Popular Culture and the Evangelical Imagination
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Popular Culture and the Evangelical Imagination
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. By Matthew Avery Sutton. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2014; pp. ix + 459. $35.00 cloth.
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. By Molly Worthen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014; pp. viii + 352. $27.95 cloth.
Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel. Edited by Robert H. Woods Jr. (vols. 1–3). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013. $194.00 cloth.

American evangelicals have lost the culture wars. As I write this, the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage is still hours old. This landmark event should not have come as a surprise to evangelicals, given the lightning speed of changing public opinion (although it may be surprising to some that such progressive social change has come in the form of the conservative tradition of marriage). [End Page 161] Evangelicals, who make up nearly one-third of Americans, can be found both as marchers and protesters at gay pride parades, but overall evangelicals remain the least supportive of same-sex marriage.1 Evangelicals may have lost the fight against gay marriage, but they are certainly not at a loss for words, judging by the number of op-eds, blog posts, and tweets the decision has spawned. Most display a tone of circumspect, acknowledging the ways in which Christians have harmed LGBTQ persons and tarnished the sacrament of marriage with their own divorces and infidelities. Others reveal an underlying note of triumphalism, confidently stating that this latest skirmish in the culture wars is dwarfed by the ultimate victory that is already secured in Jesus Christ. Do not worry about the battle, boys, they seem to say, because the war is already in the bag.

But if the outcome is already decided, then what motivates evangelicals’ engagement with culture? Three recent books address this question from a variety of academic disciplines and analytical traditions. Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel, edited by Robert H. Woods Jr., is a broad, three-volume collection of essays on the products of evangelical cultural engagement: film, television, books, music, and more. Molly Worthen’s intellectual history of modern American evangelicalism, The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, pins evangelicalism’s contradictions—including the tension between being “in the world but not of it” that is at the heart of the push-pull of evangelical cultural engagement—on a crisis of authority. In American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, historian Matthew Avery Sutton points to evangelicals’ end times, premillennialist theology as an unlikely motivator for evangelical cultural engagement this side of heaven. Each book is an important read for scholars and students of religion and culture, media studies, rhetoric of religion, and history of American evangelicalism. Taken together, the three books paint a picture of a dynamic group of cultural entrepreneurs—devout, tenacious, at times wrong-headed but confident of their rightness—and the ways in which their cultural products have both shaped their world and their own identity.

Thomas Kinkade may be the prototypical evangelical cultural entrepreneur. His wildly popular—and critically panned—paintings depict cozy stone cottages, blooming hedges, babbling brooks, and softly lit streetlamps from a time long ago or a time that never existed. Kinkade calls himself “America’s most collected artist,” and indeed his retail empire has made [End Page 162] him the king of kitsch, selling reproductions of his paintings on coffee mugs, decorative throws, and greeting cards.2 His $500 million a year business even inked a deal with La-Z-Boy furniture and inspired a housing development in Vallejo, California.3

The key to Kinkade’s paintings is the light. A visit to a Thomas Kinkade gallery, as I experienced years ago at the height of his popularity, includes a dimming of the lights in the gallery to reveal an internal glow emanating from the lamplights, cottage windows, and moonlight reflected on water in the painting. There is a reason Kinkade is known as the “painter of light.” As Randall Balmer, who holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth, describes...