Interview with Rapture Ready! author Daniel Radosh
I’ve been surprised, actually, to read about several skeptical authors being touched in strange ways by their encounters with the evangelical Christian subculture. I’m working on a memoir about my own experiences as an evangelical Christian, and as I go back through my old diaries, Bibles and photo albums, and as I listen to recordings of old sermons and contemporary Christian music, I am surprised to find myself feeling the tug of the old faith and lifestyle. I could never go back, because I’ve learned too much about the universe, human nature, and myself, and I could never stop myself from thinking “outside the box” again. But on an emotional level, I can still understand the appeal. Radosh touched on that appeal several times in his book, while at the same time not shrinking back from pointing out the absurdities, prejudices, and hypocrisy he encountered.
To give our readers a glimpse into the book, I asked Daniel Radosh one question from each of my favorite chapters, and a few general questions to satisfy my own curiosity.
writerdd: Chapter 1: As goods increase, so do those who consume them
You had the same initial reaction as I did to the “Jesus Junk” merchandise that is so prevalent today: Didn’t Jesus throw the money changers out of the temple? How do the Christians who buy and sell Christian merchandise rationalize their consumerism?
Radosh: Well first of all I should point out that a lot of Christians make this same point. Many believers are terribly offended by Jesus junk for precisely that reason. The funny thing is that a lot of those same people still buy, or even produce, Christian products themselves. I guess it’s always someone else’s junk that Jesus would have objected to.
The owner of a Christian book store in South Carolina told me that he doesn’t think of what he does as selling faith any more than a doctor sells health. His justification — or rationalization if you’re inclined to be cynical — is that anything you have to do to get out the gospel message is OK. He also added that whenever customers complain to him about metaphorically buying and selling in the temple, it’s almost invariably when they think his prices are too high or he won’t let them return something without a receipt. I thought that was funny.
writerdd: Chapter 5: For many will come in my name, claiming “I am he,” and, “The time is near”
In my opinion, the best sentence in the entire book is on page 78: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, motherfucker.” It’s one of the few snarky remarks that you make in reference to some off-the-wall Christian doctrine or dogma that you encounter, and it made me laugh out loud. Was it hard to keep yourself from becoming completely sarcastic or cynical while writing this book?
Radosh: Way to spoil the punchline! That comment follows a paragraph from the last Left Behind book, in which Jesus comes back and literally eviscerates his enemies with beams of holy light. It seemed like a very succinct way of pointing out that these novels reduce the Bible to the level of a Bruce Willis movie (and saying that now, I realize the comparison does a terrible disservice to Die Hard). When I felt like sarcasm and mockery was truly the most appropriate response, I didn’t hold back. I didn’t want to pre-judge anything, but I also didn’t withhold judgment afterward. Still, you’re right that the book is less snide than many people expect. I would have gotten bored just going around laughing at stuff. Sure, much of it seemed ridiculous to me at first, but I was more interested in figuring out what it means to the people for whom it’s meaningful. Besides, most of the time any joke I might have cracked would have been gratuitous. I preferred to simply describe what I saw thoroughly and accurately. If any readers are inclined to laugh, it’s not like they need my permission.
writerdd: Chapter 6: And books were opened
In many of the Christian novels you read, as well as in the conversations you had with ministers and authors, Jews are treated like some kind of spiritual step-brothers to Christians. As you say on page 108, “…we like to think of Judaism as having its own value, not just as a pillar for Christianity.” Why do you think so many evangelical Christians automatically devalue every belief system but their own? Do you think they even realized they were belittling your heritage when they made comments about Judaism being the foundation of Christianity?
Radosh: The second question is easier: absolutely not. Most of the Christians I met are totally enamored of Jews — I’d say they think of us as older brothers, rather than step-brothers — and they’d be mortified to realize that their comments come off as anything other than completely respectful. However this philo-Semitism gets disturbing because most Christians have so little experience with actual Jews. They know about the ancient Hebrews of the Bible, but they don’t really grasp that Jewish culture is a living tradition that has evolved a bit in 2,000 years.
As for why so many (but by no means all) evangelicals devalue other belief systems, it’s probably because that’s what they’re taught from a very young age. To the extent that they learn about other philosophies and traditions, it’s through their own filter, and often with the goal of drawing people out of those belief systems and into Christianity. As a Humanistic Jew, I got a double dose of that, because as much as they misunderstand Judaism, it’s nothing compared to their misguided beliefs about humanism. It’s conventional wisdom among Christians that secular humanists worship themselves as gods, a notion as antithetical to what I actually believe as Christianity.
writerdd: Chapter 10: Celebrate a festival to the Lord
I used to listen to CCM when I was in high school. This chapter and the one that preceded it really brought that all back to me. I was also quite impressed by your description of Aaron Weiss from the band mewithoutYou. Aaron eats out of dumpsters to protest commercialism and he focuses on social issues like helping the poor and peacemaking rather than on laying down strict laws for people to follow. He almost sounds like a modern version of Jesus to me. Do you think people like Aaron are the future of evangelicalism? (I’m too pessimistic to hope so.)
Radosh: My interview with Aaron Weiss was recently excerpted by Utne Reader, and even if people don’t want to buy the book, I hope they’ll read this, because he’s got a message that really deserves to be heard. A lot of fans treat Aaron like a prophet, and maybe that’s not too far off. He lives in a way that serves as a rebuke to the rest of the church, even if it’s too radical for other people to fully emulate. I doubt we’ll ever see many Christians exactly like him, but I do think he’s the future in that he points in the direction that evangelicalism needs to head and is heading.
The reason I’m cautiously optimistic about this is because his music is great. That’s not a coincidence. Most of the genuine art in the Christian scene is being created by the people who are most open-minded, tolerant, intellectually curious, and truly dedicated to the best of Jesus’s teachings. And because their art is so vital and so appealing, they influence evangelical culture in important ways. They serve as a grass-roots antidote to the hatred and bigotry being imposed by the self-appointed leaders of the community.
writerdd: Chapter 13: Give me a man and let us fight each other
This chapter cracked me up. I’ve never been a wrestling fan, but I have a related experience. The very last time I ever went to a church on my own was at a service where The PowerTeam! — Christian bodybuilders — were “ministering.” I had moved to California and had unsuccessfully been looking for a new church, and when I walked out of that evening service, I knew I would never attend church again. How can these people possibly think that things like this can lead to spiritual experiences or make anyone want to become a Christian? It made me run in the opposite direction.
Radosh: My favorite part of my conversation with Rob Adonis, the founder and star of Ultimate Christian Wrestling, is when he says that he won’t allow his wrestlers to bleed the way the WWE stars do — and then he goes on enthusiastically for 20 minutes about all the great bleeders in pro-wrestling, and all the different ways to draw blood, and how make it spurt dramatically. He clearly has some mixed feelings about it.
One of the things about being a truly committed conservative evangelical is that questions like “how can you possibly think this works” don’t apply. Adonis believes the idea for the UCW was given to him by God and that God continues to guide it. He doesn’t need to think it works, he just needs to follow God’s commands. Now, why does he think God commands it? Well, he does get dozens of people who come up and commit themselves to Christ after each match. I saw a lot of these “altar calls,” and while there’s something fishy about them, as I tease out at some length in that chapter, I will say that the UCW matches have an old-time revival feeling about them that’s kind of appealing. There’s an authentic energy that I found refreshing compared to a lot of the highly-sanitized corporate Christian culture that I saw. If you believe in the Holy Spirit, I’m sure it’s much more present in that church gymnasium than in the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando.
writerdd: Chapter 14 Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins
Thank god I was never taught that masturbation would make me grow blind or grow hair on my palms or lose my mind, but I was taught that if I “backslid” and lost my faith that I would end up as a prostitute and drug addict, and that pre-marital sex was a horrendous sin that would make it impossible for me to be happily married in the future. It seems like it’s gotten much creepier since the 1980s with chastity rings and purity balls and abstinence-only education. What is up with the evangelical sex obsession anyway?
Radosh: It’s really amazing, isn’t it? I was recently on a panel with the liberal evangelical author Randall Balmer and he mentioned a study on fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam and Judaism conducted by his department at NYU. The one common factor that they found was the desire to control women. That’s part of the explanation, certainly. Of course, evangelicals are hardly alone in being obsessed with sex, and it doesn’t always manifest itself in healthy ways in mainstream culture either. I’m not sure A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila is less creepy than The Princess and the Kiss, which is a children’s book about protecting the gift of virginity. What’s really striking about Christian anti-sex culture is how oblivious it is to double entendre. One bit of abstinence jewelry I saw is a gold rose pin with the message “You are like a beautiful rose. Each time you engage in premarital sex a precious petal is stripped away. Don’t leave your future husband holding a bare stem.”
writerdd: Chapter 16: The opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge
I know our readers will be interested in hearing about your experiences at the Creation Museum. Somehow I never believed in Young Earth Creationism even when I born again, but it seems to be getting more and more popular in the U.S. Do you have a sense as to why YECs think that science in general and evolution specifically are a threat to their spiritual well being and to society?
Radosh: Before I visited the Creation Museum and talked to the people who run it, I didn’t really understand Young Earth Creationism. I had thought it was a form of pseudoscience — that is, a false belief system that nonetheless attempts to do what science does: explain something. But the creationists at this museum aren’t genuinely interested in how the world was created or where people come from. Creationism is valuable to them to the extent that it is a tool for converting people to conservative Christianity, and, by extension, imposing conservative Christian morality on the world (or, as they would say, restoring Christian values). After all, who is the target audience for this museum? Not people who don’t believe in creationism. They’re not going to come, except for kicks. It’s people who believe casually but don’t act on it. The museum indoctrinates people into adopting “creation evangelism.” And it persuades them that only by pushing creationism can the anti-Christian forces of the world be defeated. In case you think I’m exaggerating, check out the last photo on my online appendix page for this chapter. It’s a slide from a PowerPoint presentation by Ken Ham, the founder of the museum, and it shows how a fortress built on creationism can destroy humanism and its attendant symptoms, such as school violence and homosexuality.
Why do they think evolution is a threat to faith and society? Well, I could spend half a chapter answering that question, so instead I’ll point out that Ham gets upset when people charge him with that belief. He told me: “I see a lot of misreporting saying that we’re blaming evolution for social ills, or blaming evolution for abortion or gay marriage. That’s simply not true.” Of course, the museum seems to blame evolution for exactly those social ills. What Ham means, I learned later from a brochure, is that the problem isn’t evolution per se but rather “the harmful consequences of evolutionary thinking.” A clever loophole. If the museum doesn’t pan out, perhaps Ham can go into law.
writerdd: Chapter 17: Their visions are false and their divinations a lie
There’s so much polarity in the US right now, and such a huge ideological divide, that sometimes it seems like believers and unbelievers will never be able to speak to each other, never mind understand each other. Do you really think that people with such different world views and different understanding of what it means to be human can learn to communicate through pop culture?
Radosh: I was totally unprepared for coming out of my experiences with a sense of optimism, but I did. That’s partly because I realized that many evangelicals, even politically conservative ones, are not well represented by the Religious Right. Their worldviews may be different from yours and mine in many ways, but they are also similar in ways that we tend to overlook (to the advantage of the most strident and polarizing figures on both sides). In your earlier, very generous comments about my book you quote the passage where I point out that when the entire debate is framed as “supernatural deity or no supernatural deity,” yes, it appears that the vast majority of ordinary, healthy Christians have more in common with crazed fundamentalists than they do with you or I. But it’s also possible to define one’s worldview based on, for example “the nature of society and the respect that should be accorded to one’s fellow man.” When you look at it that way many believers have more in common with me than with James Dobson. After all, I don’t call myself an unbeliever, because I do believe in something, and much of what I believe in, many Christians could sign on to as well, and vice versa.
Of course, it’s sometimes hard to engage in this way, which is why I think pop culture is a good forum for it. What are movies and songs and comedy but forms of storytelling. And sharing stories is how we reveal what’s important to us, and how we help people see the world through our eyes. Storytelling is what Jesus did, and it worked for him.
writerdd: What was the funniest or tackiest thing you encountered during your research? What was the most moving?
Radosh: For me, it was always the little details that put something over the top. Not so much that there are Christian raves, but that they call them “DJ-led worship.” Or how the punk anti-abortion organization Rock for Life has a logo of a fetus playing electric guitar. You know what I mean? It’s funny and tacky enough that there’s a line of abstinence clothing called Wait Wear. But then you find out that they sell sexy thong underwear with a stop sign on it. That seems like a pretty clear case of, if you can read this, you’re too close.
Most moving? At one point, I had a pretty bad run-in at a music festival with this young pro-life guy who was a total asshole. It was really the only time in my travels that I lost my cool. We got into an argument about in vitro fertilization, which is how my children were conceived, and he said some stuff that was just really hateful. Anyway, I was fuming about this when I bumped into a guy I’d met earlier who happens to play guitar in a really good band called The Myriad. He told me, “I hope you don’t think there’s only one opinion about things like this. Because I hear a lot of shit from my brothers in Christ.” Somehow, it was just the right thing to say.
writerdd: What do you hope to accomplish with this book? Is there a specific message you want readers to walk away with? Do you have a different message for Christian and non-Christian readers?
Radosh: It’s not really a message book. Mainly what I want to accomplish is to inform and entertain. But I did come away thinking that America would probably be a better place if non-Christians were more open to the best of Christian culture. This isn’t just a “can’t we all get along” thing. The highest quality Christian pop culture is, like mewithoutYou, the stuff most correlated to humility and liberalism in evangelicalism. Encouraging it will help transform the Christian world for the better. And the secular world as well.
writerdd: Do you plan to write about American Christianity again, or are you going to move onto other topics?
Radosh: Next I’m writing about Buddhist pop culture. Emptiness — now only $29.99!
writerdd: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your book, Rapture Ready!
Radosh: If readers have any followup questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer them in the comments and/or at the Beliefnet Rapture Ready book group: community.beliefnet.com/getraptureready.