Sunday, May 11, 2008

God Squad

This Slate article on Christian culture starts off rather oddly, I think, beyond just the almost Penthouse Forum stylings of the opening sentence.

One night, a couple of years ago, I walked in on a group of evangelical college boys sitting on a bed watching The Daily Show. I felt alarmed, and embarrassed, as if I had caught them reading Playboy or something else they had to be shielded from. Jon Stewart, after all, spends at least one-quarter of his show making fun of people like them. But they eagerly invited me in. I soon learned that they watched the show every night it was on, finals or no finals. So strong was their devotion to Jon Stewart that I was tempted to ask: If Jesus came back on a Tuesday night at 11, would you get off the bed?

There are at least a couple of peculiar assertions in that opening paragraph. One is that The Daily Show uses Christians and/or their belief system as a comedic punching bag. I watch the show pretty regularly, and I really can't think offhand of anything that fits that description. Poking fun at "intelligent design" advocates, creationist museums, goofballs who peddle quack science in an effort to circumvent evidence that conflicts with their dogma, sure. But those people are few and far between as comic fodder on TDS, and when they are the political subtext can be clearly seen. They are not being picked on because they're Christians, but because they're charlatans.

The other notion is that Christians need their own subculture that caters to them. This smells more like marketing than anything else, the business instinct to niche-peddle to people, rather than simply producing something that can reach out beyond the bounds of the niche and have some mass appeal. Bands such as U2 and King's X are probably no less Christian than, say, Stryper was, but they made more of an impact because they concentrated on making better music, and let that universalize their appeal.

Certainly it's understandable why people from socially conservative belief systems might want to actively dissociate themselves from the lame-brained vulgarities of popular culture. But those are pretty easy to sidestep -- I mean, no one's making anybody watch Tila Tequila or any of the interchangeable has-been fuckfests on the E! Channel. No one makes teenage girls wear the coin slot thong, or get a butt hat, or a nipple/clit piercing. People are either conformist mallrats, all expressing their individuality in eerily similar patterns, or they aren't.

Even TDS itself is only irreverent in comparison to the dutiful, slavish handjobbery that comprises most "news" media, particularly television. Stewart pokes fun at Bush's manifold incompetencies, and then has McCain on for the thirteenth time, for a round of softballs that would make Larry King blush. TDS is more of an outlet of catharsis at this point than anything truly significant, a place where we can go to snicker at the abusive absurdities that comprise our political system, and then go right back to either pretending that we can have any effect on it, or ignoring it all in favor of some cheap video soma. That's something that the religious and the secular alike can appreciate.


Ripley said...

The other thing is that Christians need their own subculture that caters to them. This smells more like marketing than anything else, the business instinct to niche-peddle to people...

The first "real band" I ever played in, after high school, was a Xian rock band, simply because I wanted to play in a band. (We actually did "rock" - think early Metallica with less talent and more crosses...) So, we went to Cornerstone - a huge 3 day Xtian music festival outside Chicago. Saw some decent bands, smoked a joint with our bass player in our tent, and perhaps made out with some young festival gals who were as weak in the flesh as we were. I digress...

One thing that made me look twice at the Xtian music biz - Amy Grant had a swag booth. A life-size poster of Amy Grant on the wall and, yet, no Amy Grant performing at the festival. LPs, posters, trinkets and trash - all to support Amy's "work", even though she was hundreds or thousands of miles away. It seems that even Xtians succumb to the power of gold.

(I know H is curious, so: Rez Band wasn't half bad. Keaggy, too. Kerry Livgren just looked pissed. "I was in Kansas! KANSAS!!"

My band? Stryper, Philadelphia, Saint, White Cross, some original stuff. Even in Grand Rapids, we had to pay to play. I guess we were too 'out there'. Or too loud...)

Heywood J. said...

Rip, I am heartened to know that Christian musicians are not immune from the occasional hedonistic sybarite indulgences the rest of us enjoy, if perhaps more regularly. I think the Amy Grant thing is hilarious; it's amazing how much more potential money there is in swag than in the actual music. And Metallica with more crosses....hey, why not?

In my garage-band days, two former bandmates (both drummers; read into that what you will) found religion and moved on from the temptations of rock and/or roll. One had converted hard enough to chuck all his Van Halen and G'n'R (two bands he had absolutely idolized) swag, practically overnight. And the bass player in my last cover band (in 1992) absolutely refused to play Man in the Box because of the line "Deny your maker".

It didn't matter that we explained to him what it meant. "Dave, he's saying that indulging in drugs is a denial of the integrity of your god-given individuality. It's a fairly common sentiment." He'd respond with a grunt, "It says, 'Deny your maker'." That was that. Then he finally quit the band, and that song became one of our more popular numbers.

Whatever my misgivings about Christianity per se, good music is good music, so good musicians such as Keaggy and even the fallen-on-hard-times Livgren do count for something. I just think the notion that evangelical college kids can't enjoy The Daily Show -- even if Stewart is making fun of them, like they can't laugh at themselves once in a while -- tends to infantilize them, by never rigorously challenging aspects of their belief system.