Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hank Stuever's "Tinsel"

Hank Stuever is a pop culture reporter and TV critic for the Washington Post’s Style section. To tell a microcosmic story of the cultural and economic impact of America’s Christmas, he moved to Texas for several months in 2006 and 2007 to begin chronicling the lives of three suburban families in the upper-middleclass boomtown of Frisco, outside Dallas. He followed them and took notes as they shopped, prayed, loved and endured three consecutive holiday seasons – following them even as the U.S. retail economy began to swoon in 2008.

He applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Tinsel finds us on the first of what would be many visits to Celebration Covenant Church in Frisco, Texas – a fast-growing evangelical megachurch headed by a dynamic pastor, Keith Craft, and his wife, Sheila. The Crafts offer a combination of “prosperity gospel” and self-affirmation keys to happiness and success, served with a big dollop of Jesus Loves You and a lot of multi-media, pop-Christian attitude. The congregation is young and hopeful. They welcome all, including skeptical journalists from the east coast.

One of the three main characters in my book, Caroll Cavazos, invited me to Celebration Covenant for a Sunday service. I met Caroll (a hardworking single mother) and her family in a Best Buy parking lot before dawn on Black Friday, where they were preparing to “doorbust” with the crowd that was lined up for bargains; eventually I followed the family through three years of Christmas. Caroll has been a member of Celebration Covenant since the church first started in 2000.

Page 99 includes some of my perceptions of life at CCC, and I tried to suss out the look, feel and style of the church’s vision of itself:
The Crafts have been recording and selling cassettes and CDs of the family’s Christian pop songs since the 1990s, including a Christmas album featuring the children. Pastor Keith’s showmanship dates back to the late 1980s, when he founded Strike Force, a traveling troupe of power-lifting evangelists. Keith and other musclemen would dress in matching tank tops and mullet haircuts. Their veins bulging with the Word of God, they’d lift hundreds of pounds of free weights for the crowd.

The unbeliever can be forgiven for feeling as though the faith business is nothing more than show business. From the largest churches to fledgling congregations, the new Protestant churches of Collin County comprise the largest music, theater and pop-culture scene north of the LBJ. Most ape the same Christian rock sound that is neither U2 nor Coldplay nor Pearl Jam nor Good Charlotte, but owes a significant debt to those and almost anything else on secular radio, especially the oeuvre of pop and country female vocalists. No fashion trend escapes the good shoppers of Celebration Covenant. The young women here are all Jessica Simpson or Rihanna, the older ones approximate the cast of Desperate Housewives. The men are all Tim McGraw or Clay Aiken or that guy from Creed – except for a vocally gifted associate pastor named Ray Harmon, who bears a more-handsome resemblance to Chris Rock. The women are always wearing the latest mall fashions – boob-prominent dresses or tops, tights with heels (as seen on starlets just now in Us Weekly), or wispily crinkled skirts, or knee-high riding boots. Their hair is styled in soft Tresseme curls in L’Oreal hues, or flat-ironed and glistening by holy intervention. The men are all studiously rumpled, hair carefully tousled with salon product, and faces that are exactingly stubbled and sideburned.…
What you have here is reporter/narrator (me) trying to convey, with a smidgen of snark, what it’s like to be in the center of this church. It took some time, but I came to appreciate what this seemingly superficial experience gives to Caroll in the form of spiritual comfort. The church puts on a huge Christmas pageant later in the book, in which Caroll plays a part. Beneath all its glitz, I kept looking for the deeper meanings that its believers derived from Pastor Keith’s scriptural lessons and motivational teachings. Sometimes I could see it; many times I couldn’t. In any case, it was all quite interesting to me, even if it sometimes makes my skin crawl. I moved to Texas and asked people to show me what Christmas really means to them. I remained as open I possibly could to what I saw and heard, taking down details and making my own. Page 99 is actually a good sample of the tone of Tinsel; in many ways the book is an anthropological study. All I’m doing is taking down precise details of a species and an environment.
Learn more about the book and author at Hank Stuever's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue