Earlier this year, Rapture Ready! author Daniel Radosh interviewed The Year of Living Biblically author A.J. Jacobs for Jewcy.com in advance of a talk that Jacobs gave at the Y. Now that they’re both set for a joint appearance at the Y on Oct 19 to discuss their experiences as secular Jews investigating America’s most deeply religious societies with humorist David Rakoff (no stranger to the Y either), we’ve flipped the Q&A table. Here’s Jacobs interviewing Radosh.
I noticed a lot of Christian bloggers loved your book, even though you’re a secular Jew writing a humorous study of evangelical culture. Were you surprised by the positive reaction from the evangelical community?
Sometimes, sure. Like when a radio host told me that God may actually have used me as a vehicle to give Christians a message they weren’t hearing from inside the church. Needless to say, I’m uncomfortable with being cast in the role of prophet — not least because I worry that the Almighty is going to claim a cut of my royalty checks. But in the course of the year I spent researching Rapture Ready! I met enough Christians who harbored their own skepticism of Christian culture to know that there was at least a potential audience for my book among committed evangelicals. What’s really gratifying to me is that a number of Christians who disagreed with my conclusions at least recognized that I came to them legitimately and expressed them respectfully. And they appreciated that I was willing to acknowledge that Christian pop culture isn’t all bad. I even still listen to some Christian rock. For fun.
What are the best Christian bands?
The ones that don’t get played on either mainstream or Christian radio. Actually, the first Christian rocker, Larry Norman, was pretty incredible. His late 60s and early 70s albums have a visionary artistic integrity that holds up quite well. The problem is that for most people, Christian music is still defined by the era of bland, imitative, corporate crap that came next — the Stryper and Amy Grant and dc Talk years of the 80s and 90s. You still hear that on Christian radio today, but there are also a lot of indie Christian bands that reject the notion that Christian music is supposed to be all about either spreading the gospel or providing a safe alternative for church kids. Artists like mewithoutYou, the Myriad, Over the Rhine, Jonathan Rundman, Pedro the Lion, and Derek Webb, to name just a few, write really compelling and enjoyable music that challenges stereotypes about Christian rock in ways that befuddles non-Christians and freaks out other Christians.
What’s the best joke you heard from a Christian standup comic?
There’s a comedian who goes by the name Nazareth who talks about his infant daughter sleeps all day and cries all night. “I’m pro-life,” he growls, “but not at two in the morning.” Actually when I heard him tell that joke in a church full of Christians, I think I was the only person who laughed.
I noticed that certain branches of evangelical Christian have, in their own way, started to embrace certain aspects of Judaism. Including the blowing shofars. Did you get any insight into what is happening there?
There’s definitely a lot of fascination with the *trappings* of Judaism. I went to a Christian theme park in Arkansas where an actor in priestly vestments blew the shofar to announce that one of the rides was starting. There’s a movement among Christians to explore what they see as their Hebrew heritage, and a few savvy Judaica salesmen have capitalized on this by hawking their wares in Christian retail channels, where they have a bigger market and less competition than their peers who foolishly persist in selling Judaica only to Jews.
If this led to genuine cross-cultural understanding I’d be all for it. Unfortunately most Christians still see Judaism through a Christian filter, rather than trying to understand it on its own terms. The fact that Judaism is a living and evolving culture is sometimes lost on them. They’re enthralled by the ancient Hebrews of the Bible and by the role that Jews will supposedly play in the End of Days. They’re less conscious of the 2,000 years in between.
Have you considered writing a follow up book about Jewish pop culture?
Jews always point out to me that we have our own equivalent of what Christians call “Jesus junk.” Not for nothing is shlock a Jewish word. But as much as it might be fun to write about dreidels that play Elvis music when you spin them (that’s a real thing; I actually have one), I don’t think Jewish pop culture is quite as infused with what it means to be an American Jew as Christian pop culture is with American Christianity. Besides, if there is a book to be written on this subject, it’s only fair that I let an evangelical do it.
My final question is: Sarah Palin. Discuss.
Sarah Palin is “Becky.” That’s the industry term for the typical Christian radio listener —the churchgoing working mom who doesn’t want to think too hard about anything. She wants programming that affirms what she already believes and that’s safe for the kids in the backseat. Nothing makes it on to the airwaves if it’s going to upset or confuse Becky.
Becky likes to say things like, “God has a plan for your life” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Usually I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe that, because if it helps them keep going when they lose their job or get a serious illness, more power to them. My concern about Sarah Palin is that she really thinks God thinks she’s ready to be vice president, otherwise why would he have put that on John McCain’s heart (to use the Christianese). A more contemplative Christian might have prayed about this situation and been forced to admit that she wasn’t really ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. When Becky prays, she almost always hears the response she wanted in the first place.
[Strangers in a Strange Land: David Rakoff, Daniel Radosh and A.J. Jacobs]