It Only Hurts When I Laugh -- James K. A. Smith

The May issue of Harper's magazine is, as usual, a feast

By James K. A. Smith|June 30, 2005

The May issue of Harper's magazine is, as usual, a feast. There is a distinct theme running through this issue, which comprises an almost apocalyptic collection of editorials and essays chronicling the dangers of evangelical Christianity -- from Lewis H. Lapham's characteristic fundamentalism of the left, through Jeff Sharlet's foray into the exurban world of Ted Haggard's megachurch, to Chris Hedges's hilarious and frightening tour of the National Religious Broadcasters conference. The writing is crisp and witty, the research is thorough, and the tone sometimes even charitable. This is just the kind of stuff that makes some of us shell out cash for Harper's, The Atlantic, and other favorite cultural observers.

But I can't stop thinking about French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, as periodicals are increasingly publishing pieces that I would call "Harper's anthropology" (though you'll also find examples of this type of journalism in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and other key media outlets). Just as western anthropologists of generations past trudged through island jungles in search of the exotic "other" in "primitive" societies, so today journalists depart from the safety and civilization of Manhattan to the exotic environs of ... Kansas! -- or Oklahoma, or Florida, or Colorado Springs.

Not having seen middle Americans who actually believe in God, these journalists cum anthropologists are simultaneously awed, bewildered, fascinated, and frightened by what they find. Their articles read a bit like dispatches from strange lands. "I've been to red America," they seem to say, "and it's stranger and scarier than you could have imagined."

One of the letters in the May issue of the magazine astutely observes that this kind of Harper's anthropology only serves to exacerbate what is perceived by some to be a problem with exurban, evangelical America. It is just this tone that contributes to the martyr complex that comfortable, middle-class white folks feel in suburban Kansas City -- and it is precisely this sense of victimhood that galvanizes the religious right.

Now, I enjoy the sardonic witticisms of Harper's anthropologists. And I remain convinced that many of the journalists' observations are right on the money. I get the jokes because I live with this stuff. When, for instance, Sharlet describes "Commander Tom"'s maniacal commitment to the Royal Rangers (an Assemblies of God version of the Boy Scouts), I have a weird sense of laughing at myself since I, too, have seen the Frontier Christian Fellowship at Royal Rangers Camperoos. My own sons have worked their way through the ranks of Straight Arrows, Buckaroos, and Trailblazers. And Sharlet is right: There are parts of this organization that are downright spooky. Or when Hedges describes the creepy netherworld of Christian radio, with its holy dieting programs and violent anti-gay rhetoric, he is accurately describing one force significantly shaping the imaginations of many Christians who would describe themselves as "evangelical."

But here's the rub: To someone intimately acquainted with these particular expressions of evangelical Christianity, it is obvious that Harper's anthropologists aren't going to change things. All-expenses-paid trips from New York to exotic locales like Colorado Springs will feed the alarmist stance of detached coastal regions, but dispatches from the twilight zone of the Midwest region aren't going to change the hearts and minds that matter. If, as an evangelical, I am disturbed by what I see played out under the banner of the religious right, I know that countering this won't be accomplished by witty, sardonic editorials in my favorite magazines -- not even witty, sympathetic editorials in Sightings!

Rather, what it will take is a patient, charitable transformation of the evangelical imagination from the inside. And this can't be done by visitors writing for Harper's. It will require a long-term commitment to re-educating evangelical hearts and minds in venues of denominational magazines like the Pentecostal Evangel or the CRC Banner -- and perhaps even the airwaves of -- gasp! -- Christian radio.

That will be a calling not for visiting anthropologists, but for resident teachers.


James K. A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. His next book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, will appear next spring from Baker Academic.