I just finished a wonderful book entitled Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh. Rapture Ready! is by turns hilarious, disturbing, and thoughtful. I highly recommend Rapture Ready! to anyone interested in sociological insights, informally presented, into the intersection of Christianity and American culture.
In Rapture Ready!, after an encounter with Contemporary Christian Music, Radosh, a journalist, sets out on a year long journey to explore the world of Christian pop culture. During his journey he visits Creationism museums, Christian music festivals, seminars on marital sexuality, Christian bookstores, Bibleman shows, Christian publishing houses, Christian professional wrestling matches, Christian skateboard and BMX festivals, Halloween hellhouses, and Christian themeparks. Radosh even participates in the The Great Passion Play, the largest outdoor passion play being done in America.
What makes Radosh’s journeys so interesting is that he approaches each experience as an intelligent and curious outsider. Radosh is culturally Jewish but theologically he is a non-theistic humanist. Given Radosh's metaphysical disjoint with much of what he is observing you would think that Rapture Ready! would be a scathing and sarcasm-filled account of the worst of Christian pop culture. True, there is sarcasm aplenty in Rapture Ready! but it is largely deserved and appropriate (and hilarious). But overall the tone of Rapture Ready! is sympathetic and thoughtful. Much of what Radosh encounters is ripe for criticism, but when he finds a thoughtful answer or conversation partner he honestly listens.
Much of Rapture Ready! is a meditation on the consumeristic and materialistic nature of Christian pop culture, from the creation of “Jesus Junk” to specialized study Bibles to Christian bands who imitate the sounds of the latest secular pop sensation. Radosh rightly notices the theological paradox in all this. Consumption and Christianity aren’t supposed to mix. Yet Christian pop culture is awash in it.
As a review, I want to offer a few parallel observations based on my reading of Rapture Ready!, observations related to the consumeristic paradoxes within Christian pop culture but approaching them from a psychological vantage.
As I read Rapture Ready! one of the things that struck me about the Christian retail world is the nicheyness of it. Take, as a first example, Radosh’s explorations concerning Bible publishing (p. 65):
At the Christian Booksellers Association show in Devenr, I saw such innovations as the Outdoor Bible, printed on indestructible plastic sheets that fold up like maps, and The Story, which features selections from the Bible arranged in chronological order, like a novel. There is a Men of Integrity Bible and a Woman, Thou Art Loosed! Bible…There are Bibles covered in duct tape, faux fur, simulated diamond plate, and holographic paper…R&H offers a Build-a-Bible, which has removable covers that can be swapped out depending on your mood or the dictates of fashion.
There is a Bible for every need and a need for every Bible. This needs-driven trend is also observed in the wider world of Christian publishing. As Radosh observes in the largest Christian bookstore in the nation, Christian bookstores regularly fill their shelves with needs-based books (p. 89, 90):
The health section includes titles such as Body by God, Fit for Eternity, and What Would Jesus Eat?...You can find The Purse-Driven Life under humor and God is My CEO under business, unless it’s the other way around. Not only is there a sports section, there is a subsection within that just for golf, where you can pick up In His Grip and Finishing the Course: Strategies for the Back Nine of Your Life…The most space is given over to “Christian Living.” That’s the category known in the non-Christian world as self-help…
This needs-based approach to Christianity also manifests itself in how Christians read the Bible. A great example of this comes from Chapter 15, Radosh’s explorations into marital sex self-help resources, ranging from books to seminars. Many of these resources employ awkward readings of the Song of Solomon, turning that text into a “how to” manual for better sex. Radosh’s commentary on this use of the Bible is, it seems to me, spot on (p. 275):
In a way, understanding the flaws of the Christian sex advice movement helps make plain a problem that many people have with conservative evangelical philosophy in general. Can all the mysteries of sex and marriage really be answered by a two-thousand-year-old book? There is wisdom in the Bible, certainly, but how reliable is it as a universal instruction manual?
Paradoxically, by trying to read the Bible as all-encompassing, pop-Christianity actually diminishes it. There’s something disappointing about reducing the transcendent poetry of the Song of Solomon to a mere self-help book…While there is no doubt that many, if not most, couples can benefit from sex advice, perhaps it would be better to leave the Bible out of it, for the sake of the Bible as much as anything.
(It's a bit depressing how a Radosh, a non-Christian, has a higher view of the Bible and a better sense of its use than, I expect, the majority of Christians do.)
Although many will come away from Rapture Ready! with strong indictments of consumerism and materialism within Christian culture I’d like to focus on something that can be noted in the examples from the book I gave above. Specifically, I'd like to note the sheer neediness manifested within American Christianity. American Christians come to their faith with a host of needs, needs for stress-relief, better parenting skills, business strategies, and sex advice. And the Christian marketplace has stepped up to meet these “needs.” It is the vast needs-driven appetite that is driving much of pop Christian consumption.
I'd like to contend that unless we understand why Christians consume pop Christian products we’ll simply be left with the empty indictments of “consumerism” and “materialism.” People consume for a whole host of reasons so unless we understand those reasons we’ll hold only a diagnosis without a sense as to what the cure might be. Radosh does a wonderful job in Rapture Ready! exploring the motivations behind pop Christian consumerism and I'd like to add my analysis to his.
As mentioned, Rapture Ready! exposes how many American Christians approach their faith as need-satisfaction. I need and God steps in—via some Christian product—to satisfy that need. This is consumerism, but it is more psychological than economic. In the end, God satisfies me, fills me, supports me, completes me, guides me, encourages me, and fulfills me. This is how many Christians envision their faith, God as uber-product, the Divine Snake Oil.
Where does this neediness come from? I think Freud had part of the answer when he noted that to exist as a human is to exist as a neurotic animal. To be human is to be neurotic. If we were not neurotic we’d be living without an internalized conscience. But to have a conscious is to be human, which means we live neurotically. We feel shame, guilt, and remorse. We obsess with how people feel about us and if our breath smells bad. We check our hair in the mirror and wonder if we are living up to our potential.
Yet when we are busy with the necessary activities of life we find neurosis to be a luxury we can ill afford. Hence the Amish notion of keeping busy. Activity--honest work and play--leaves little time for neurotic obsessions. But as American leisure time has grown we’ve also grown progressively more neurotic, both Christians and non-Christians. This neuroticism is symptomatic of the leisure class and it manifests itself in pop-cultural products.
In short, as American Christians enjoy their leisure time they begin to think, and as they think they grow progressively neurotic, obsessing over their orgasms, their home décor, their socio-economic status, their parenting skills, the intelligence of their children, and, most ominously, their "relationship with God.” As a consequence, these neurotic Christians seek solace in a faith aimed at managing their neurotic obsessions and compulsions. Shopping is just a way to fill time and soothe oneself.
Although many will read Rapture Ready! and walk away disgusted with how American capitalism has contaminated our churches I think that might be missing the point. Mistaking the symptom for the underlying disease. And I think the disease is not materialism or consumerism but the underlying neuroses governing much of American Christianity and modern life generally. The shopping is driven by the neurosis. And this neurosis is largely the product of American leisure time, the luxury of having time to obsess about ourselves. If the brain doesn't have an external task to focus on it turns inward and we grow, as they say, self-conscious.
What, then, is the answer? None come simply to mind, just a suggestion about where to start. The problem, as I see it, isn’t “materialism” or capitalism but the neurotic core of modern life. And it’s not just a Christian problem, most Americans are infected by it. As Radosh notes, secular pop culture isn't much better than Christian pop culture (think Paris Hilton). Thus, you attempt to “fix” the excesses of pop Christian consumption by reconfiguring the self-image and psychology of American Christians. Jesus, famously, said he had no home, no pillow to rest his head on at night. This might be read as a renunciation of wealth, but I see it as a facet of Jesus’ non-neurotic personality. He could live simply and for others because, at some deep level, he just didn't care. Didn’t obsess about his hair or how “effective” he was (and how Seven Habits might help). You turn your back on consumerism only when you turn your back on self-consciously obsessing. To live with less or to shun fashion (Christian or secular) is difficult for psychological and social rather than economic reasons. To stop caring about what people think is the great achievement, one lauded not only by Jesus but by all the great moral and religious thinkers. True freedom is being free of the neurotic web of society.