God is their DJ

A nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn dives into the world of Christian pop culture.

book rapture 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
book rapture 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of the Christian Pop Culture By Daniel Radosh Simon and Schuster 309 pages, $25 It's easy to make fun of the Pat Robertsons of the world - those over-the-top evangelists who pepper late night TV in the US with their claims, admonitions and appeals for faith and money. But the Christian subculture in America is a serious - and lucrative - business. More than $7 billion changes hands every year on Christian-related items, and it's not just Gideon's Bible (even though the Bible remains the best-selling American book every year - in 2005, more than 25 million were sold, twice as many as the sixth Harry Potter book). The variety of Christian-focused media, products and entertainment options is staggering - from a Christian-themed breath mint called Testamints and Bible Belt Christian rave DJ-led worship events to evangelical amusement parks and kids superhero Bibleman, the self-described "Batman for Jesus" who spouts Scripture while pummeling the bad guys. It's a weird and wacky world where at a Christian rock music festival in rural Kansas, the bands aren't applauded as much for their music as by how many times they refer to Jesus, or at a Christian pro wrestling match in a church gym in Georgia where hitting your opponent with a chair isn't just a no-no, it's a sin. And it's become an entrenched part of Americana - and not just on the fringes. Few people outside the Christian publishing industry are aware that Christian romance novelist Karen Kingsbury or inspirational speaker Beth Moore regularly outsell the authors on The New York Times best-seller lists. It's this alternative universe of Christian pop culture that author Daniel Radosh, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, dives into with his heart on his sleeve and his tongue in his cheek in Rapture Ready!. Radosh, a staff writer for the satirical Spy magazine in the 1990s and currently a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, finds just the right balance between compassion and cynicism, amusement and respect, as he traverses America finding himself in unlikely situations like the International Christian Retail Show in Denver, Colorado, and the Great Passion Play, an Arkansas attraction with anti-Semitic roots where Radosh goes undercover as an extra and finds himself playing a member of an angry mob demanding Jesus's crucifixion. Along the way, Radosh recounts the history of modern Christian pop culture and places the blame - or credit - squarely on the shoulders of pioneering evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. "While Robertson started the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1961, it was the Bakkers who infused it with entertainment and helped transform a dry fund-raising telethon called The 700 Club into TV's first Christian talk show." With frequent hilarity and keen observational skills, Radosh recounts the decidedly un-mainstream America that most Americans rarely tread - like a visit to Holy Land Experience, America's largest and most popular Bible adventure park, and its signature attraction, the Wilderness Tabernacle, a nearly life-size replica of the Ark of the Covenant. He writes, "According to its pamphlet, it's a re-creation of first-century Jerusalem that brings the world of the Bible to life. Leprosy and incest, here we come." And, "The Israelites built the original Tabernacle because they were commanded to by God... Rebuilding it based on the precise instructions given in Exodus 26 has been a hobby for American Christians since at least the 19th century, for no apparent reason except that the goyim like to tinker, and when they see instructions for assembling something, that sounds to them like a fun way to spend an afternoon." But, in addition to the punch lines, Radosh provides some entertaining insights into the paradoxes presented by the attempts to integrate Christian culture into the larger, dominating American culture. At the retail show, he peruses the multitude of "Jesus junk" and lingers at the display of T-shirts on sale bearing messages like "God Is My DJ" and "I'm Like Totally Saved" before stopping at one declaring "Modest Is Hottest." "The tangled rationale of that last one - we can persuade girls to dress in a way that does not attract sexual attention by telling them that doing so will attract sexual attention, especially if they wear this form-fitting shirt - begins to hint at the tension in bending Christian messages to pop-culture forms." And sometimes, the humor evaporates entirely, as Radosh's liberal bent clashes with the fundamentalism he encounters. Radosh, who together with his wife, conceived their children through in-vitro fertilization, walked past one of the many booths and tables set up at the Cornerstone Christian rock festival in Peoria, Illinois, including one titled "Rock for Life" which offered a flier titled "IVF Violates Human Dignity." His confrontation with the clueless Christian punk rocker behind the table provides one of the few dramatic and harrowing parts of the book. Radosh's final analysis after recounting visits in 18 locations through 13 states is that "American evangelicalism is a tremendously heterodox society that is not well represented by its shrillest component, the religious right." The American Christian movement, he writes, can be a force for moderation. "Although there are still many Christian products being manufactured by hacks with an agenda, the market is shifting to favor genuine artists... as that happens, it is shifting to favor tolerance and reflection." Still, it's an uphill struggle. As Andy Butcher, the editor of Christian Retailing magazine told Radosh while walking him through the retail show, "When you're born again, God gives you a new heart and a new opportunity. He doesn't necessarily give you new taste." Opening his readers to a complex subculture with an abundance of unusual characters, Radosh's traveling road show is riveting, side-splitting and thoughtful. Anyone who's ever chuckled while flipping the channel away from one more TV evangelist would do well to pick up a copy and get ready to be shocked.