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From the October, 2000 issue of Touchstone

 

Delusions of Engagement by Preston Jones

Delusions of Engagement

Preston Jones on Christians & Popular Culture

There’s been a good bit of talk recently among Evangelicals on the merits of Christian political activism—or, more accurately, on the merits of conservative Christian political activism. So far as I can tell, no one has a problem with Jesse Jackson or Jim Wallis mentioning God in public. But what about Bible-thumper Fred from Alabama who wants the Ten Commandments up on his kid’s public-school walls? Forget it.

Sniff the air for a second and what you’ll detect is an Evangelical intelligentsia just dying to win points with this country’s liberal establishment, or the “vital center,” or the forces of thoughtful “ambiguity” on matters moral, or whatever you want to call it. Upper-middlebrow Evangelicals call it “engaging the culture.”

Of course, a much more common variation on this theme is to be found not so much among thinking believers but in the lowbrow Evangelical subculture that mimics, always badly, the culture at large. Christian disco, Christian refrigerator magnets, Christian coffee mugs, Christian diets, Christian pop psychology, Christian fishing trips, Christian radio, Christian athletes, Christian cowboys, and a Christian T-shirt that depicts a bruised and crimsoned Jesus bench-pressing a mammoth cross and announcing, “This blood’s for you.”

Behind all of this, I have no doubt, is an honorable desire to attract others to the Christian faith. The non-Christian co-worker notices the symbol on your bracelet, asks about it, and gets the rundown on the Good News. The punk rocker thinks he is going to a plain old raucous concert, but won’t he be surprised when he discovers that the gaggle of multiple-ringed “artists” on stage have dedicated their particular incoherences to the Lord? The young TV addict reads a review of his favorite semi-pornographic program, only to discover that, according to the Evangelical grad student who penned the article, beneath the smut is to be found a deep hunger for Trinitarian theology. And so on.

For most of American Evangelicaldom this is the stuff of cultural “engagement.” It’s been going on for a long time, and it continues, despite its obvious failures.

This situation came to mind as I was finishing a very fine book by Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford). For one theme that runs through Gutjahr’s text is that Christians were themselves partially responsible for the eclipse of biblical authority in nineteenth-century American public life. Of course, Gutjahr recognizes that Darwinism and biblical criticism played a significant role in diminishing the Bible’s stature in the minds of some Americans. He also notes that something as innocuous as the introduction of standard grammars into American public schools in the early nineteenth century contributed as well to the deterioration of the Bible’s privileged place in American culture. In the eighteenth century Bibles themselves were used as textbooks, but they were soon replaced by formal grammars, and thus American children’s direct exposure to the Bible was reduced.

Perhaps Gutjahr makes too much of this. The nineteenth-century grammars I consulted for my own study of the Bible in nineteenth-century Canada were themselves replete with biblical content (this was true of French Catholic as well as Protestant grammars). I suspect the same is true of American texts. Still, the events that increased the demand for grammars in the early nineteenth century—snits, brawls, and riots between Catholics and Protestants over the use of Bibles in schools—themselves suggest that the Bible’s purported and (usually) well-intentioned proponents may now appear in retrospect to have been less than friends of the Good Book.

But Evangelicals and other believers not prone to violence have no cause to rest easy. It isn’t that Gutjahr intended to write a critique of contemporary American Evangelical subculture, yet his book is in some respects as current as any op-ed piece.

“[B]y the 1850s,” Gutjahr tells us, “writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, and Joseph Holt Ingraham had successfully adapted the biblical message into the incredibly popular form of the novel.” Of course, it hadn’t been so long since Evangelicals had universally frowned upon novels. But as the genre grew in popularity, it occurred to some that the Christian message could—and should—be introduced into works of fiction, so as to reach souls. And who doubts the integrity of this motivation? But what was the result? Gutjahr suggests that one important consequence was that the Bible came in many Americans’ minds to be mixed with fiction. One writer who was eager to make Christ a sympathetic figure to readers popularized a Jesus who suffered from a chronic headache.

But—and here we come to an important point—once writers with less noble or with less explicitly theological intentions adopted the genre, who would be able to tell the difference? Lew Wallace, whose interest lay more in making money than purveying biblical truth, gave his famous novel Ben-Hur the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ.” But “Christ” rarely appears in the novel; he was hauled into the book’s title mainly because Wallace knew that in doing so he (Wallace) would attract readers.

The irony here is as staggering as it is sinfully delicious: One of the great, supposedly Christian works in Americana was written and promoted by a man whose chief aim, according to Gutjahr, was simply to “write a best selling book.” The following lines from Gutjahr are not intended to be a sock in the prototypical Christian hipster’s jaw, but they deliver the goods nonetheless: “The Protestant readers of the late nineteenth century were able to appropriate Ben-Hur as a Christian apologetic. At the same time, the book helped pave the way for a kind of Christianity less interested in a reasoned argumentation and more interested in simple entertainment and emotional stimulation.”

Let us retrace our steps: (1) Sincere Christians figured that they could reach souls by weaving biblical themes into boring popular tales. (2) A sharp fellow came along, did the sincere Christians one better, and made a fiscal killing in the process. (3) Christians, equally sincere if, perhaps, a trifle more befuddled than before, played along. (4) American popular culture went from strength to strength while the Bible, now trivialized, faded from view.

Some time ago the editors at Re:generation Quarterly were good enough to publish an essay I penned in service to my ongoing, and fruitless, campaign to convince Christian people that any effort to “redeem” American TV culture—i.e., popular culture—is doomed, not to mention counterproductive. “The evangelical assertion that one needs to watch television effectively to ‘engage’ this culture is frivolous,” I wrote.

Most members of this society know that it is in desperate straits, and they know this because they are watching their culture self-destruct on television. The last thing the United States needs are panderers who seek to “redeem” a medium that most already know is unalterably wasteful and destructive. What this society lacks is the example of people who have better things to do than immerse themselves in frivolity, who talk to one another about things that matter—not the latest TV show being hustled by advertisers—and who have some sense of rootedness in a spiritually profound tradition. God does not need Captain Kirk.

Or does he? Heaven knows that over the years I’ve heard enough sermon illustrations taken from TV, Christian tradition and experience presumably not being up to the task.

But seriously folks, what have American Evangelicals gained through their “engagement” with popular culture? Is popular culture any closer to being “redeemed” today than at some time in the past? I’m no theologian, and I mean no disrespect, but I wonder if it isn’t time for American Christians in general, and Evangelicals in particular, to abandon the fantasy that this country’s popular culture even merits “redemption,” let alone the notion that—if we just try hard enough—if we’re just clever enough—it can ultimately be redeemed.

Well, who knows? Perhaps televised rampages and game show mindlessness can ultimately be turned to the good of the gospel. But all evidence is against it. American Evangelicaldom has been engaging popular culture for a long time now. And pop culture has swept the field.  

Preston Jones, who recently completed a Ph.D. dissertation on the Bible in late nineteenth-century Canadian public life, writes book reviews for the National Post (Toronto) and is a frequent contributor to Touchstone.

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