Saturday, April 21, 2012

Christian Cultural Production

"Since the late nineteenth century, Evangelicals have invested most of their energies into creating a structure of 'parallel institutions.' Evangelicals are extraordinarily energetic, generating hundreds of millions of dollars through books and magazine publishing, radio, and television. In Evangelical publishing the most prominent publishers are Eerdmans, Baker Publishing Group, Brazos Press, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, Gospel Light/Regal Books, Intervarsity Press, NavPress, Paraclete Press, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Tyndale House Publishers, and Zondervan. In the magazine world, there are Christianity Today, World, and Discipleship Journal, among others. In terms of radio programs, there is Breakpoint, Adventures in Odyssey, Creation Moment, Family Life Today, Focus on the Family, Janet Parshall's America, Jay Sekulow Live!, Money Matters, and Our Daily Bread, among many others. In Evangelical television broadcasting, there is the Christian Broadcasting network, Sky Angel, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and the Daystar Television Network, each of which offers multiple programs for public viewing. There is also a developing Evangelical film industry that has produced dozes of films such as The Omega Code (1999), Left Behind (2000), Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002), Hangman's Curse (2003), Woman, Thou are Loosed (2004), End of the Spear (2005), and Amazing Grace (2006). In all of this, the production of culture tends to be concentrated in commercial ventures that are often hugely successful.

There are exceptions, of course, yet overall this cultural productivity is characterized by at least three features. First, the works that are produced are almost exclusively directed to the internal needs of the faithful. This insularity is quite striking. The Evangelical world is not only difficult for outsiders to understand (consider the caricatures that abound) but also nearly impossible for them to penetrate. Evangelicals, in other words, offer little by way of a common vocabulary of shared life informed by faith but not exclusive to it. Second, this cultural productivity all tends to operate closer to the margins than to the center of the broader field of cultural production. Evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument. Magazines such as Christianity Today, World, or Books and Culture also do well in the Evangelical and Reformed world, yet they do not compete with or counterbalance their secular counterparts, and generally only First Things attracts an audience outside of this particular faith community. Christian television is almost all ghettoized in the small viewer hours of Sunday morning or to the backwaters of cable broadcasting. Noncommercialized art by Christians, as I said, small, vital, and growing through organizations such as Image, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and the International Arts Movement (IAM), but such efforts are small and constantly underfunded and, like the commercialized art (e.g., Thomas Kinkade), it is typically peripheral to the major galleries and reviews. What is more, this vast commercial empire does not operate in the major centers of culture formation (such as New York City, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles) but rather in medium-sized cities on the periphery (such as Wheaton, Illinois; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Orlando, Florida; and Virginia Beach, Virginia). Third, cultural production in the Evangelical world is overwhelmingly oriented toward the popular. Very much like its retail politics, its music is popular music, its art tends to be popular (highly sentimentalized and commercialized) art, its theater is mega-church drama, its publishing is mainly mass-market book publishing with a heavy bent toward 'how-to' books, in magazines are mass-circulation monthlies, its television is either in the format of a worship service or talk show, its recent forays into film are primarily into popular film, and much academic work is oriented toward translation- making the difficult accessible to the largest possible number. While there are exceptions to the rule, overall, the populist orientation of Evangelical cultural production reflects the most kitschy expressions of consumerism and often the most crude forms of market instrumentalism.

As it is with Catholics and mainline Protestants, individual Evangelicals can be found everywhere- in elite research universities, university presses, think tanks and the like- and there they make important contributions. But except for a few areas such as philosophy and American religious history, where they have had a significant presence and influence, their number tends to be very small and their broader impact of no great consequence. Likewise, in literature, there are some talented novelists, poets, and critics in these communities, but here are again their number is few and they too tend to be fairly isolated in their respective fields. Much the same can be said about the Evangelical presence in architecture, the visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) and the performing arts (e.g., theater, film, dance, music, and the like). In all of these arenas and others (such as journalism and advertising), there are individual exceptions- extraordinary, remarkable, talented exceptions- but they are exceptions, rather than a normal occurrence. These individuals are present in these spheres, it would seem, more by accident than by design; certainly more as a statistical aberration than through the deliberate cultivation of the churches."

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