What is Jon Stewart really like?
I’d really prefer to talk about my book, if that’s OK.
Fine, whatever. So you’re a secular, New York Jew, right? What made you want to write a book about Christian pop culture?
A few years back and I was visiting my wife’s family in Kansas. Her teenage half-sister is an evangelical and we went with her to a Christian rock festival. After one of the bands, her friend came running over and gushed, “Awesome performance! They prayed like three times in a twenty-minute set.” I was like, Wait, the stuff between the songs was the most important part? I’ve attended plenty of rock shows and thought I was pretty savvy about entertainment and media, but this was new to me. So it was really the pop culture angle that appealed to me first. I found the this parallel universe simultaneously familiar and disorienting in a way that was incredibly intriguing.
So you thought you’d just travel around the country making fun of these people?
Well, OK, before I actually got started I did think that there might be a certain freak-show aspect to the book. I mean, one of the performers at that festival was a rapper billed as “the Christian Eminem.” When he raps about his addictions, it’s Mountain Dew. Seriously. And then when I go to a Christian bookstore and see Gospel Golf Balls and Testamints, what am I going to do, not make jokes about that? But I pretty quickly became more interested in something else. As ridiculous as some of this stuff was to me, it is meaningful to a lot of people, and I genuinely wanted to understand why. That search became much more fascinating to me than cracking jokes. What does it mean to express something as deep and meaningful as faith through a medium like popular culture that is almost by definition transient and superficial?
Although I did still find plenty of opportunities to crack jokes too. I mean, come on — Gospel Golf Balls?
Who is your audience?
Before the book came out I thought it was going to be basically people like me. Liberals or moderates or just non-evangelicals who knew about evangelicalism as a religion or a political movement but had never looked at it through the lens of its trillion-dollar-a-year pop culture, which is much more revealing in many ways. After all, if someone had memorized the entire U.S. Constitution and knew all about free market economics but had never heard of Elvis Presley or Oprah Winfrey, I think you could make a pretty good case that they didn’t understand America. For instance, I’m somewhat bemused by how amazed everyone is at the stuff that Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has said in the past. All of it — the dubious claims about witchcraft, the chastity vows and ideological opposition to masturbation, the extreme creationism — it’s all in my book. OK, not the bit about mice with human brains. That was new to me.
You said that’s who you thought your audience was going to be. Is it?
Partially, sure. But most of my readers — or at least most who have taken the time to get in touch (and if you read it, by all means do) have been Christians or former Christians who grew up in this world themselves. It’s been extremely gratifying to learn that by offering an outsider’s perspective, I’ve helped people who already know the material well see it in a way they hadn’t considered before. And I guess it’s partly that everyone likes to read about themselves, especially when they find that I’m more than willing to identify genuinely great Christian pop culture when I find it, and to offer serious thoughts about what distinguishes it from the shlock that makes up most of the Christian — and secular — pop culture worlds.
Have you gotten any hate mail since the book came out?
Almost none. Some civil disagreements, some tedious but well-meaning attempts at proselytizing, but only one piece of genuine hate mail. It was, however, totally awesome. I won’t reprint all 2,000 words, but suffice it to say that I graciously responded that my book was not in fact financed by the ACLU; that the cover image is a real candy necklace from a Christian bookstore, not a photoshopped mockery of the rosary; that Leon Uris’ Exodus is not Bible history; that I have nothing to do with indoctrinating Mexican children to hate white Americans; that Christians do not have a Constitutional right to be free from ridicule; and that while I have been called a sick fuck many times, it was never before by simultaneously holding themselves out as a paragon of Christian moral rectitude.
So what’s Jon Stewart really like?
In person, he’s nearly 6’3”.