On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is a follow-up discussion of my recent blog here about the New York Times article that, allegedly, tried to look for Jesus at Comic-Con 2015. That event in San Diego is, as I described it in my discussion with Todd Wilken, the great annual gathering of the pop-culture tribes for a "sacred dance" of hero worship and, of course, marketing.
The Times team apparently went to this event looking for evidence that the emerging mini-industry of films and television miniseries targeting "Christian" consumers -- in this case, "Christian" clearly means "evangelical" -- just isn't with it, or cool enough, when it comes to competing in the pop-culture major leagues. But that article, I argued, really didn't pay attention to (a) the work of Christians in mainstream media and (b) the ongoing debates, decade after decade, about aith questions raised in franchises such as "Star Wars," zombie movies, the X-Men, Doctor Who, etc., etc., etc.
In the end, the podcast ended up focusing on how the term "Christian" -- used as a adjective for marketing purposes -- has in our times become another way of saying shoddy, cheap, shallow and derivative. This led to some obvious questions.
Was J.S. Bach a "Christian" composer? Is Christopher Parkening a "Christian" classical guitarist?
Was J.R.R. Tolkien a "Christian" novelist?
How about C.S. Lewis? How about Jane Austen? How about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? When Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat down to write, was he thinking to himself, "How can I please the 'Christian' marketplace?" How about Flannery O'Connor? By the way, her work was the subject of my "On Religion" column for Universal this past week.
In the world of film, was Frank Capra a "Christian" filmmaker? How about the great John Ford? Right now, is "Christian" the label that leaps to mind when you think about the work of Pete "Inside Out" Doctor of Pixar?
Was legendary Johnny Cash a "Christian" singer and songwriter? Was the great Hank Williams a haunted "Christian" artist? Is the great Ricky Skaggs a "Christian" mandolin master? How about Aretha Franklin? The great Al Green?
I could go on and on and on.
What's my point? Simply stated, journalists can't look at the world of art and culture, both high culture, folk culture and pop culture, without seeking artists -- believers and nonbelievers -- wrestling with what I call the big-button issues of life.
Maybe the Times team went to Comic-Con trying to write about evangelical niche culture and that alone. If that was the case, the story should have said so.
I have been obsessed with these issues my whole professional life, especially since that interview with a young Irish rock musician back in the winter of 1982 before a show at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yes, it was U2, a band that was determined then -- and ever since -- to avoid the "Christian" as adjective curse. Read between the lines here:
Thirty years down the road, what is striking about that interview is the fact that the issues that drove Bono then still dominate his life today. ...
"The band is anxious not to be categorized," he said. "You know, if, for instance, people are talking about U2 in a spiritual sense ... that becomes a pigeonhole for people to put us in. That worries us.
"Also, from the point of view of coming from where we come from, Ireland is a place that's been cut in two by religion. I have no real time for religion and, therefore, avoid those kinds of stereotypes. I would hate for people to think of me as religious, though I want people to realize that I am a Christian."
Decades later, tensions remain between believers who work in the so-called "contemporary Christian music" and believers who work in the mainstream music industry. The latter often cite U2's work as a prime example of how religious imagery and themes can be woven into successful popular music.
The goal, Bono stressed, is to avoid making preachy music that settles for easy answers while hiding the struggles that real people experience in real life. When writing a song about sin, such as "I Fall Down," he stressed, "I always include myself in the 'we.' You know, 'we' have fallen. I include myself. ... I'm not telling everybody that I have the answers. I'm trying to get across the difficulty I have being what I am."
At the same time, he expressed disappointment that so many people -- artists in particular -- attempt to avoid the ultimate questions that haunt life. The doubts, fears, joys and grace of religious faith are a part of life that "we like to sweep under the carpet," he concluded.