Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture was new when I first started writing experimental practice posts for what ultimately became Monkey See, in the summer of 2008. It's out in paperback this week, and I'm really glad to have an opportunity to actually publish a version of what I wrote about it back then.
In short, Rapture Ready! is not only the smartest exploration of Christian pop culture that I've ever come across; it's one of the wisest explorations of American pop culture in general that I've ever read.
Wisely, Radosh (now a writer for The Daily Show), who spent a great deal of time traveling and interviewing for this project, gets the pure frivolity out of the way early with a breezy chapter about the tchotchkes and T-shirts and the candy known as "Testamints." He later moves on to bookstores and book signings, music festivals, comedy showcases, sex-advice seminars, theme parks that insist they are not theme parks, and even professional wrestling — all aimed at a Christian audience. (Radosh himself is a Humanistic Jew; this complicates his research only occasionally.)
More exploration, after the jump.
When Radosh gets off the souvenir beat and starts to meet writers, comedians, and musicians, the book becomes more contemplative and layered. What will delight but not surprise any student of pop culture, whether Christian or secular, is that his patience and open-mindedness in finding things and people he respects and likes in this initially foreign territory is, maybe paradoxically at first, what ultimately makes him more discriminating.
As long as everything he encounters seems odd and unappealing, he doesn't bother being all that bugged by the worst of it. But when he attends a music festival where he likes some of the music and many of the people, that's when he first speaks out in anger against a piece of propaganda he thinks is offensive.
This is, of course, how all engagement with popular culture is, as we've talked about in this space many, many times. Radosh becomes a much more effective and thoughtful critic of particular elements of Christian pop culture after other elements have surprised him a little with their charm and/or quality, or just with the kindness and intelligence of their creators.
Refreshingly, the book emphatically does not exist to rain down mockery on Christian music or Christian comedians or Christian pop culture in general. (One quoted bit from one of the Christian comedy nights Radosh attended — it involves eating a Darwinist — is an absolute gem worthy of any comedy night in any setting; there's no effort to put a thumb on the scale by touching on only the bad.) Wide swaths of Christian pop culture, just like wide swaths of any pop culture, are easy prey (see: the fish in a barrel that is American Idol), and there's plenty of relatively gentle teasing here. But there's obviously been a conscious effort not to make it a book that's entirely about Testamints, har har.
Instead, when Radosh has completed his travels, the book ends with a remarkable and insightful chapter in which fresh reflections about American Christianity and American popular culture appear side-by-side, with some revealing thoughts about their intertwined fates.
I'm sort of downplaying how funny the book really is, in a "man on the road meets interesting characters" way, not a "let's make fun of Testamints" way, so I should stress: it's wonderfully funny. It's also a very, very smart book. Highly recommended as a memoir, a meditation on American religious tensions, and a perfect example of why taking popular culture seriously can be rewarding.