“Christian” as a niche demographic

Timothy Noah at The New Republic laments the use of the term “Christian” to refer exclusively to conservative, evangelical Protestants (and the cultural products that cater to them):

Every morning I wake up to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” and this morning my first stirrings of consciousness concerned the new movie October Baby, about a young womanwho finds out that she was adopted after her birth mother underwent a failed abortion. Ten percent of the film’s profits will be donated to an anti-abortion charity. NPR’s piece about October Baby (audio, text), described it as one of several “Christian” films that Hollywood studios have started churning out. Jon Erwin, who co-directed the film with his brother Andrew, told NPR that he was “raised in the South in a Christian home and family,” and that the values of many contemporary Hollywood films felt alien to him. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter‘s Paul Bond, NPR observed that “Hollywood doesn’t like to leave money on the table,” and noted that Fox and Sony have set up subsidiaries to serve the niche “Christian” market.

As I lay in bed struggling to wake up I thought: Christian? Christians aren’t some twee boutique demographic. Christians represent the majority. About 78 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. What NPR and Fox and Sony mean when they say “Christian” is “Christian right” or “Christian conservatives,” terms that adherents don’t like because they think they’re pejorative. “Fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are imperfect substitutes because a) the two categories, though they overlap a lot, aren’t precisely the same; and b) some of these folks consider themselves political liberals. (The worldly Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr called himself an evangelical Protestant.) What conservative Christians really like to be called is “Christians.” Hence “Christian rock” and “Christian college” and now “Christian film.” This strikes me as terribly presumptuous. Bruce Springsteen was raised Catholic but he doesn’t perform anything these folks would accept as Christian rock. Wesleyan was founded by Methodists and named after John Wesley but evangelicals would never call it a Christian university. “Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”

When you consider Christianity’s foundational position in Western art and culture, it’s somewhat ironic that “Christian” used in this sense is an almost-infallible indicator of sub-par schlock that’s not worth your time.


I don’t like to be that guy–the one who airs his grammar or usage pet peeves. But this one’s been bugging me for a while. It’s the use of “myself” in place of “me.” As in: “Let Jane, Bob, or myself know if you have any questions.” The practice seems rampant in corporate America and other big organizations, maybe because people think it sounds more “correct” or official? It’s called a reflexive pronoun, people. Use it the way it was intended.

Gender and God-talk

Derek posted a couple of pieces on the language we use to talk about God, which sparked a good bit of commentary. (See here and here.) Partly, this ended up being about the propriety (or not) of using feminine symbols and pronouns to talk about God.

The best discussion of this I’ve come across is Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. I blogged about Johnson’s book at some length here, here, here, and here. You can also read a briefer version of her case for “God-she” here.

I think one of the deeper issues at play here is whether or not all our language about God is, to some extent, “constructed.” Johnson writes:

As the history of theology shows, there is no “timeless” speech about God. Rather, symbols of God are cultural constructs, entwined with the changing cultural situation of the faith community that uses them.

Some people are very uncomfortable with this and maintain instead that at least some langague is directly “revealed” and not time-and-culture bound. I don’t think this is a tenable view of how language works, though; even if some set of images or words was directly revealed in the Bible or wherever, the meaning of words is inextricably bound up with the context in which they’re spoken.

Mid-week links

– 2010’s was the hottest June on record in Washington, D.C. (I believe it!)

– Glenn Beck pulicizes liberation theology.

– On the authority of the Bible. (And more.)

– Is Amazon killing the publishing business?

– Keith Ward argues that there are things science can’t explain.

– The ideology of marriage.

– I heartily concur with this review of the new Soilwork album. I’ve been listening to it nonstop for the last two weeks.

– The hyphen is your friend.

– Against new-book hype.

– God is a materialist.

Usage question

I’ve noticed a somewhat widespread tendency for writers to use the expression “to paraphrase” in something like the opposite of its proper meaning. “To paraphrase” properly means, as far as I know, to express the same idea using a different form of words. But many people now seem to use it to mean something like “to express a different idea using a similar form of words.”

For example, in this (otherwise excellent!) blog post about torture, Andrew Sullivan writes:

To paraphrase Hitch: torture poisons everything.

Now, this isn’t quite right, is it? If Sullivan were paraphrasing Christopher Hitchens’ statement that “religion poisons everything,” he’d be expressing the same idea as Hitchens, but in his own words. He’d say something like “religion morally taints everything it comes in contact with.” That’s a paraphrase. What Sullivan’s doing is adapting Hitchens’ words to express a different thought: that torture taints everything it comes into contact with.

This problem isn’t as widespread or irritating as the now-ubiquitous abuse of “begs the question,” but it makes me wonder if there is a term or expression to describe what is properly the adaptation of someone else’s specific words to express a different idea.

Am I the only one who’s noticed this?