Embracing Bad Taste

Week of Monday, June 11, 2001

Have you read the eight-volume Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye? If not, you are missing publishing history. Sales have exceeded 39 million copies in 21 languages, while the website www.leftbehind.com receives over 60,000 visitors a day. The ninth volume, Desecration, is due out October 30, 2001. You know about the movie.

What about the little book The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson, which sold 4 million copies in its first year, earning #1 spots on the best seller lists of the NY Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal? Wilkinson’s followup book, Secrets of the Vine, was released on April 2 and has already sold over 600,000 copies. As might be expected, Wilkinson met with President Bush at the White House to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Day of Prayer, and has been interviewed for ABC’s Good Morning, America.

What fascinates me about these two books is the inverse ratio between astronomical sales figures and the quality of the product. Similar examples from other realms come to mind: in art, Thomas Kinkaid’s paintings, in music, praise songs which have supplanted the likes of Mozart’s Gloria. As a theologian, I believe that these runaway bestsellers are specimens of popular theology, badly done. I think of them as junk food theology. But wait a minute. Perhaps that’s just an envious and condescending cheap shot by a Christian intellectual whose seven books have had print runs ranging from 500–3,000 copies?

As I reflected on why I was so irritated after reading The Prayer of Jabez, I remembered a book I had read a few years back. So I reread the fine little treatise On Consulting the Faithful; What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion (1994) by Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary. One might argue that the high culture of a Verdi opera, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant or a theological treatise by John Calvin are better, in some sense, than McDonalds fastfood, the local disco, or a Tim LaHaye novel. In other words, these examples are not a matter of mere personal preference. True enough; but as Mouw observes, we should keep in mind several important points.

First, a whole lot more people opt for McDonalds over Puck, for John Travolta over Verdi, and for Tim LaHaye over Martin Luther. That can anger or sadden us, but that is where the vast majority of humanity live and move, and that is where we too must live and move if we want to be a presence of the kingdom among them.

Second, although intellectuals might prefer high culture over low culture, there is no reason God cannot use one as well as the other for His purposes. It is easy to imagine that He might use a Hal Lindsay doomsday potboiler just as well as a CS Lewis essay to bring a person to saving faith. In Mouw’s language, Christian intellectuals would do well to learn how to “embrace bad taste” and to “recognize the human dignity of kitsch,” for much as we might like to protest, both are the product of fallen human beings.

Third, the Catholic tradition has a helpful nuance about the “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium) that warns me about disdain for what feels like the rather crass expressions of popular Christianity. We might call this a “theology of the ordinary person.” In his treatise entitled On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859), Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890) wrote of the instinctual wisdom and practical discernment of the everyday, ordinary Christian. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) once expressed his deep gratitude to Mary King, a simple cook by trade:

I do believe that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays...There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days.
I am sure most Christian intellectuals can name their own Mary Kings. A theology of ordinary people acknowledges its deep indebtedness to people like her, even if their reading tastes incline to the Bruce Wilkinsons and Tim LaHayes of the world.

Fourth, a truly Christian world view or theology must be genuinely comprehensive. It must account for all of life, the doctrine of the Trinity and the sacraments as dealt with by theologians, as well as with a waitress’s anxiety about making a monthly car payment; with glow in the dark Jesus figurines as well as with summer mission trips. I have on my shelf a book called The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (1997) by Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens. I used to think this book and its title were rather silly, as its front cover contains the following subtitle: “An A–to–Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life, from Adoption to Automobiles, Chocolate to Craftsmanship, Gardening to Gossip, Shopping Malls to Storytelling, Taxes to Tourism, and Hundreds More.” When you think about it, though, in a sense this is just a commendable effort to advance a necessary Christian task, that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Finally, and most poignantly, popular expressions of Christianity like the books by Wilkinson and LaHaye give voice to the ordinary aspirations of everyday life, the deep yearnings that we all have. People are anxious about the future; is it any wonder they read LaHaye’s end-times books? We rightly long to see God work powerfully and clearly in our lives, and that is what Wilkinson writes about.

If this is true, then notice how both Christian intellectuals and the ordinary faithful share a level playing field at this point. Although we might express them differently, we intellectuals share many of the same aspirations as the superstitious construction worker or neurotic cocktail waitress. I like how Mouw puts it:

One very important reason why I sympathize with many expressions of popular religion is that they are expressions of my own personhood. I want worship services to deal with the anxieties I carry with me to church. I struggle with addictive behaviors. I sense my own inadequacies as a husband and parent and friend. I have pleaded with God to heal the bodies of people I love...Many of us who love high theology come to church with the same questions as the “ordinary laity.” On most Sundays these are the issues that dominate my own psyche as I enter the place of worship: I regularly carry real fears about concrete things that may or may not happen in the next week; sometimes I haven’t been sleeping well; often I am “tossed about,” as the old hymn puts it, “with many a conflict, many a doubt, fighting and fears, within, without;” not infrequently I am nagged by uneasiness and guilt about the remembrance—and the forgetfulness—of things past.1
We grieve, worry, get angry, feel trapped, get depressed, and the like, and a fully Christian theology will both speak to and learn from these deeply human experiences that are often expressed so well by popular Christianity.

I find the books by Wilkinson and LaHaye theologically and aesthetically unsatisfying. But in my better moments, with Paul I rejoice that through them “Christ is proclaimed” (Philippians 1:18).

  1. Richard Mouw, Consulting the Faithful (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 41, 59, 70.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.