City Pages, Rapture Ready, and Rolling Stone: Undercover in Christian weirdness

Three times in the past two months I’ve come across a common story idea in pop-culture journalism:

Non-Christian journalist goes undercover at a Christian event to expose “the real story!”

The first article I saw like this was written by a local journalist who sneakily attended a Catholic-sponsored TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) retreat. Here’s the link to the story “Jesus Weekend” by Matt Snyders which appeared in the March 5th issue of City Pages here in Minneapolis.

Then, in early April, Daniel Radosh’s book Rapture Ready was released nationally. One chapter of the book features Daniel volunteering as a cast member for a Branson, Missouri-area large scale Passion Play.

Now, in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, I discovered another piece along the same lines. Here’s the link to Matt Taibbi’s article “Jesus Made me Puke” from the May 1st issue of RS, where he goes undercover for an Encounter weekend sponsored by the Texas megachurch of televangelist John Hagee.

In each article, the author is a “secular” type, going into the situation with some pretty skeptical and cynical notions of what will be going on. The results for each writer, though, are different...especially in tone.

Snyders’ piece from City Pages doesn’t dredge up anything too offensive or surprising (to me anyway). Poor and/or boring retreat programming is probably the greatest sin these Catholic retreat leaders commit during the course of the weekend. When I was a teenager, I attended a Catholic-sponsored TEC weekend like the one Snyders writes about, and for me, it was a very educational, inspiring, and positive experience. As a sheltered Finnish-Lutheran, I’d never done church stuff with Catholics before, and I left the event completely impressed with their seriousness, devotion, and general spiritual vibe. Judging from the article, this particular TEC weekend was kinda lame, with some “rah rah, stand up against the evil world” theology, but for all the author’s promise of scandal, the whole article pretty much peters out in the end.

Regarding the Radosh book (which I’ve blogged about already), I still haven’t finished it yet. However, it’s obvious that although poor Daniel ends up encountering some pretty dim Christians, and some pretty embarrassing Christian behavior, the author goes through it all with great respect, patience, and understanding. The dirt he uncovers in the process is certainly stuff that the American Right-Wing Church has to deal with, and I can’t wait to read further in the book to see what other craziness awaits.

Matt Taibbi is a very funny, and very R-rated political writer for Rolling Stone, who is wide open and public with his disgust and loathing for The Christian Right in America. Needless to say, he goes into his weekend retreat expecting some psycho nutcases, and yup, sure enough, he finds ‘em. The stuff going on during the weekend retreat run by the folks at Cornerstone Church is all the classic militant, macho, brainless, and manipulative crap you might imagine. It makes for a very entertaining read, but it leaves a very depressing aftertaste.

So what is it about these stories that gives me such a queasy vibe? ‘Cause really, even though I’m a church-goer myself, I tend to relate more to the undercover writers than the unsuspecting Christians in these stories. Here’s what bugs me: ALL Christians end up looking dumb/lame/crazy/dangerous when these stories are written (even if the author tries to say otherwise). Most young, hip, cynical readers of all these publications think poorly of people of faith already, and these pieces just stoke the fire.

I also think about how many church retreats I’ve participated in, planned, and/or facilitated. Hundreds! Beginning with church camp in the Summer, back in elementary school, through the Vocation training event I played music at in Milwaukee two weeks ago. Now, in the past 30 years, I have seen some stupid crap going down at events like this...BUT, for the most part these events have changed my life dramatically for the better, and the lives of the other participants, too. There IS a way to structure and facilitate an experience like that without being a psycho nutcase.

After reading these three pieces, I find myself wanting to read the same kind of journalism in reverse. You know, something like this:

+ Liberal Christian Journalist goes undercover at Conservative Secular retreat (how could this even happen?)

It’s hard to think of how to explore the same idea turned upside down. Hmmm....

Okay, how about this:

+ Non-Christian Journalist goes undercover in liberal mainline-Protestant church event!

I can imagine some of the shocking revelations when a secular, cynical, liberal reporter spends a weekend at a Synod Youth Gathering sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

“They spent an entire hour one afternoon talking about the evils of Bottled Water, and the damage it does to the environment!”

“A group of teenagers choreographed and performed a liturgical dance to one of the Psalms!”

“They passed around a bucket and collected an offering to help women entrepreneurs in developing nations get micro-loans for their small businesses!”

“By Sunday morning they had assembled 40 quilts to go to Hurricane relief in New Orleans!”

“There were no altar calls, no psychological manipulation, no exorcisms, and no speaking in tongues!”

“They prayed for peace in Iraq!”

After all this radical behavior gets exposed, I imagine many readers of mags like City Pages and Rolling Stone would say “Wow, that sounds a lot like the kind of behavior I agree with! I even respect people like this!”

Hey you Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, UCCers, and other Mainline folks! We have so much to offer the world! Let’s provide a voice of reason in the screwed up world of American Christianity, and maybe WE’LL get some media coverage of our own! Oh, and to you, Rolling Stone...if you want to send a reporter on tour with ME someday, to a series of church concerts, or youth gatherings, I'd love to have the company! And we'd all appreciate an extra person to help us with quiltmaking, food-pantry shelving, Habitat For Humanity house building, communion distribution, and conga-line dancing.


Bridget Delaney said…
If only . . . if only.

Some people tend to look down on me for being a Christian because of these things, too. The ELCA events are awesome! I love 'em!

I didn't deal with this recently online, but I did with defining Christians and how even liberal Christians say that conservatives are still Christian, though. Well, in a sense - it was really a guy saying that each denomination worships a different God . . . and that post is even in THIS blog. Amazing, huh?
radosh said…
Not quite what you're looking for, but here's an evangelical journalist attending several mainline services.
RevDrum said…
I'm with you on your take ... I can think of a lot of great places for journalists to reveal a different story.

I wonder if this trend in stories about Christianity is just a fluke or if it's part of a deeper sense in some of these writers (or their editors) realizing a generation that is searching for something bigger than themselves and trying to figure out what that is ... I guess I can hope, right?
Amen! Awesome post, Jonathan! I read that City Pages article too, and felt that the author was really reaching for something to 'expose.'
And, wow, I'm looking forward to hearing your new stuff!

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