Daniel Radosh is the kind of freelance writer who makes other freelance writers jealous. Or inspired. But mostly jealous. He’s earned himself bylines in the New Yorker, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, GQ, Esquire, Salon, Slate, and Playboy. He’s been a contributing editor at The Week for a long time and used to be a staff writer and editor for Spy magazine.
He writes a successful blog at Radosh.net, which has gained quite a following for its always-fun anti-caption contests of New Yorker cartoons.
And then last year, he went and got himself hired as a staff writer for the Daily Show. Yes, the one with Jon Stewart.
Daniel hit my radar two or three years ago with the publication of his book Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. We have a handful of mutual friends, and he was kind enough to offer an endorsement of my Pocket Guide series as well as my new book. So when I learned that Rapture Ready! was being released in paperback this week, I figured it was time to do a blog interview.
Stick around after the interview for details about a fun Rapture Ready! giveaway. And please do not confuse Daniel’s Rapture Ready! site, which contains an excellent multimedia appendix to accompany his book, with RaptureReady.com, which is a very serious watchblog for the End Times. Both are hilarious, of course, but in vastly different ways.
I know you’re “a secular Jew,” but how observant or devout was your Jewish upbringing? How would you describe your current religious beliefs or outlook?
Secular probably describes how I was brought up better than it does my current beliefs. As a kid I had a cultural identification with Yiddishkeit (that is “Jewishness” rather than “Judaism” in the religious sense) but I didn’t go to synagogue or anything. The only Jewish holidays my family observed were Hanukkah, Passover and Oscar Night. These days I identify more as a Humanistic Jew. That’s probably splitting hairs as far as most of your readers are concerned since Humanistic Judaism is still secular, but it does involve observance and practice. That is, I belong to a non-theistic congregation, light candles on Shabbat, celebrate holidays and so on, though I see all these traditions as human-evolved rather than divinely ordained.
Where did the idea for Rapture Ready! come from?
A few years back and I was visiting my wife’s family in Kansas. Her teenage half-sister is a born-again Christian and we went with her to one of these traveling rock festivals. After one of the bands, her friend came running over and gushed, “Awesome performance! They prayed like three times in a twenty-minute set.” I was like, Wait, the stuff between the songs was the most important part? As I explain in the beginning of the book (which you can read here), I’ve attended plenty of rock shows and thought I’d looked at pop culture from every possible angle, but this was new to me. I found the whole thing simultaneously familiar and disorienting in a way that was incredibly intriguing.
Rapture Ready! seemed to come out at a time when there were several other similar outsiders-immerse-themselves-in-Christianity books, like Lauren Sandler’s Righteous and Robert Lanham’s The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, along with AJ Jacobs’ Year of Living Biblically. And all you guys kind of run in the same writerly circles in Brooklyn, right? How does that happen? Was it a contest or something?
AJ lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That’s like a totally different country, so I challenge your premise right there. But don’t forget Andrew Beaujon’s Body Piercing Saved My Life, and excellent recent books like In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch, The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose, and My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen. So I guess what I’m saying is the contest is over and AJ won. That’s why we all go to him for blurbs.
I’m guilty of that, too, and I don’t even live in the same time zone as AJ, much less the same city. One thing I love about Rapture Ready! is that you’re not afraid to be critical of the stupid things, like “Jesus junk” or the Rock for Life logo of a fetus shredding on guitar, but you also find some positive things about the subculture. What are some of the things that confounded your expectations? Did these surprise you?
With little knowledge about evangelicalism other than what I’d seen in the media, I went into this project expecting to find that Christian pop culture was largely a delivery mechanism for a conservative political agenda—a spoonful of sugar to help the napalm go down, if you will. And while that definitely exists, I discovered that there is another way in which pop culture serves as a moderating force within evangelicalism. Maybe that shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, since creative people are often the most open-minded of any society. Many Christian artists, musicians in particular, no longer want to be constrained by the Christian bubble, so they play secular clubs and tour with mainstream bands. They g
et to meet a wide variety of people and are exposed to many different ideas. Their stature in the culture gives them a kind of grassroots moral authority to challenge the intolerance of many church leaders. They don’t necessarily espouse liberal politics, though some do, but they are likely to help their young fans understand that the world isn’t necessarily as black and white as their youth pastor might have led them to believe. That was an eye-opener for me.
I think there’s a lot of value in looking at our faith from an outsider’s perspective. Since you can provide that kind of expertise, what are a couple of things that come across as weird, disturbing, or misguided to secular people, but which Evangelical Christians don’t realize because we’re too close?
Well, as I learned pretty quickly a lot of Christians are themselves outsiders to the type of Christian culture sold in Lifeway stores, and I suspect most folks here don’t need me to point out how odd and unfortunate things like gospel golf balls are. But I will say that whenever a Christian warns against being “too heavy-handed” in pop culture, they’re about to embrace something really heavy-handed.
A similar blind spot seems to be Christianese. I constantly heard Christians observing that it’s important not to speak in Christianese—and then almost without fail using a string of Christian buzzwords. I realized that Christians think the rest of us will be mystified by theological terms like “justification” or whatever, when what really sounds weird to us is the spiritual appropriation of ordinary words like “heart” and “walk.”
You’ve said before that you think the world would be a better place if non-Christians were more open to the best of Christian culture. What kinds of things do you place in that “best of Christian culture” category?
I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of a book called O Me of Little Faith, so I’m definitely going to include that.
Thank you for that. Your bag of cash is on the way. Please continue.
Mostly what I recommend to people is the kind of indie music I heard at Cornerstone: artists like mewithoutYou, Over the Rhine, Jonathan Rundman. Unlike the two kinds of Christian music that get played on the radio, the bands I found myself really enjoying neither hide their faith nor sell it. These aren’t advertising jingles for Jesus or anodyne praise songs, they’re complex meditations on the joys and struggles of ordinary people who believe—or at least want to believe—in the messages they find in the Bible. I may not share their beliefs, but I do find them interesting and there are elements of them that I can relate to. Even something like Sherri Shepherd’s new sitcom on Lifetime isn’t particularly cutting edge but it’s legitimately entertaining and uses humor to illuminate real aspects of everyday American Christian life.
What was creepier: the Creation Museum in Ohio, the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, or the time when you appeared as an extra in an anti-Semitic Passion play in Arkansas, calling for Jesus to be crucified? Please explain.
Ooh, tough call. I’ll rule out Holy Land Experience, which was too sterile and and cheesy to be genuinely creepy (or, I probably don’t need to point out, holy). The Passion play was an insane and almost hallucinatory experience, which probably had more to do with the way I approached it than anything—it’s the only time I went “undercover,” which I felt was necessary given, as you mention, this particular production’s anti-Semitic history. It unfolds on this giant outdoor stage the size of two football fields. The audience is so far away that they can’t hear the actors—all the dialogue is prerecorded and the performers just lip synch. So I volunteer as an extra and I find myself in the angry Jewish mob—this show was a real throwback to an unpleasant older era, and it was really the only time I encountered any anti-Semitic overtones. I’m on this very realistic set with all these people yelling and I kind of start freaking out and I think, “I can’t go along with this.” And instead of shouting, “Crucify him!” I raise my arms so the audience can see, if not hear, and I say, “Maybe we should let him off with a flogging!”
That said, the Passion play ultimately seemed so out of step with contemporary Christian culture that I couldn’t take it too seriously. So I’ll go with the Creation Museum because it was actually worse than I expected. Before I visited 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, waging war against what they see as anti-Christian forces.
I know that sounds paranoid, but check out the last photo on my online appendix page for the museum. 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.
Give your sales pitch. Why do Christians need to read Rapture Ready! Why do non-believers need to read it?
You know, it’s not really a message book. Mainly I hope people will read it because it’s entertaining. But I think in general there needs to be more communication between believers and non-believers. Christians are often too willing to retreat into their bubble and non-Christians are only too happy to let them stay there. But insularity is a breeding ground for fundamentalism, which is not in the interest of either Christians or the rest of us. And on the flip
side, secular America’s insularity from Jesus’ message of universal brotherhood and moral responsibility is a recipe for, well, Jersey Shore. What I’m saying is, we can all benefit from thinking harder about other ways to live.
What was the coolest thing that happened to you in 2009? Was it getting hired as a writer for The Daily Show? Or getting to interview Paul and Ringo for your New York Times Magazine cover story on The Beatles: Rock Band?
Hmm. I think I’m obligated to say the birth of my daughter in September, even though she’s my third child and, let’s face it, the novelty wears off after a while.
Thanks, Daniel. Rapture Ready! really is a great book. It’s funny, well-written, open-minded, and interested in doing more than just poking fun at the rampant weirdness of Christian culture. You should go buy it right now. And as long as you’re following my commands, go pre-order O Me of Little Faith. And make me a sandwich.
Daniel has graciously agreed to a giveaway. He’s offering a free copy of the book plus an accompanying soundtrack CD. The CD is a nicely packaged but bootleg compilation of, in his words, “great, not-so-great and just plain terrible Christian music inspired by the book.” It features tracks from musicians he meets, discusses, or who illustrate points he makes in the book — from Larry Norman to T-Bone Burnett to Andy Hunter. “I still listen to it regularly,” he says.
To enter your name in a random drawing to win the book and CD, simply leave a comment below. Daniel’s an occasional commenter here anyway, and will be stopping by today to join any discussion that develops. If you have any questions you want to ask him directly, feel free.
We’ll choose the winner randomly after 9 am tomorrow and let you know.