L.B.: Rapture Ready

Daniel Radosh stumbled into what he calls “the parallel universe of Christian pop culture,” and I for one am glad he did.

Radosh’s wonderful book Rapture Ready chronicles his travels through this strange land with a generous spirit and a perceptive eye. He sees things as they are and understands what they mean. Much of what he sees is awful, misguided or unintentionally hilarious, but Rapture Ready is marked less with scorn and ridicule than it is with a sincere affection and desire to understand the strange citizens of this oddball subculture.

In one early chapter, Radosh visits the CBA — the annual trade show for what used to be called the Christian Booksellers Association. The CBA is always a vast and appalling spectacle, acres of tasteless merchandise and absurdly inept “witnessing tools” — from Testamints to the latest offensive T-shirts. Just about every year somebody writes an article cataloguing the absurdities of the CBA and just about every year it seems like the same article — the same condescending tone, the same easy shots at these fish in a barrel. “Get a load of these freaks” is the general idea. Radosh doesn’t recycle that article or that attitude. He recognizes that 95 percent of what he’s seeing is crap, but he remembers Sturgeon’s Law — “95 percent of everything is crap” — and keeps his eye out for that other 5 percent.

Radosh’s comments on both — the sea of crap and that sometimes well-hidden 5 percent — are insightful. When he stumbles across something called the “Smiling Cross,” for example, he notes:

This was, as it sounds, an anthropomorphic cross with its horizontal beam bent up into a cheery smile. Apparently the traditional symbol of Christ’s agonizing death by torture was just too depressing. For the first time, I had the experience of seeing devout Christians embrace something that I, as a non-Christian, found sacreligious. It wouldn’t be the last.

Radosh’s wincing discomfort there will be familiar to anyone who has spent time living in America’s evangelical subculture. And he identifies the source of that discomfort precisely: the embrace of tasteless sacrilege as the symbol of devotion. Yes, the Smiling Cross is tacky. But it is also worse than tacky. Being tacky is the least of its problems.

In the course of his book, Radosh also examines every nook and niche of Christian pop culture he can find, from Christian rock and music festivals to Christian skaters and Christian fiction. Throughout his travels in this parallel universe, he manages to locate and interview some of the sharpest and most insightful critics of the subculture. At this point it becomes hard for me to be objective, since we used to publish those same critics regularly back in the day at Prism magazine. For those of you who remember those early years of Prism, let me say that Rapture Ready seems almost like the book that Dwight Ozard always talked about writing some day. For those of you who don’t remember Dwight, let me say that I mean this as a very high compliment.

And I hope you won’t discount that compliment when you learn that it’s reciprocal. In discussing the realm of “Christian fiction,” Radosh of course had to grapple with the Vegas Elvis of the genre, the Left Behind series. And in addressing that subject, he had some nice things to say about this blog:

But there are more concrete problems with the series as well. Evangelical blogger Fred Clark has written one of the most effective (and hilarious) critiques of Left Behind, a page-by-page dissection of the first book that has taken him, at the time of this writing, about four years. The level of detail gives Clark space to build a devastating case that the book’s glaring absence of sympathy for anyone other than its main characters is not just a failure of imagination on the part of the authors but a form of hatred. The heroes of the book, Clark declares, are sociopaths. They are men who arrive at an airport an hour or so after billions of people have vanished without a trace — with countless hundreds or thousands more dead or dying in the wreckages of suddenly pilotless planes — yet who make no attempt to help, or even inquire about the feelings of, a single person they meet. Instead, they focus relentlessly on their own travel plans, jobs and lives.

If nothing else, you might think the sudden disappearance of every child on earth would have some implications for society, or at least for their parents, but LaHaye and Jenkins can’t concern themselves with this, because John Nelson Darby said that once the tribulation begins, certain events must happen on a fixed timetable, and damn it, they’re going to follow that schedule. “The authors behave as they imagine God behaves,” Clark writes. “They have a plot that must move forward, and they will advance that plot even if it means causing, then callously disregarding, the suffering of billions of people. Plot trumps — and tramples on, and violates — character. Here, once more, Bad Writing and Bad Theology intersect.”

That’s very kind, and I quote it here because I am, of course, an egomaniac. But there’s actually another very perceptive passage about Left Behind that I want to bring to our attention here, because I think it touches on why I want to continue with LB Fridays, plowing on through the books and the movies and — if the Lord tarries — the whole wretched series.

Radosh notes that while the series continues to be phenomenally successful and influential, it has also been quite a while since the first book was published:

While the political and theological influence of Left Behind will be felt for many years to come, its status as a pop-culture icon has largely come to an end. The first book came out in 1995, long enough ago that some of the real people who make cameo appearances in its future world are now dead in the real one, and some of its futuristic technology is obsolete. As I discovered when I asked Christians about it, the secular world’s continued fascination with Left Behind is seen as a sign of how out of touch we are with evangelical culture. …

All true. And a good argument, perhaps, for why we might consider moving on to some more recent, more current trend. But I don’t think we’re done yet with the World’s Worst Books.

For one thing, as Radosh points out, these books “political and theological influence … will be felt for many years to come,” and I don’t want to allow that influence to go unchallenged. These books are responsible for leading many evangelical Christians to embrace sacrilege as a form of devotion, and as long as that continues to happen, I want to argue against it. And while the political influence of End of Days theologies may not be at its highpoint, this dangerous and disastrously irresponsible outlook continues to shape the politics of millions of Americans and so there’s still plenty of work to be done countering that as well.

But I don’t think of LB Fridays as being only about “evangelical culture.” The Left Behind books are an American artifact, and as such they provide a window into many, many aspects of American life. Their unfailing, bottomless awfulness remains fruitfully instructive and continues to serve as a platform for peering into a vast myriad of America’s mistakes, misfits and misapprehensions. As long as working our way through these books continues to be so fruitfully instructive, then I’m all for forging ahead.

If that makes me a bit “out of touch with evangelical culture,” well, I’m OK with that.

So next week, then:

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    If filmmakers want our sympathy, they should work for it, showing us the characters’ inner conflicts.
    I’m not disagreeing with that, but that’s an artistic issue rather than a moral one. I saw Love Story too long ago to remember it in detail, but Mystic Pizza is certainly not sophisticated art, it’s just an amiable populist movie. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s manipulating its audiences’ emotions with any sinister intent. The makers of it were just doing the best they could, but we can’t all be Orson Welles or Francis Ford Coppola.
    Some manipulation is crude because it’s the best the artist can manage, and some is crude because if it got any subtler, the falsities in the artist’s vision would be exposed. Fred keeps showing up how Left Behind‘s concept of the world and human nature makes no sense, and how a better writer would find themselves unable to write the scenario without making drastic changes. In a case like that, crudity can hide the flaws in the artist’s thinking by just scotching over the difficult bits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every unsubtle work of art is produced by a flawed thinker: unsubtle but sound is perfectly possible.
    You say Maybe it’s whether they manipulate you to feel good or simply to feel. But for my money, manipulating an audience into feeling good can be a highly skilled business, done with just as much sensitivity and integrity as any other emotion. And conversely, you can manipulate non-’good’ feelings very crudely: think of your average trashy horror movie: that provokes fear or disgust, which is traditionally an unpleasant emotion, but no one’s calling those movies subtle.
    Subtlety in execution and moral purpose are two completely separate things. A really flawed idea probably limits how subtle you can be, but a good idea can be done any number of different ways.
    Re that article – any man who thinks it’s charming to say ‘Oh, let’s just call her Kathie Lee’, as if it’s just too much darn effort to type the shorter word ‘Gifford’ as you would for a man, needs a word in his ear. A loud one. Preferably through a loudspeaker. You don’t know her, pal, and you are not on first name terms with any stranger, man or woman, unless they invite you to be.

  • lonespark

    I am relieved to know I am not alone in teaching toddlers to fence. I figure he’s a bit young to get the distinction between martial arts and plain old hitting. But we are working, with some success, on “You don’t use your sword to hit anyone who’s unarmed.
    Kit, are you the one who dislikes Tolkien? If so, do you also dislike, frex, the Icelandic sagas? I find they have quite a similar feel, and sometimes puzzle whether I was primed for Heathenry by a love of Tolkien, or whether Tolkien’s work was all there was, in my childhood to speak to a certain longing Bible stories couldn’t touch. Not that the answer matters, I just muse.

  • http://abelstales.blogspot.com damnedyankee

    Re that article – any man who thinks it’s charming to say ‘Oh, let’s just call her Kathie Lee’, as if it’s just too much darn effort to type the shorter word ‘Gifford’ as you would for a man, needs a word in his ear. A loud one. Preferably through a loudspeaker. You don’t know her, pal, and you are not on first name terms with any stranger, man or woman, unless they invite you to be.

    While a word to the wise is sufficient, Kit, Cal Thomas is irredeemable.

  • Tonio

    that’s an artistic issue rather than a moral one.
    I didn’t see my argument as a moral one. Instead of the general concept of manipulating emotions, I’m trying to criticize the specific phenomenon of trolling for sympathy. You’re right that the trolling doesn’t have to be sinister in intent. I see it as involving a more general dismissal of intellectualism. I remember old interviews with Segal where he expressed the same unfortunate stance that Thomas and Kinkade espouse, proclaiming his book as the antidote to “dirty” art and espousing and anti-intellectual contempt for critics.
    In a case like that, crudity can hide the flaws in the artist’s thinking by just scotching over the difficult bits. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every unsubtle work of art is produced by a flawed thinker: unsubtle but sound is perfectly possible.
    would you deem anything that plays up to an audience’s prejudices as emotional manipulation, or is there a better, more specific term for that? Using an example from LB, I never could determine if the “sensible shoes” theme was simply an expression of L&J’s own prejudices, an attempt to have readers villainize those female characters as lesbians, or both.
    think of your average trashy horror movie: that provokes fear or disgust, which is traditionally an unpleasant emotion, but no one’s calling those movies subtle.
    With the horror genre, people expect to be terrified, so the expectation of manipulation is there from the start.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Kit, are you the one who dislikes Tolkien? If so, do you also dislike, frex, the Icelandic sagas?
    Don’t like the former; don’t know much about the latter, sorry. I like ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, which Tolkien did a definition edition of, if that’s any help…
    would you deem anything that plays up to an audience’s prejudices as emotional manipulation, or is there a better, more specific term for that?
    Well, as I’ve said, I don’t think any work of art capable of holding the audience’s intention is not using emotional manipulation, but I assume you mean the bad kind of manipulation there. The word we’re looking for, I think, is ‘stereotypes.’
    If we say a work plays to its audience’s prejudices, we are presupposing by the way we phrase that that the prejudices are inaccurate. Not all women in sensible shoes are man-haters; not all black people are grinning sidekicks; not all homosexual men are effeminate snakes who want to take away your freedom. So there are two problems with such presentations: one, they’re either hateful or patronising, and two, they’re just a poor presentation of the world, an artist looking at stereotypes they’ve picked up from other people rather than information they’ve picked up from reality. Artistically, that’s like trying to build a bridge out of yoghurt: it doesn’t hold up, because the material you’re using is too weak. Your characters will be boring, because they’ll be nothing like real people: no psychological insight or convincing interaction can take place.
    So using prejudiced stereotypes is being both a bad person and a bad artist. Both kinds of badness come from the same place, which is a refusal to look at the world with clear eyes.

  • Froborr

    Somebody (Amaryllis, I think, and I hope it was in this thread) commented about being horrified by a book that claimed the Fall was planned. This is actually an old idea which isn’t, at least in its original form, anywhere near as horrible as it sounds.
    It’s called the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, and it basically argues that one cannot, either individually or as a species, attain adulthood without encountering evil and suffering. Humanity begins in a state of total innocence, and passes from there into evil and suffering, and then is drawn back into grace. The grace is better than the innocence because of the experience gained in the period of suffering and evil. For example, one can now fully empathize with those still suffering, while an innocent creature that never experienced the Fall could not. (There’s an excellent Twain story, the title of which escapes me at the moment, which showcases how utterly callous an unfallen being would necessarily be.)
    Indeed, in at least some interpretations, this is the entire purpose of the Incarnation, too: God falls to a human state so that he can experience suffering and doubt and so forth, so that he can better connect with humanity. However, I’m not aware of any sect of Christianity which accepts the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall as applied to humans; it’s usually referenced as a heresy, but one with remarkable staying power: it shows up in the early church, the middle ages, there’s possible hints of it in Milton, it’s pretty blatant in Blake, and apparently it’s resurfacing in Christian kitsch.

  • hapax

    Huh. Tonio, if I’m understanding you correctly, you are saying that any art that appeals to (“manipulates”) the emotions is somehow lesser than art that appeals to the intellect. Heaven only knows your opinion, then, of art that appeals to the senses!
    I mean, I’m the Neo-Platonist in this crowd, and I’ve never understood this particular heirarchy. After all, a sculptor manipulates clay or stone, etc. in three dimensions; a painter manipulates color and form in two; a dancer manipulates motion, a writer manipulates words; we disdain none of them for the material they choose to work in.
    Why should we make value judgments because an artist chooses to work with, and provoke, particular ideas, feelings, or sensations?

  • hapax

    Kit Whitfield: that’s like trying to build a bridge out of yoghurt
    Sheesh. Speaking of being an artist with words…

  • Froborr

    @hapax: I agree with you on the notion of a hierarchy of art. It’s absurd.
    I find that in some media I gravitate more toward the intellectual, and in others the emotional or sensual; in music, food, and visual art, for example, I gravitate strongly to the emotional and sensual, while in literature, film, and games I tend to the intellectual. However, value-to-me is not universal value, which is an oxymoron.

  • hapax

    However, I’m not aware of any sect of Christianity which accepts the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall as applied to humans; it’s usually referenced as a heresy
    Well, about a third of all the Christians of the world joyfully sing
    “O certe necessarium Adae peccatum,
    quod Christi morte deletum est!
    O felix culpa,
    quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!”
    (“O sin of Adam, assuredly necessary
    so that death might be destroyed by Christ!
    O happy fault,
    that deserved such and so great a Redeemer!” )
    as part of the single most sacred service of the year.
    So there is a perfectly orthodox doctrine of the Fortunate Fall — not so much that God planned for the sin of Adam, but that God knew it was going to happen, and out of it made something even better than the unfallen humanity — an incarnate Divinity.
    You can get a better sense of this kind of “felix culpa” in the prologue of the SILMARILLION, in which Iluvatar weaves the discord of Melkor into a wider, deeper, more profound thematic harmony.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    If we are to take the story in Genesis literally, how could the Fall not have been planned?
    Let’s plant the tree the humans must never touch right in the middle of the Garden, instead of planting it anywhere else, or even not planting it at all. Now, we’ll tell them not to touch it because disobeying us is wrong; but since a clear understanding of the difference between right and wrong can only be theirs if they eat of the fruit, that’s kind of a wasted effort.
    Now, we’re omnipotent and omnipresent, but we nevertheless manage to wander off during a critical juncture; probably making sure that millennia in the future, the turtles get to Galapagos so Darwin can do his thing. Man, that’ll be good theater.
    What? They ate the apple? Shocked! Shocked I am that there’s gambling going on in the estab – I mean, that they dared eat of that tree! Well, guess we’ll have to kick them out of the nursery and let them start growing up.
    Whew, got that out of the way, and I don’t think anyone suspects a thing. Let’s see, what’s next on the list… oh, yeah, gotta bring fire to some prehistorical Greeks.

  • Salamanda

    Grr. A pox upon Typepad. My post was either too long or too linky, and was flagged as spam, so please view the next few posts as attempts to fly under the radar.
    ****
    Dylan: It’s like they go so far to make a clever joke they forget the message that I can’t consider them Christian t-shirts–they’re Jesus-Brand Merchandise.
    Um, sorry. They beat you to it.
    damnedyankee: And then the cross smiled a little wider as it told the little animals that they had no souls and all they had to look forward to in God’s plan was decay and oblivion…
    Hey! Smiley the Cross sounds like my 8th grade Bible teacher!
    Also, re: Chrisian video games, I was at a friend’s house a couple years ago where people were playing The Bible Game. I won’t harp on the obvious ways it was awful (“If we use Christian rock in the background, kids’ll think it’s, like, totally cool!”), but one thing I just couldn’t get over was the final round, where, by picking the right combination of matching items, you could win a huge bonus called “The Grace of God”. However, if at any point during the game you rolled the wrong number or something, you’d lose all your points in one fell swoop—this was known as “The Wrath of God”, and there may have even been locusts involved.
    “So wait,” says I, “Doesn’t it seem kinda screwed up to anyone else that God’s grace has to be earned, but His wrath is totally arbitrary?”
    ::crickets::
    Oh yes. Way to teach the kiddies.

  • Salamanda

    Sarah Jane: But the evangelical church doesn’t believe that art can function in those ways, and so its “arts” are reduced to shallow propaganda. They are nothing more than ever-changing disposable packaging for the the prescribed message.
    I think you’ve nailed it, and I’m totally quoting you to a friend of mine. She’s an artist, as am I, and we’ve been having this same discussion, especially since our church has turned to “The 7 Fruity Flavors of Dominionism!” as a way of life.
    Geds: The speaker has just finished explaining that women turn to other women when they’ve been hurt too much by men and men turn to other men when they’ve been disrespected by women.
    I suspect that falls under the heading of that classic evangelical mantra: “Women need love, men need respect”. Oh, the headdeskable fun of trying to challenge THAT one. (Apparently, I just need to read Captivating or something, and it’ll all make sense.)

  • Salamanda

    Dash: It means everyone is off in his or her own room ignoring everyone else.
    Hey! Rugged individualism, dontcha know.
    hapax: My son proudly proclaimed to all the world that I am the best mommy because “my mommy wears black and hits me with swords and watches Gozilla (sic)videos with me.”
    You. Are. Awesome.
    The Amazing Kim:
    frex
    My new favourite word. It sounds all space-agey.

    Or Munchkinesque.

  • Salamanda

    Ha! Made it. Fred, you can ignore that long post of mine that comes up for Spamination Review.


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