religion.

When Christians turn themselves into a brand that even they don't respect, they reduce their hold on social and political power, and as an atheist and a woman I can't help but think that anything that keeps theocrats out of power is good for society. A serious, thoughtful religion that was able to connect with society on a deep level would probably result in an atmosphere of greater discrimination against non-Christians, minorities, women, the disabled, etc. I would rather deal with arrogant jerks than with kind and thoughtful people who are able to restrict my freedom to take birth control.

It's a lot more effort for the nonreligious to resist the power of serious and thoughtful religious people. When Christianity is reduced to a brand, you can just slap a "Born OK the First Time" bumper sticker on your car and be done with it.

Geds said...


I'm actually inclined to disagree, which is bizarre since not so long ago I would have been saying much the same thing. I mean, I totally agree on the idea of marginalizing would-be theocrats, but I was arguing against the idea back when I was still a Christian. But I don't necessarily think that keeping Christians marginalized in their own alternate culture is an appropriate, or even healthy, idea.

Either way, I'm gathering my thoughts on the topic and plan on posting more soon. Possibly a lot more. I know I say that about any number of topics, but this time I mean it. Really.

Anonymous said...

Jesus wore nothing extravagent nor anything else comparable to modern day evangalism (commercialism) the fact of the matter is the bible simply tells us as christians, to plant the seed and let God do the rest...this makes our job a lot easier if you view it for what it is...planting a seed is not some catchy slogan, is simply explaining the concept of salvation according to biblical principles, thus the seed is planted, and the person then has the opportunity to deny or accept it, the time they have to accept it is unknown as it could be 5 minutes, or 70 years, however they now know the truth of salvation, and have had an opportunity to make their decision...all the other marketing gimmicks, and scare tactics, and so on seem to me as utter rubish with no bibical backing what so ever...

Anonymous said...

"it is simply explaining the concept of salvation according to biblical principles, thus the seed is planted, and the person then has the opportunity to deny or accept it"

But a seed which includes psychological and emotional manipulation (e.g. hell and wrath of a deity) is not very nice, no?

And with all that emotional and psychological manipulation, I am left wondering whether it is the manipulation that converts people or a deity. I'm inclined to think the former does more converting...