Imagine if you will that you’re going to North Dakota. In the middle of summer – don’t worry, I’m not making you go into one of North Dakota’s legendary horrendous winters. Imagine it’s June. But you’re not going there just to sightsee or visit missile silos or something; no, you have a specific purpose. You’re going to find the #1 surfer in North Dakota.
You make a thorough search. You check in at every sporting goods store from Minot to Fargo. You visit every town with anything resembling a decent population. You ask as many knowledgeable people as you can out North Dakota’s population of over 600,000: who is the best surfer in this state?
Finally, after much analysis of the information and opinions you’ve received, you settle on one particular guy as being the #1 surfer in North Dakota. You get this fellow, take him and his surfboard on an all-expenses-paid trip to the California coast (or Hawaii if you prefer – hey, it’s your imagination, spare no expense) and enter him in one of the top-level surfing competitions. Why not – he’s the top guy in the sport in North Dakota, right?
Well, if you know anything about a) North Dakota and b) surfing, you know what’s likely to happen next. Dude is going to finish last, maybe lower. Unless he’s a native of elsewhere who just moved to North Dakota, a surfer coming from that state – with its small population (less than the Fresno metro area) and over 1000 miles from any coastline – isn’t likely to be able to compete with the world’s top surfers who probably spend five or six days a week practicing on the waves of their native coasts. Just because you’re the #1 guy in your local circle doesn’t mean that you’re actually any good – especially when that “local circle” is underpopulated and landlocked.
Which is also the state of much that’s going on in the American church.
How many times have you heard someone go on and on about a great worship service, or a great Christian artist or writer, and then later checked it out yourself and found… let’s just say, that the quality of the experience had been oversold a little? In my life, it used to happen almost weekly. It doesn’t now, but that’s because I’m not as connected to the evangelical grapevine as closely as I used to be, so I don’t get the recommendations as much. But it still happens. In much of what a friend of mine refers to as “the evangelical ghetto,” what’s held up as the pinnacle of our ministerial and artistic efforts is often pretty mediocre.
Allow me to present some examples of the phenomenon:
Worship services. In my Congregational Journey, I ended up visiting sixteen different congregations, most of them in the Stockton area. These are not the only ones I’ve ever attended – add up all those I’ve been to in my lifetime and you’d have at least forty, representing probably twenty different denominations or independent movements. Of those forty-plus, I could count on one hand the ones where I saw an authentic work of the Holy Spirit taking place in people’s lives (and believe me, I’ve looked for just that). And I can count on one closed fist the ones whose communal spiritual life was up to the level of the churches in the New Testament.
Now, the churches of the first century AD were far from perfect. They were full of fallen people. They had plenty of serious issues; read Paul’s epistles, where he deals with them in some detail. But they also demonstrated a connection to God and a commitment to His will that I have only seen in rare glimpses in the American church. And I’ve been in that church for almost twenty-two years as a believer, for the whole time actively seeking the kind of group spiritual life that in the New Testament is declared to be normative. And I haven’t found it, except for a few weeks here or a few days there – never consistently.
So when someone talks about the “powerful preaching” or “anointed worship” or “loving membership” at this or that local assembly, in every case I’ve investigated, it turned out that the aspect they’d so lavishly praised was maybe one step above that of all the other places I’ve been – and a hundred steps below that of Ephesus or Corinth or Antioch. They may be better than the run of the mill, but that just makes them the #1 surfer in North Dakota.
“Christian” fiction. (I put “Christian” in quotes because there’s no universally accepted definition of what makes a particular work of art Christian. It’s a matter of debate, so I’m hedging.) I’m an aspiring writer, so this one is close to my heart. Every year, the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA for short) gives out the Christy Awards for the top works of fiction that are sold in their stores. They’re given in several different categories: romance, historical, futuristic, et cetera. Since I’ve written a novel that might be the kind of book a CBA member store would sell, I spent some time seeking out and reading a few of the Christy Award winners from recent years, as well as noting previous winners I’ve already read.
And with a few exceptions, they were all mediocre or worse.
The most glaring example was a book whose title and author shall remain nameless. Said author was a multiple Christy winner, and the story was a romance that also dealt with NFL football, a subject with which I’ve fairly familiar. It turned out to be a real disappointment. The writer clearly didn’t know much about football, and the romance felt clunky and contrived. Furthermore, the actual writing wasn’t all that good – the author’s story structure and use of the language were pedestrian, and it seemed like they tried to make the end of every chapter sound like a cliffhanger even when nothing much was going on in the plot to justify it. Just a terribly boring book all around.
Later, I mentioned the author’s name to my friend Geri, who has published a novel in the “general market” (CBA-speak for “not put out by one of the usual “Christian” publishers) and mentioned how bad the book had been. Her response was, “oh, I could have told you that!” This author is one of the most widely lauded in evangelicalism, the particularly book likewise praised in the same circles. And yet it was one of the weakest books I’ve read in years! Makes you wonder what the standards are for Christy Awards.
Candidly, the works of most of the “top fiction authors” in American evangelicalism aren’t all that impressive. The only ones I’ve read whose work rates much above “meh” are Frank Peretti, Francine Rivers and Kathy Tyers; Peretti and Rivers have been hit-or-miss over the years (I don’t think Frank’s fiction has reached a high level since The Visitation), while Tyers is outside the evangelical mainstream – she writes science fiction for “secular” publishers. Many of the others lumped into the “Christian fiction” category are people like Joseph Girzone and William Paul Young, whose stories are more like sermons with plots – very good sermons with plots in some cases (Joshua and The Shack are both favorites), but still not high-quality novels.
So when someone gets all worked up about, say, the Left Behind series (all of which I’ve read, and all of which are at best so-so in terms of literary merit), all they’ve done is crown the #1 surfer in North Dakota. And that series leads me to …
“Christian” movies. This is a less prominent phenomenon, but one that’s growing fast. I’m going to keep this short – I have yet to see a movie produced by evangelical Christians that didn’t stink. All of them seem to be pale imitations of Hollywood films that weren’t that good in the first place. The plots are usually threadbare, the dialogue stilted, the acting largely wooden. And I’m including everything here, from the Billy Graham Association’s World Wide Pictures flicks (tracts on celluloid, basically) to that group in Georgia who gave us Fireproof (worse, a self-help marriage manual on celluloid, and not even a good one). The only really quality Christian films I’ve ever found, ones I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show to others, are The Passion of the Christ and The Spitfire Grill, both of which were
- funded by Roman Catholics, and
- put together by experienced Hollywood filmmakers who knew how to make a good film.
It should tell us all we need to know that the current face of “Christian” moviemaking is Kirk Cameron, who rose to a small measure of fame as a teen supporting actor in a TV sitcom that was basically a Cosby Show knockoff, and really didn’t do much with it. He’s the big star of evangelical film! (Second place belongs to Pauly Shore’s co-star in Bio-Dome.) Now, I’m sure Kirk is a nice guy and really committed to Christ, but as an actor he’s closer to the Olsen twins than to Laurence Olivier. But he’s the top surfer in our evangelical North Dakota, so we assume he’s a big deal.
“Christian” music. I worked for seven years at a Christian radio station, and in that time heard a lot of music that, while acceptable, wasn’t anyone’s idea of great artistic or spiritual achievement. Frankly, the vast majority. I left that particular station almost twelve years ago, but recent listens to that and other stations have demonstrated to me that nothing much has changed. There are bands and artists in the field whose talent is the equal of the top pagan musicians, but there aren’t many.
I want to make it clear that if you look through my collection of CDs (about 300 of them), you’ll find maybe a handful from artists whose credentials as believers are not clearly established. And all of those are either Christmas albums (my wife is a faithful collector of Hallmark’s annual holiday releases) or classical works (I know Aaron Copland was a homosexual and had Communist sympathies, but he still wrote freaking Appalachian Spring, and if that doesn’t cut him some slack I don’t know what will). The rest is all gospel or “contemporary Christian.” That’s all I really want to listen to. But I know enough to know that in terms of instrumental ability, singing pipes, lyrical skill or production quality, the evangelical community has shown itself all too willing to accept music that their unsaved counterparts would dismiss as either cheap copies of other artists or just plain badly done.
Again, there are exceptions – but they’re just that, exceptions. I’m willing to put Phil Keaggy up against almost any guitarist out there: Jeff Beck, Gilmour, Satriani, whoever. John Patitucci is one of the best bass players I know. (Of course, Patitucci is outside the “ghetto” – he’s a jazz musician.) Kathy Troccoli’s voice, in my opinion, should be designate a national treasure, though I’m not prepared to compare her with altos in the classical or opera fields and there just aren’t many altos in pop music. And I would say that Iona’s work as a band stands up well … but they’re not part of the ghetto, either; they’re a Celtic folk-fusion group based in England. But I can’t come up with too many others. I really like Third Day, I think they’re terrific, but if you throw them into a “battle of the bands” against their non-Christian equivalent – Hootie and the Blowfish, I’d guess, based on timeline and similar style – they’ll get torched. They can still out-surf the rest of North Dakota, though.
I’ve run longer with this than I expected, so tomorrow I’ll address why I think this has developed, why the American church has been so keen to embrace mediocrity, and what can be done about it. Stay tuned …