Reclaiming What Christian Culture Forgot.
I hate Christian culture. And I bet deep down you do too. I hate the isolation and hypocrisy. I hate the way that Christians take good secular bands and construct cheap, generic Christian imitations. I hate the frou-frou Christian self-help books at the top of the best-seller lists that claim to have found the “magic pill” to life through purpose-driven prayers of Jabez. I do not take these pills. My mom told me to never take drugs from strangers—especially strangers who believe that their magic pills will one day allow them to float up through the clouds into Never-Never Land, while those who reject the pills descend into fiery pits of devils and despair.
I am a Christian, but I will not take those pills.
The distinction must be made between Christian culture and the person of Jesus Christ. There is little of the true Christ in the pills and the easy, fix-it-remedies of popular Christian culture. Part of the problem is that we’re imperfect people, and our imperfections show up in our media culture—everywhere from the latest Tim LaHaye Left Behind novel to Plus One (the Christian boy-band answer to N Sync). Christians, we must repent individually to people around us who have been subjected to Christian culture—I’m not kidding.
Forgive us… we’re sorry.
Christians, we don’t need to run to the “Christian music” section in Sam Goody in order to find music about Jesus. There’s so much more out there than what’s to be had in the treacly-sweet isolation of bubblegum Christian culture. Christ can be found in many of the other sections, where the good CD’s are, and the stories that those songs tell have an amazing amount of substance to them.
Let’s start where I think the story begins. Switchfoot tells it well—I’m sure you’ve heard them on the radio with “Meant to Live” or “Dare You to Move,” from their latest album The Beautiful Letdown. They paint a beautiful picture in the title track about what it means to be human. “It was a beautiful letdown/When I crashed and burned/When I found myself alone, unknown, and hurt.” Humans, Switchfoot tells us, are not what they’re supposed to be. We were created perfect, but sin happened. Now, we’re left with a big wall up between us and the Creator, and a lot of junk happens down here on earth that shouldn’t.
Norah Jones picks up the story as well, in “Humble Me” from her sophomore album Feels Like Home: “What do you say when it’s all gone away. . . truth spoke in whispers will tear you apart. . . it never rains when you want it to. . . you humble me Lord. I’m on my knees empty. . . so, please, please, please forgive me.” I don’t know about you, but I think I know exactly how Norah Jones feels. Lots of days, I feel like a jelly-less jelly donut, and am constantly needing, wanting, and yearning for something to fill up my empty insides. My problem is that I usually try to fill up my insides not with real, genuine Smuckers, but instead with sugar-free jelly substitutes that really taste more like the tapioca balls in bubble tea. And when I don’t get what I really yearn for—when I try to fill up the emptiness inside of me with artificial substitutes—I end up feeling broken and defeated, just like Norah Jones. My only response is to sit alone in my room and ask forgiveness for all of the fake tapioca balls that I’ve used as jelly substitutes in my life. My jelly-less jelly donut can only be filled if I’m humbled enough to realize that I can’t fill it. But what then?
Have you ever listened to Ben Harper? I forget about him. But every time I remember, I get stuck on him for a few weeks, and he lives in my CD player, constantly spinning around and around as he sings to me. His lyrics follow me through my days, gently echoing somewhere in the back of my mind. They feel good. I love his song “Blessed to be a Witness,” about the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, because it tells us how to repair the beautiful letdownness of the world. He sings, “So much sorrow and pain. Still I will not live in vain. . . Only by the grace of God go I . . . I am blessed to be a witness.” Harper believes that God is the only repairman able to fix our broken souls. He sees the world as a place of sorrow and pain created by needs, wants, and yearnings, but somehow still believes that our lives have purpose—he doesn’t think we have to “live in vain.” But where does he find purpose? In the grace of God, who has given him the opportunity to witness the story of humanity and of Christ. Ben Harper did not create this opportunity for himself, as it wouldn’t have occurred to him: it wasn’t one of his everyday needs, wants, or yearnings. But God gave it to him, and only by it does he live.
Finally, I think the threads of the story I’ve found in Switchfoot, Norah Jones, and Ben Harper are drawn together best in one of my favorite movies from this past year—Saved!, directed by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe. The movie begins by introducing us to Mary, a Christian teen who finds out that her boyfriend is having doubts about his heterosexuality—a big no-no in their evangelical Christian high school. She concludes that the Christian thing to do is sleep with him in order to save him from the evils of homosexuality (is this sacrilegious yet?). Inevitably, she gets pregnant, and her boyfriend is sent off to a Christian home to be “de-gayed.” A series of events ensues, during which Mary begins to realize that the “Christian” culture of her high school, epitomized by a wickedly righteous Mandy Moore, doesn’t know the first thing about Jesus. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Moore hurls her big, leather study Bible at Mary and screams, “I am FULL of the Holy Spirit!” At the end of the movie, Moore literally knocks the head off a giant, 90-ft. tall statue of Christ: it’s a powerfully symbolic gesture, representing her bastardization of the ideas He represented. Mary, on the other hand—even though she makes bad decisions and questions her religion—emerges with a genuine faith and a desire to seek Christ without making Him conform to the smug, self-righteous ideals of middle-class suburbia. The movie closes with an invocation of one of the biggest fads in the history of Christian culture: “In the end, what would Jesus do?” Mary asks. “I don’t know, but in the meantime we’ll be trying to figure it out—together.”
These depictions of Christ in mainstream media are authentic because they don’t give easy, Sunday school answers—they have substance. They don’t boil Christ down to a fuzzy, feel-good bearded guy. They don’t try to substitute man-made spiritual panaceas in the form of motivational self-help books. The Christ of Switchfoot saves us from remaining a beautiful letdown. The Christ of Norah Jones humbles us with our knowledge that we can’t fill our empty insides with what we need, want, and yearn for on our own. The Christ of Ben Harper does what we cannot do by bringing us to a knowledge and experience of him, when we ourselves are incapable of approaching him. And the Christ of Saved! is too majestic and too holy to be boiled down to the books, music, and bracelets of Christian culture. The Christ of these snippets of popular culture is real.
The paradox of human life is that, like Switchfoot said, we’re all beautiful letdowns—we’re trapped in crises of faith and can’t find the fulfillment that we crave. But that’s exactly where Christ meets us—he approaches us in the dark, when we’re humbled and asking forgiveness on our knees. And in the dark we realize that Christians suck, but Christ doesn’t. And we forgive the bracelets, the books, and the terrible music, because the Creator of the universe has forgiven us of so much more.
Mark Hill ’05 is a Religion and History of Science concentrator in Kirkland House.