In 2005 Daniel Radosh visited his wife's family in Wichita, Kansas, and tagged along to a Christian rock festival. It was a bizarre experience for a journalist who thought he knew every cranny of pop culture: He was surrounded by fans screaming for bands he'd never heard of. "The key moment for me," Radosh remembers, "was when one of my sister-in-law's friends ran back after a set and said 'That was awesome! They prayed like three times in a 20-minute set!' I had to know what it meant to judge a band by how hard it prayed rather than how hard it rocked."
Three years later Radosh has produced Rapture Ready! (Scribner), a humorous travelogue-cum-study of this "alternate universe." He doesn't attend a single church service. He goes instead to the Christian professional wrestling rings, stadium-sized passion plays, and rollicking rock festivals that make up the $7 billion Christian pop culture industry.
Q: Since the 2004 election we've seen umpteen books about evangelical Christians and their political influence, most of them written to spook secular Americans. What do you learn from exploring this culture that you don't learn from exploring religious politics?
A: If somebody memorized the Constitution and watched C-SPAN every night and knew all the voting records of every senator but had never heard of Elvis Presley or Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Seinfeld, I think you could make a case that that person didn't know much about America. We hear about evangelicalism as a religious movement, as a political movement; if you don't know who [evangelical superhero] Bibleman is, or who [thriller writer] Frank Peretti is, or if you've never heard Christian comedy, you really don't understand what's going on in these peoples' lives.
Q: You visited the oldest remnants of Christian pop culture, like the Great Passion Play in Arkansas, and it seems like the newer culture is leaving behind a much more conservative, much less tolerant way of life. What parts of that are being ditched in the new Christian pop culture?
A: It's not a function of new and old as much as corporate vs. non-corporate. Companies like Thomas Nelson or Zonderman are wary about treading on many political or theological toes. The more independent voices within Christian culture, whether it's something that existed before mass-market entertainment like the Great Passion Play, or whether it's the Christian indie rock scene which does not get played on radio—they tend to be much more a reflection of people's honest personal beliefs and honest spiritual beliefs. You'll hear Christian rock bands that are militantly anti-abortion or militantly pacifist.
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Q: What is more racially segregated, mainstream culture or Christian culture?
A: Definitely Christian pop culture. There's no question about it. Mainstream pop culture isn't any glorious field of interracial harmony, but the industry is dominated by hip hop and R&B and has been for 15 years now. The Christian music scene, which in almost every way is reflective of the mainstream music scene, has almost no hip hop acts to actually chart.
Q: Is the debate over whether or not you can commercialize Christianity pretty much settled?
A: It's settled, but that was to be expected if you look at the history of American evangelicalism. When radio was invented there was a segment of the Christian population that said because the Bible says Satan is the prince of the air, and because radio uses airwaves, it must be a tool of Satan. But evangelicalism is by definition engaging in culture. Radio became American culture. There was just no way that Christians were going to turn their backs on that.
The broader debate is settled, but there's a new debate bubbling up from younger Christians, saying, you know, we need to be more thoughtful about culture. We can't just adapt every cultural form, take a rock song and change "my baby" to "my Savior." The way that one honors God is by being authentically creative.