Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2008 7:43 AM

Pop Goes Christianity

The deep contradictions of Christian popular culture.

(Continued from Page 1)

Straightforward, if somewhat crude, merchandizing so far. But there is also another level of questions, which the creators of Christian culture have a much harder time answering: What does commercializing do to the substance of belief, and what does an infusion of belief do to the product? When you make loving Christ sound just like loving your boyfriend, you can do damage to both your faith and your ballad. That's true when you create a sanitized version of bands like Nirvana or artists like Jay-Z, too: You shoehorn a message that's essentially about obeying authority into a genre that's rebellious and nihilistic, and the result can be ugly, fake, or just limp.

The Christian rockers Radosh interviews are always torn between the pressure not to lead their young audience astray and the drive to make good music. Mark Allan Powell, a professor who teaches a class on contemporary Christian music at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, describes the predicament for Radosh: Imagine the Good Rubber Tire Co. came out with an awesome rock song that just happened to be about tires. Musicians wouldn't want to play it because they'd think, "We're being used," Powell explains. Creative Christian types find themselves in a similar bind: They want to make good, authentic music. But they are also enlisted in a specific mission which confines their art.

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The entertainers in Radosh's book complain about watchdog groups that count the number of times a song mentions Jesus or about the lockstep political agenda a Christian audience expects. They complain about promoting an "adolescent theology" of Christian rock, as one calls it, where they "just can't get over how darned cool it was that Jesus sacrificed himself." In his interview with Radosh, Powell pulled out an imitation of a 1982 New Wave pop song with the lyrics; "You'll have to excuse us/ We're in love with Jesus." This, he explained, was the equivalent of a black-velvet painting of Elvis. Only it's more offensive, because it's asking the listener to base his whole life around an insipid message and terrible quality music.

For faith, the results can be dangerous. A young Christian can get the idea that her religion is a tinny, desperate thing that can't compete with the secular culture. A Christian friend who'd grown up totally sheltered once wrote to me that the first time he heard a Top 40 station he was horrified, and not because of the racy lyrics: "Suddenly, my lifelong suspicions became crystal clear," he wrote. "Christian subculture was nothing but a commercialized rip-off of the mainstream, done with wretched quality and an apocryphal insistence on the sanitization of reality."

Striking a balance between reverence and hip relevance can be a near-impossible feat. Christian comedians, for example, border on subversive, especially when making fun of themselves. In one episode of Prank 3:16, the pranksters fake the Rapture and throw their victim into a panic because she's afraid she's been left behind. With true comedic flair, they're flirting with opposition and doubt, and even cruelty. But "the Christian is supposed to be secure in the loving hand of the almighty God," one of them tells Radosh. So, even if they don't sanitize, they're afraid to step over into the brutal, dirty truth comedy thrives on.

The new generation of Christians is likely to be a different kind of audience. Raised on iPods and downloadable music, they find it difficult truly to commit to the idea of a separate Christian pop culture. They might watch Jon Stewart or Pulp Fiction and also listen to the Christian band Jars of Clay, assuming the next album is any good. They are much more critical consumers and excellent spotters of schlock. The creators of Christian pop culture may just adapt and ease up on the Jesus-per-minute count, and artistic quality might show some improvement. But in my experience, where young souls are at stake, Christian creators tend to balk. It's always been a stretch to defend Christian pop culture as the path to eternal salvation. Now, they may have to face up to the fact that it's more like an eternal oxymoron.

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