Christian Pop Culture and the “Missing Middle”

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Bustedtees.db7aa9604a42b3ae4ced04272de8072a[1]You may not share this mission. 

Maybe you feel more strongly for something else. Maybe your creative spirit soars to different music. Maybe you don't know what I'm on about discussing books for this "missing middle."

That's okay.

Do your thing and do it well.

But for nearly 20 years, maybe longer, I've been disappointed by Christianity. I've lived in the shadow of something I considered an embarrassment. It seemed to follow me around wherever I looked. I was guilty by association. In the popular parlance of my childhood and early adulthood which took place in the early 80s and 90s, the adjective "Christian" was largely synonymous with "a shoddy, reduced copy."

Some of you know what I'm talking about. Some of you don't.

Sure we had Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Frank Peretti wrote that big thriller. And there were a number of excellently produced boycotts. But for every reason to be proud, there were 100 reasons to cringe.

Now that is finally changing, after all this time–in music, in movies, and in books. In my industry–books–the popular interest in spiritual things is welcome indeed.

The Christian pop culture was described well in Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh. This is the parallel universe I grew up in. An old article/reviewby Hannah Rosin said:

"A young Christian can get the idea that her religion is a tinny, desperate thing that can't compete with the secular culture. A Christian friend who'd grown up totally sheltered once wrote to me that the first time he heard a Top 40 station he was horrified, and not because of the racy lyrics: 'Suddenly, my lifelong suspicions became crystal clear,' he wrote. 'Christian subculture was nothing but a commercialized rip-off of the mainstream, done with wretched quality and an apocryphal insistence on the sanitization of reality.'"

Where souls are at stake, it seems, creative work is restricted. And where creative work is restricted, it becomes a clanging gong, serving only those already in the club. That's one reason (as Rosin says) “it's always been a stretch to defend Christian pop culture as the path to eternal salvation.” So now can we write books that are Christian but not for Christians? That's where this middle ground is opening up between CBA and ABA through books like The Shack and others. Will we escape the confines of these walls and face up to the fact that a Christian pop culture does not save souls, has never really been about that underneath anyway, and conflicts and confuses converts with its “eternal oxymoron?”

 

Here’s my answer: No. Some can’t. And some shouldn’t. They have God to answer to. Some have been called to preach to the choir to encourage them to sing, and to keep singing even in the face of incredible opposition. Yes, these folks are needed. Let me not stand in their way.

 

But here’s my answer to the new voices: Yes. You don’t have to produce the Jesus Junk and the Kinkade Kommemorative Kolection just because you’re a Christian. There’s a big world out there waiting for your junk, er, work, and Andy Crouch and Mako Fujimura and many "covert Christians" are working to define that space and help it survive its infancy and get off the ground. You'll take some flak for it, but less than you'd expect. It's pretty well established by now–in books like Don Miller's and Rob Bell's and David Kinnaman's unChristian–that there's a problem here and it's not going away until we deal with it.

 

So if you are a writer (elitist, hack, or otherwise), who has a vision for something nontraditional that doesn't fit in the current Christian pop culture market, several modern-world changes are contributing to (as Paulo Coehlo says in The Alchemist) "conspire in your favor." And this should give you all the confidence you need to step out and not accept confinement to your previous notions.

 

Start by reading all the authors and books mentioned in this post. And by sharing your thoughts here. And coming back.

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4 thoughts on “Christian Pop Culture and the “Missing Middle””

  1. It seems to me that we’re called to follow Christ, not Christianity; Great Commandment, Great Commission, stuff like that. We are to /be/ Christianity, not follow Christianity. The most cogent thing along these lines I’ve read in the last year or so is this from Cal Thomas:
    http://www.calthomas.com/index.php?news=2419
    If results are what conservative Evangelicals want, they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative Evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,” not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God’s love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?
    Perhaps that kind of radical thinking is how we get to this:
    http://www.boingboing.net/2009/08/28/howto-defeat-the-kla.html

  2. Mick, I think the danger is and has always been determining “Christianity” by its followers rather than by its definition. Christianity is the following of Christ: His actions, priniciples, truth, who He IS which is God. The “problem” with it comes in judging its extremes in either direction. It’s good to know God is much more merciful and doesn’t hold one above another.
    I’ve also discovered or learned that those who have the most disdain (and I’m not suggesting this is you at all) for Christianity are those who’ve never had a viable relationship with the Holy Spirit. They allow their (potentially flawed) intellectual understanding of who Jesus is rule over their faith understanding and realization of the supernatural in their lives.
    It might be “popular” for those to remain seeking a more non-traditional form of book (non-fiction or fiction) more because they want their personal convictions confirmed rather than the truth of the Word enacted in their lives.
    However, everyone needs a forum to either display or discuss their ideas, hopes, dreams. But the hope should always be not to “expand” the Truth but to live it.

  3. My thoughts (or a sampling therein):
    In its participating in culture, Christianity had to grow up, meaning it needed the stage of copying culture in order to learn it since we had largely refrained from consciously participating in this aspect of culture (obviously, everyone participates in some culture, but you know what I mean). Like children, we had to copy first. I grew up on Michael W. Smith, Keith Green, and Janette Oke (as well as their secular counterparts), and that’s okay. But it’s not okay to continue to merely copy, creating our “safe” versions of that stuff out there. So the question now is what does it mean to create art now? (Interesting tidbit: I grew up a classical musician; this question never comes up in that arena. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or not as long as you can play Rachmaninoff or compose well.)
    In answering this question, I’ve come to the realization that in many ways, it’s not different from the non-Christian. True, I seek first God’s kingdom (or strive to in my better moments of dependence on the Holy Spirit). I am being transformed.
    However.
    I learn the craft of writing in the same way that non-Christian writers do. I come up with stories and characters in the same way (in other words, God doesn’t give me stories; he gives me creativity to be able to do so). I spend hours at a computer (most of which may be procrastinated). And my writing reflects, embodies, and works out how I see the world and humanity. None of this differs from a non-Christian. So can we take that pressure off Christian artists? Can I create a story without a single Christian character in sight that still reflects my Christian views of the world and God’s glory?
    So perhaps more to the point–what does this mean for the publishing industry and how Christians who happen to be writers or writers who happen to be Christian interact with the industry and how consumers find new titles? Which I suppose is the point of this series. And in that, thank you for the encouragement.

  4. Great thoughts here and very thought-provoking. Johne, you’ve hit on it–inviting more readers is the goal. Nicole, you balance us perfectly, as usual. Heather, you speak my heart for a “grown-up” Christian marketplace where we might find any number of otherwise-unavailable work in the rich legacy of Christian work that’s gone before.
    But I still beg the question: why do we need to eschew ABA or CBA to pursue this if it’s possible to A) extract Christ from his representatives in either market, and B) publish non-derivative, broadly-appealing specifically-grace-revealing work in either.
    If there was a place for books like The Shack, they wouldn’t have to be self-published (not that S-Pub is the problem it once was). If CBA or ABA were more amenable to A & B above, why are so many writers and readers finding themselves left out at the respective tables? And most of all, why is a missing middle audience rising up to the status of cultural “taste-maker” and definer of what “spiritually-interested” publishing is to the establishment?
    Industry study shows, until recently, it was hard to find any good-sized publisher willing to take on a book or message that didn’t fit either man-sans-God secularism or Jesus-sans-world Evangelicalism. Man and God and Jesus and world all together in one book? That’s a middle ground. Nothing removed for the extremists and separatists in either camp.
    That’s the new market I see emerging and that’s why I’m not afraid of the future.

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