People often question my conclusion that American evangelicalism is shifting to become more tolerant and open-minded. Here’s a new study that finds something beyond even what I would have thought: 57 percent of self-identified evangelicals agree that “many religions,” not just their own, can lead to eternal salvation. Even among “traditionalists,” 50 percent agree.
Peter Berger, University Professor of Sociology and Theology at Boston University, said that the poll confirms that “the so-called culture war, in its more aggressive form, is mainly waged between rather small groups of people.”
What does this mean?
Liberals and conservatives will interpret the numbers in different ways, says Pew’s Green. “The liberal [interpretation] is that Americans are becoming more universalistic, religiously. The conservative one is that Americans are losing faith and becoming more accommodationist.” But he says the truth may lie elsewhere. “Just because they don’t want to believe that there’s only one way to salvation doesn’t meant that they don’t take their religion very seriously.”
Christian pop culture is a $7 billion industry. That factoid appears in pretty much all the publicity for my book because it sounds so impressive.
But the other day I spoke about marketing to Christian children in a panel discussion with three other writers, and I learned from one of them, the hilarious Gary Drevtich, that Disney Princesses rake in $4 billion a year.
How have these upstarts come so close to overtaking the son of God? As any parent who has put up with a child’s “but I really want it!” can tell you: by turning daughter into whine.
Not long ago, a team of entrepreneurs proposed building a Christian theme park outside of Nashville. If you were thinking of investing any money in the scheme, might I propose something less risky, like sub-prime mortgages.
According the web site, Bible Park USA will be “a one-of-a-kind, unlike-anywhere-else-in-the-world ‘edutainment’ experience offering guests of all ages a visualization experience of well-loved, familiar Bible stories and a taste of life in ancient Biblical times.”
It sounds an awful lot like Orlando’s Holy Land Experience or Eureka Springs’ Great Passion Play, both of which I visited for my book. The real difference is that unlike those and a few other Bible theme parks, which bill themselves as ministries, Bible Park USA is to be a for-profit venture, all the better to focus on delivering spectacular entertainment without the constraints of edification.
This, I believe, is a massive miscalculation of its audience. People who go to Christian theme parks don’t want or trust unfettered entertainment in the name of the Bible. They are far more concerned with whether the venue is properly honoring God. (Many Christians, of course, would roll their eyes at the very idea that a Christian theme park could possibly honor God, but they’re not the target demographic.) The “walk” of the park’s owners (Christianese for their “walk with God” or spiritual condition) is more important than the quality of the park itself. Much pop culture in the Christian bubble is judged by the testimony of its creators rather than any intrinsic value or lack thereof.
And the creators of Bible Park USA are Israeli-American Jews. Now, if non-Christians could get away with this, it would be Israeli-American Jews, who are held in some reverence by American evangelicals, but they’d have to tread extremely carefully. One slip and....
Whoops! Turns out the one of the park’s chief financial backers had a previous career as a photographer for Penthouse and Club. Amnon Bar-Tur is the father of Armon Bar-Tur, the park developer and project sponsor. When the Nashville media discovered his father’s history, Armon issued a statement saying, “Surely what a young immigrant photographer did 35 years ago to make a living in his first job out of college as a fashion photographer has no relevance to the development of our world-class tourist attraction in Rutherford County in 2008.”
If he believes that, he has completely misjudged his audience, and probably never stood a chance in the first place.
In response, Rep. John Duncan replied “that it seems ‘rather elitist’ that people with academic degrees in health think they know better than parents what type of sex education is appropriate.”
Yeah, those elitists with their fancy degrees in actually knowing about stuff should back off and let parents have their say! And what do parents say? According to one poll, only 30% of American adults agree with the statement “the federal government should fund sex education programs that have ‘abstaining from sexual activity’ as their only purpose.” In contrast, 67% of adults agree with the statement “the money should be used to fund more comprehensive sex education programs that include information on how to obtain and use condoms and other contraceptives.”
Um, but that’s all adults. And they’re probably counting liberal college students. What about actual parents with kids in school. That’s right, “95% of parents of junior high school students and 93% of parents of high school students believe that birth control and other methods of preventing pregnancy are appropriate topics for sexuality education programs in schools.”
Still, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, issued a statement calling yesterday’s hearings “biased” and a “sham.” Also yesterday, Perkins issued a statement calling Earth Day “a calculated attack on the sanctity of human life,” adding that “the crisis du jour is global warming, but even that is just another excuse to fund ‘Planet’ Parenthood and similar groups.” So he seems like a level-headed individual.
Many people want to know how I “snuck in” to the Christian subculture. The answer is, I didn’t. In every encounter I had with people (with one exception), I was completely open about who I was, what I was writing about, and what approach I was taking. It was gratifying that in almost every situation I was welcomed with open arms, despite whatever disagreements I might have had with the people I was writing about. No doubt a few people were suspicious of me, but I think they appreciated my honesty and were willing to engage me because of it.
In the one situation where I was a bit sneaky -- going undercover as an extra in a Passion play -- my deception, and my mixed feelings about having stooped to it, became a part of the story itself. So even though I was dishonest with some of the people I met, I am always honest with my readers -- even about my dishonesty. And when writing the book, I took care to represent people’s opinions and ideas accurately, even if I thought they were crackpots.
So you can imagine my disappointment to see the evangelical community I was so straightforward with embracing the deceptive anti-evolution film Expelled, whose producers lied about their agenda in order to get interviews and then edited those interviews to make their subjects look stupid. They even lied to get music rights.
Rapture Ready! was written from an outsider’s perspective, and I had other folks like myself in mind when I wrote it, but I’ve been very pleased by the warm reception its getting from people inside -- or at least on the fringes of -- the Christian subculture that I wrote about. I can only imagine how furious they would have been if I’d pulled the kind of stunt that they seem to be just fine with coming from Ben Stein and his pals.
After a reading yesterday, a friend of a friend whipped out her Kindle -- the Amazon digital book thingy -- and downloaded Rapture Ready! I’m not sure how the store that hosted the reading felt about that, but as an author, I certainly approved of how the device enabled an impulse purchase.
On the other hand, it was weird to see the design of the book homogenized to match the Kindle aesthetic. After all the back and forth I had with my publisher about everything from the cover to the type design, it was disappointing to know that some people will be reading the book in the purely utilitarian Kindle design. I know the essence of a book is in its words, which remain intact, but surely the experience of a book has something to do with its look and feel in your hands, and at the risk of sounding like an anti-technology crank (which I’m not!), I do feel like something is lost in this new format.
In chapter ten, I attend a workshop by an “ex-gay” ministry and leave both saddened and amused by the group’s strange misconceptions about gay people. I also realize that the church’s retrograde stand on the subject is ultimately doomed.
After all, John Smid’s ridiculous fallacies were so evident to me simply because I know lots of happy, healthy, and normal gay people -- Christians among them. And some day, inevitably, so would everybody else in this tent.
That someday became a day closer this week when Azariah Southworth, host of a popular Christian youth show, came out of the closet.
“I know I will be cut off from many within the Christian community, and if so, then they didn’t get the point of the life of Christ,” Southworth said. Importantly, he added, “We all know there are so many other gay people in the Christian industry; they’re just all scared. I was scared, but now I’m no longer afraid.”
That’s absolutely true. I met several people who freely discussed the number of semi-closeted gays in the Christian culture world, especially the music business. In the past, Christians who came out of the closet, such as Doug Pinnick from the classic rock band King’s X, basically ended up abandoning the church altogether. Southworth’s insistence that he can be gay and a believer strikes me as a significant step. Let’s see if anyone else follows him.