An Evangelical Pop Culture Expedition

A secular, humanist, non-practicing Jewish writer from New York takes a year-long tour through evangelical Christian pop-culture?  Yeah…I know how that book’s going to turn out…or at least I thought I did.  Daniel Radosh‘s Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture is one of the most insightful, entertaining books I’ve ever read concerning this branch of Christianity. 

Radosh crisscrosses the United States in search of Christian pop culture, both its seemingly mainstream and craziest, most separatist iterations.   At the time of his writing (2007), Christian pop culture was a $7 billion industry increasingly crossing over to the mainstream.  By Christian pop culture, Radosh refers to film, television, music, stand-up comedy, books, T-shirts, gifts, toys, etc.  He gives extensive attention to the music and publishing industries, the Christian abstinence movement, the Christian sex advice movement, Christian rave/electronic music, Christian wrestling, creation museums, Bibleman, and Christian music festivals, to name a few.  He does not, however, “pretend to offer a definitive overview or history of this entire subculture,” yet his writing is grounded in solid historical/religious/theological research.  Radosh makes some concessions, recognizing that he is examining a highly defined group, Protestant, largely white and middle class (6-8).  For the most part, his discussions of Christian pop culture crossover success means that such merchandise is now readily available at mainstream retailers like Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, etc., where it was once only available at Christian bookstores.

Radosh reveals, in pop-culture fashion, what Barry Hankins discusses in his book, American Evangelicals:  A Contemporary History of a Mainstream Religious Movement.  Hankins writes, “[…There] is much more complexity and diversity among evangelicals than one might expect.  This is because evangelicals in America are quite at home in the culture, even as some of them insist that the culture is hostile to them” (ix).  Radosh shows that, for the most part, American evangelical Christians are engaged in dialogue with pop culture, rather than simple resistance.  In the creation of their own pop sub-culture, they inevitably relate to secular pop culture.  How much of the secular pop culture can they “safely” engage?  How closely can their own pop culture mirror its secular counterpart?  How does this negotiation affect their message?  Radosh shows Christians who cover the spectrum of answers to these questions and others like them.  From interviews and conversations with the likes of Jay Bakker, Mark Powell, and Linda Dillow, we see that there are a host of committed, evangelical Christians who are much more moderate, and open-minded, than their brothers and sisters who often fill newscasts and who are often derided in secular pop culture.

The strength of Radosh’s text is his ability to move between scathing critiques of evangelical Christian pop culture and a compassionate understanding of many of the individual Christians who embrace and participate in it.  In his discussions of evangelical apocalypticism, he writes, “[…] There is no sense in the Left Behind books that the authors actually wish we’d all been ready [for the rapture].  They’re far more invested in having someone around to get their asses kicked” (84).  Yet in a subsequent chapter on Contemporary Christian Music vs. mainstream music, he writes about the intensity with which many young evangelicals listen to the lyrics of both Christian and secular music.  Radosh adds, “[…More] non-Christian kids would do well to develop the kind of critical listening skills that Christians bring to secular rock” (167).

Doubtless, Radosh was just as surprised by his conclusions as I was.  He exhibits great compassion and hopefulness for Christian pop culture when he concludes that it is potentially redemptive for secular pop culture.  Radosh writes, “[…We’re] coming to a point when the parallel universe of Christian pop culture is going to collide with secular pop culture” (301).  But what will happen?  Radosh hopes that the moderate forces within American evangelicalism will push out its more ardent, right-wing fundamentalists.  As Christian pop culture breaks out of its insularity, which Radosh argues “breeds intolerance,” it can have a transformative effect on the larger culture (305).  Perhaps more boldly, he concludes, “I loved American pop culture going into this project, and for the most part I still do.  But the best aspects of Christian culture–the unabashed celebration of the transcendent, the challenge to crass materialism, the commitment to personal responsibility–helped me see more clearly what is too often lacking in secular entertainment and media.  Jesus’s radical message of brotherhood, selflessness, and dignity may be just the antidote to our contemporary ethos of shamelessness and overindulgence” (308).

I cannot recommend Radosh’s Rapture Ready! highly enough.  Throughout, his writing is insightful, scathingly critical, humbly compassionate, and damn funny.  Don’t miss this one.