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.