A walk down the aisle of a Christian bookstore reveals Bobblehead figurines of Catholic priests, socks embroidered with the words “As I follow you, Lord,” and Scripture candy — “reaching the world one piece at a time.”
The store sells jewelry, greeting cards and T-shirts with spiritual versions of secular trademarks.
The music bins are full of Christian-themed compact discs — telegenic performers smiling on the covers — offering praise and worship in every style from bluegrass to heavy metal, from rap to reggae to salsa.
Such merchandise is typical of the “Jesus junk” that clutters too much of contemporary Christian culture, say some believers who contend that this commercialized “holy hardware” results from the church’s desire to sell “pop-culture lite.”
“Much Christian culture is just a subculture that doesn’t question the assumptions of the majority culture, it just takes them in a different direction,” said Roberto Rivera, a senior fellow at the Wilberforce Forum who has written extensively for Christian publications.
“The ticky-tacky stuff comes from people who haven’t decided if they want to engage the culture — fully contributing something — or [whether] they wish to withdraw,” he said. “It is neither really Christian or postmodern pagan. It is an attempt to have both.”
Donna Hughes, a religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, doubts the existence of a contemporary Christian culture.
“It’s different if you’re a Christian person and you’re functioning and interacting with contemporary culture, then that is the reality for you,” Ms. Hughes said. “I really shy away from things that are marketed as quote-unquote ‘Christian’ because I think that often means ‘safe for Christians’ and that it’s also a marketing tool.”
Commercialized Christianity, say some Christian scholars, reflects an internal culture that speaks in obscure jargon and endlessly debates topics of little interest to outsiders — and of little relevance to salvation.
Apart from the enduring Christian tradition that inspired such writers as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the modern church has produced what Mr. Rivera calls a “sanitized” version of mainstream culture with its own music industry, its own TV programming, its own publishers and celebrities.
Evangelical Christianity’s separation from the rest of America grew steadily during the 20th century, said Mr. Rivera, as liberals and modernists took over mainline Protestant denominations, and conservatives began walking out. Conflict over Darwin’s theories of evolution — highlighted by the 1922 Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee — only widened the breach between Bible believers and the culture at large.
“Christians said, ‘To heck with it. We will sort of form parallel institutions and basically withdraw,’” Mr. Rivera said.
The debate over the relationship between the church and the surrounding culture was explored in the 1950s by theologian Richard Niebuhr, who discerned three schools of thought:
Christ of the culture — since Jesus engaged the culture of his age, Christians should, too.
cChrist against the culture — Christians must isolate themselves from popular culture in order to remain holy.
Christ and the culture in paradox — Christians walking a tightrope between being in the mainstream and against the mainstream.
One product of the paradoxical approach is Christian bookstores selling T-shirts with Jesus-boosting messages (complete with chapter-and-verse Bible citations) simulating the logos and slogans of pop products — Nike, Coke, Pepsi.
But the subculture that evangelical Protestants have created goes much deeper than merchandising, Ms. Hughes said.
“If you don’t come out of that [Christian] world and don’t understand some of the language they use, there’s a vocabulary in a way, the way the language is used,” said Ms. Hughes. “If you’re not inside of that, you don’t understand it as well. I think that’s definitely the case with evangelical Protestant Christians, in this country at least.”
Whatever the theological effect of this contemporary Christian subculture, it lends itself easily to parody, from Dana Carvey’s “church lady” skits on “Saturday Night Live” in the ‘90s to this year’s satirical film “Saved!” Mr. Rivera said this is because many Christians lack the ability to evaluate themselves and their culture objectively.
“Because they lack that ability, someone is going to do it for them,” he said. “The culture does invite sort of a parody. Unfortunately, we are not the ones parodying ourselves.”
That view is shared by Matthew Paul Turner, a writer and speaker who said he was “forced out” of his job at CCM, a popular monthly magazine about Christian music.
In his new book, “The Christian Culture Survival Guide: The Misadventures of an Outsider on the Inside,” Mr. Turner humorously examines the catchphrases, customs and conflicts of the contemporary church.
His book explores such topics as “15 types of church people to look out for,” “church hopping essentials” and “the three types of virgins” — a message meant not in mockery but in love, Mr. Turner said. At least one reader said the honesty of the book is “reassuring.”
“There are younger Christians who are not just buying into this tradition stuff without any real intent behind it,” said Raul Oliva, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Mr. Oliva sees the book as highlighting the tension between having “a real relationship with Christ” and churches he views as focused on “the success of X-number of converted people or X-number of people who attend church.”
Contemporary Christian culture may need such satirical attention, some Christian writers say. Many conservative religious groups denounced the movie “Saved!” as blasphemous — its plot focuses on teen pregnancy, homosexuality and adultery at a Christian school — but that verdict was not shared by all the faithful.
Ms. Hughes, a self-described Christian who attended the conservative Wheaton University, did not find the film offensive. She described “Saved!” as a “love letter to the church.”
Mr. Turner said the film held up a mirror to Christians, showing them how others see them.
“I think anything that makes us think about where we are as Christians, what we’re doing and how we’re portrayed to the rest of the world is good,” Mr. Turner said. “As blasphemous as some people would say it is, it still brings to the surface a lot of important issues that the church needs to deal with.”