Evangelicalism takes a lot of flack for being hokey. I know this because I’ve dished out a lot of the criticism.
Tim LeHaye’s Left Behind series is the perpetual butt of jokes among conservative and revisionist scholars. It has inspired numerous book titles that play off the franchise’s moniker; those books are almost always critical not only of the theological interpretation of LeHaye, but also the cultural cheesiness.
At one level, the criticism is justified. There are too many conservative Christians the see kitsch culture with a Christian overtone as the high watermark of art. Prairie fiction is a blight on the Christian imagination. Much of the Contemporary Christian Music scene is a sectarian revision of pop hits from a couple of decades ago. Evangelical culture makers need to improve their cultural tastes and stop mimicking popular trends a few years after they were vogue.
However, those who are critical of Evangelical subculture need to ensure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. This, I fear, is an even more significant danger for us. We can become so critical of the style of some cultural creations that we ignore the value of the content.
The Embarrassment of Christian Cheesiness
When I was in college, one of my fellow English majors revealed how cheesy her homeschool life was. She shared with the class at our secular institution that her mother used to read her C.S. Lewis and point out how Aslan is like Jesus.
The class groaned as she described her mother’s attempts to disciple her using children’s literature. It was so simplistic and moralistic. It was so cheesy.
I now believe that it was perfectly practical and appropriate.
I’m glad to see conservative Christians work toward becoming culture makers again. We need people like Andrew Peterson, Phil Keaggy, and others to keep making excellent books, movies, and music.
At the same time, we need to keep making popular level material that puts the cookies on the bottom shelf, as the saying goes.
This hit me as we were listening to a Seeds Family Worship playlist in the van on the way to church. The music is pretty basic. The lyrics recast Scripture to fit the tunes and are often repetitive and simplistic. I went through an inner turmoil one day while the songs rolled on because I wondered if I was somehow cheating my children by exposing them to this kitschy music.
A Better Calculus is Warranted
Then I realized that I was missing the point and my analysis needed to be revised.
I certainly do not want my children to live in a cultural desert. I want them to be exposed to art and music that reflects the unique ability of humans to create, whether the artists are Christian or not. I want them to be familiar with high quality cultural artifacts and conversant with the good, the true, and the beautiful.
More importantly, though, I want my children to grow up being surrounded by some of the great truths of the Christian faith. Sometimes this will come through watching performances of Handel or listening to Tallis. Sometimes this will come by singing doctrinal truths along with a catchy tune that will never win an award for musical excellence.
Christian movies are another example. If you’ve seen the films produced by Sherwood Pictures, you have seen some feel good, moralistic, happy ending on your screen. The gospel is always a key element as someone goes through a crisis of faith.
I’ve dismissed these movies before and heard others mock them mercilessly. Now that I’m a few years later on in life with kids that are a little older, I’m reconsidering.
In no way do I think that Fireproof or Courageous are worthy of an Oscar. The overall production is not polished enough to put it into the same league as most major films. But I’ve reached the point that I’m glad the movies have been made. They are telling simple stories and pointing to an over-optimistically good world, which is more like the world that we want to live in than most of the dystopian films produced by Hollywood.
But aren’t cheesy Christian films and pop music Scripture songs just cheesy knockoffs of culture?
Knockoffs vs. Creative Packaging
As I’ve considered the difference between “Christian” Prairie Fiction and Fireproof, I think a basic principle that separates worthwhile Christian pop culture from the junk.
Many of the Contemporary Christian Music songs (though not all) and most of the Amish Romance/Prairie Fiction genre are simply knockoffs of popular culture with the offensive ideas taken out. These are the “God is my girlfriend” songs, which only gain any Christian content when played in a context that assumes the deep emotional love being expressed is for God and not romantic idol. Your average Amish Romance is just a Harlequin novel with the sex pushed off screen.
In contrast, C. S. Lewis is trying to present a particularly Christian perspective on the world in compelling terms through a well-written story that is symbolically accessible to children. My family’s peppy Scripture songs are trying to disciple by getting simple lyrics stuck in their head. Sherwood Pictures is trying to entertain an audience and get the gospel out there through a story with a happy ending.
There is a difference between making a cheap knockoff and creating healthy, purposeful entertainment. Sometimes simplicity and morality presented through story is the best way to get the medicine down.
Those of us who are critical should step back and remember that using popular culture to disseminate the gospel is not a recent invention. As Karen Swallow Prior notes, Hannah More wrote plays for sophisticated audiences and entertaining tracts with stories that landed on pleas for gospel conversion, which were distributed to the masses. We ought not criticize methods that were effective in reaching the lost. For example, Hudson Taylor was converted to Christianity through a novel that led to a moralistic gospel presentation. The author of that kitschy book will doubtless receive treasure in heaven for his or her efforts.
There is a place for using popular cultural forms in Christian subcultures, but it should be simplicity for the sake of the gospel, not mimicry for the sake of the dollar. That is the real criterion by which we should be judging our art.