I'm beginning to see a pattern: To get attention in mass media, faith-based events and/or culture have to be tied, however tenuously, to U.S. President Donald J. Trump or his administration.
I get it: Sex sells, and few things, it seems, are more "sexy," news-wise, than the 45th President of the United States and his team.
But sometimes, this desire for a political connection dents an otherwise good and thoughtful piece on culture, faith, and people -- you know, stuff that sometimes exists apart from politics.
For an example, let's turn again to one of Britain's top progressive newspapers, The Guardian. It should be noted that this paper began life as the Manchester Guardian and was once home to Malcolm Muggeridge, a once-socialist reporter whose Christian conversion was one of the great biographical stories of the last century, if you are talking about interesting lives in journalism.
"St. Mugg," as he was known after his radical conversion at age 60, probably wouldn't find a home at The Guardian today. But there are some good writers contributing to its pages, however much they may be caught up in the frenzy of "Must-include-a-Trump-reference" that has overtaken us.
Say hello, then, to Jemayel Khawaja, a freelancer in Los Angeles who knows music and culture quite well. The Pakistani-born Khawaja authored one of the better analyses of contemporary Christian music that I've seen in the media, once you get past the obligatory, almost tortured, Trumpiana:
“Lord Jesus, thank you for dying for me,” says a bearded man in cut-off shorts standing atop a floodlit stage as hundreds of youths look on. “Lord Jesus, you can have my life.” Teenagers in Avenged Sevenfold shirts with bandannas wrapped around their faces bow their heads and pray together. And then the double-time kickdrum drops in, the guitars start chugging, and the mosh pit resumes. This is a scene from Creation North East in Pennsylvania, the biggest Christian music festival in the world.
Although obscured from much of the mainstream populace, the subculture of Christian music festivals draws millions of people together every year. ... Over the past three decades, the phenomenon has played a central role in the propagation of contemporary American Christianity. In fact, the influence of Christian music festivals runs all the way up to the White House.
Vice President Mike Pence has been called many things. The Intercept has stated that the vice-president will be “The Most Powerful Christian Supremacist in US History," while the New York Times once called him “The Perfect Conservative."
Regardless of whether either opinion is true, one major aspect of his identity does appear to be fact: Mike Pence found God at a Christian music festival in 1978. He said so himself in a 2010 interview with the Christian Broadcast Network: “Standing at a Christian music festival in Asbury, Kentucky, in the spring of 1978, I gave my life to Jesus Christ and that’s changed everything.”
Let's stipulate that Pence is a conservative, perhaps too much so for some folks' tastes. We can also grant he isn't liked by many on the left. But, really, "Christian Supremacist"? In the context of writing about largely evangelical music festivals?
The journalistic issue is not only might this be a tenuous connection at best (I'm guessing it's been a number of years since Pence was at a similar event), but it also obscures the greater issue being reported, and that's a shame.
Khawaja, after all, provides some rather trenchant cultural analysis here. Noting that there is now a crossover between those who love "Jesus music" as well as the content generated by a Lady Gaga or a Beyoncé, the author explains some of the consequences:
There is strange irony in the fact that after decades of trying to break Christian acts into mainstream music and eventually succeeding at doing so, that open-door facilitated a cross-pollinization of Christian and secular culture, one that has had deleterious effects on the singular importance many youthful believers place on Christian music as their source for their cultural engagement. ...
Even more worrying for traditionalists is that many of the acts performing are not overtly religious in their messaging and do not sing about God, while others even make questioning their faith a central theme of their music. Like it or not, modern Christianity has become intersectional, and it’s a lot harder to influence a generation who pick and choose their identity in a bricolage rather than a one-size-fits-all worldview.
Partly because of this, and partly because of the downturn of Christian festivals as a whole, there is a struggle being waged for the soul of the culture. Leaders like Bob Thompson, executive director of the Christian Festival Association, are trying to change what Christian festivals are all about. “As a community, we’re known more for what we’re against than what we’re for,” he says. “We want to acknowledge the negative associations with Christianity – that it’s anti-homosexual, highly judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, and we don’t accept people of other faiths. We took a real hard look at ourselves and we’re trying to change. We want to be known for what we love, not what we reject.”
These are interesting, even demanding, sentences. Khawaja has identified the tensions within evangelicalism, tied them to culture, and suggested things are moving a tad leftward among the millennial evangelical set and those following behind. That, more than what happened to Mike Pence in 1978, is likely of greater import.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Pence will have at most eight years as Vice President to influence American politics. The teens and young adults who "want to be known for what we love, not what we reject" might well be active for much longer.
I can imagine, however, Khawaja either believing or being told by an editor, that the story won't fly without the necessary political bits, and that's how they got there. After all, one of the things editors often do is suggest (or even demand) an insert in a story that may or may not jibe with the reporter's vision. It happens.
In this story, which raises valid questions about the Christian music festival scene and the evolution of the culture, however, it would have been helpful to see more of the millennials and a little less of the VPOTUS. The times, after all, may well be a-changing.
FIRST IMAGE: Photo of then-Governor Mike Pence speaking with supporters at a 2016 campaign rally and church service at the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.