Friday, May 21, 2004

Evangelical Pulp Fiction

This week's Newsweek cover story, The Pop Prophets is about America's best-selling literary duo: Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. They are out-selling all of America's favorite pop novelists, from Stephen King to John Grisham. But their subject matter is neither the legal system nor valiant returns from the dead. They are fervent Evangelical Christians, and their stories revolve around evangelical ideology. From the rapture (not the 80s electroclash band, either), to the judgment, these authors have successfully molded the tenets of evangelical Christianity into a series of pop culture novels.

Once something is made accessible on a pop culture level, it is more likely to catch on and gain widespread popularity. The interesting thing here is where it's catching on. You won't see it tucked under the arm of your average New Yorker on the downtown 6 train. According to Tyndale, the publisher, 71% of readers are from the South and Midwest, and only 6% are from the Northeast. Their "core buyer," Newsweek reports, is a "44-year-old born-again Christian woman, married with kids, living in the South. This isn't the 'Sex and the City' crowd--which helps explain why it took so long to notice that one in eight Americans was reading all these strange books about the end of the world." The people who you would stereotypically expect to love this books are the ones who love these books. However, it is important to note that, "After September 11, 2001, there was such a run on the latest "Left Behind" volume, "Desecration," that it became the best-selling novel of the year. And it's no coincidence that the books are a favorite with American soldiers in Iraq."

I don't mean to be depressing, or conspiratorial, but I believe that there is a definite threat somewhere in this. While the majority of readers come from the particular people noted above, the novels are popular outside of the usual Christian southern demographic. When a nation falls into a time of strife and tragedy, and when no end seems to be in sight, and when there is just no rational explanation for the kind of suffering and war that we have seen over the last few years, it's only natural for the people of that nation to look for a reprieve, answers, or hope of an end. This kind of Revelation-driven Christianity offers just that: a guaranteed reprieve, unequivocal answers, and a definite end. And, as Newsweek reports, times of tragedy equaled a boost in sales for the authorial team. This subscription of the masses to a particular ideology, or even the entertainment of it by the masses, allows the ideology to establish legitimacy.

The people who need to be watching things like the "Jesus Factor" episode of PBS' Frontline are not. They instead devour a series of books disseminating Evangelical Christianity, the Christian equivalent of Fundamental Islam, via the popular novel. And they feed the machine, which has essentially engulfed the far right end of the political spectrum. With a president in office whose religious beliefs are no secret, and who has made it known where he stands on the moral scale, and whose faith may, in fact, offer hope for some (particularly those who believe God has chosen him to be president) that a vote for him is a vote for their faith, it's no wonder why Bush is still popular. I absolutely believe that the popularity of these novels sheds light in the age old question: "Why do people still support Bush?"

Our Founding Fathers were certainly not amoral atheists. Quite the contrary. They were all God-fearing Christians, but they recognized that maintaining a separation between church (religion) and state (government) is fundamental to the survival of their experiment (democracy). While government has always historically legislated morality, right now we are in a time when progress and morality are clashing. For instance, instead of gay marriage being a "Constitutional" issue, which it ought to be, it is a "moral" issue, with a push against it coming from the Christianized far right. If church and state truly were separate, there would be no debate over whether or not homosexual couples should have the same rights as heterosexual ones. In fact, there would be no such thing as "gay marriage" or "straight marriage" in the eyes of the law. There would be civil unions, and only in the eyes of the couples' chosen deity would there be marriage. That is true, honest separation of church and state. But that's getting a little far from reality, so we have to work with what we can, and "gay marriage" is very clearly the Constitutionally-sound answer. And let's not forget that our President and many of his followers think that gay marriage is not only wrong and must be banned, but that this ought to be done through a Constitutional Amendment. Regardless of how viable it is, a president's contention that Constitutional discrimination is the way to go shows just how incredibly misinterpreted American Ideals have become.

Thus, we come full circle. The mass marketing of ideas through pop culture doesn't debase them anymore, it validates them. A testament to the herd theory? Perhaps. But more than that, it demonstrates how fragile our Constitutional ideals really are in the face of society vulnerable to ideological maniuplation.

At any rate, I'd also like to add that Dennis Hastert's questioning of McCain's service to the nation should clinch a loss for him in his next run for re-election.

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