God is in the Retails

16 December 2004

Why does evangelical Christian capitalism seem so strange to the rest of the world?

Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture
Heather Hendershot. University of Chicago Press.

Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America
Amy Johnson Frykholm. Oxford University Press.

By Omri Elisha

Creation Festival 2001:
“A Tribute to Our Creator”

I first witnessed a Christian music festival in the summer of 1988. I remember standing in a sea of born-agains as they waved their raised arms, swayed their bodies, and bobbed their heads, while rock bands with big hair belted out pop-rock anthems in the name of Jesus.

Like most of the audience, I was a teenager at the time, but I did not attend the Creation Festival as a Christian (in fact, in a crowd of almost 40,000 people I was probably the only Jew for miles). I was working as correspondent for a short-lived PBS news magazine affiliated with Children’s Express, a youth journalism organization (known today asChildren’s PressLine). I covered the four-day festival in its entirety with a small production crew. We interviewed event organizers, merchandisers, youth groups, and performers, such asSteve Taylor and the band Whiteheart, who have since faded into the special cultural obscurity reserved for Christian rock veterans.

My producer pressured me to ask questions about the money angle: How was the festival paid for? Where did all the proceeds go? How much money do Christian rock stars make? My producer was baffled that so much consumerism could take place at a religious festival. She believed that there had to be a hidden story behind it, something provocative, something scandalous. It was the 1980s after all, a time when televangelism was marred by high-profile scandals involving embezzlement and illicit sex. When it came to evangelicals, the national media was interested in little else.

Our reporting turned up nothing much to raise an eyebrow, other than the fact that Christian music records, concert tickets, and t-shirts cost money, and that born-again teenagers don’t mind spending it. I even managed to offend an interviewee who worked for the festival by my repeated questions about the money trail. He was right. I was beating a dead horse that probably didn’t run very fast in the first place.

Creation Festival 2001

Fortunately, my coverage did not completely neglect other, richer angles on what was going on. In the finished segment that we aired on PBS, the most memorable interviews by far were with two young festival-goers. The first was Jesse, a long-haired teenage metal-head with ripped jeans who played guitar and listened to mainstream bands like Metallica at home. He came to Creation Festival because he liked the “scene.” He was drawn to the music first, then to the fact that so many different types of kids — punks, hippies, metal-heads — were all there together. He also met a girl at one of the campsites, and they hooked up. Jesus was alright and all, but Jesse had his mind on other cool things.

The second was 19-year-old Tom, who was heavily into drugs and whose lifestyle, by his own admission, was far from pious. I don’t know how he came to the festival, but on the morning I met him he had decided to change his life. He said he was “moved by the Spirit” during one of the performances the night before, and decided to participate in a lakeside baptism — his first — and dedicate himself to Christ. I interviewed him on camera as he emerged from the frigid lake. I will never forget the image of his soaked and shivering body telling me, with his eyes closed, “I feel so much better, I can feel Christ inside me.”

I have always found it puzzling whenever nonevangelicals — whether in the media or in casual conversation — express shock and surprise over the commercialization of Christian religiosity through popular media and commodities. That shock suggests that even the most secularized among us remain susceptible to an essentially religious axiom: that the sacred and the profane must be kept separate as a matter of proper moral order. Even people who do not believe in Christ the Redeemer still want to believe in a Jesus who throws a fit when money-changers show up at the temple. And they want evangelicals to believe in that Jesus first and foremost, as well.

Bibleman: In the World

But why should the entrepreneurialism of popular evangelical media seem so aberrant to nonevangelicals, when evangelicals themselves have long since gotten over it? This is not to say that contemporary Christian media, whether at is most tempered or most fiercely evangelistic, does not have its share of detractors among the faithful. This is precisely the point. The way people use and evaluate media is not only meaningful but also highly variable and often hotly contested within cultural groups, including the throngs of evangelical Christians in America whom we habitually misrecognize as homogenous.

What makes Christian media so fascinating may not be the extent to which it undermines moralistic standards of religious authenticity that, paradoxically, preoccupy the secular world. Instead, we should be drawn to the fact that Christian media producers and consumers, as they aspire toward the ideal of being “in the world but not of the world,” are caught up in their own labyrinth of moral ambiguity over the merits of media technologies as vehicles for spreading the Word, and over the aesthetic quality of Christian media once produced. Believers may be profoundly moved by a compelling piece of Christian music, film, or fiction. They may just as likely be offended by such “worldly” things, seeing them as dilutions or distortions of the Gospel. Lest we underestimate their capacity for self-consciousness, it’s also worth pointing out that many evangelicals recognize, as others do, that Christian media all too often tends to be laughable kitsch at best.

Such insight is gained from Heather Hendershot’s Shaking the World for Jesus, an impressive and thorough work of cultural history and media analysis. Hendershot covers a wide range of evangelical Christian media, including contemporary Christian music, pro-chastity magazines and anti-gay videos directed at teenagers, creationist science films from the postwar era, and contemporary children’s videos, such as the popular VeggieTalesand the scripture-based superhero series, Bibleman. In every case we see the dilemmas and tensions — ideological, theological, and aesthetic — that are defining characteristics of American evangelicalism. The revivalist spirit of evangelicalism has always had to reconcile itself with compromises and contradictions as it engages with the lost and fallen world that it seeks to lead to redemption.

Hendershot makes many astute observations, but none is more critical to the understanding of Christian media fields than her argument about their persistent ambiguities. As evangelicals seek to integrate Christian messages into mass culture, they also attempt to balance marketing strategies with missionary desires. They make conscious choices about how best to convey religious content, or whether to convey it explicitly at all. The result, as Hendershot points out, is that different Christian media convey different levels of evangelical intensity.

The case of contemporary Christian music (CCM) is particularly illustrative, as Hendershot demonstrates in a chapter that makes apt use of Christian music icon Larry Norman’s famous quip, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Contemporary Christian musicians and video makers who want to break out into the mainstream recognize that they cannot wear their religion on their sleeves. That usually means they must avoid explicit references to God and Jesus, and play down the message of salvation in favor of vague and indirect appeals to religious sentimentality and moral fortitude. Popular cross-over bands such as P.O.D. (Payable on Death), DC TalkSixpence None the Richer, and Jars of Clay have replaced the Strypers and Amy Grants of old, and their rising success is marked by their ability to reach a wider audience by “watering-down” Christian elements in their songs while also appealing to young Christian consumers who are looking for competent musical alternatives to Metallica and Eminem that they won’t feel embarrassed to listen to. Hendershot writes:

“On a practical level,” writes Hendershot, “[CCM] artists are making a strategic response to a secular world that assumes all evangelicals are Jim Bakker clones. On a spiritual level, such artists are planting seeds, softening hearts, spreading messages that, if not overtly about God, at least are not about Satan, sex, parental disobedience, and other Christian bogeyman.”

For CCM artists and producers, watering-down the message is a marketing sacrifice, and in this sense can be frustrating. But they also rationalize it as a way to advance the gospel. As CCM music producer Cindy Montano tells Hendershot, “‘the thing is, if you want to reach people who are searching, you can’t come on too strong with the whole Christian-y, spiritual mumbo jumbo, so to speak. Because it doesn’t mean anything to them.'”

There are, of course, CCM artists for whom coming on too strong is their stock in trade, and anything less is seen as “selling out,” pure and simple. Hendershot’s exemplar of the “hard-sell” evangelism in the CCM world is the strangely indomitable recording artist, Carman, whose unambiguously Christian songs and videos — including one called “Satan Bite the Dust,” in which he defeats a cowboy Satan with a Holy Spirit gun — are so “painfully literal” in their missionary zeal that they are impossible to miss. Then again, unless you happen to be steeped in the evangelical subculture and make a habit of watching music videos on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), you probably will miss them. But this hasn’t stopped Carman from being an adamant crusader of the evangelical cause and a prolific marketer of Christ-centered entertainment.

What Hendershot reveals in all this is that what some evangelicals view as excessive propaganda, others see as true ministry. Conversely, a process that evangelical purists view as mainstream Christian artists selling out, others see as reaching out to nonbelievers who otherwise would never pay attention to

religiously inspired media. In either case, a great deal of appropriation of mass culture occurs, whether it’s in the form of P.O.D.’s crafted goatees, tattoos, and dredlocks, or Carman’s awkward attempts at homiletic hip-hop. Hendershot makes a convincing case that such appropriation is part of a common ambition among evangelicals to Christianize mass culture rather than to merely mimic it. At the same time, such aspirations contribute in no small part to the ambiguity and confusion that pervades the Christian media industry.

There is another angle to the story, however, which is Hendershot’s second key observation. This relates to the heartfelt desires of white, middle-class evangelicals, the people to whom much Christian media is targeted, to be recognized as active participants in a modern consumer economy. “To purchase Christian products,” she writes, “is to declare one’s respectability in a country in which people are most often addressed by mass culture not as citizens but as consumers.” Respectability has been a hallmark of American evangelicalism since the postwar emergence of neo-evangelicalism, a movement in which evangelicals like Carl Henry and Billy Graham carved a space in public culture for more “world-friendly” forms of evangelical engagement. Over subsequent decades, born-again religiosity became increasingly prominent among America’s educated and “respectable” middle class.

While Hendershot deals primarily with the production and content of Christian media, the “reception” angle is dealt with more fully in Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (2004), a study based on interviews with a cross-sample of readers of Left Behind, the immensely popular series of post-rapture adventure novels by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Frykholm is the quintessential “insider-outsider.” She is a feminist literary scholar who rejected the conservative evangelical subculture in which she was raised, but for whom the prophetic narratives of dispensational premillennialism remain intimately familiar. She reads Left Behind and finds it shallow, propagandistic, and boring, but she readily imagines a worldview in which apocalyptic fiction of this kind is rich and meaningful.

Then again, according to Frykholm, all Americans are “insider-outsiders” when it comes to rapture culture. Our national consciousness is deeply rooted in millennialist and apocalyptic imaginings that have defined our history. Frykholm builds her case on an understanding of American evangelicalism as defined by its “porous” boundaries vis-à-vis mass culture. Evangelicals and their ways of thinking are never as far removed from the mainstream as they or anyone else might think.

Accordingly, Frykholm does not confine her study to churchgoing evangelical readers alone, whose motives for reading the books and responses to them are diverse enough as it is, but also interviews a number of nonevangelical readers (religious as well as secular), many of whom receive Left Behind’s message of salvation on their own terms, either by rejecting it or reforming it to suit their worldviews.

Rapture Culture is a book about reading, and about how texts are made meaningful through particular lenses, and in particular social contexts. With Left Behind, reading occurs through the dual lens of literary fiction merged with biblical or prophetic “truth.” The process of making meaning here is especially dynamic and complicated. Frykholm writes: “Left Behind’s status as a fictional purveyor of truth gives it an unusual cultural authority for readers –- one that is both undermined and reinforced by the book’s status as fiction.” Social contexts (such as family, community, and church) greatly influence how readers interpret these symbolically loaded texts.

Frykholm’s discussion of reading practices is enhanced by her emphasis on listening. Although she provides ample space for her own content analysis and critique, she listens to her subjects with a careful and empathetic ear. This convention seems obvious, but is easily overlooked if we are content to say that Christian media forms merely entertain, edify, or proselytize, without ever asking people who consume them how this happens, or if it happens.

In Frykholm’s account, we learn of readers who credit Left Behind for helping them cope with personal and spiritual crises, readers who praise the series as a vehicle of prophetic truth but question its literary quality, and readers who reject its dispensationalist theology and conservative ideology but embrace the texts as colorful escapism or even spiritual therapy.

To their credit, neither Frykholm nor Hendershot delve too deeply into the political issues, because the concerns of Christian media producers and consumers are rarely explicitly political. However, political implications are never far from the surface. Focus on the Family and other conservative Christian groups obtain government support for pro-chastity media, Hendershot notes, by subsuming religious messages under the banner of public health. Frykholm observes that apocalyptic fiction is always tied up with political ideology, and that readers of Left Behindbecome engaged with a powerful form of rhetoric that offers a graphic script with which to view the political and social world around them.

More than politics per se, the question of evangelism itself is a fascinating undercurrent in these two studies. The authors discuss evangelism indirectly for the most part, and we are repeatedly reminded that most of the Christian media being discussed is marketed primarily to those who are already believers. Still, we see through all the case studies that the missionary impulse of evangelical Christianity is always a factor — and often a contentious one at that — in the production, commodification, and reception of Christian media. Being an evangelical means being a believer, but it also means becoming a bearer of “the good news,” and media forms provide one more aspect of everyday life through which evangelicals can fulfill the mandate.

From Jack Chick’s “The Hit”

We should begin to look more closely at media forms that are even farther outside the mainstream, and even more explicit as pieces of evangelism targeting nonbelievers. Jack Chick’s ubiquitous Bible tracts andCampus Crusade for Christ’s famed Jesus Film Project come readily to mind. For the time being, however, Hendershot and Frykholm offer a critical opportunity for us to recognize there is more to Christian media than novelty, fanaticism, and kitsch, and that Christian consumers are a mixed bunch of people who can be as ambivalent as they are assertive about pursuing the fruits of their faith in the marketplace of earthly delights.

Omri Elisha, an anthropologist, is a member of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University. His last essay for The Revealer was “God Save the Queen.”