The End of the Word as We Know It
Entering the Kingdom of Kitsch
Daniel Radosh’s excellent adventure in the quirky world of Christian pop culture.
By Timothy Beal
A fundamental dilemma runs through the core of American evangelical culture. I’m not talking about the theological dilemma of grace versus free will. I mean the cultural dilemma of popularization versus preservation. On the one hand, to what extent should Christian scriptures and traditions be adapted and altered, in form or content, in order to make them more available and accessible within different cultural contexts? On the other hand, to what extent should their sacredness, their set-apartness, be preserved and maintained, even at the expense of ready availability and popularity?
Taking as its motto Paul’s declaration, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” American evangelicalism leans hard in the direction of popularization. It stakes faith in the idea that the Word transcends whatever form it might be given—that, contrary to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message. These days we’re accustomed to thinking of evangelicalism as religiously conservative in every way. But when it comes to this dilemma, it tends to be the most liberal of Christianities, eager to adapt traditional Christian practices and canons to popular interests and consumer demands in order to make them more readily available and, well, popular. And so behold the guitars and overhead projectors in Sunday services, birthday cakes for Jesus on Christmas, Oreo-and-milk communions, and people who say things like “Jesus is a big stud and I love him lots.” So I’ve heard.
Daniel Radosh’s “Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture” is a deeply thoughtful, often insightful, and sometimes downright hilarious exploration of the brave new multi-billion dollar world of the Christian pop culture industry, from Christian music festivals, retail industry conventions, and Christian comedy clubs, to Holy Land theme parks and creationist museums.
For Radosh, who describes himself as a liberal New York Jew, this was almost completely unfamiliar territory. Almost, because his first escort into this terra incognita was family, more or less: Alexis, a hip neo-Goth Christian teen who was “the much younger daughter of my wife’s formerly-estranged father and his second ex-wife.” So a distant step-sister-in-law? Anyway. Alexis invited him to SHOUTfest, a kind of Christian Lollapalooza, which he found both familiar, insofar as it operated in the idioms of pop culture, and profoundly disorienting, insofar as it operated in a completely different worldview. Familiar media, unfamiliar message.
Radosh spent the next year as a kind of embedded journalist in what he calls the parallel universe of Christian pop culture. Along the way, amid some very funny encounters with a lot of truly outrageous stuff, he talks with many different people who identify with this world in many different ways—young and old, producers and consumers, up on stage and down in the mosh pit. In the course of it all, he writes, “I learned not to trust my first impressions” and thereby came to recognize that this parallel universe is as complex and multi-faceted as the mainstream one with which he’s far more familiar. In fact, the story arc of many of the chapters, and of the book as a whole, moves from LOL description of and commentary on the bizarre to thoughtful, self-reflective, even sympathetic responses to what often turns out to be more complicated than it initially seemed.
“For to write is to love,” wrote Thomas Merton. “To speak out with an open heart and say what seems to me to have meaning.” Good writing struggles to bear witness to meaning—one’s own meaning, but also the meaning that another tries to make and offers to share. That’s hard to do in a book like this one. It’d be much easier for someone like Radosh, a brilliant and incisive cultural critic with a fabulous wit and almost no personal connection to evangelical culture, to be sarcastic when it comes to something like a Christian punk groupie who rates bands based on how many times they pray during a set. But he doesn’t go there. He checks his sarcasm at the gate when writing about people who lay bare to him their own life stories and personal religious thoughts and feelings. These confessions are a most profound and risky kind of hospitality: welcoming a stranger inside.
One of the more memorable examples of this hermeneutic of sympathy is Radosh’s portrayal of Jay Bakker, the edgy, theologically liberal and liberally tattooed son of Tammy Fae and Jim Bakker. They had met in New York to attend a Hell House—one of those fundamentalist Halloween attractions, done by the book from an Oral Roberts kit, in which all the haunted scenes depict the blood-curdling consequences of sinful activities ranging from drinking to premarital sex. The experience proved too much for Jay and the two of them ditched early. Radosh creates a space for Jay to give voice to his own deeply conflicted and genuinely complicated relationship with evangelical Christianity and many of its most prominent leaders.
That said, Radosh does not hold back when it comes to the loud, cocksure types he meets. Or almost meets. Actor and recently born-again zealot Stephen Baldwin refused to give him an interview because he was too busy promoting his new book, “The Unusual Suspect,” which Publishers Weekly described as an “almost spastic spiritual memoir.” So Radosh concocted one using excerpts from it. The result is pure genius, as hilarious as it is scary. He teases from Baldwin’s text not only its theological contradictions but also, beneath them, a disturbing volatility that has me a little worried for Radosh’s safety. These several pages alone are worth the price of the book.
Still, “Rapture Ready!” is much more than a witty cultural critic’s Christian pop odyssey. It’s the best kind of travel narrative, the kind in which the storyteller comes back changed. Without ever losing his sense of humor, Radosh emerges from his adventures a little more familiar with and appreciative of Christian pop culture, and a little estranged from and more critical of its mainstream parallel. “I loved American pop culture going into this project,” he concludes, “and for the most part I still do. But the best aspect of Christian culture—the unabashed celebration of the transcendent, the challenge to crass materialism, the commitment to personal responsibility—helped me more clearly to see what is too often lacking in secular entertainment and media. Jesus’ radical message of brotherhood, selflessness, and dignity may be just the antidote to our contemporary ethos of shamelessness and overindulgence.” Not that Radosh accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior, or that he’s any more rapture-ready than he was before he started his journey. His is a story of a more subtle, complex transformation, opening toward this alternative universe and its inhabitants in unexpected ways. And that sets this book well apart from the lot of intellectual condescensions into evangelicalism by the cultured among its despisers.
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Columnist Timothy Beal is writing "The End of the Word as We Know It," a book about the Bible and consumer culture. His last piece for SoMA was Adding God to Your Shopping Cart.
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