A few years ago, the “postmodern memoir” or “autobiographic novel” was all the rage among critics anxious to define new literary genres. In these books, writers mingle personal experiences with flamboyant experimentation in form; the results are edgy, funny, and confusing.
This trend is one starting point for Russell Rathbun’s Post-Rapture Radio, in which a narrator, also named Russell Rathbun, edits the sermons and extensive rants of Rev. Richard Lamblove. Within this odd framework, Rathbun thoughtfully explores the relationship between the church and mainstream culture, the implications of the great commission, and the nature of pastoral leadership.
Rathbun the character—a pastor, like his namesake—comes across a box of Lamblove’s papers and immerses himself in the intriguing sermons, journal entries, and notes of a man he enthusiastically classifies as an “unknown-crazy-preacher.” Lamblove’s actual title is “Vice President for Preaching and Biblical Study”—he’s an associate pastor at a church obsessed with being culturally relevant.
From his first staff meeting (the church calls it “NextLeader: A Gathering”), Lamblove finds others’ interest in his sermons to be nominal and steadily waning. He sees this as a sign of the church’s dilution of the gospel, its ongoing assimilation of a worldly culture of consumption, celebrity, and easy answers. He responds by withdrawing from church life. Lamblove avoids conversations with colleagues and churchgoers. He declines to participate in an “Emergent: See Gathering,” explaining that he feels he “can no longer emerge.” Convinced of a “Contemporary Christian Culture Conspiracy,” he comes to view himself as a dangerous, exegesis-wielding revolutionary. Eventually, he loses his job.
Lamblove’s critique is consistently entertaining and occasionally devastating. Within his raves lie sharp insights into what it might mean to be radically faithful amid movements to reach “every single corner of the globe with the wrong news,” with a great commission that omits the healing of the sick, the caring for the poor, the proclamation of the nearness of God. But Lamblove’s depiction of his church’s striving to meet culture on its own terms is also condescending and more than a little mean-spirited.
Rathbun the character distances himself from this smugness via editorial comments that paint Lamblove as defensive, inconsistent, and paranoid. This is a cute narrative trick, but it’s unpersuasive as a means of separating Rathbun from Lamblove’s harshness. Instead of simply stating that contemporary evangelicalism is “sort of like a fascist state but everyone says they’re really glad to see you,” Rathbun the writer puts these words in a mouth two unconvincing steps removed from his own.
The discrete identities of the two characters and the author are shaky from the start. By the end, they crumble. This slippage is part of Rathbun’s point: All criticisms present are ultimately internal ones. Still, while all this self-consciousness makes for engaging postmodern narrative, as socio-religious commentary it’s suspicious and perplexing. This hybrid of a hilarious novel and a provocative sermon collection is considerably more frustrating than either book would be on its own.
But Rathbun sure is funny. He also offers moments of great clarity and hope. Lamblove’s reading of Revelation—a loose framework for the book—emphasizes a Jesus who, when the church fails to forsake its idols and look heavenward, takes God’s holy city down to the people. Perhaps the revolution will never be successful, the church never stripped of its materialistic stake in the culture of empire. But Lamblove and Rathbun ultimately affirm that the Christ who brings the New Jerusalem to Babylon meets us in our apostasy as well.
Steve Thorngate is editorial assistant at Sojourners.