Tuesday, July 22, 2003

As you probably know, we were in Florida last week, with the stated objective of attending the Christian Booksellers' Association convention. Well, I was tagging along, and Michael was in attendance for work.

It's quite the show - sort of like your local Christian bookstore, a hundred times magnified, with the additional feature of much free stuff being tossed at you. There were just a few Catholic exhibitors present: OSV, Abbey Press, a CD distributor, the John Michael Talbot group, and Lord have mercy, a group called the Shepherds of Christ, which has various aspects to its apostolate, including the promotion of a particular visionary, as well as the purported apparition of Mary that appeared in the glass of a Clearwater bank building a few years back.

I ask you, in this sea of very serious evangelicals, what you think of the witness to Catholicism offered by this last group. They have their big posters of the Mary image. They have stacks and stacks and stacks of cards with the apparition. And they are literally accosting people as they walk by, planting themselves in front of folks, forcing these cards on them, inviting the Baptists to learn more about the Marian apparition on the bank building in Clearwater.

It was unnerving, exasperating, and, I have to tell you, exceedingly strange.

But in the context, what is strange? This show always brings forth great reflections on the ties between evangelism, marketing and commerce. The rationale behind it all - behind the Scripture Candy (in a booth manned by staff in matching shirts with America flag prints emblazoned on them), behind the huge, expensive Zondervan and Tyndale booths that could have been a nice-looking floor at Bloomingdale's - is passing on the Good News. But in a commercial culture, how is that done without commerce? Ah, that is the question.

Michael will probably blog more about this particular aspect later, so I won't steal his thunder, but when you go to a show like this, you are struck by the symbiosis between evangelical culture and secular pop culture. Quite simply - if it's in pop culture, within time, you'll find it baptized in a Christian bookstore. Here are two examples that struck me as particularly amusing.

First, there's this novel, due out in the fall:

And what might this be aping?

Secondly is a book called Body by God: The Owner's Manual for Maximized Living, a book also coming out this fall, for which I unfortunately can't find a cover image online yet, but - trust me. If you've ever seen the cover for Body for Life, you've got it - almost exactly, just with a different guy in a muscle-T on the cover.

The relationship between religion and culture is always a complex and interesting one, but this is ever more fascinating because it is so purposeful, so blatant - so...opportunistic, because, you know, they're not giving this stuff away for free. There is such a strong impulse within American evangelicalism to produce an alternative, "safe" culture, there seems no end to the products that can be churned out, marketed and sold to fill that need.

Unfortunately, the Tammy Faye pic turned out to be unusable - way too blurry - Michael was holding Joseph as he was taking it, so you understand. Let's just say that it always such a useful tonic to see celebrities without make-up...well, I mean with only half the make-up she'd usually wear. I mean, friends, she looked. like. hell. It was scary. Maybe she scared Joseph, maybe he was trembling in fear and made Michael's hand shake. Her hair was bright, bright red, she had tremendously heavy eye makeup and lipstick on, but, it seems nothing else, and the skin on her face just sagged in this bizarre collapse of wrinkles pouring down each cheek. But her voice was the same - that grating bark. I exchanged nothing but hellos from her, but the person in front of me had this long conversation in which they spoke of dead people - I guess Tammy Faye's brother had just died, and she wouldn't shed a tear. "I never do," she rasped. "It's not sad at all - he's gone to be with Jesus. I can hardly wait to go myself, because this is not my home. This. Is. Not. My. Home!"