If you've spent any time around evangelical Christians -- as I did when I went undercover for a semester at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University -- you'll recognize a time-tested Christian phenomenon: pop culture repackaging. For every pop culture sensation in the secular world, a sanitized, curse-free evangelical version is close on its heels. Like Christian Chirp, which bills itself as "the Christian alternative to Twitter." Or JAMBand, a video game that borrows Rock Band's interface but substitutes Christian songs for secular ones. Or even Sunday School Musical, a direct-to-DVD teen-pop musical released in 2008 by a Christian production company in which "two competing groups of high school students must rally together and enter a song and dance competition in order to save their church from closing."
So when Jonathan Acuff, a pastor's son and advertising copywriter from Atlanta, decided to start a humor blog called Stuff Christians Like -- a clear appropriation of the bestselling Stuff White People Like blog/book franchise -- it could have been just another just-add-Jesus knockoff.
But Acuff, a committed Christian, was in on the joke, and used the concept as the basis for his first Stuff Christians Like post, titled "Putting a God Spin on Popular Secular Ideas." Two years and more than 500 posts later, Acuff's "tongue in cheek exploration of all the silly things Christians like" had accumulated thousands of devoted readers and scored a book deal with the Christian publishing house Zondervan.
During his Stuff Christians Like media tour, Acuff answered some questions about his book, his take on Christian humor, and Justin Bieber.
Why did you, a pastor's kid who hasn't left the faith, decide to write a gently mocking taxonomy of quirky Christian behaviors?
Well, it's always been odd to me that we Christians tend to take popular secular ideas, put a little "God flavor" on them and transform them into Christian ideas. Like "Got Milk" turning into "Got God" or "Adidas" into "Add Jesus." So when the brilliantly written Stuff White People Like site blew up I thought, "What if I talked about the problem of stealing pop culture by committing the problem?" I thought I'd write about it for a week or two, realize it was a dumb idea and quit. But on day eight or nine, 4,000 folks showed up to read the site, and it took off from there. Since then, it's become more than just a ripoff blog and has changed into a ministry. My goal now is to use satire, which I believe is simply humor with a purpose, to clear the clutter away from Christianity so we can see Christ.
But isn't that approach to faith at odds with the modern evangelical church's ultra-earnest approach? Have you caught any flak from Christians who see irony and satire as distractions from the gospel, which some think should be presented as simply and unambiguously as possible?
I would say that the reason people continue to read the site, after hopefully a laugh or two, is the honesty. It doesn't hold back or try to shine up the ways we Christians sometimes fail. It honestly presents our bruises, albeit in a humorous light, but ultimately it's about putting them on the table and being real about them instead of using the Christian F word. Fine. How's your marriage? Fine. How's your job? Fine.
I have had some pushback from people that initially think I am attacking the church and Christianity. We're so used to being attacked by comedians or outside sources that sometimes we assume people are being unkind. The reality though, at least with the site and the Stuff Christians Like book, is that I love God and want to share that with folks in a creative way.
Stuff Christians Like got a lot of attention a few months ago, when a video of a rap group performing a song called "Christian Side Hug" went viral. Did your post on the same subject inspire the video? Were you surprised that some viewers didn't understand that it was supposed to be satirical?
I don't think I invented the side hug or even the term. I did write about it a bunch and put it on the cover of the book so it's possible the video was inspired by the stuff I wrote. I got a lot of hate about that one, which is weird. There are a handful of subjects you know people will get mad about, but a hug that involves two hips touching each other didn't seem like one of those.
Let's be honest: when you hear about some wild Christian activity, you don't instantly think, "Those masters of satire are at it again!" You think, "Oh, what did those Christians do now?" And I think that can be fair, and I think that can be unfair.
Your book is full of Christian in-jokes (e.g., "Not knowing if we're supposed to pray for friends having plastic surgery"). But you also take your fellow believers to task for some of their flaws and bad habits (e.g., "Being Slightly Less Nice Than Mormons"). What's your biggest beef with the church today?
I guess my biggest concern is that sometimes we create two versions of God. There's the first version who loves us so much he sent his son to die for us. And then there's the second version of God who is kind of a "daily God." He's the guy who likes us, but is really angry when we mess up. That big crazy love is gone and now we've got to live with "parole officer" God, who is mainly interested in monitoring and punishing our failures.
Some of the entries in Stuff Christians Like are pretty insidery and obviously directed to lifelong Christians ("How to Name Your Christian Band," for example). What can non-evangelical readers get from your blog and book?
I've actually really been surprised by the reaction from folks that aren't Christians. A lot of people have been giving the book to friends who have never gone to church because it's a casual, honest, hopefully funny introduction to faith. There are definitely some insider jokes, but I think it's a good first conversation because it addresses things in a filter of satire and that's a really accessible communication tool.
An evangelical magazine recently named you one of the funniest Christian writers alive. Who else should make the list?
I think Tripp Crosby, Tyler Stanton and Bryan Allain should make that list. Another new author named Chad Gibbs regularly kills me. A girl nicknamed "Stacy from Louisville" too. I'm too young and new to be on that list. I'm only two years into this satire Christianity thing and have a long way to go, so I'm not sure I am one of the funniest Christians alive. Although as a Christian, you're supposed to reject compliments so maybe that's what I'm doing.
Lightning round: Easter or Christmas?
Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers?
Bieber. Or rather, comedian Aziz Ansari covering Bieber.
Blue Like Jazz, although I cried like a Bieber fan at The Shack.
King James or New International Version?
NIV, without a doubt.