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It’s not an infrequent occurrence that my friends will reference a song from the 1990s or early 2000s and I have no idea what they’re talking about.
My response is usually along the lines of “No, I’ve never heard that song. Remember, that was back when I only listened to Christian music.”
They spent their childhoods listening to the pop, rock, and alternative hits of the day. I spent a good part of my childhood and teen years listening to artists like Amy Grant, Point of Grace, 4Him, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and the Newsboys. I can still sing all the lyrics from the seminal Jars of Clay debut album from 1995 and from every single Relient K album.
It’s little quirks like these that have made me realize that growing up in a subculture like evangelicalism of the 1990s and early 2000s is really bizarre. In the exvangelical community I’m part of, there are frequent conversations where we all laugh at our strange past lives as evangelical kids of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s: first concerts and first CDs (almost always obscure Christian groups), weird rules at home, church, or school, alternative Halloween celebrations (shout out to my school’s Halloween replacement–the Reformation Celebration). At the same time, these seemingly minor and amusing quirks point to a deeper cultural divide between evangelicals and most other Americans.
It’s sometimes hard to explain these oddities to people because, yes, evangelicalism is a religious movement but in many ways it is also an all-consuming lifestyle. And yes, white American evangelicalism is made up of disparate churches and denominations but it also shares a strong and fairly monolithic subculture. We had our own music, books, clothing, schools, and social activities, even our own lingo.
This carefully-crafted subculture meant that my experience growing up was vastly different from that of my non-evangelical friends. So different that I frequently think about all the things I missed out on growing up evangelical as well as the pressing questions like: Why can I still discuss the evolution of VeggieTales, the main plot points of a slew of Karen Kingsbury novels, and the merits of each Relient K album? And why do I still know so much about Ken Ham but so little about evolution?
In high school, I worked at the local Christian bookstore, where I was immersed in the evangelical subculture. I amassed more Christian fiction than I know what to do with as well as countless albums and demos from an assortment of Christian artists. A few weeks ago out of curiosity, I decided to comb through my iTunes library and find all the Christian music I still own. Six hundred songs later, I had my playlist. It spans every genre of Christian music imaginable from the classics like MercyMe and Newsboys and Michael W. Smith to the group I like to call Christian Rascal Flatts to the edgy (or at least edgy to 14-year-old me) sounds of Relient K and Audio Adrenaline.
It all sounds very weird as I describe it now, over three years removed from the strange and isolated bubble of white evangelical culture. Now I think that behind the amusing and innocent anecdotes about tacky Christian music and fiction, there is the deep, self-inflicted isolation of evangelicals in the United States.
In the world, not of it?
I firmly believe, however, this self-imposed isolation comes at a price, both for those who remain a part of the culture as well as those who leave. One need only browse the writings of ex-evangelicals, in podcasts and on Twitter, or even in my own post on purity culture last month here on The Twelve, to know that living in a world like that comes at a price.
Now, at least, I try to console myself by telling myself that knowledge is power and that my six hundred Christian songs can’t be a complete waste. Despite our atypical experiences as children and teenagers, I figure that at the very least my fellow exvangelicals and I have a deep religious literacy when it comes to white evangelical subculture–something I think is desperately needed given our current political climate. Someone has to be able to explain white evangelicals to everyone else, right? I might as well put all those years listening to Christian music and reading weird Christian fiction to good use.