On having a fake culture

On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.

Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.

That claim is obviously exaggerated and polemical, but I think it is clarifying as a thought experiment to imagine American evangelicalism as the invention, beginning in the late 1970s, of a genuinely novel form of Christianity. It drew on elements of fundamentalism (the gesture of literalism, though not the rigor of a document of “classic” fundamentalism like the Scofield Bible), pentecostalism (taking the emotionalism, but rejecting the weird stuff), the “mere Christianity” of C.S. Lewis (though reimagined as a permanent dwelling place rather than an ecumenical waiting room), and various other traditions, but created something new — a thoroughly American, thoroughly white, form of Christianity for a generation raised on sitcoms. It brought with it its own version of American history, in which the Founders were all devout Christians who knew the Bible “chapter and verse,” and its own version of Christian social ethics, wherein Jesus died on the cross so you could clean up and move to the suburbs.

They also brought with them their own artificial sense of persecution. The DC Talk song “Jesus Freak” is a case in point here. The insult that gives the song its title is itself made up — calling Christians “Jesus freaks” is not, as they say, a thing [see comments for clarification on this point]. I had literally never heard the term before I heard the song, which presents itself as a brave act of resistence to insults and skepticism from a mainstream culture that will never understand them. But in another turn of the screw, all of this comes in a package that is very self-consciously aping “the world” in the form of “alternative rock.” The song itself is a transparent rip-off of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the album cover (pictured above) is evocative of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. It’s defiant Christianity reimagined as a lifestyle brand. As one of the more self-aware Christian rock artists, Steve Taylor, put it in one of his songs: “Jesus is a franchise / In the food court.”

It’s ridiculous, and it’s also my native culture — the only native culture I will ever have. It has formed me in ways that I will never be able to stop grappling with. And it was all created in the service of a destructive political agenda that has run aground in Trump. That is part of what is so difficult to bear about the fact that my parents voted for Trump, however reluctantly — the thought that all the values they were so determined to instill in me, all the hours and hours I spent at church, all somehow converged on lockstep support for the worst person in the world.

Of course, no cultural tradition — even a cultural tradition hastily fabricated over the course of a couple decades — is just one thing, and I have found new uses for some of the cultural habits I was trained up in. On some level, I will always feel like I have to make up lost ground, backfilling my fake cultural formation with “real” culture (the Great Books, classical music, traditional men’s style, etc.) — not simply in a search for cultural prestige (no one cares about that stuff, really), but for something that can actually sustain me intellectually and aesthetically.

At the same time, I think my experience leads me to be fascinated with the constructedness of those “real” cultural traditions themselves, and also to be cautious about calling for any new construction. I know how much it costs, because the fake culture of evangelicalism almost cost me the one life I will ever have.

9 thoughts on “On having a fake culture

  1. I thought ‘Jesus freaks’ was a self-designation for Christian hippies, in the period when ‘freak’ was a non-insulting thing counterculture people called themselves. I don’t know the song, but does it make any sense to connect it back to that tradition?

  2. Someone on Facebook mentioned the same thing. They do cover a Larry Norman song on that album, so maybe they’re trying to make a connection with the Jesus Movement and Christian hippies. But even so, it was not actually a current insult for Christians at the time they recorded the album — so the idea that they’re making up a form of persecution that they can then resist still holds.

  3. It’s not just the content in the music and movies in Christian pop culture, though, it’s the Christian media industry itself that has an underdog complex. Yes, the content depicts romanticized persecution (it’s definitely a fetish), but those who produce it make a big show of pitting themselves against secular media. Remember when Fifty Shades came out? Rik Swartzwelder was very open about presenting Old Fashioned as its foil.

  4. One thing this post is missing is a link to the actual Jesus Freak video, which is interesting not just for the aesthetic reasons you mention, but because of the retro Americana sound bites that are mixed into the video version of the song and not the album version–this would have been aesthetically on-point for any 90’s alt-rock, but would have been played for *irony,* whereas in the video they’re played for sympathetic *kitsch.* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbB0QrBIs9k

  5. I grew up with both of these constructed cultures – first in the USSR, with my parents being formed by the post-Stalinist wave, and then as a teenager here in the 90s, deep in the rectum of the white evangelical church. I can see some of the same paranoia, misplaced pride, and deep need to be taken seriously by a world that’s quickly leaving them behind.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on the aping. In the USSR, there was often a push to do the opposite of the West, sometimes in the absurd – banning musical instruments or genres. In the Evangelical Church, I’ve seen the opposite – creating an “alternative” that can pass for the original to an untrained ear.

    The Soviets would never have created a competing product – it was seen as giving in. If anything, they refused to acknowledge that the product had cultural value. People were mocked for being derivative of the West. In the 90s Evangelical Church, people were celebrated for creating these derivatives.

    Obviously there are different ways to construct a culture, and you’re mostly talking about the after-effects of the big reveal – you’re all living a lie, and then the response – refusing to believe the reveal, and to dig deeper into the lie.

    If the USSR 2.0 push in Russia is any indication, the evangelicals and their fake culture are not done yet.

  6. I can relate to so much of this. And I remember when Jesus Freak came out…I was pretty young, and I remember feeling like I must have been falling way short if I wasn’t being insulted with that term like other Christians apparently were. Oh, the sandcastles in our brains…

  7. I resonate with this so hard, but also don’t. Being a black evangelical was such a weird experience. It was filled with things like fake Christian persecution narratives, but I also learned about the reality of black oppression from my parents and in church. We were homeschooled to avoid the world’s influence but also to avoid a school system that criminalizes black children… which meant I got an education that was both reading Abeka books and Nat Turner, or that when I pointed out that the Abeka “history” book I was reading in 3rd or 4th grade had Robert E. Lee as a hero and reluctant confederate, I caught the look of disappointment and the sound of resignation in my mother’s voice when she said that maybe they weren’t as thoughtful about race as they should be.

    I’ll always feel like it’s my education in black culture, interwoven as it was with fake white evangelical culture, that gave me the gift of, as Spillers calls it, critical culture. But I can still resonate with the end of Adam’s post. That I can totally see the how evangelicalism almost ruined my life.

    There but for the grace of black Jesus go I.

  8. In all fairness, “Jesus Freak” actually was a thing back in the late 60’s/early 70’s when I was in high school. People who were really outspoken about Jesus were called Jesus Freaks. (I wasn’t one, I didn’t become a Christian until later.) It didn’t seem derogatory overall, just descriptive, though it could become an insult if the person was being pushy or sanctimonious about their faith. The word “freak” was popular then, overall. It got to be something hippies (at least in my circles) referred to themselves as. Like, I remember being introduced to a new guy and my friend saying, “he’s cool, he’s a freak,” i.e., he’s one of us.

    But anyway, I think you make a good point about the Christian culture that came into being at that time. It seemed like certain larger than life Christian personages became popular beyond denominational lines and it grew out of bits and pieces of all their ideas. James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Chuck Colson… a few names that come to mind, offhand; I know there were lots more. Christians at the time were pretty naive and ready to assimilate so much of what they heard (myself included, I’m sorry to say). As long as someone had public speaking and marketing skills and could make a name for themselves and they referenced “Jesus” or the Bible, their words were given a lot of weight. Along with it came a subtle change in focus from Christ to charismatic leaders and from personal spiritual growth to this world, to civil government & politics and the embrace of marketing as a viable way to grow the faith. It was discovered that the Christian world had a lot of money to spend and could support it’s own superstars, concerts, festivals, etc. The world was kind of a mess at the time and a lot of us were looking for something better but, like I say, we were naive and pretty easily manipulated. And it all kept carrying along, gathering baggage, until we got to this point today. A lot of believers have been dropping out all along the way, though, as we came up against the hypocrisy and deception and were forced to have a reality check.

    So here we are today on this little point of the continuum.

    When you think about it, it is a shared experience that many had- in that sense, is it a culture of sorts?

    Did you watch “Fire by Nite”?

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