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Books

May 14, 2008

Enlightened Consumerism

Author Daniel Radosh spent a year immersing himself in Christian pop culture. What he found—besides Gospel Golf Balls—was a sprawling and nuanced industry that caters to hipsters and preachers alike.

Adam Rosen

Confronted with a choice between Virtuous Woman perfume and a "Friends don't let friends go to Hell" T-shirt, it is not exactly clear what Jesus would do. Maybe he'd munch on a box of TestaMints while he was deliberating. Or perhaps he'd forsake all of these, settling, predictably enough, for a pair of "Follow the Son" flip-flops.

The above is but a tackier slice of the "Christian products" market, an enterprise whose value— an estimated $7 billion—would shock the devil out of any nonbeliever, were he actually paying attention. That's decent money, yes, but it'd be positively philistine to dismiss this niche as just another market, says Daniel Radosh, author of the recently-released Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. For evangelicals, "In the corporate arena you can't separate 'what I do to make money' from 'what I do to serve the Lord,' " he tells Gelf. "So rather than a conflict of interest … it is a single intertwined interest."

Daniel Radosh. Photo by Dave Anderson.
"We can benefit from the best of what Christian pop culture has to offer."

Daniel Radosh. Photo by Dave Anderson.

Radosh, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, editor at The Week, and self-confessed liberal New York Jew, spent a year gallivanting about the country in order to immerse himself in an alien world of Christian rock, Christian skateboarding, Christian bric-a-brac, and, uh, Christians, the majority of whom consider themselves evangelical. The result is Rapture Ready!, a meticulous chronicle of the modern effort to protect an ancient institution. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Radosh drops some knowledge on this embarrassingly ignorant writer, riffing on pastor-approved golf balls, hipster Christians, and why "progressives" might appreciate aspects of faith-based culture. (Come see Radosh and Louis Ferrante, author of Unlocked: A Journey from Prison to Proust, a true story of Ferrante's life as a member of the Gambino crime family and convert to Orthodox Judaism, at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, May 29 in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: In the section where you describe the brainstorming session at Nelson Bible—one of the highest-grossing publishers of the bible's many different iterations—I was struck by how clinical it sounded when one of the marketers said, in evaluating consumer demand, "You've got to make sure the doctrine you're teaching your children isn't going to send all of you straight to Hell in a hand basket." Two questions come to mind. First, do people in this industry use the old saw "to Hell in a hand basket" ironically or seriously?

Daniel Radosh: Oh, this was definitely said with a sense of humor. It wasn't a joke, exactly. People in the Christian culture industry, especially Bible publishers, are very concerned about correct doctrine. They have to be, because their customers are. But it's not like they're Amish farmers speaking some archaic lingo. This was a publicist at a multimillion-dollar corporation, after all. I'd say she used the phrase as a wry way to acknowledge that, yes, the publisher's concerns are somewhat old-fashioned by the standards of the modern world. And also as comedic exaggeration, of course.

GM: Second, if the task of ensuring one's family doesn't go to Hell resides with the book publisher, are consumers worried about a potential conflict of interest? This seems like a pretty serious responsibility to leave to a corporation, as opposed to clergy or a scholar.

DR: This gets to the heart of what distinguishes, at least ideally, the Christian culture industry from the secular one. Almost every Christian capitalist will tell you that their business is a form of ministry. The essence of evangelical theology is that there is no distinction between faith and daily life. You can't just go to church on Sunday. Even ordinary activities—working, relaxing, or whatever—should glorify God. What this means in the corporate arena is that you can't separate "what I do to make money" from "what I do to serve the Lord." So rather than a conflict of interest, it is—again, ideally—a single intertwined interest. Now, a huge publisher like Nelson will have a spiritual advisory board made up of theologians and pastors, but many companies rely on the instincts—sorry, prayerful reflection—of their owners and managers.
But you asked specifically whether customers are worried. Yes, very. Skepticism about the motives of people who make Christian products is rampant, as well it should be.

GM: Many of the people you encounter predictably minimize the profitability aspect of this enterprise. (Nelson Bible, for example, was bought for $437 million.) Do you believe them?

DR: Well, first of all, they minimize the profit motive when speaking with outsiders not because they're ashamed of making money, but because they want to make sure I understand the distinction between secular and Christian capitalism that I just described. They will freely acknowledge that they're in business to make a profit, and that this is important; they just want that fact put into context.
But I know what you're getting at, and all I can say is that without being a mind-reader, I don't know how you can tell the difference between someone who is cynically trying to make a buck off gullible Christians and someone who sincerely believes that they are serving a higher purpose, but who comes up with all sorts of conscience-soothing justifications for behaving in a way that is indistinguishable from pure pursuit of profit. I suspect that the latter is quite common, while the former is less common than many people believe, including many Christians.

TestaMints

TestaMints

GM: Is anyone concerned that there seems to be no authority over, or sanctioning of, the religiosity of the cultural bric-a-brac? Are some denominations more demanding in this regard? Or can anyone with a few bucks and an idea be accepted, regardless of his or her acquaintance with Christianity?

DR: Well, there's the ultimate Authority, of course. I'm being glib, but many Christians would sincerely tell you that if God isn't in a Christian business, it won't work. To bring the conversation down to earth, though, I would say that evangelicals have an unusual relationship with authority. On the one hand, there is the foundational Protestant principle that no human can or should have authority over matters of faith. On the other hand, there is a deeply ingrained respect for leaders that sometimes borders on authoritarianism. Which is to say that a sanctioning body would never fly, but endorsements by well-known pastors—especially pastors of the target denomination, if there is one—will definitely help a product in the marketplace. That's why even Gospel Golf Balls—which have Bible verses on them so that if you lose one, at least you're spreading the word—come with a pastor's seal of approval. In this case, they are praised as "The best outreach tool I have ever seen in golf." (Which made me wonder how many golf-based outreach tools there are.) Does someone make a Cleansed by His Blood ball washer?

GM: At CBA, the enormous Christian-themed paraphernalia convention in Denver, did you come across any hipsters or buyers from stores like Urban Outfitters? This place seems like—for lack of a better word—Mecca for all things ironic or conspicuously cheesy.

DR: It's definitely an untapped resource! All the mainstream attendees who come are there because they want to tap into the Christian market. That said, I'm not sure hipsters want products that are authentically cheesy. They'd rather have ones that are self-consciously faux cheesy, like Urban Outfitters' "Jesus is my homeboy" T-shirts. Even hipster Christians, who certainly know where to find awful Christian shirts to wear ironically, prefer the Urban Outfitters variety. Christian skater Tim Byrne's logo is a picture of a retro Jesus wearing a shirt that says "Tim is my homeboy."

GM: Much of the stuff you encountered in your tribulations is frankly ridiculous. How hard was it for you to resist the temptation to mock or judge? Often it seems like you're struggling to keep a lid on yourself.

DR: When I thought judgment or mockery was truly called for, I didn't hold back. But if I made a snide remark every time one popped into my head, that would have gotten old pretty fast, and I would have been less likely to actually learn anything. Stuff that's ridiculous to you and me means something to some people, and I thought it was more interesting to explore what that is and why. Besides, the material really speaks for itself. If readers want to laugh, it's not like they need me to give them permission.

An interview with Ted Dekker on the Christian Broadcasting Network

GM: Many of the people you interviewed, such as [popular novelist] Ted Dekker, come off as very self-aware of their role within Christian consumer culture, and American culture at large. Were you surprised?

DR: Well, the people who aren't aware of such things don't have as much to say and therefore tended not to end up in the book. But it's true that this is something a lot of people give serious thought to, probably more than the people responsible for mainstream pop culture give to their role in society. Overall, I was pretty impressed by how Christians, fans included, really chew over these issues, and are able to talk about them.

GM: What was the most awkward situation you found yourself in?

DR: The only time I went incognito was when I volunteered as an extra in an Arkansas Passion play with deep anti-Semitic roots. As a Jew, it was definitely awkward to find myself in the mob calling for Jesus's crucifixion. I actually tried to stop it. I yelled, "Maybe a flogging is enough!" But I was one of 150 people on the stage and no one could hear me.

GM: How long did it take you to write Rapture Ready? How were you supporting your family while you were researching it?

DR: I spent a year doing research and another year writing (and then another six months editing and waiting and editing and waiting). And what a charmingly quaint phrase "supporting your family" is. You're not going to ask if I'm going to Hell in a handbasket too, are you? I'm happy to say that my advance from the publisher, my wife's salary, and my income as a contributing editor at The Week was enough to stave off starvation.

GM: What did you find most surprising, after finishing your research?

DR: I went into this project expecting to find that Christian pop culture was largely a delivery mechanism for a conservative political agenda—a spoonful of sugar to help the napalm go down, if you will. And while that definitely exists, I discovered that there is another way in which pop culture serves as a moderating force within evangelicalism. Maybe that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, since creative people are often the most open-minded of any society. Many Christian artists, musicians in particular, no longer want to be constrained by the Christian bubble, so they play secular clubs and tour with mainstream bands. They get to meet a wide variety of people and are exposed to many different ideas. Their stature in the culture gives them a kind of grassroots moral authority to challenge the intolerance of many church leaders. They don't necessarily espouse liberal politics, though some do, but they are likely to help their young fans understand that the world isn't necessarily as black and white as their youth pastor might have led them to believe.

GM: How large of an impact does this culture have on New York City?

DR: Not much, at least not yet. This is really a suburban and middle-American phenomenon. There's only one large Christian bookstore in the city, for example, while cities with much smaller populations would have several. And to the extent that it does exist here, there's not much cross-fertilization with the rest of the culture. Steven Curtis Chapman, who is one of the biggest stars of contemporary Christian music, played the Nokia Theater in Times Square last month, but I doubt anyone noticed who wasn't already aware of him. However, as the more sophisticated, high-quality, and sincere strains of Christian pop culture gain prominence, as I believe they already are, I think we'll start to feel the impact. Two solid indie rock bands, Eisley and The Myriad, played the Highline Ballroom in April, and I'm sure many non-Christians were in the audience.

GM: Does the popularity of this world bode well or poorly for secular American society?

DR: One thing that was really driven home for me is that evangelicalism is a broad and heterodox movement. Much of it is awful, in my opinion, but there's also quite a bit that's admirable. So the answer depends on which will hold sway in the future. My hope is that if we secularists embrace the best aspects of Christian culture, those will be strengthened and nurtured, and fundamentalism will wither from abandonment. That alone would be good for American society, but I also think we can benefit from the best of what Christian pop culture has to offer in terms of its perspective on the world. Do you ever watch The Soup with Joel McHale? That's a show with a big Christian following, and you can see why. It's very funny, but it's also profoundly moral. It reveals how degrading and inhumane so much of mainstream culture really is. If a pop culture that genuinely reflects Jesus's teachings of brotherhood and humility can win mindshare from A Shot at Love with Tila Tiquila, I think we'd all be better off.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.







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Comments

- Books
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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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