As an evangelical, I want to argue that all faiths have their commercial side (check out Dead Sea cosmetics at www.somethingjewish.com!), but a little meekness is in order here. I've been to Vanity Fa-whoops, I mean the Christian Booksellers Association convention, where purveyors of Christian goods fill several football fields worth of convention-center floor to show their wares.
It's hard to think of anything analogous to this enormous mix of commercial power and inspiration in, say, Islam. A visitor to this year's 55th Annual CBA International in Atlanta last month could place orders for t-shirts stamped "Property of Jesus," a temporary cross tattoo, a box of evangelistic candy ("Saving the World One Piece at a Time") or hygiene products from "Christian Toiletries, Inc."--maybe a cake of Bars of Faith Soap, or a bottle of Bars of Faith Conditioning Shampoo. Besides such novelties, presenters unleashed the usual avalanche of Christian books, CDs, and children's videos, all ranging from the very good to the truly terrible (my favorite new line from Christian contemporary music: "Hallelujah, Scooby-Dooby-Doo-Ya").
Oh yeah, I think they had Bibles there, too.
We evangelicals didn't dream up religious marketing, but we pursue it with all the energy of our middle-class entrepreneurial spirit, raising it to levels that even Pope Leo X--his selling of indulgences to rebuild St. Peter's in Rome led pretty much directly to the Reformation--wouldn't have imagined.
What's wrong with this? Not much, according to the usual American way of thinking. Most Americans adore the idea of a clever vendor finding a pretty market for his perfect product: that's the romance of capitalism, right? That's the great love affair that births all our bank accounts.
Apparently, it's not that simple. Even many evangelicals have qualms about trading on Jesus' name to sell a product. It's not just that a "Lord's Gym" t-shirt, picturing Christ doing push-ups under the cross, is tasteless or even offensive. The very mingling of God and mammon, religion and capital, seems profane. We remember that Jesus once took a lash to "money changers" in the temple; we picture a few TV preachers we'd personally like to bullwhip-the kind who build kingdoms on the pensions of our grandmas.
The rest of the country has reasons of its own to distrust the Jesus culture. One very understandable reason is the impressive power of a united market. We evangelicals congregate in big numbers-filling stadiums, overflowing parking lots. Catholics only do that when the Pope is in town. Add the commercial uniformity of our John 3:16 ballcaps and fish decals and evangelicals-we who so value our intellectual liberty, who differ among ourselves on so many theological and political issues-look to outsiders like a swarm of dangerous insects, a troop of zombies.
But the problem with evangelical pop culture doesn't lie in its profitability, its frequent bad taste, or even its gigantic number of followers. If those qualities alone could damn a cultural movement, then we should all pray for the San Andreas fault to swallow Hollywood. The critics who want religion to be funded entirely by gifts and pledges, like public broadcasting-the same critics who lambasted Mel Gibson for making millions on The Passion of the Christ-aren't likely to complain about Stephen Spielberg profiting from Schindler's List.
Imagine the following scenario. A businessman in Portland wants to cash in on the growing Jesus market. Not religious himself, he hires a Christian design firm composed of art-school grads who once imagined their art in New York galleries but now struggle to feed themselves. They're happy to get the business, yet behind his back they ridicule him and his product: a line of Christian clothing, including sweatpants with "GOD'S GIRL" scrawled across the derriere. Still, they do the work and cash the check. A factory in Indonesia takes the order. The "God's Girl" sweatpants are shipped back to the U.S., and a 14-year-old in Alabama buys them from a Christian bookstore at the local strip mall.
The girl's intentions are honorable: She trusts that, because those pants are sold at a place where Jesus' name is proclaimed from every shelf and hanger, they must be a wholesome, even godly, thing to put on her body. And maybe a pair of tacky sweatpants won't do that girl any real harm. It's a fact, though, that the religious sales environment has undermined her ability to judge. Like a lot of buyers of Christian products, she's been suckered, because she believes that anybody selling "Christian" products must love Jesus and have her best interests at heart. Her automatic trust is the same, whether the product is a relationship book, a diet plan, vitamins, or even a children's video.
Christian mass culture doesn't only undermine critical thought. It sucks away individuality and creativity. Too many churches have given up making their own music because they think the taped accompaniment from a Christian distributor sounds more contemporary and professional. Too many Sunday School classes do nothing but watch tapes of famous speakers far away--Christian "stars" who seem spiritual and important, just because they're talking from a television screen. That's the bad news.
The good news is that our communal and informal faith is (sometimes lamentably) free of dignity or pomp. We favor preachers who do stand-up comedy. We like the tin-ear children's choirs, and the teenage rock band that plays on Sunday nights. We like the travelling drama group and the deacon who does turkey calls. People may laugh at our excesses, but it's no surprise to me that so many fine performers of the 20th century (from Aretha Franklin, Maybelle Carter and Johnny Cash to Garrison Keillor) flourished first among Bible shakers and salvation preachers.
Behind the ballcaps and fish decals, behind the curtain of "Jesus Rocks" frenzy that Dannelly so gleefully lampoons, life in the real evangelical church is still a place where thought and creativity can thrive. Despite the dogma that the artistic spirit languishes in the confines of any conservative religious culture (think of Danny in "The Chosen"), in my evangelical life I've acted in four plays, played in two instrumental groups, performed a couple of one-woman shows, painted an 18-by-10 ft. mural (no, it wasn't of Jesus), helped stage a ballet, yodelled in a gospel quartet, taught painting classes, and sung in several choirs of varying quality. I've never once had to beg, bribe, or sell my body to find an audience for my gifts. All I've had to do is raise my hand when they called for volunteers.
When American Christians open our wallets instead for products with little connection to our own lives or communities, we're saying that the creators of mass culture are better, wiser, more gifted, maybe even more righteous than the rest of us. That's a dangerous way of thinking, carrying the potential for both laziness and corruption.
But it doesn't excuse Mr. Dannelly for skewering evanglicals in "Saved!" Commercialization of Christian culture is lamentable, but it doesn't make evangelicals fair game. Mr. Dannelly's kind of group-demonization, born mostly from fear, not anticapitalism, has been tried often enough, and only risks turning ridicule to outright hate.