Daniel Radosh, New Yorker contributor and self-described Humanistic Jew, delves into the strange, sometimes cheesy, sometimes transcendent world of Christian pop culture in his new book Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. The array of topics he covers is itself stunning: Testamints, “Friends don’t let friends go to hell” T-shirts, the Holy Land Experience theme park, The Great Passion Play, BibleZines, Left Behind, Frank Peretti, Bibleman (evangelicaldom’s caped crusader), Stephen Baldwin, the Cornerstone Festival, purity balls, creationist museums, Christian comedy, Christian skateboarding, Christian raves, and Christian pro wrestling.*
Though Rapture Ready! is written ostensibly as a guide for non-evangelicals to understand (and, yes, sometimes laugh at) evangelical culture, it may be even more useful and revealing as a tool to help evangelicals understand themselves and the secular mindset. During an encounter with Bibleman himself, Robert “R.T.” Schlipp, Radosh remembers, “R.T. asked if he could pray for me, which didn’t surprise me. And then he prayed that my book would help Christians see some hard truths about themselves, even if it hurt. Which I hadn’t expected at all.” Christians’ willingness to recognize their own faults may be unexpected, but it may end up as the most significant result of Radosh’s book. Bibleman’s prayers may be answered.
Of course, anyone who’s ever stepped inside a Christian bookstore is probably already familiar with embarrassing displays of Christian kitsch, so this aspect of Rapture Ready! is hardly news. (One of Radosh’s interviewees does phrase the dilemma particularly well: “When you are born again, God gives you a new heart and a new opportunity. He doesn’t necessarily give you new taste.”) Radosh does report some interesting conversations with evangelical marketers about the paradox of Christian materialism.
However, what’s even more potentially painful—and important—to evangelical readers are Radosh’s accounts of the way that Christians react to him as a non-Christian—and, more specifically, as a Jew. As one might expect, there are the trite responses along the lines of “I love the Jewish people!” and “Jesus was a Jew,” which just seem to tire Radosh. Another one that keeps coming up, though, is C. S. Lewis’s famous “liar/lunatic/Lord” trilemma from Mere Christianity, re-hashed by people with different levels of education and varying degrees of knowledge of the quotation’s source. I’ve always liked the trilemma, but I still find myself squirming at the way the people Radosh meets pull it out as a sort of Christian trump card, the argument for Jesus’ divinity than which no greater can be conceived. It’s a poignant reminder that things that are fairly popular and meaningful within the Christian community are not necessarily going to speak to outsiders—and may even be misused by those within.
One of the chapters I found simultaneously hilarious, embarrassing, and painfully close to home (literally, in this case) was the chapter about The Great Passion Play and the associated New Holy Land and Christ of the Ozarks statue in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It’s also one of the few topics discussed in Radosh’s book that I’ve actually experienced, since I grew up in Arkansas and my parents currently live in Eureka Springs. Radosh uncovers the not-so-hidden past of the man behind all three of these Eureka Springs attractions: Gerald K. Smith, a racist and anti-Semite. Even at age eight or so, the first and only time I attended the Passion Play, though I didn’t know the founder’s history, I remained rather unimpressed by the show’s use of a pre-recorded track to which the actors on stage lip-synched and pantomimed their lines. However, the lack of actual expertise needed to participate in the Passion Play does give Radosh the chance to volunteer to be part of a night’s performance: he is accepted on the condition that he bring his own sandals.
Even in the ensuing snarky commentary, Radosh manages to convey some fascinating points about the transformation of Christian pop culture in the 20th century. The Passion Play, he writes, “hails from the prehistory of Christian pop culture, when local spectacles mattered because there was no mass culture. . . . It cannot be a coincidence that the popularity of The Great Passion Play began to wane in the early 1990s, just as Christian pop culture finally caught up with the mainstream in its ability to reach a national audience with homogenized product.” Wow. With that sentence, Radosh just accomplished something I thought impossible: he made me mourn the inevitable death of The Great Passion Play. Offensive and amateurish it may be; homogenized it is not.
Though the Passion Play chapter was my favorite for personal reasons, Chapter 6 (“And books were opened,” in which Radosh discusses Christian fiction and meets writers Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker) of Rapture Ready! may be the most representative of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
The strength: Radosh admits when he’s been wrong, when he’s misjudged a Christian (in this case, Peretti). Radosh reads This Present Darkness, Peretti’s 1986 spiritual warfare thriller, and its 1989 sequel Piercing the Darkness, and is disturbed by the implications that “liberals” are Satanic. However, when he actually meets Peretti, he finds a gentle, humorous man instead of a raving reactionary. When Radosh directly questions Peretti about his “angry” attitude in the novels, Peretti humbly admits, “I was very angry when I wrote that. . . . I think in my earlier books there was a definite polarization there, and a demonization of the left. I think actually that was a measure of immaturity on my part, and a shallow outlook on things.”
Radosh reflects after this conversation, “I certainly wasn’t one of those people who thought all evangelicals are little Pat Robertsons [“Some of my best friends are evangelicals!” is the tone I get here], but I had thought Frank Peretti was. If he’d put all that hostility behind him, did it represent some broader cultural shift?”
This comment, as it illustrates the strength of Radosh’s own humility, also exposes Rapture Ready!’s greatest weakness: Radosh happily admits he’s wrong and re-evaluates evangelicals to the extent that he discovers they’re like him after all. As Tim Challies writes in his own post on Rapture Ready!, “it takes no great skill to analyze and critique a subculture through the lens of your own. And in this case, it didn’t seem like Radosh offered a whole lot more than that. Seldom did he find much to appreciate in anything but the Christians who were most like him.”
Still, this emphasis on how much Radosh finds in common with the evangelicals who share his values is itself indicative of a perhaps unbridgeable impasse existing between evangelicals, whatever their political persuasion, and secular liberals (sorry to use that label, because I think it’s misleading and reductionist, but it’s one that Radosh himself uses). Earlier in the Peretti chapter, he writes of his growing understanding of the portrayal of liberal characters in Peretti’s fiction:
“To a Christian, the dastardly liberals are not so much villains as victims. It’s not their fault they’re possessed by demons. But if I felt a slight diminishing of hostility, I also saw any hope of mutual accommodation go up in a blast of sulfurous smoke. It may shock Peretti, but these days, much of what liberals really anguish about behind closed doors is how to find common ground with people of faith. And now I realized that for at least some people, common ground will never be possible because they don’t object to specific ideas that can be reframed or adjusted. They object to Satan, whose bidding we are doing. They may not hate us—they may believe they love us—but they hate him, and they won’t negotiate with him either. We want to persuade them, reason with them, listen to them, and accommodate them. They want to save us. It’s not even the same playing field.”
It’s true. Even I, potentially one of the “good” evangelicals Radosh would like because we’d have some common political ground, want to save him. In the belief that the Gospel is indeed good news, it’s kind of inherent that one would want people to hear that good news. That may not entail quoting C. S. Lewis or wearing a WWJD? bracelet, or even making any kind of obvious statement, but it does mean that Radosh and I will never entirely share the common ground he wishes for. Even if I’m not pushy, if I listen to him and treat him with respect, it will be because that’s how I believe I am called to show the love of Jesus—and I’m not sure Radosh would want to accept my tolerance on those grounds. It’s sad, but I don’t think the so-called culture wars can be ended (if they ever existed—but I’m not getting into that) by sorting out the “good” Christians from the “bad” Christians. However, I think Radosh does Christians and non-Christians alike a service in clarifying the differences involved—and in helping us laugh at some of those differences. If reconciliation is never completely possible, at least amused humility may be.
*Radosh provides a multimedia library of links related to all these topics at his site Get Rapture Ready!