Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture


"Shaking the World for Jesus makes a major contribution to the study of American religion. Heather Hendershot explores the many uses of secular media to advance the evangelical movement, from heavy metal music and science fiction films to chastity media and best-selling videos like VeggieTales. This is an outstanding book that enriches our knowledge about Christianization and secularization in American culture."—R. Marie Griffith

"What most intrigues Hendershot about the $4-billion-per-year 'Christian lifestyles industry' is how the evangelicals in it negotiate the injunction to be 'in the world but not of it.' There is a clear divide, she finds, between aggressive Bible thumpers, who are not quite in the world, and their more ecumenical brethren, who are too seamlessly of it."—Stephen Prothero, Washington Post

An excerpt from
Shaking the World for Jesus
Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture
Heather Hendershot


Nonbelievers often respond to evangelical Christians with fear or ridicule. When conservative Christian candidates dominated the elections in 1994, many Americans panicked. Of the six hundred national, state, and local candidates supported by religious conservatives, 60 percent won. Evangelicals weren't simply marginal "kooks," it seemed; they were voters with political muscle whose policies threatened the separation of church and state. Four years later, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell outed the children's TV character Tinky-Winky as gay, everyone had a good laugh. Evangelicals were in the spotlight again, but this time they were out of touch and feckless. Falwell was instantly targeted by stand-up comedians, and a wag in the New York Times not only postulated that the Teletubbies were "operating in league with a global cabal of gay television executives and purse manufacturers, bent on nothing less than world domination," but also raised questions about the sexual orientation of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bert and Ernie, and Yogi Bear and Booboo. Rather than simply laughing at Falwell, we might have wondered what the whole brouhaha revealed about the culture's overwrought anxieties about children and sexuality (or why many of the anti-Falwell jokes were no less homophobic than Falwell himself). Laughter, however, was the easy response.

Reducing evangelicals to caricatures does not help us understand their spiritual, political, or cultural agendas. Many historians and sociologists, of course, have avoided caricature, producing a substantial literature on evangelical history, politics, and theology. Scholars such as Colleen McDannell, David Morgan, Diane Winston, and Leigh Schmidt also transcend caricature in their studies of the material culture of Christianity. Rather than critiquing religious commodities as evidence of how commercialism dilutes faith, these researchers explore "the subtle ways that people create and maintain spiritual ideals through the exchange of goods and the construction of spaces." Research on material culture takes seriously the artifacts (mass-produced pictures of Jesus, religious trinkets, etc.) that many nonevangelicals laughingly dismiss as kitsch.

Admittedly, "evangelical" is a broad, somewhat amorphous category. Who exactly are evangelicals? Often referred to as born-agains, evangelicals are hard to pin down as a discrete subculture. They don't go to conventions. They don't have membership cards. Most don't see themselves as part of a political movement, although many do believe that there is a spiritual revival occurring in the United States and that God's power is driving it. At the most basic level, the evangelicals targeted by the Christian cultural products industry are Protestants who have been transformed by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal savior. They emphasize "the role of human volition in the salvation process," as Randall Balmer puts it, exalting "the individual's ability to 'choose God' and thereby take control of his or her spiritual destiny." They believe that it is important to share the "good news" of the Gospel with others, often through giving testimony of their own personal conversion experience; they understand the Bible to be the true, infallible word of God; and they are frequently morally and politically conservative, distancing themselves from any kind of liberal thinking, whether political or spiritual. Asked about liberalism, one evangelical cited in Smith declares, "Absolutely not, I am not a liberal. A liberal is someone who takes the Word of God loosely, takes the Bible loosely. He says that it may not be inerrant, that it may be fallible." Evangelicals are more likely to call themselves "Bible-believing Christians" or simply "Christians" than "evangelicals." Many see "fundamentalist" as an insult. Although nonbelievers often call conservative Christians "fundamentalists," the group that this book looks at is more accurately described as evangelical; fundamentalists are, strictly speaking, more separatist than evangelicals and tend to emphasize more adamantly the differences between believers and nonbelievers. Like fundamentalists, though, evangelicals tend to see themselves not as a type of Christian but as the only true Christians; they have found the one true path to heaven. Throughout this book, I use "evangelical," "Christian," and "born-again" as synonyms unless otherwise noted. Although there are obviously many types of Christians, both evangelical and nonevangelical, I have opted to echo my subjects' appropriation of "Christian" to refer only to conservative evangelicals.

Shaking the World for Jesus examines the vast industry of books, films, videos, and magazines that have targeted the conservative evangelical American middle class since the seventies. While a sizable number of studies have examined the growth of televangelism, few have paid attention to the Christian cultural products industry—the thousands of films, videos, CDs, and magazines sold to millions of evangelicals via mail order, the World Wide Web, Christian bookstores, and increasingly, in secular bookstores and national chains such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart. The growth of evangelical media also has been virtually ignored by film and media studies researchers, with the notable exception of Julia Lesage and Linda Kintz's Media, Culture, and the Religious Right, and even this impressive collection focuses mostly on overtly activist media, largely bypassing the huge, rapidly growing market in less politically oriented entertainment media. More often, it is not evangelical media products but evangelical politics—evangelicalism as a "social movement"—that are subjected to scholarly investigation. Researchers such as Chip Berlet, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, David Bennet, Didi Herman, Clyde Wilcox, and Rebecca Klatch have examined fundamentalism as a right-wing political force, often emphasizing the dangers of Christian activism. If such researchers consider evangelical media at all, they view it as propaganda—overtly political, painfully unsubtle, and inherently dangerous.

In my experience, however, most evangelical media are not propaganda designed to induce a political or spiritual conversion. Of course, when a TV preacher invites viewers to be saved, even to put their hands on the monitor to "touch" the preacher's hand, media are intended as a conversion tool. But outside of the televangelical context, Christian music, videos, films, and magazines are not uniformly designed to convert consumers. More often, consumers are assumed to already be saved, or it is hoped that this media might soften the unsaved consumer's heart so that a one-on-one encounter with a saved friend, family member, or coworker might be more effective. Media such as Christian videos are not considered as powerful as personal testimony, but they might plant the proverbial mustard seed, an idea about salvation that might someday take root if properly nourished. This is hardly the hard sell approach that one would expect from "propaganda."

Shaking the World for Jesus moves beyond the propaganda paradigm to take a closer look at Christian media, examining that media's industrial history, the subtleties of the products themselves, and their success in the religious and, increasingly, the secular marketplace. In other words, this book brings together industrial and textual analysis in order to understand how Christian media are produced and what they try to communicate to consumers. Shaking the World for Jesus thus seeks to begin to fill an enormous gap in our understanding of both media history and contemporary culture. Serious study of exploitation films, home movies, industrial films, and other previously ignored genres by film and media studies researchers is recent. This book strives to contribute to this growing body of research on previously undervalued media artifacts.

In addition to books, CDs, and videos, religious bookstores are now packed with Christian tchotchkes, jewelry, and even junk food. To nonevangelicals, products such as Scripture Candy and Testamints may seem profane. But to dismiss such products is to ignore how they figure in the daily lives of evangelicals. Born-agains place religion at the center of daily life, believing that one can serve the Lord through the most mundane acts—being on time to class, playing ball with your son, even picking up your husband's dirty socks. Similarly, when young Christians produce a five hundred gallon milkshake in honor of the Teen Missionaries International theme, "Shake the World for Jesus" (from Ezekiel 38:20: "All the men that are upon the face of the earth shall shake at my presence"), they do not see themselves as belittling the Lord. Rather, the milkshake is taken as a potent symbol of missionary commitment to the Gospel. Everyday cultural products such as Christian music and magazines can also help trigger and maintain this kind of commitment. Chastity, too, can be sustained with the help of products such as "True Love Waits" gold pendants and psychedelic "Virtuous Reality" posters. Thanks to such Christian lifestyle products, the consumption of mass-produced goods can now be justified as serving a holy purpose.

While the "Christianization" of secular media such as heavy metal music and science fiction films is new to American culture, the existence of a highly permeable boundary between the sacred and the secular is not. Evangelicals, and their more separatist fundamentalist cousins, have always had a complicated relationship with the secular world. One result of the 1925 Scopes trial—in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching the theory of evolution—was that evangelicals acquired an "antimodern" reputation; supposedly, these were people opposed to scientific progress, mass media, and new technologies. But in fact, evangelicals have embraced—although often not without debate—any "modern" means that could be used to spread the Gospel. As Quentin J. Schulze has observed, American evangelicals have made use of

every imaginable form and medium of communication, from Bible and tract printing to tent revivals, gospel billboards, books, religious drama troupes, radio and television broadcasts, parade floats, motorcycle evangelism, periodicals, and even Rollen Stewart…who holds up Scripture signs ["John 3:16"] in front of the TV network cameras during sports events. American evangelicals were often leery of new media, especially those that provided "worldly entertainment," such as the stage and, later, film. But they also pioneered one form of mass communication after another.

In the 1920s, some Christians had reservations about creating radio programming, since sending messages through the air seemed almost supernatural. The Bible, after all, refers to Satan as the "prince of the power of the air." Such doubts were short-lived. "Modern times," Joel Carpenter has explained, "demanded modern technology, so what the church needed was to adapt to the automobile age and then 'step on the gas.'" Thus, Christians quickly became major players in early radio broadcasting.

In its simplest form, secularization theory would have us believe that religion inevitably fades in modern societies. But if modern life dilutes religious belief, how can we explain not only the continued presence of evangelicals in America but also the fact that their ranks seem to be growing? Evangelicals have clearly not been stamped out by the "secularizing" influence of the modern world. For all their reputation as intransigent Bible-thumpers, evangelicals have survived by being flexible and making accommodations to modernity. As Carpenter argues, "rather than viewing evangelicalism as a throwback, as a religion of consolation for those who cannot accept the dominant humanist, modernist, liberal, and secular thrust of mainstream society, perhaps it is more accurate to see evangelicalism as a religious persuasion that has repeatedly adapted to the changing tone and rhythms of modernity." American evangelicals are, as Christian Smith explains, both "embattled and thriving." If today's thriving Christian cultural products industry illustrates anything, it is that evangelicals continue to spread their messages using "the newest thing," be it film, video, or the Web. The growing Christian market in films, videos, and Web sites, then, is not evidence of the "secularization" of evangelical culture but rather of the complicated osmosis occurring between the "secular" and the "religious."

This book strives to complicate the by-now familiar narrative of evangelical adaptation to the "rhythms of modernity." The story I tell is new on several fronts. First and most obviously, as stated above, many Christian films, books, videos, magazines, and other cultural products have until now received only scant scholarly attention, and so my study serves as a corrective. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I believe that examination of the contemporary Christian media industry reveals a new development in the way that evangelicals have made accommodations to secular culture. To the untrained eye, it might seem as though evangelical media have simply become "more secular" as they have grown. This would account for the recent Top Forty success of "Christian" songs like Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me," which doesn't mention God, Jesus, or, for that matter, anything overtly religious. I would argue, however, that over the course of the past thirty years Christian media have become not more secular but more ambiguous, and that a wide variety of products must be examined to formulate an accurate picture of the different levels of evangelical intensity in today's Christian media. Some products seem deliberately fuzzy about their religious intentions, whereas other products remain overtly, even dogmatically, evangelical, such as Willie Ames's popular straight-to-video Bibleman superhero series for children. Still other products, such as VeggieTales children's videos, are produced by evangelicals but are only gently "religious," promoting an ecumenical belief in God. In sum, contemporary Christian media are incredibly uneven in the degree to which they overtly proclaim their faith.

Of course, Christians and their media have always come in all shapes and sizes. Listening to a right-wing, redbaiting fundamentalist radio broadcast by Carl McIntire in the fifties would have been different from listening to the evangelical Rev. Billy Graham deliver a radio sermon in that same decade. But at some point both men would have spoken of salvation through Jesus, and it is unlikely that a listener would have mistakenly assumed that he or she was listening to a secular broadcast or that the speakers were Roman Catholic or Jewish. Today a wide range of products, all produced by evangelicals, convey different levels of evangelical intensity and ambiguity, and they all coexist on the shelves of Christian bookstores. Moreover, some of them (usually the least overtly evangelical ones) have been stocked by Wal-Mart and the now-bankrupt K-Mart. Importantly, Christian products have made it into the secular marketplace not only because their religious messages are ambiguous, diluted, or absent but also because they are increasingly distributed by huge, non-Christian companies. A third contribution that this book makes, then, is to reveal the new economics of the production and distribution of Christian cultural products.

I spend less time addressing how Christians interpret their media. Although the book does not take audiences as its central focus, it does assume that evangelical media are designed to provide something of spiritual value to believers. At the very least, by virtue of not promoting certain "dangerous" liberal values, these media are designed not to harm consumers. If you are an evangelical who doesn't like secular sitcoms or cartoons and you think they might be bad for your kids, all you have to do is call the country's biggest producer and distributor of Christian media, Focus on the Family, and, with credit card in hand, purchase a Christian alternative. From this perspective, consumers use Christian media not as tools of salvation but as safeguards against secular contamination.

Beyond providing clean-cut entertainment, such media can also help people deal with emotional crises, teach them political lessons, instruct them in chastity and other Christian modes of behavior, or provide inspirational models for praise and worship. In short, such media both reflect and construct evangelical understandings of the sacred and the profane, of the saved individual and his or her place in the wider world. The idea that media and other cultural goods might help to create or sustain faith may be ridiculous to evangelical readers, since from their perspective it is the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, in interrelationship with the individual believer, that creates and sustains belief, and to contend otherwise is to misunderstand what evangelical Christianity is all about. A chastity ring or T-shirt, thus, does not bring about a commitment to sexual abstinence. Rather, as David Morgan found in his study of attitudes toward popular religious images, such objects remind the wearer of the spiritual commitment that has been made.

This, at least, is how things should work in principle. In practice, the symbolic object can sometimes take on a more active, performative role. But many evangelicals would disagree with this analysis, preferring to deemphasize the spiritual importance of chastity rings and other lifestyle products such as magazines and videos. In not toeing the evangelical line, as it were, my approach is clearly that of an outsider, and I sometimes draw conclusions about how Christian cultural products might be used or interpreted that are at odds with the conclusions that evangelicals themselves would draw. At the same time, my conclusions may challenge the assumptions of nonevangelicals, many of whom perceive Christian culture first and foremost as a political culture and reduce evangelicalism to a synonym for the Christian Right. Although some Christian media are designed for overtly political and sometimes incendiary purposes—Christian Coalition training tapes or antigay videos like Gay Rights/Special Rights—the majority of Christian media does not have overt political intentions, and most everyday evangelicals aren't activists or substantially more politically engaged than the average American Episcopalian, Unitarian, agnostic, atheist, or even Satanist. Christian Smith has found that many evangelicals define activism not as protesting, picketing, boycotting, or even voting, but rather as witnessing. Indeed, a common perception among the people Smith surveyed was that political change would only come as people's individual hearts changed. In the long run, spreading the Word would be more effective than political organizing. Evangelical media sometimes help spread the Word to potential converts. Often, though, they speak to people who are already within the evangelical fold. Although I remain outside that fold, I have tried to balance my analysis, considering what such media might mean to evangelicals while also analytically dissecting that media.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, not all evangelicals are militant Bible-thumpers. Those whom I met in the course of my research typically gently gave their testimony and didn't expect me instantly to fall on my knees and accept the Lord. They hoped to plant a seed, and the best way to do that was by positive example, just by showing that the Lord had made a positive change in their own lives. Whether they had been supernaturally transformed, or in the secular formulation, merely thought they had been, the people I encountered saw themselves as better, happier people since they accepted the Lord into their hearts. These may seem like naive observations to some readers, but they are worth stating for people who come to this book identifying themselves as opponents of the Christian Right. The Christian Right is not any more central to the identity of the average evangelical than the Democratic Party is to most political liberals.

Shaking the World for Jesus looks at the "center" of conservative evangelical culture, the middle-class, mostly white Christians who can afford to buy into the "Christian lifestyle" market. The Christian market includes a number of popular African American authors, and certainly many successful African American (and some Latino) musicians; African American recording artists CeCe Winans and Kirk Franklin are notably successful. Yet the vast majority of the goods produced for the Christian lifestyle market are targeted to white consumers, and it is this market that this book will focus on. People of color are largely absent from Christian media, and when they do appear, it is not unusual for them to be marked as "the other," as in an episode of the straight-to-video cartoon series VeggieTales when Junior Asparagus does not want to invite a "different" vegetable (with a Latino-sounding last name) to his birthday party. All of the VeggieTales characters appear to be white (although most are technically green) except for Mr. Lunt, a Mexican gourd with greasy hair and a gold-capped tooth. African Americans appear as token sidekicks in several Christian movies, cartoons, and sitcoms, but they are never protagonists. Such tokenism indicates an attempt to "reach out" to people of color, as when the Promise Keepers, a predominantly white men's ministry, made racial reconciliation a major goal. Their pamphlets featured a handshake between white and brown muscular hands, but their membership remained mostly white. Like the Promise Keepers, some Christian media may attempt to speak to nonwhite consumers, but for the most part, evangelical media are made by whites and for whites.

Many evangelicals are nondenominational, while others come from Pentecostal, Charismatic, Southern Baptist or other traditions. Christian cultural goods are marketed to conservative evangelicals from a variety of backgrounds, as long as they have disposable income. These are the evangelicals who, if they see themselves as "political" at all, might identify as Republicans, or possibly as members of the Christian Coalition, but certainly not as members of the Ku Klux Klan. They are distanced from the far right of militias and other Christian extremists. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, tried to project the image of this kind of Christian. Reed portrayed conservative Christians as just one element of a pluralistic, democratic society. These Christians are, according to Reed, completely average people who just want to have their say. They are not old-fashioned, separatist fundamentalists. Rather, they are modern evangelicals, attempting to be "in the world but not of the world."

To be "in" but not "of" the world is to engage with people outside of the evangelical belief system, and hopefully to lead them into that system, without instead becoming more like the outsiders. Today's conservative evangelicals want to engage with the wider culture because they think their belief system is the truth—indeed, the only hope for humankind—and they want to share this reality with others. Media can help accomplish this task. Yet in interacting with the world, there is always the chance (indeed, the probability) that you yourself will be changed. This is, in fact, exactly what has happened to contemporary evangelicals. Examination of evangelical media reveals the complex ways that today's evangelicals are both in and of the world. This is not a negative value judgment; evangelicals have not simply "sold out" or been "secularized." Rather, evangelicals have used media to simultaneously struggle against, engage with, and acquiesce to the secular world.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-11 of Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture by Heather Hendershot, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Heather Hendershot
Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture
©2004, 266 pages, 49 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-32679-9

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Shaking the World for Jesus.

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