A Brief Defense of the Christian Subculture

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In Christianity Today, Morgan Lee reports on a growing nostalgia for artifacts from the Christian subculture of the 1990s.

  • Baltimore Ravens player Benjamin Watson and Owl City’s Adam Young confess their appreciation for the Focus on the Family radio drama Adventures in Odyssey.
  • The magazine Brio recently relaunched with more than 60,000 subscribers, as the teenage girls of the ’90s now find themselves the parents of teens.
  • Online, you can find blogs, podcast episodes, or lists built around nostalgia for 1990s Christian music (dcTalk, Jars of Clay, Michael W. Smith).

Lee quotes Kevin Porter, co-host of a podcast about the evangelical subculture:

Christianity is one of the only religions where we’ve built our own media . . . there’s not a Mormon or Scientology rock station. . . . This specificity means the nostalgia is much more powerful and cuts deeper. . . . The intensity of that camaraderie is much stronger than it is with people who just watched or listened to whatever was in the mainstream.

Critics of ‘Christian Culture’

For decades now, I’ve read books and articles that criticize the Christian entertainment industry for its tendency to mimic broader cultural trends instead of lead them, or for sacrificing artistic integrity in order to find financial success with less artistically minded Christians. The Christian subculture, they say, produced music and movies that were cheesy, subpar, and “subtle-as-a-hammer.”

On the rare occasion when something truly creative appeared (VeggieTales) or when an artist found appreciation outside the subculture (Amy Grant, Switchfoot, Lecrae), Christians complained of “watered-down content” or accused people of sacrificing the gospel’s integrity for mainstream success.

Talk about a no-win situation for Christian moviemakers and musicians! If the message has to always trump the medium, you’re pushed into sacrificing artistry. If you’re not super clear with the message, you alienate fans who want clarity, not subtlety (and probably aren’t looking to you for great artistry anyway).

Brief Defense of the Christian Subculture

As a parent, I’ve enjoyed introducing my kids to the Christian subculture I knew as a kid. From Adventures in Odyssey to Jesus Freak (which I call faith-fortifying) to my ongoing appreciation for Steven Curtis Chapman, they like some of what I liked, and I’m happy whenever they want to turn on Christian radio in the van and sing along.

These days, I’m in the strange spot of agreeing with many of the critiques of Christian movies and music (see my review of God’s Not Dead, for example), while also commending some of these Christian subculture products to my family.

What gives? Don’t I realize that some of this stuff is kitschy? That these movies and songs are artistically subpar?

Yes. But let’s put this conversation into a broader context of the entertainment industry as a whole.

First, remember there’s plenty of “bad” art out there, and it’s not only or even exclusively in Christian circles. You won’t see a Hallmark Christmas movie win an Emmy award this year, but the ratings indicate that many people have an appetite for predictable, “feel-good,” (generally) wholesome romance movies. You can look down on this segment of the population or try to understand the appeal. Just don’t pretend that Christians have a corner on cheese.

Second, remember that lower forms of culture are formative too, not just higher forms. A friend of mine once commented that all his Nashville friends were tweeting on Sunday nights about Downton Abbey, while all of his friends in rural South Carolina were tweeting about The Biggest Loser. From an artistic standpoint, Downton wins. But we shouldn’t underestimate the formative influence of a game show about weight loss, especially in areas where there’s a cultural desire to overcome obesity and find “redemption” through willpower and exertion.

Third, remember that some Christian movies or music might exceed your expectations when you consider their budget. It’s unfair to compare a movie like Priceless to Taken, even if the subject matter is similar, when the latter had a budget of $25 million. If you want to offer a fair assessment of a movie made for the Christian subculture, try to compare it to inspirational films made for a similar price. Once you begin to alter your expectations, you may find that some Christian films are better than many made-for-TV movies.

(I recognize there are many excellent, critically acclaimed low-budget films made by non-Christians. It’s possible to make artistically significant films with low budgets, but I’m not sure the Christian audience has an appetite for them, which leads to a larger conversation about Christians, artistry, expectations, and so on that exceeds what I can reflect on in this article.)

Fourth, remember that Christian music can be formative even if the songs won’t stand the test of time. We tend to think of hymns as a superior art form than today’s worship music, but that’s mainly because we compare today’s worship songs to hymns that have endured for centuries. The vast majority of hymns written by Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby are forgotten today, and many of them deservedly so. Likewise, most of the worship songs currently on the radio will be in the digital dustbin within a generation. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate the powerful effect of less-than-stellar Wesley hymns when they were first sung. Neither should we underestimate the effect of less-than-stellar worship songs that are popular today. Research shows that one of the biggest influences on a child’s spiritual life is the decision to listen primarily to Christian music. Crank up the radio, parents!

Need Creative Believers 

I do not believe the Christian subculture is a surefire way to keep your kids grounded in the faith. I do not believe we should accept artifacts from “Christian artists” uncritically. I do not believe Christians should give up striving to create beautiful art.

We still need creative believers to approach craft of filmmaking or songwriting with excellence. Like many others, I get frustrated with the Christian entertainment industry—how audience expectations can cripple a good movie idea, or how top 40 Christian radio squeezes out some of the best songwriters today, how problematic theology proliferates in some of these artifacts. We can do better. We need to do better.

But let’s not discount the formative influence of a subculture as a culture. Many of the artifacts that are part of this current wave of nostalgia for the 1990s helped to shape a generation, in good ways and bad. Discount the bad aspects and you’ll assume that anything with a “Christian” label slapped on it is safe for consumption. Discount the good aspects, and you’ll assume that anything that doesn’t measure up to higher standards of art is worthless.

We can work toward appreciating and striving for excellence in art from Christians in the next generation, while still showing appreciation for the work of Christians in the past.

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