Last week, action star Chuck Norris sued the publisher and author of a new book based on the popular Internet meme Chuck Norris Facts. You know, like, "Chuck Norris's tears cure cancer. Too bad Chuck Norris has never cried."
Many of Norris's ironic fans were perplexed. "Why is Chuck being such a spoilsport?" asked a Wired blogger. "One could argue that the uniformly treasured lists rekindled a geek-hipster love of Norris, his mullet-y locks, tight jeans and flying roundhouse kicks."
But what geek-hipsters don't realize is that for many people, Norris's career didn't actually need rekindling. His fire may have gone out in our world, but for a few years now, it's been burning more brightly than ever in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture. Chuck Norris is the biggest thing in the evangelical bubble since Kirk Cameron. Or at least Stephen Baldwin. Norris's endorsement of Mike Huckabee wasn't as much of a surprise -- or joke -- to Huckabee's base as it was to the rest of us.
In 2004, Chuck wrote his spiritual memoir, Against All Odds, for B&H, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since then, he has "co-written" two Christian western novels, The Justice Riders and A Threat to Justice, which the publisher describes as a "heroic action tale of good versus evil, with elements of faith and romance." Fiction is the fastest-growing segment of the Christian publishing industry, and there's a glut of Christian genre novels right now, from Westerns, to thrillers to romances. Typically these books are "clean" versions of their secular counterparts, with a few scenes of prayer thrown in and, almost inevitably, a weepy moment where a main character falls to his knees and confesses that he is a sinner who needs Jesus. Partly because the books are so formulaic, having the name of a mainstream star on the cover is a great way to stand apart from the competition.
In 2006, Norris also began writing a column for the far-right Christian web site Worldnetdaily. In his first installment he wrote about Chuck Facts. While he was generally good-natured about them (while noting that " some are just not appropriate for kids.") he also fretted a bit about their message, writing, "In the history of this planet, there has only been one real Superman. It's not me." To drive home the point, he added, "There was a man whose tears could cure cancer or any other disease, including the real cause of all diseases - sin."
In his lawsuit, Norris alleges that "Some of the 'facts' in [The Truth About Chuck Norris] are racist, lewd or portray Mr. Norris as engaged in illegal activities." The real problem, I suspect, is that the book's humor depends on a highly refined sense of irony, and by and large, the Christian culture bubble does not do irony. It doesn't get irony. It doesn't trust irony. Christian fiction, like Christian rock (or at least the variety that gets played on Christian radio), is always deadly earnest. While I was researching my forthcoming book Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, several people explained to me that when leading people to the truth of Jesus Christ, only unambiguous propositional statements are permissible. One can't risk causing someone to "stumble."
It's safe to say that most of Norris's Christian fan base is unaware of the Chuck Facts Internet meme. This book will be their first exposure to these jokes. And while it's extremely unlikely, as Norris's lawsuit claims, that any of them will believe the books "facts" are really factual, they may think that the joke itself is endorsed by Norris, and that would be nearly as upsetting to them. To think that Norris is portraying himself, even humorously, as a perfect hero might deeply offend people who already own a book about a person like that. A book first published nearly 2,000 years ago and taken very, very seriously.