Monday, October 25, 2010

Ark Syndrome: The Walter Kirn Interview

Back in 2003, Walter Kirn was the fiction editor for GQ Magazine. He wrote an article, "What Would Jesus Do?" an insightful commentary which chronicled his immersion into the Christian subculture.

After a friend shared this article with me, back in 2005, I re-posted this article to my blog. Five years later, it's still one of my top 3 most read pages every month. That says a lot.

Fast forward to 2010, and Walter Kirn is now an author whose books get made into films starring George Clooney (Up In The Air) and Tilda Swinton (Thumbsucker).

What's even more amazing (at least to me) is that Mr. Kirn would take the time to do a phone interview with me on a Sunday afternoon to talk about an article he wrote seven years ago and explore how the Christian subculture is still a bad idea.


Walter Kirn: I’m happy to hear that my article is still drawing traffic to your site after all this time.

Keith Giles: It must resonate with people at some level, I’d say for people to still be searching for it online. Were you aware that this article had such an impact outside of that initial publication in GQ?

WK: No I didn’t. I didn’t even know that it had any impact even on its initial publication. I mean, you write a piece like that one and by the time it’s published you’ve moved on as a writer. In those days, when it first came out in GQ (2003), we didn’t have the ‘Net to measure the response. You’d get a few letters to the magazine or whatever, but it was really impossible to tell whether it had any impact.

I’ve heard a few people discussing it and I thought that it was interesting that the people who were discussing it were doing so as sort of self-critical Christians; questioning whether or not a certain kind of commercialization had gone too far, rather than people using it to criticize the Christian community. I didn’t want it to, but I always suspected that the article might provide an opportunity for people to make fun, but it turned out not to be the case. It turned out to cause a dialog of conscience on the part of believers.

KG: That’s certainly been the case in my experience. A friend of mine showed it to me back in 2005 and I had never heard it before and he let me borrow his copy of the magazine and it inspired some great dialog. I’m aware of a half dozen other groups of people who have leveraged your article to launch sweeping email-based dialogs with other people of faith on this issue of materialism in the Church and the pitfalls of the Christian subculture in general. As you said, most of those dialogs involved Christians asking themselves, “In what ways do we contribute to this mentality?” You called it an “Ark” mentality in your article, as I remember.

WK: Right. It’s one that I have a certain sympathy for. I understand the challenge. The attempt to challenge this mass media monster and of course one of the tactics is, “If you can’t beat’em, join’em.” So, I’m not surprised that this sort of parallel universe of Christian pop culture has arisen. At the same time, it seems so…and I said it in the piece, but not as strongly as I might’ve – the culture that’s come out of this seems to pale in comparison to the great Christian art that’s come out of the church in the past. You know, whether that be painting or real Gospel music, or other works of art that are really moved by the Spirit. The modern versions of Christian art seem to be pale imitations that attempt to just give people an alternative, but it’s not a superior alternative. And it saddened me to see artists who basically just copy cat the secular culture and do it in an inferior way and then labeling it “Christian”. I would think that “Christian Art” should be an excellent, provocative, interesting form of art that transcends all others, rather than a kind of “Me Too” subculture moving off the mainstream.

KG: Yes. I think what happens – and by the way I used to work for a large Christian record company, and I worked in a Baptist Bookstore when I was in college, so I’ve had a background being a part of that machine and I’ve seen it from the inside, and what I observed was, as you’ve already said, it was mainly intended as an alternative to the popular culture. We used to actually publish charts that would hang in the stores that would let every Soccer Mom know that if Johnny liked Pearl Jam she should buy him the new Petra Cd. Exactly as you’ve said, the idea is that we need a Christian product to replace the popular product and that’s really the main goal. It’s a very fear-based business model, really. Even to the degree of suggesting that people aren’t really following Jesus if they dare to freshen their breath with “secular mints”.

WK: (Laughter) Yeah!

KG: It’s the idea of getting your Christian Milk from a Christian Cow and it creates this division, this false version of the World, that’s safe for the whole family. We end up quarantining ourselves from the world by surrounding ourselves with Christian versions of everything so that we don’t catch what “they” have. Of course, that goes totally against what Jesus prayed for us in John when he said, “I don’t pray that they be taken out of the world but that they would be protected from the evil one.” So, we’ve taken ourselves out of the world by making a Christian version of it that keeps us safe and inoculated against “those people.” They should catch what we have. We shouldn’t be afraid that we’ll catch what they have.

WK: Exactly! I mean, if you look at Gospel music, I mean, wait a second. There’s an incredible argument to be made that a lot of Rock and Roll came out of faith-based music.

KG: Yes.

WK: There’s kind of a lack of self esteem in the whole thing, too. There’s this latent inferiority complex that somehow you’ve got to clone this popular culture in order to have a culture, when in fact there was a very vibrant – and still is- dimension of Christianity which might not lend itself to commercialism, but certainly stands as viable art and as culturally relevant as anything that Hollywood turns out.

Also, I think you’re right, you can end up creating a bubble in which you’re sure not to see any disruptive messages, or be offended or be exposed to disconcerting images or ideas. Also it seems to me that retreating in that fashion makes it impossible to bring the light to the people who don’t have it. It’s complacent to sit back and lock your doors and enjoy your little safe zone. You know? When in fact, it’s only the awareness of what’s going on in the world that allows you to attract people in a way that acknowledges the real problems that people are dealing with. Creating a nice, pre-padded cell is not the way to bring the masses to Christ.

Didn’t Jesus seek out some of the most troubled and distressed people in his society? He walked into the very places most religious figures would avoid. He didn’t hole up in a cave and surround himself with reassuring images and “yes men” and let the world outside go to heck.

KG: I think that’s what concerns me. When I see the Church retreating from society and refusing to really engage the problems that people are dealing with in the actual world.

WK: It’s one thing to have to survive in the age of persecution, it’s one thing to have to retreat into a defensive position when the Romans are looking for you. But, it’s another now to be in this time when – how can I put it? – I used the term “Ark” in a dual sense. I do understand the impulse to preserve a zone of safety, especially for children.

Although the piece made fun of Christian culture, it’s not that I don’t understand the impulse to have a safe place and especially for young children. At the same time, there is no relevance to the message or any sense of the adventure of living with faith if you have eliminated all other sources of dissonance and contradiction.

Finally, how do you bring a message to people if you’ve insulated yourself from reality? There’s something frightened about the Christian commercial culture. It sends this subliminal message that says, “We’re not going to be able to make it out there” or “It’s too scary out there.” It’s like going down to the basement alone or something. It’s also just nakedly profit-based too, I imagine. I can’t believe a lot of it isn’t just outright exploitation by people who really don’t care and who are just looking to make some money in a different market.

KG: You’re exactly right, and that’s one of the most disheartening things I observed during my tenure in the Christian subculture was to realize that it really was just a business like any other business. I mean, on the outside the Christian record business says that they’re all about spreading the Gospel, but the reality is that if you’re not selling 20,000 units as an artist your label is going to drop you for another artist who can, and it won’t matter if hundreds of people are coming to Christ at your concerts either. Selling product is the only thing that counts.

I have to say, however, that most of the artists I’ve known are genuinely seeking to glorify God in what they do, they really do have a desire to use their gift to spread the gospel. But most of them discover pretty quickly that it’s not about ministry, it’s about money. That’s where it gets weird, to me, when you’ve made a business out of something that I’m not sure should be a business.

WK: Well, it certainly wasn’t intended to be in the first place. I don’t know how you mix those things successfully? I mean, how do you make faith and mammon mix?
I don’t really know. I’m sure Christian music is probably bigger than ever now isn’t it?

KG: I’ve been out of that loop so long, I don’t really even know to be honest.

WK: Probably much more organized, I have a feeling anyway. The Internet has allowed a lot of people to be more organized.

KG: Can I ask you why you wrote this article and published it in GQ of all places? I mean, you probably had an idea that the readers of that magazine were probably not Christians.

WK: Well, I mean I always think it’s more interesting to write things that the audience isn’t guaranteed to be familiar with already. You know what I mean? I knew that that my article wasn’t necessarily what GQ’s audience would identify with, but I wanted to bring it to them in a way that might cause them to think.

Of course, I know that this same audience had noticed the Christian subculture out of the corner of their eye. Whether or not they were living in it or not, they were certainly living around it. A lot of subjects I choose for essays and articles are phenomenon that everybody has been exposed to, perhaps only obliquely, but hasn’t had the chance to really think about it. Or had any reason to think about it.

Anybody who has ever turned a car radio dial has come across Christian radio. Anybody who had cable TV had come across Pat Robertson or whatever. So, I knew that no matter who you were – if you were just a GQ reader who bought the magazine to find out what hair gel to get or learn how to match your socks and your shirt, you had noticed this phenomenon and perhaps even formed some thoughts and opinions about it that you weren’t even aware of. So, I wanted to just bring it up into a level of consciousness.

I live in Montana and I grew up in the middle of the country, in Minnesota, and I’ve always enjoyed bringing subjects to national magazine that don’t have to deal with life in Los Angeles or New York, necessarily.

Of course, a lot of what I’m talking about is right there where you live, in Orange County, California.

KG: Yeah, it’s all over the place here. I mean, TBN is right down the street. Most of the nation’s largest mega-churches are out here, too. I could literally walk to the Crystal Cathedral if I wanted to, and Calvary Chapel is here, and Saddleback. I don’t know why, but God put me here and I’m living in this place. From here I can see how it warps people a bit. I mean, I’m from Tennessee and I grew up in Texas and I remember when I first moved out here about 16 years ago, I told my friends back in Texas that it was like living on another planet. The clothes were the same and they spoke the same language and watched the same TV shows, but other than that it was like living in a Twilight Zone episode.

WK: (laughs) That’s funny.

KG: In the time you have left do you mind talking a little about your personal faith journey? I think most people know you for your novels and your articles, but they probably also wonder who is this Walter Kirn guy and why is he talking to me about the Church?

WK: Well, it’s not something that I talk a lot about, number one. Nor is it something I’m asked a lot about. For one thing, I feel that not talking about it overtly gives me more flexibility to talk about it secretly in my writing, in both my fiction and non-fiction. In other words, for me to identify myself loudly and widely as a Christian would probably cause a lot of ears to close. Perhaps it would cause other ears to open, but the one’s that would open wouldn’t necessarily be the ones I’m addressing.

So, my faith is something I’m discreet about and quiet about, because I think of it simply as a point of view that can trickle through my writing and I don’t have to be strong about or announce as such, but it gives what I write a moral, ethical, spiritual framework that I hope will show through between the lines.

So, my faith isn’t something I discuss publicly, but I don’t mind it either. It’s nothing at all to be ashamed of or to be embarrassed about. It’s not something to be proud of either.

KG: (laughs)

WK: But it is something to witness to when asked. My history with organized religion is sort of checkered. I was baptized a Presbyterian in a very formal way. My family didn’t go to church much. When I was about 12, however, we converted to Mormonism and I was a member o f the Church of Latter Day Saints from about 12 to 17. Then, for social reasons as much as spiritual reasons, I made the most of it because it wasn’t something that I’d chosen necessarily. So, at 17 I decided not to go on a Mormon Mission and went to Princeton instead.

I don’t know that I thought much about my relationship with God for maybe about seven or eight years. But, around age 30 I stopped drinking and entered a 12 step program. As people may already know, the 12 step program urges the addict to reflect on their spiritual beliefs and to enter into a relationship with a higher power. So, that caused me to start looking at how I defined God and I could not really adequately or satisfactorily relate to any God but that which I knew from the New Testament. The Christian story at every level was all I needed to feel spiritually whole - at the literary level and as the real-life account of one man’s persecution and death, and as a large-scale description of our predicament here on Earth. I tried other things. I tried meditation. I tried all the various unfocused, fuzzy spiritual options. I could not dispense with Jesus Christ. I could not – either as a teacher, as a suffering, divine human being, as a contradiction, and a mystery.

So, that put me in a strange situation because I was a writer and a journalist who was addressing people of all kinds and didn’t want to limit myself to so-called Christian themes. That’s one of the problems I have with Christian culture. Christian culture is should be all culture. It should not think that it has to confine itself to certain kinds of themes or certain issues or certain characters. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of being in the world. If you believe it, it’s an account of what’s going on everywhere with everybody. When it starts backing up and taking only these small portions of reality rather than the whole society and the whole reality then it seems there’s something wrong with it.

So, I had to ask myself, “Do I announce myself as a Christian artist?” And I thought, “Why? No I don’t have to.” I don’t have to because it’s either part of myself and part of my work or it’s not. I wrote this piece (in GQ) out of this argument I was having with myself about whether or not you had to put that capital “C” or that fish symbol on your forehead. I thought, in some instances it’s what works and it’s what’s best, and in other instances it’s not.

To be honest with you, I just didn’t want certain employers of mine to discriminate against me. Not that they would, necessarily. There’s no reason to believe that they would, but it was possible that I might come out with a certain opinion on something and they would dismiss it as the opinion of someone who didn’t actually think; as someone who was simply proceeding blindly for the sake of certain religious principles rather than as someone who was thinking things through.

I never saw any conflict between thinking through every question that comes to you with the brain that God gave us and assessing it through Christian ethics and morality and tradition.

KG: The decision not to compartmentalize yourself, your art is a wise one, I think. It reminds me of a few years ago when a friend of mine said that he didn’t want to call himself a Christian anymore. When I asked why he said there were two reasons. First, because when most non-believers heard the term “Christian” they drew up a mental picture of those same faces on Christian television and they automatically assumed that he was like those people; always after money or always bashing this group or another. Secondly, when he read about the people called “Christian” in the New Testament he found a people who were radically giving their lives away and selling their property to anyone in need and he didn’t think he was worthy to be compared to people like that.

WK: (laughs) That’s interesting.

KG: When my friend said that to me I found I agreed with him, so whenever anyone asks me “Are you a Christian?” I respond by saying, “No, but I am very fascinated with the person of Jesus and I’m doing my best to follow him and to put his teachings into practice in my everyday life.” Which is more true than to simply say, “I’m a Christian”, I think, since that phrase conjures up a host of images and assumptions.
I’ve found that this response is so much more inviting and intriguing than to just say, “I’m a Christian.”

WK: It draws people in rather than to give people an excuse to draw back.

KG: There’s so much baggage associated with that term in our society.

WK: Hey listen, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to deny Jesus Christ. I don’t want to say, “I don’t know him.” But at the same time, I don’t want to do something more than say “I do know him” either. I mean, I admire him and I’m trying to understand him and to follow him as much as I can. I mean, that title is something that somebody else created actually. I don’t have to own all the implied political views, as you say, or the implied cultural narrowness and all the rest. I want people to think, I don’t want to use a title that causes people to stop thinking.

KG: I want to say thank you. I’m very blessed and honored that you would take the time to talk to me today, especially when you’ve got your kids with you this weekend and everything else.

WK: Likewise. I took a look at your blog and I like the feeling of it and I loved the sincerity of it. I like the honesty of it, and it’s got a tone that I’d love to see more of. So, I’m thrilled that I can take some time and do something that’s not just completely selfish.

Walter Kirn is an American novelist, literary critic, and essayist. His novels include Up In the Air, Mission To America, and his latest book, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.

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