Our Saccharine Subculture

They used to put stickers on Christian albums that said, “If you like ____, you’ll like this.” That was in the 1990s, when Christ-followers were hard at work creating their own culture. The unspoken message was something like, “Don’t listen to the godless music of Nirvana, here’s some Petra instead. They have electric guitars too!” This approach worked on me. I had a robust library of cassettes from Word Records; nothing from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In fact, I was so immersed in the subculture that those stickers lost their meaning for me. Ignorant of the wider culture, I had to triangulate to discover new music: to find a new band, I would choose a secular band that was sticker-recommended by a Christian band I knew and then find a Christian band I didn’t know with a similar sticker-recommendation.  

Those stickers were the result of an evangelical philosophy of cultural disengagement. The assumption — arrived at collectively and somewhat mindlessly — was that secular culture is categorically anathema to the gospel. That art created by degenerates was unhelpful for Christian living. And that a healthy response to secular culture was to ignore it, or better yet, subsume it with Christianese-laced copycats. Thus DC Talk was our answer to Beastie Boys, and Third Day replaced The Black Crowes. Like we appropriated pagan holidays for Easter and Christmas generations before, Christians assimilated the musical styles of pop to sanitize their entertainment.  

Eventually, we outgrew that approach. Artists began to create beauty for its own sake and stopped (in some cases) the paint-by-numbers mimicry of secular artists. Now, the best Christian music artists are often the most true Christian artists — more iconoclasts than Weird Al Yankovics.

But for all the lessons Christians musicians have learned, our filmmakers are only beginning. Christian film of the 2010s remains as didactic and careful as Christian music of the 1990s. We seem to require resolution in a way that doesn’t reflect our experience in the world. We have not yet learned that expression harnessed by pedagogy is not expression at all. Christian movies like Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, and War Room (what movie producer Erik Lokkesmoe calls confirmation-of-belief films) are similar in their worldview to many of their church-sheltered ticket-buyers: so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.  

There’s another industry that relies on synthetic recreation of natural goodness. Every year, Americans spend more than $1 billion on artificial sweeteners. Companies like Monsanto and Merisant spend millions of dollars to create sugar-like products without the calories. When the Christian subculture creates products that are “just like Hollywood but without the bad parts” we are building a saccharine subculture, a confusing, syrupy bubble in which church-approved storytelling is morally good, artistically bad, and unoriginal.