Blowing open the cliches of Evangelical Christians
Be they ‘crunchy conservatives’ or merely progressive, multi-media players push the boundaries of what’s happening now
STUCK IN THE PAST. HUMOURLESS. Nice, in a syrupy way. Asexual. Naive. Self-satisfied. Right- wing. Suburban. Anti-intellectual. Status quo. Pious.
So much for evangelical Christians.
The more than 100 million Canadians and Americans who belong to evangelical churches do not have a reputation as fun people to hang out with. Outside their fold, they have been largely written off as straitlaced, George W. Bush-supporting pillars of the mainstream establishment.
But, as Easter approaches, it’s worth noting a minority of evangelicals are determined to blow open the cliches about what it means to be a “born-again” believer in the saving power of Jesus Christ.
You can find out about them through their edgy new media.
This fresh evangelical movement is represented by adventurous, pop-culture-blasting Texan evangelicals like Chris Seay, author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano and The Tao of Enron.
They can also be found within the pages of The Wittenburg Door, an American satirical humour magazine that pokes fun at everything from Christian televangelist Pat Robertson to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Last year some Canadians moved boldly into the role of Christian culture critics with a provocative and highly praised magazine, Geez: Holy Mischief in an Age of Fast Faith. The magazine’s aim: “To be reverential and irreverent, earnest and playful.”
While most evangelicals are linked with U.S. Republicans and the Canadian Conservative party, these media-savvy evangelicals are advocates of consuming less, living with the poor, challenging western expansionism and going the extra distance to save Mother Nature.
You might call some of them “crunchy conservatives,” the name given to those theologically traditional Christians who oppose abortion and euthanasia and believe Jesus is the son of God, but also reject consumer culture, big-box stores and suburban sprawl, and eat organic food. Others in this group might simply tag themselves “progressive” Christians.
In The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, Seay urges Christians to recognize the shadow side of their usually cheery personae, so they don’t project their sinful natures onto others.
And in the brilliantly satirical Tao of Enron: Spiritual Lessons from a Fortune 500 Fallout, Seay shows how the Christian executives who ran the company strangely separated their faith from their greed and lust for power.
The Wittenburg Door also jumps out cheekily from a sea of whitebread evangelicalism. While playing up features on spiritually- rooted performers such as Canada’s Bruce Cockburn or Moby, the Door punctures Christian hypocrisy, American imperialism, papal infallibility and the peccadilloes of Christians on the right and left.
Canada’s Geez, however, may be the new Christian media outlet most adept at pushing the edges of respectability in a subversive, ecological, visionary way.
Geez is drawing rave reviews in North America’s mainstream and alternative media, from the Dallas Morning News and Maclean’s to This Magazine and The Utne Reader (where it was this year nominated for best spiritual magazine and best new magazine.)
It is the brainchild of a former Vancouver Sun editorial department staff member named Aiden Enns, who went on to serve as [managing editor] of the Vancouver-based anti-consumption magazine Adbusters.
With his evangelical Mennonite background, Enns says he’s instructing his lively contributors, some of whom are big-name Christians, “to write for their smart non-church friends and see what happens. It seems to be working.”
Geez magazine, which does not accept advertising, takes a social- justice spin on most issues. But Enns says he discourages the kind of anger and self-righteousness often associated with activists. “Bitterness comes easily,” he says. “But, frankly, it’s boring.”
Geez overflows with pointed illustrations and clever graphics. In the recent fourth issue, for instance, Karen Kliewer creatively adapts an image of washing-machine instructions to expose self- indulgent guilt (both Christian and secular) — the kind that encourages people to play the victim and ignore the need for empowerment and grace.
Geez is also spearheading three wry campaigns. Make Affluence History, which riffs on the Make Poverty History crusade, challenges the widening gap between the ultra-rich and grinding poor. Buy Nothing Christmas, organized by Mennonites, suggests avoiding the malls during this major Christian festival. And De-motorize Your Soul offers liberation from the stress of a gas-guzzling habit of life.
In an interview from Manitoba, Enns says much of the innovative, youth-oriented new evangelical media feels authentically counter- cultural, a challenge to the powers that be and to an entertainment culture devoted to “distraction.”
But the worst of the new Christian media just pretends to be “hip,” Enns says, while all it’s really doing is pandering to consumerism and the status quo.
Relevant is one of the fashionable-looking evangelical magazines that Enns finds hard to stomach. “It’s trying to compete with hip secular magazines. But all it does is have a big love-in with evangelical popular music and culture. It makes evangelicals into pop-schlock consumers.”
Revolve, a flashy magazine/book aimed at families, combines dating and beauty tips for young girls with a jaunty translation of the New Testament. To appeal to boys, Revolve features skateboarders. But Enns says Revolve ultimately adulates the marketing industry.
However, Enns does admire several other new loosely Christian publications and Internet media.
He’s impressed by Paste magazine. Even though not overtly Christian, many evangelical writers with Paste, Enns says, are talented at highlighting the spiritual souls of artists, ranging from Morrissey to The Barenaked Ladies.
A surprisingly novel media effort, called Revolution, comes from Jay Bakker, son of the disgraced televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker. As an eyewitness to the hypocritical way evangelicals treated his parents, Bakker refers to himself as “One punk, under God.” Holding church meetings in New York bars, Bakker sends out what Enns calls an “open and inclusive” Christian message through his popular webcasts and podcasts.
Like a true prophet of old, Enns, despite his cheerful demeanor, has a way of irking people from all over the religious and social map as he stretches the boundaries of what it means to be evangelical.
“I’m very embarrassed to talk about being a Christian, because it’s not cool. So often it’s justifiably lumped in with patriarchy, militarism, dogmatism and heterosexism,” Enns says.
“But I am an evangelical about the social gospel. I was taught a deep presence of the love of God. And I’m going to speak it in the evangelical camp. The reign of God is here in our midst. And the challenge is to have the eyes to see it. So much of popular culture is showy, greedy, aggressive and empty. It masks the real rays of truth and light in the world.”