ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (April 2008): Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh
After being an atheist for about two and a half decades, I have finally accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior — April Fool’s! Or rather, perennial fools, and by that I mean people who believe in the supernatural.
Yet, believers persist, and it is only right and natural that they play a role in popular culture. So it is that Daniel Radosh, like a (Jesus) fish out of water, tours the rock concerts, toy shows, book stores, and even amusement parks based on a serious and often Biblical-literalist belief that sketchy, two-thousand-year-old records of a cult led by a carpenter in the Middle East are the best guide to life, the universe, and everything.
And along the way, despite being an “ignostic” Jew, he actually came to enjoy a little of the stuff — a little, I say (AND REMEMBER: tomorrow night, Wednesday, April 2 at 8pm, he’ll even defend Christian rock at Lolita Bar in a debate on the question “Does Christian Rock Suck?” against Brian McCarter, with Michel Evanchik moderating and me hosting). Some on Radosh wife’s side of the family take the stuff far, far more seriously, and he describes with amusing befuddlement, familiar to anyone with nieces and nephews but with a religious twist, the first time he found himself led by young relatives to a rock concert where the crowd prays in the middle of the performance.
Given that the book is written by an irony-loving former Spy contributor, you might expect it to be cruel and mocking, but it hits exactly the right balance of gentle humor and curiosity to make it interesting for believers and unbelievers alike. What helps is that rather than contrast the ardent Christian beliefs (underlying the candies, board games, charm bracelets, and endless other items examined) with hardcore materialist skepticism, Radosh mostly examines a tension that many of the believers themselves wrestle with: the conflict between exalted spiritual beliefs and the crassness and tackiness of pop culture in general.
How much can you really convey content of spiritual, unearthly import in forms that mimic, say, Britney Spears? (This is a question sometimes wrestled with in the writing of my friend Read Schuchardt, an editor of Metaphilm.com, not to mention the writing of one of his heroes, the covertly-Catholic Marshall McLuhan, who once said Jesus was the one perfect example of a benign fusion of the medium and the message.) Is the growing popularity of Christian pop culture a reconquest of the mainstream by the Bible or evidence that Christian subculture is selling out?
In wrestling with this question, interestingly, the Christian pop purveyors don’t look all that different from proponents of other subcultures looking to spread the word, whether it’s a political faction, punk rock subdivision, or hippie clan. In the U.S., we’re used to thinking of Christianity as already pretty dominant, but the people who take it seriously enough to make religion the theme of their kitchen decorations, children’s action figures, movie rental choices, and even snack selections remain a minority. Christians have been prepared for this quasi-subversive role for two thousand years, though: After all, the faith was arguably at its hippest back in the days when it was a persecuted minority throughout the empire. Being treated as tacky and marginal is a role Christians were born to play, and they can handle it.
Along the journey, Radosh reveals that whether Christian pop culture is marginal is a tricky question, though: Some Christian books that dwarf the so-called New York Times bestsellers in sales simply never appear on the Times’ lists because they are sold through Christian-miscellany stores, not through the recognized book store chains that “count” for purposes of the Times list. Our world can be carved up in different ways and measured by wildly varying metrics, as I like to point out from time to time. And the ways we do choose to measure things can reinforce what we notice and what we don’t. You may already be living in a world awash in Christian pop without noticing it — but reading Rapture Ready! will certainly help make you more observant, in the secular sense of the word.
On a more conventionally pop note, next month I’ll review issue #1 of a long-awaited, climactic comic book miniseries called Final Crisis, in which a thinly-disguised version of the End Times — invaders from the world known as Apokolips — comes with brutal force to the world of Superman, Batman, and friends (one last foray into comics for me, since this promises to be so momentous — and “final,” after all).
And for Christmas, eight months hence, on a note more Christian and less pop, I’ll review that G.K. Chesterton book on Heretics that Dawn Eden mentioned giving me in that entry of hers linked near the bottom of my blog entry announcing tomorrow’s debate. In between Apokolips and holiday heresy, I don’t promise much in the way of spirituality.
In the interests of full disclosure, by the way, I should note that I’m pretty sure this paragraph from the New York Observer article about Radosh’s book party, quoting Christian radio host Chris MacIntosh, is about Gersh Kuntzman and me:
“Oh, it’s great, I love it,” he said. “I was talking to the editor from a publication called The Brooklyn Paper. And I was talking to another guy who’s a blogger that’s friends with Daniel. Everybody seems to be having a really, really good time” (emphasis added).
Like Daniel, neither Gersh nor I have as of this writing accepted Jesus as our personal savior — but since Daniel is, surprisingly, arguing the pro-Christian-rock position at tomorrow’s debate, this merely means that as one of his friends I will be torn and thus more objective than ever in my hosting.