A few weeks ago, one of the guys leading the weekly Bible study I attend handed out copies of an article that appeared in GQ magazine back in 2002. The article was titled “What Would Jesus Do?,” and in it, the author (Walter Kirn) detailed the week he spent immersing himself in “Christian” culture, or “Ark culture” as he called it. I’m sure many Christians might take offense to the article — the author clearly has a very sarcastic and smart-ass tone throughout the piece, and it’s certainly not the most objective piece ever written. That being said, many of the observations he makes are absolutely, dead bang on target.
Some of his comments are quite hilarious (I love his description of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, and of washed up B-movie actors who make it in the Christian film industry), whereas others are quite sad simply because they show how irrelevant the Church has become in addressing the issues of (pop) culture. The following excerpt is particularly thought-provoking, and is also one of the most eloquent descriptions I’ve ever seen of a problem that, IMHO, has plagued the Church for many years.
Ark culture is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some dumb decision that to compete with them — to compete with N’Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie & Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street — the faithful should turn from the centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music and those outsider paintings in which Jesus has lime green bat wings and is hovering lovingly above the Pentagon flanked by exactly thirteen flying saucers, and instead of all that head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale.
What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing… has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith. Ark culture is a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement. Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top.
Ouch. It’s bad enough when us Christians point this out. It hurts even more when a secular journalist hits the target so close to the center.
I thought of the above excerpt earlier this week when I came across this website for Inspiration Sensation. That’s right, the Church finally has its very own version of American Idol, complete with auditions at a number of Chicago area churches and a cast of “celebrity” judges. Anyone can participate, so long as they sing “Christian” songs, with the ultimate prize being a recording contract and the knowledge that you’re the “Next Christian Music Recording Wonder.”
No word on whether or not contestants will be humiliated by the “Christian” version of Simon Cowell (in the spirit of “brotherly love” of course) or made to go through all sorts of tests and trials before the viewing audience of the “Total Life Network,” but I can already envision youth groups around the nation abuzz with talk about who the finalists will be, etc.
I spent the past weekend up in Rochester, Minnesota at the L’Abri conference, where Christians from many walks of life discussed how we engage and inspire culture in ways that are redemptive and respecting, discerning and transcendent. And then I read something like this. This is the best we can do? We’ve stooped to ripping off reality television, one of the most banal and morally troubling things pop culture has spewed out in the past 10 years? One of the guys organizing the event claims he’s willing to spread the Gospel through any means necessary — but is it necessary to stoop to such levels? Is this what it means to engage culture? To redeem it?
I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Maybe they truly do feel led by God to do this. But I can’t help feeling that it smacks so much of hype, of bandwagon-ism. Of the desperate need the (post-)modern Church has to feel “relevant,” only to come across like a parent trying to be “hip” around their children’s friends. And we all know how embarassing that can be.