Leaving the Aquarium

When I was a churchgoer, I recall hearing a quote which was variously attributed, to the effect of: “Those called to be fishers of men have become instead keepers of the aquarium.”

I think about that quote a lot. Today I ran across the second Christian Mime Ministry website in as many months, and this week I also saw a Mario Brothers themed religious t-shirt. One sees avowedly “Christian” versions of fashion shows, first-person shooter video games, amusement parks, martial arts schools, and just about every sub-sub-genre of the arts. It’s a running joke among my friends, Christian or otherwise, to find yet another “Christian” version of something improbable.

American evangelical Christians are loath to leave their aquarium. For many of these people, any activity that is not explicitly “Christian” is suspect. But they’re unwilling to be Amish and withdraw into a cloistered world without television, pop music, and luxury cars. The call to be “a people set apart”, to reject the World and take up the Cross, is as difficult for them as it has been for anyone in the last 2000 years. The resulting conflict is tragicomic.

Why is this important to me?


In the last thirty years the word “Christian” has come to mean a culture of white Protestant lower middle class rural Americans, and people who want to be them. “Contemporary Christian Music”, for example, is a style of smooth 70s pop-rock with choral elements that would only be enjoyed by middle-aged white people from small towns if not for its presence in the subculture. Almost all the music one finds in a Christian bookstore has been filtered and flattened into something milder, cleaner, sweeter, and less troubling. There’s an entire sub-industry of Christian pop music artists who tail the musical trends of youth by about five years and turn out churchier clones of the most popular acts. One group in particular, DC Talk, has reliably walked behind the top 40 parade with a broom for two decades.

The aquarium isn’t just musical. Evangelical culture demands fiction, so there are complete lines of romances, mysteries, Westerns, and two unique genres: the spiritual thriller and the comforting small-town tale. Lewis’ science fiction triology and Little House on the Prairie have a million imitators, including the wildly successful “Left Behind” books and several popular series of heartwarming romantic novels set in small towns. A sub-industry of film produces prophetic thrillers on the same themes as the End Times novels, using down-on-their-luck Hollywood stars, and is distributed by DVD and church screening.

The list of “x plus Jesus” items is endless: a first-person shooter Quake-like video game in which the player battles sin with weapons of righteousness; non-rastafarian reggae; lifestyle stores that provide clothing and accessories for youth on the Hot Topic model; even an evangelical version of “American Idol” without the offending noun. If you’re not in the culture — or even if you are — it gets hilarious pretty quickly.

It’s way too easy to begin snickering at this point and never stop. All of this stuff is crap. Not just crap as in Sturgeon’s Law, but entire genres that are crap. “Christian” culture is derivative, cheap, poorly executed, and doubly pathetic in its pandering to pop trends and its failure to pander well. Most of the exceptions to this rule are fifty years old; The Screwtape Letters is currently on the CBA bestseller list. But I’ll take a moment to point out that talented and worthy artists do exist in the aquarium. In my churchgoing years I did encounter some. Mostly, though, the talented ones escape the aquarium or never entered it. Not only do you make less money in that world, but everyone is judged about as thoroughly as a pastor is for theological correctness.

The fatal flaw of aquarium culture is that it is not fundamentally or necessarily spiritual. Everyone who participates is Christian and all of the art refers to and promotes Christianity, of course. But that’s not the unifying factor. Aquarium culture is a communally shared expression of a particular kind of American Protestant cultural conservatism. It’s not enough to believe in the divinity of Jesus, or in salvation by irresistible grace through faith, or even in the literal interpretation of the King James Bible. To fit in socially, evangelicals are supposed to reject mainstream culture as completely as possible and purchase their entire lifestyle at the Christian “bookstore”, which nowadays is loaded with multimedia and gift items. Aquarium culture is a consolation prize. What they want is what all Americans want: the latest fun movies, the trendy musical styles, the TV shows everyone talks about at the office. What they get are cheap off-brand imitations of the pleasures of the World, sanitized and rewritten for an impossibly ideal mid-sized Midwestern town from a 1940s movie. To participate it’s necessary to be white (if in spirit only), distrustful of cities and intellectuals, politically conservative, and enthusiastic about some very bland material. If the scene or the hobby or the style of art you’re into is un-“Christian”, you must either drop it or make it Christian. The world behind the aquarium walls is deadly, literally ruled by demons, and one can’t be too enthusiastic about any of the amusement or education to be found there.

When I was a believer and a churchgoer this caused me no end of problems. Not only did I not give up my worldly art, culture, and politics, but my Christian artists were not from the approved list. I liked the music of T-Bone Burnett, Victoria Williams, Van Morrison, Mahalia Jackson. I liked Duvall’s film The Apostle. I read widely and included scholarly analyses and critical works as well as “inspirational” books. And I couldn’t stand the aquarium crap. In short I was a cultural and political liberal, an overeducated urban elitist, and a postmodern appreciator of cultural diversity. As much as my new friends were friendly and generous and accepting of me personally, I was the enemy and I knew it.


I left Christianity thoroughly and finally last year. Most of the reasons were essentially political. There was one permitted evangelical position: right-wing Republican, pro-war, pro-wealth, anti-intellectual, and socially intolerant. There weren’t any grey areas or places for discussion any longer. I sincerely felt that evangelicals had traded grace for wealth and love for power, and that my community was in a state of sin worthy of the rage of prophets. My conclusion was that a belief in eternal life turns people into murderous hypocrites, and I went back to my agnostic roots.

Looking back on it, I should have known from the beginning. I didn’t belong in the aquarium. It’s a place for people who are frightened, angry, greedy, hypocritical, and ignorant. I might not be an agnostic today if I had taken a different path to spirituality. I tried really hard to make my world and theirs meet, but you can’t do that with people who are deliberately inflexible. The evangelical subculture I tried to make my peace with wasn’t just full of crummy pop music and romance novels. It was also shot through with evil. The heaven these people want to inhabit is the lily-white eternal Smallville of their grandparents’ generation where everyone goes to church on Sunday in a big shiny car, no one swears, there is one child per sex act, the music is arranged for organ and choir, and Mom has just put a turkey dinner on the table with all the trimmings and three kinds of bread. It’s paid for by raining bombs on other people’s children and choking the life out of doomed slaves who do the hard work. Anyone who doesn’t fit is shunned, jailed, or killed. And no one has to take up his cross and die. Instead, they get a cheap, diluted, hand-me-down mockery of modern American life. The rest of humanity is outside their aquarium, distorted and discolored, seen through a glass darkly. I preferred to see face to face.

30 thoughts on “Leaving the Aquarium

  1. At least one radio station already declined to play this.
    I heard a message coming
    From somewhere in the middle of our country
    It said we voted our conscience
    I think you voted your fears
    And maybe that’s okay
    Maybe I did the same
    But why not just say
    If we’re all afraid
    You can quote me scripture
    against homosexuality
    I could quote you scripture
    about slaves
    You can play the Pharisee
    Point out the rules I broke
    The heresies
    But Jesus was a rebel all the same
    And you can’t take him away (from me)
    My guy spoke in parables
    Some like the hard sell
    My friend Jane invited me to pray at a sports arena
    And I said (uh) you know, well,
    Okay….
    So we went and heard that preacher
    He described in detail every sin
    And everyone else on the wrong path
    And I began to wonder when
    Religion got so competitive?
    And could one really get fired up
    About winning at the pursuit of loving everyone?
    You can quote me scripture
    about who gets into heaven
    And I will say the kingdom is at hand
    You can play the Pharisee, point out the rules I broke
    The heresies
    But Jesus was a rebel all the same
    And you can’t take him away (from me)
    You can’t take him away
    Just by dropping his name again and again
    You can’t take him away
    Bureaucrats hijacked my church
    So-called Christians said my savior was only theirs
    I said: Fine, go ahead, take everything
    But now you’re taking my country
    I still need somewhere to live and love and be
    So I guess this is where I draw the line
    Chorus
    c 2004 Anne Heaton

  2. Church is for SINNERS. period.
    that was a good read and reminded me of something i heard my grandmother say growing up and just recently from my mother. i was raised roman catholic in a rather irish family, after all i am the first one to be born in this country on my mothers side.
    my sister was talking with a friend of hers about the “drama” that went on at her church. i dont recall which, church of christ perhaps, but she wenton and on about how everyone had to be more holyer than thou, if for no other reason than because they go to church. each one speaking of the sins that beseach the world yet hold no acceptence or accountablity for there own. they believe they are perfect and see no faults in themselves. my mother stepped in momentarily and said, “thats silly, church is for sinners.” right? we, people are indeed sinners, which is what repentance is all about. how can you repent if you dont accept your faults, that has always troubled me.
    i have said it before and will say it again, you should write more. you are quite good at it.

  3. If I might ask, why do you feel that you were driven to agnosticism rather than to the progressive wing of Protestantism? Did Jesus let you down, or just the church? I could probably rattle off a half-dozen denominations in your part of the world that have slightly less authoritarian rigor but allow you to serve the Lord with all of your mind and not just your strength and spirit.
    Anyway, I’m totally in agreement on what you’re saying. I used to be concerned that all of the “x plus Jesus” was a cunning ploy to use culture as a gateway to witnessing. (“Hey kid, isn’t this collectable card game cooler than Pokemon? You know, all these characters are from the Bible!”) But it is far too uniformly lousy for that, so it must be that it is there to further enslave its insiders like Atkin’s brand non-carbohydrate bread. I tend to accept it, because they seem to spend less time banning shows like Murphy Brown and Ellen these days, but on the downside I guess I have to put up with their interpretation of the Chronicles of Narnia in a few months.

    1. If I might ask, why do you feel that you were driven to agnosticism rather than to the progressive wing of Protestantism?
      I think I fell between the cracks there. I found most of the “liberal” churches and groups to be spiritually moribund, not to say dead. They felt like ethical discussion societies, and I didn’t think anyone believed in anything, although they were awfully nice people.
      The conclusion I came to after about five years of this was that sincere, strong faith in a personal God and eternal life turns almost everyone into a complete jerk.
      I appeared to have a choice between a living, growing spirituality among murderers and hypocrites, or a series of Sundays with nice people who pretended that there was a God some of the time. I chose to just turn around and walk back. I spend my Sundays with nice people anyway.

      1. That is valid. “Progressives are ashamed of the Gospel” is probably like “Evangelicals are hypocrites” — true of 30% of the membership and you couldn’t disprove it by the outward actions of another 60%. I found it even more when I moved back East, where liberal Christianity devotes all of its excess energy toward political action and social justice, and not toward exercising our souls and strengthening our relationship with the Spirit. It’s somewhat aggrivating that no one seems to see the demand for combining the joy of self-discovery with the discipline of following the consequences of those teachings.

  4. Once again, you prove yourself to be one of the most lucid and insightful writers I know. Your commentary and use of metaphor in describing the Christian culture is incisive.
    It’s strange, but compelling to read about a first-hand exposure to this material. I’ve seen it and its influence on people for decades, but have seldom encountered anyone who made their way out by way of rational consideration. My own experience is quite different, coming from families that are Irish Catholic and Russian Jewish – but only when it suits them.

  5. As someone who has always looked into that aquarium from outside, I wondered why people would want to be in there. Thanks for this great explanation of what’s going on. And for the perfect metaphor for it.
    I do like /Jars of Clay/ though.

  6. This is exquisite, and brings to light some ideas that have been in my periphery for a while. You inspire me, hon. Thank you.
    Please send this to get printed somewhere. I’d offer to print it up in the next issue of Interesting Times (the We <3 Media issue) but I wouldn't want to butt in…
    Love,
    Leslie

  7. Evangelical Christianity, at least in my experience with it, has consistently struck me as being insincere. I feel like there isn’t any spirituality behind it. Of any denominations or branches or sects of Christianity, it seems like it has the least to do with Christ, and instead is simply an exoskeleton to bind this white Protestant lower middle class rural American “culture” together.

    1. There’s insincerity everywhere. I didn’t see more of it in evangelical churches than I did in other social groups.
      My anecdotal findings were that evangelicals took God seriously as a living presence, and mainline Protestants and the “progressive” churches didn’t. The latter felt that the Bible was full of good advice and stirring prose that confirmed their ideas about society.
      The evangelicals I knew really, really believed. And that, I think, was the problem. Hence my current refusal to do so.

      1. Mmmm.
        Man.
        That one cuts to the quick. I’ve spent the last however-many-years trying to figure out if I’ve been maturing, ‘falling away from my faith,’ or a little of both.
        I know that I was certainly more passionate, more fired up, about things like evangelism and bible study groups and so on when I was entrenched in the ‘aquarium.’ But I look back on that as a dead time in terms of what was going on internally. Was it purely emotional? I don’t know.
        I know pockets of people who ‘take God seriously as a living presence,’ but as you say… There’s such danger in so powerful a belief, too. I grew up hearing an almost-rhetorical question in sermons: if people are willing to get excited and do stupid thing for a sports team, why won’t they get fired up for God?
        Because a sports team demands nothing. It’s entertainment, a hobby, a diversion. With faith the stakes are high — the flash and the sparkle and the intensity can mean ‘hobby/amusement/club’ just as easily as ‘sincerity’ and ‘passion.’
        Don’t mind me. Just pondering.
        Thanks for your post. It was good. Very good.

    2. Kalcha
      instead is simply an exoskeleton to bind this white Protestant lower middle class rural American “culture” together
      That’s exactly what Ernest Gellner says in Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion. He simply says that the supposed religiousness of US society is nothing of the sort — it’s simply a cult of shared American-ness.

  8. don’t know why, but I thought of this:
    Lament
    by The Gourds
    I could tell you that I was a christian
    and I don’t guess that would be a lie
    I could tell you that I was church of christ
    and I don’t guess you could prove me wrong
    so don’t trouble no policeman
    he’s got a wife and kids of his own
    and don’t trouble yer neighbor
    cause they just want to be left alone
    I suppose if I was a demon
    I might have bugs all over my legs
    it might make sense for me t’tangle
    with my wife for awhile
    so don’t trouble no policeman
    he’s got a wife and kids of his own
    and don’t trouble yer neighbor
    cause they just want to be left alone
    Lord ain’t this nation lonely

    1. Re: Bravo
      American Idol: http://www.inspirationsensation.com/
      Hot Topic style youth culture store: http://www.c28.com/
      BDSM sex: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Christian-singles-BDSM-personals/
      The “Christian metal band” I posted about the other day, “Underøath”: http://www.underoath777.com/
      Christians for Cannabis: http://christiansforcannabis.com/e107/news.php
      The board game based on the crappy Left Behind books: https://secure.techreflex.com/talicor/items/view.html?item_id=8&nocache=94654017
      A spirited discussion of the whole problem: http://christianretail.blogspot.com/2004/12/live-strong.html

  9. But baby, it’s all about the Benjamins!
    Two things are happening concurrently: the evolution of a more exclusive (ironically labeled ‘evangelical’) Christian movement and the development of those goods and services specifically toward those people. There are several fascinating results to this combination, not least of which is the growth of something that might be referred to as evangelical elitism. That is, the creation of organizations and businesses that do business for– or with– ONLY people of the same thought. I’m talking multi-multi-million dollar corporations who will not hire a person based upon religious temperament (my mother worked for one a few years back) or will not supply goods or services to a person for the same reason.
    Creating exclusion, in a capitalist sense, creates exclusion, which will bring more people into the flock. All under the holy banner of greed.

  10. There’s a lot to this post I identify with, growing up in the bible belt. For me, it was the batshit insanity of a local Baptist church that made me question the authority of it all. The hypocrisy and blindness exhibited by the followers really turned me off.
    One thing about your post that struck me, is that I’ve known of you for about 14 years now, and for about half of that, I’d say I’ve known you fairly well. I knew about your spirituality, but had not realized that it was so recent that you departed from the organizationality of it. For all that time, in between when I would say *I* left the aquarium behind and when you did, I never pegged you as someone who was that firmly in it. Perhaps it was your intelligence, and my belief that very few intelligent people (at least on your level) would subscribe to blind faith in that way.
    I don’t know, but I’ve never thought of you as the enemy, and even if you were on the inside still, I doubt I could either.
    Great enriching read. Thanks!

  11. I wish I didn’t know quite so thoroughly about the aquarium of which you speak.
    If I were inclined to write on topics that make me batshit crazy, I’d devote an entry to the total culture that a single 10,000-member megachurch can become— what with the discussion groups and the sports leagues and the monday morning men’s prayer groups and… you could live your whole life without being “in the world”. Almost like a small town, really, without having to look at the freaky kid down the street that no one’s talking to.
    Strangely seductive, I suppose. It’s a good thing I lived 30 minutes away from said institution.

  12. You are right, Christian culture is lame…it has always been lame. When I first went to church, I had a haircut like the lead singer of Offspring, drove a 83 Camaro and stood up late to listen to mandatory Metallica on KNAC. I did not fit in to the “holy crowd”. But, this did not matter to me. If the “holy crowd” did not approve of me in their church, they needed to be there more than me.
    So yeah, it is easy…VERY EASY… to be disillusioned by the so-called messengers of God. But it is not about the messengers and you know that. I too do not want to end up like the asswipe mortgage bro “Christian” in raised H2 who would not take responsibility for his children wacking my wife’s car IN THE CHURCH PARKING LOT. I also am not going to let a guy like that and millions like him disillusion me. I just hope that he keeps going to church and one day actually applies what he reads in that bible he carries around.
    Matthew 7:21-23 “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

    1. Yes, and no.
      The social life of churches (any church) is tiresome sometimes, and it’s hard to focus on why you’re really there. That was about a quarter of my problem, and I was able to deal with the cultural challenges with some effort. As you say, the message is not the messenger.
      Unfortunately there were deeper-rooted problems that couldn’t be laughed off or written off.
      I started my account with some of the funnier and more superficial annoyances about American evangelical culture. By the end of my time as a Christian I was convinced that belief in a personal, powerful, revelatory relationship with God is almost always a terrible mistake. I could laugh and ignore the crappy art and write off individuals with problems like your parking lot buddy with a certain amount of effort. What drove me away was deadlier.
      American evangelical Christianity is fallen. The Church as a whole sincerely believes that the Author of the Universe has personally approved greed, gluttony, hatred, and pride. It’s far beyond hypocrisy; the actual values expressed by evangelicals stink of brimstone.
      My conclusion was that if a real living relationship with God produced this much death and destruction, this much worship of money, this much self-satisfied solipsism, then I was better off alone.

      1. Re: Yes, and no.
        http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1798944,00.html
        “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. ”
        “The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from “ uniquely high” adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.”

  13. Puritans
    Cheers to that.
    It’s fine if people want to hop into the Christian aquarium. I say good riddance. The problem is they keep stretching their slimy tentacles outside and into my demonic life.
    They want to manufacture not only their world but mine as well.
    Leave me alone!

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