One night, a couple of years ago, I walked in on a group of evangelical college boys sitting on a bed watching The Daily Show. I felt alarmed, and embarrassed, as if I had caught them reading Playboy or something else they had to be shielded from. Jon Stewart, after all, spends at least one-quarter of his show making fun of people like them. But they eagerly invited me in. I soon learned that they watched the show every night it was on, finals or no finals. So strong was their devotion to Jon Stewart that I was tempted to ask: If Jesus came back on a Tuesday night at 11, would you get off the bed?
Over time, I came to understand this as a symptom of a larger phenomenon: evangelicals' deeply neurotic relationship with popular culture. Whether or not they were the butt of all of Stewart's jokes seemed irrelevant to them. The point was that the high priest of political comedy spent a lot of time thinking about them. Once, after I'd met Jon Stewart, they all crowded around and asked the same question: What does he really think of us?
At this point in history, American evangelicals resemble the Israelites at various dangerous moments in the Old Testament: They are blending into the surrounding heathen culture, and having ever more trouble figuring out where it ends and they begin. In politics, and in business, they've mostly gone ahead and joined the existing networks. With pop culture, they've instead created their own enormous "parallel universe," as Daniel Radosh calls it in his rich exploration of the realm, Rapture Ready! A Christian can now buy books, movies, music—and anything else lowbrow to middlebrow—tailor-made for his or her sensibilities. Worried that American popular culture leads people—and especially teenagers—astray, the Christian version is designed to satisfy all the same needs in a cleaner form.
The problem is that purity boundaries are hard to police in the Internet age. Show a kid a Christian comedian, and soon he's likely to discover that the guy is a pale imitation of this much funnier guy—Jon Stewart—who's not a Christian at all, and doesn't even like Christians. Which might then lead to a whole new set of anxieties, such as: Why are Christians so constitutionally unfunny? And, what is the point of Christian culture, anyway?
In the '80s, Christians were known as the boycotters, refusing to see movies or buy products that offended them. They felt about commercial culture much the way a Marxist might: that it was a decadent glorification of money and meaningless human relationships. Then, sometime during the '90s, when conservative evangelicals started coming out of their shells, they took a different tack. The boycotters became coopters and embarked on the curious quest to enlist America's crassest material culture in the service of spiritual growth.
Most non-Christians are aware that there is something called Christian rock. We've all had the slightly unsettling experience of pausing the car radio on a pleasant, unfamiliar ballad until we realized … Ahhh. That's not her boyfriend she's mooning over! But few of us have any idea of how truly extensive this so-called subculture is. Reading Radosh's book is like coming across another planet hidden somewhere on Earth where everything is just exactly like it is here except blue or made out of plastic. Every American pop phenomenon has its Christian equivalent, no matter how improbable. And Radosh seems to have experienced them all.
At a Christian retail show Radosh attends, there are rip-off trinkets of every kind—a Christian version of My Little Pony and the mood ring and the boardwalk T-shirt ("Friends don't let friends go to hell"). There is Christian Harlequin and Christian chick lit and Bibleman, hero of spiritual warfare. There are Christian raves and Christian rappers and Christian techno, which is somehow more Christian even though there are no words. There are Christian comedians who put on a Christian version of Punk'd, called Prank 3:16. There are Christian sex-advice sites where you can read the biblical case for a strap-on dildo or bondage (liberation through submission). There's a Christian planetarium, telling you the true age of the universe, and my personal favorite—Christian professional wrestling, where, by the last round, "Outlaw" Todd Zane sees the beauty of salvation.
At some point, Radosh asks the obvious question: Didn't Jesus chase the money changers out of the temple? In other words, isn't there something wrong with so thoroughly commercializing all aspects of faith? For this, the Christian pop-culture industry has a ready answer. Evangelizing and commercializing have much in common. In the "spiritual marketplace" (as it's called), Christianity is a brand that seeks to dominate. Like Coke, it wants to hold onto its followers and also win over new converts. As with advertisers, the most important audience is young people and teenagers, who are generally brand loyalists. Hence, Bibleman and Christian rock are the spiritual equivalent of New Coke. Christian trinkets—a WWJD bracelet, a "God is my DJ" T-shirt—function more like Coca-Cola T-shirts or those cute stuffed polar bears. They telegraph to the community that the wearer is a proud Christian and that this is a cool thing to be—which should, in theory, invite eager curiosity.
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.
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.