catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 19 :: 2004.11.19 — 2004.12.02


The evangelical expatriates

Hello, my name is Kate, and I am a blogaholic.

I?m not much of a blogger myself (although in some ways this column functions as a forum for the kind of things I?d write about were I so inclined), but I spend a lot of time reading other people?s online journals. In my work, I invest a great deal of energy in staying up to speed on the events and trends that collectively comprise the behemoth known as popular culture. Often, I learn about these by reading magazines and perusing news websites, but the advent of blogging has made it possible for me to find out how a variety of people?from PhDs to ordinary citizens?feel

about what?s happening in pop culture.

One of my favorite bloggers also happens to be an old college friend, Ben, who writes about a very specific subset of popular culture. A seminarian who took a job at a Christian bookstore to offset his tuition, Ben chronicles his misadventures as an unlikely and beleaguered hawker of religious goods in a blog known simply as ?Christian Retail?. With its blend of sardonic wit, incisive criticism, and genuine heart, Christian Retail is a lover?s quarrel with the crass consumerism and skewed priorities that all too often characterize American evangelicalism. In its few months of existence, Christian Retail has gained wide recognition in the blogging community?everywhere I click, Ben?s writing is referenced with hilarity and linked with abandon.

This, I believe, represents a recent phenomenon that is much broader than Internet journaling. A new category of artists and cultural critics is emerging. Their roots are in North American evangelical subculture, but they have since distanced themselves from it, either literally or ideologically. Yet they have not managed to leave the subculture behind entirely. Despite their exile (which is often self-imposed), they can?t escape the influence of?or their continued fascination with?their native land.

I call these artists and critics ?evangelical expatriates.? They have renounced their citizenship in evangelical subculture, but not their faith. They have ventured out into the wider world, but they remain interested, and often emotionally invested, in their culture of origin. They have become skeptical of how the church manifests its witness, but also dedicated to calling it back to its truest expressions.

Because of this perspective?of the evangelical subculture but not in it?they are able both to admonish and to reorient. Take the foremost example of a high-profile evangelical ex-pat?Brian Dannelly, who wrote and directed Saved!, which released this summer. Although Dannelly makes no current claims to orthodox faith, he is a product of the subculture, having attended a Christian high school?and used that experience to critique its missteps.

Initially, a satirical film about life at a Christian high school seemed destined to flop. After all, wouldn?t it only appeal to a marginal slice of the movie-going public?not just fundamentalists familiar with the culture being parodied (who are not known for their capacity for recognizing their foibles, let alone laughing at them), but disgruntled fundamentalists?

To everyone?s surprise, the film did well right out of the gate, rivaling Shrek 2 at the box office and quickly gaining national distribution. What was the attraction, I wondered? Perhaps people have encountered at least one lunatic Christian in their lives, and were eager for the chance to see their ilk skewered. But I also wondered if it was such a good thing that evangelical youth culture?s dirty laundry was airing out there in the public square, where everyone could get a whiff and have their worst stereotypes confirmed.

Mainstream moviegoers lost interest in Saved! within a month of its wide release, and the film dropped off the radar as suddenly as it had appeared, without so much as a single boycott from conservative Christian groups. But I have concluded that the message of Saved! was not conceived in vain. It is only just now finding its most receptive audience.

My office at Calvin College showed this film last Saturday night, and?despite the myriad other exciting activities scheduled for that evening?Calvin students turned out in droves. Although many of them are from a Reformed background, most have attended Christian schools and are intimately familiar with the trappings of the evangelical subculture. Perhaps I?m misreading their reactions, but the guffaws, groans, and all-out belly laughs that punctuated the screening told me that the audience recognized what they saw in the students of American Eagle High School?and that the film?s critiques were right on the mark.

Saved! is movie with many flaws, not the least of which is that the alternative conclusions it draws seem hollow and trite?probably because the film never decides whether it wants to be a satire or a drama. But in the group discussion that followed the film at Calvin, many students indicated that Saved! had connected with them profoundly. Some expressed gratitude for the willingness of someone with roots in Christianity to take misguided elements of the subculture to task. Others voiced concern that Saved!?s generalizations would further sully the image of evangelicals in the eyes of non-Christians.

Yes, indeed it might. But I hope these students will remember that the purpose of satire is not simply to propagate stereotypes. Rather, a good satirist can perform the role of the prophet, revealing to the satirized their shortcomings and, if they have eyes to see and ears to hear, setting them on a truer course. Regardless of the effect Saved! had on the general public, it is important for evangelicals to take to heart some of its rebukes.

And Saved! is only one of many such rebukes?satirical or otherwise?being voiced by evangelical expatriates, who run the gamut of orthodoxy but all have vital things to say to the church. Although I began this column with the claim that I?m no blogger, I have since created what I hope will become a repository for these important commentaries and critiques.

Author Barbara Kingsolver writes that rather than buying into the ?love it or leave it? approach to any group with which we affiliate ourselves, a more honorable slogan is ?love it and get it right, love it and never shut up.? This, I believe, is the function of the evangelical expatriates?and you can read about them here.

Kate Bowman is the Student Activities Coordinator at Calvin College.

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