Notes From The Alternative Nation

by David Scott

The crowd in the war-memorial coliseum was a slung hash of the premillennial middle-class — gaunt-looking slackers in Doc Martens and consignment-store flannel shirts; black, clean-cut kids in white T’s and lettermen’s jackets; suburban moms with frizzy perms, and little kids eating cotton candy.

Nobody smoked even in the parking lot outside, which was dotted with utility vans from places like First Eel River Baptist Church.

They booed before the show when it was announced there would be no mosh pit or body surfing. They whooped “Alleluia!” and “Praise Jesus!” when the lead singer ended the night with a sermon that sounded like Ecclesiastes meets Kurt Cobain, about the vanity of all that is not Jesus.

It was a concert by DC Talk, a band that tries to play everything from hip-hop to grunge to crooning soul and unplugged ballads. Three guys who met at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, they’ve made a name for themselves as the hottest act in what’s known as Christian contemporary music—which in turn is the cutting edge of a burgeoning pop Christian culture in America.

I saw DC (for “Decent Christian”) Talk in Fort Wayne, Indiana, one of those anonymous all-American cities that’s as far away from the Bible Belt, in spirit and in truth, as you can get. It’s in small cities like this — places like Ottumwa, Iowa; Beleon, Texas; Kearney, Nebraska — that a low-intensity cultural revolution is taking place.

And while this mission to post-Christian America has thus far stayed below the radar of the cultural and political establishments, it’s hard to fully understand the late-twentieth-century U.S.A. without taking note of the fact that more and more people are putting their treasure where their heart is. Indeed, the Christian Booksellers Association says that Americans are spending about $3 billion a year on things Christian.

To be sure, this is still a small subculture driven by a narrow brand of Christianity — evangelical and fundamentalist. By contrast, Catholics and mainline Protestants have little to no appetite or aptitude for this wholesale taking of the Gospel straight to the people in the marketplace.

“There is a movement, a search for something sacred and spiritual, and we are trying to meet that demand,” says Rachel Deems.

Deems is president of Disciples, the world’s first Christian “superstore,” which opened outside Birmingham, Alabama, late last year. Disciples and other stores like it are symbols of the confident suburbanization of the salvation message, appealing mainly to married white women in their thirties and forties who are buying goods to bolster the faith of their young family.

The store itself is a 25,000-square-foot horn of plenty where God and Mammon mingle on easy and familiar terms; it boasts 100,000 books and a 300-yard espresso bar where Christian singles come to meet and exchange business cards.

Specialty Bibles

Christian retailing used to mean the Bible, and the Bible remains the single biggest-selling item in the nation’s 2,500-plus Christian bookstores.

But the immutable Word of God has been reformatted for the neurotic Nineties — there are now specialty Bibles aimed at the recovering boozer and drug addict, co-dependents of various stripes, pregnant women, restless teens, even computer geeks.

And the Bible isn’t the only book evangelicals are reading. Although they long ago shucked off the need for a Pope to tell them what Scripture means, evangelicals are buying tens of thousands of books by people like Dave Hunt and Max Lucado to help them live sola Scriptura and engage in something they call “spiritual warfare.”

But the market in Gospel “truth” is wholly unregulated, and there’s one big caveat emptor: a lot of what’s on the sagging shelves of “end times” Bible-prophecy studies is just an aggressive new gloss on old prejudices and decoder-ring theories of Scripture — the Pope is the Antichrist, the Roman Church is Revelation’s “whore of Babylon,” the Jews will get one last chance to convert as the biblical Gog and Magog (present day America and Russia) clash in the late great planet earth’s last world war.

Christians are also spending some $60 million a year to wear their faith on their chests, quite literally. They buy “God’s Gym” workout tops and “Gone to See Dad” T-shirts. For kids, there are a half-dozen God-fearing alternatives to Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles, including “Chariot Family,” a collection of Philistine and Israelite action figures. Another hot seller with the kids are “Veggie Tales” videos — funny, computer-animated adaptations of Bible stories, hosted by tomato named Bob and a cucumber named Larry.

For grownups, there are Christian nightclubs like Club J in San Jose, which specializes in Christian rave and techno dance music. At Club J, no adult beverages are served and the bouncers dress like referees and blow whistles when the gyrating gets a little too unorthodox.

With such a proliferation of new products and services, it’s easy to forget that the traditional mainstays of Christian pop culture — radio and TV — are now available to every household in the country.

Christian media has moved beyond polyester-clad faith healers and mascara-running testimonials. There are hundreds of Christian sites on the Internet, and Z Music, a Christian rock channel, reaches 17 million homes, with videos barely distinguishable from those on MTV except maybe that the girls keep their clothes on and the messages are ethereal, not suicidal.

Snubbed by the scribes and high priests of American pop culture, the entrepreneurs of evangelicalism have not been treated so sanctimoniously by the money changers.

Christian artists like DC Talk, Jars of Clay, Michael W. Smith, and Carman are regulars on Billboard’s Top 200, and Christian books and records are sending down profits from Heaven for chains like Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and Tower Records. Every major Christian record label is now owned by a secular media conglomerate such as Warner Brothers, Sony, or EMI. Christian acts like Fleming and John are turning up on late-night shows like Conan O’Brien’s.

God Sells

What’s going on here? If you ask Paul Hare, a goateed 24-year-old hipster in a brakeman’s cap who edits a Christian magazine called One Way, he’ll quote St. Paul and say he too is trying to be “all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

“This is a sights-and-sounds generation,” Hart told me at a Christian rave recently. “If Jesus was around today, he would use music to reach kids.”

This is an attitude that has long characterized American Protestantism, says R. Laurence Moore, a Cornell historian and author of Selling God (Oxford, 1994), the definitive text on religious merchandising.

He says the fact that America has no state-sponsored religion — and therefore few secular benefits to be gained from church membership and no coercion to believe — has always forced churches to be, in effect, “salesmen” for their Lord.

As Moore notes, the most popular form of literature in nineteenth-century America was the Christian novel. Filled with lurid depict ions of seduction, forced prostitution, rape, and baby-killing, this fiction appealed to the prurient lurking in the breast of every Puritan while reinforcing the doctrine that the wages of sin is death, or at least serious unhappiness.

As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, Christian pop culture was Main Street U.S.A. — with preachers like Fulton Sheen and Norman Vincent Peale and shows like “Lamp unto My Feet” fixtures on the nation’s top commercial networks.

Today, however, the cultural landscape is dramatically altered— Christians have been banished from network prime time, and in general the commercial culture has taken a frosty turn against organized religion. Evangelical Protestants have responded by going “underground,” creating in the cultural catacombs their own alternative nation by cloning virtually every conceivable element in the dominant culture.

But you won’t catch Christian pop doing art for art’s sake. “That is the motto of the world. As a Christian, we do art for the sake of Christ,” says Carman, one of the biggest-selling entertainers in the world today, who can command concert audiences of 50-70,000 people.

A similar missionary approach is taken by Frank Peretti, who has sold more than seven million of his novels, which are sort of like “Cujo” meets “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s also the creed of Janette Oke, who has sold more than 13 million books and whose current effort, A Gown of Spanish Lace, last year sold more than the latest by John Irving, James Michener, and Jackie Collins.

Despite their success, Oke and Peretti will never appear on the Publishers Weekly or New York Times bestseller lists. Because of the way the bookstores surveyed for these lists are chosen, Christian books are segregated in a literary ghetto, although most of them are at least equal in literary merit to Danielle Steele and The Bridges of Madison County.

True, Christian fiction is largely a PG affair. The writers’ guidelines for Tyndale House, a leading publisher, say that sex isn’t taboo so long as it isn’t graphic. And in good fundamentalist fashion, they have a proof text to back up their position — “The Bible ‘tells’ of David having an affair with Bathsheba,” the guidelines say, “but it does not ‘show’ or describe the details of the affair.”

Unfortunately, the characters in much of the top-selling Christian fiction are hewn from a wooden and forgettable stock, their mouths filled with slogans summarizing their position in the fundamentalists’ hierarchy of being — saved, damned or undecided.

For example, take this passage from televangelist and sometimes presidential candidate Pat Robertson’s portentous The End of the Age:

“I would love to see Him,” Lori said reverently. “Is it possible?”

“Lori,” John Edwards responded, “With God everything is possible.”

Then he chuckled, “Much as I would like it, the Lord hasn’t granted me authority to grant visions. But, I promise you, today you and Carl will meet Jesus Christ.”

Christian theological thrillers like Robertson’s, Chuck Colson’s best-selling Gideon’s Torch — as well as everything written by Peretti, the genre’s godfather — share some common, if not altogether Scriptural, presumptions: that America is the center of salvation history; that the apocalypse is now and it’s not a moment too soon because God has lost patience with all the liberal infidels; that judges and journalists, the ACLU and the local school board, the President and his attorney general, are all in the pocket of the Antichrist.

Christian Grunge

Christian pop music seems less ready to judge and better prepared for serious engagement in countercultural combat.

And Christian pop exposes just how so much of today’s secular pop and rock ‘n’ roll, even its “grunge” and “alternative,” incarnations, has lost touch with it’s roots in gospel, blues and soul, and really become a long infomercial for selling everything from hairstyles to clothing to values based on the pleasure principle.

While today’s pop culture still permits individual spiritual searching and yearning, this seeking has to conform to accepted rites of passage — doubt, angst, losing the religion of your parents. And to be found sufficiently “spiritual” your seeking has to end with a non-denominational affirmation of your own personal “God within.”

This is the formula that makes bestsellers out of books like The Celestine Prophecy and Embraced by the Light, and relegates real religious questions to novelty slogans like Joan Osborne’s recent hit: “What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us?”

The organs responsible for defining what is cool in the culture — Entertainment WeeklyRolling StoneThe New York Times — universally agree that Christian music is just a naive, self-righteous knock-off of “real” music. In many ways, that’s true.

But it’s also true that the best of it — Rhythm Saints, Prodigal Sons, Common Children, Seven Day Jesus, Sunday’s Child, Sue Rinaldi, Over the Rhine, 77s, Adam Again, Every Day Life, Worldwide Message Tribe — is every bit as hip musically and danceable as anything on the alternative or grunge scenes today.

And these new acts aren’t content to preach to the evangelical choir — they’re actively seeking converts from the Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana crowd.

“I get in the car and I pop Alanis Morissette in the deck and it feels good — the flesh loves this stuff. But my God, what is she saying?” says Scott Blackwell, founder of N-Soul Records, the most innovative of the independent Christian labels.

In the 1980s, Blackwell was an icon of the Manhattan dance/rave/techno scene, spinning records at the Palladium and hosting a popular FM-radio dance program. After his wife left him and he bottomed out on cocaine and booze, he got saved, moved to L.A., and began to apply his skills to saving others.

A recent Blackwell-produced project, an album by the band Resolution called “Politically Incorrect,” includes protests against moral relativism, abortion and gay rights, as well as a gorgeous setting of Psalm 91.

Only God knows how many people are being converted or kept spiritually honest by this new Christian counterculture. It could be that the critics are right — that all this God-mongering is just hype to market the Messiah to Jesus freaks. But don’t bet on it.

For now, perhaps the best conclusion that can be drawn is one offered by a twenty-something guy I met at a Christian rave held in the gym of a suburban Baptist church. He was a walking clash of piety and grunge in purple ankle socks and work boots, wearing a flannel shirt/vest/cut-offs combo, and sporting a huge silver cross necklace.

“You know, man, this is a lot of fun,” he said, looking out over the dance floor. “And there’s a lot worse things we could be out there doing tonight.”

It’s hard not to reply, Amen to that, brother.

Originally published in National Review (June 17, 1996)
© David Scott, 2003. All rights reserved.