The Magazine

The Jesus Market

Christianity may be struggling in the public square, but it's prospering in the public bazaar.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By STEPHEN BATES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

CHRISTIAN MERCHANDISING TODAY has many mansions. Start with faith-on-your-sleeve fashion, such as the T-shirts promoting J.Christ instead of J. Crew, Fruit of the Spirit instead of Fruit of the Loom, Christ Supreme instead of Krispy Kreme. This "witness wear," a manufacturer's rep explains, evokes the familiar logo without quite crossing the line to trademark infringement--"We have lawyers."

A half-dozen companies produce Scripture-clad candy. Some truncated verses on wrappers work nicely: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Others could use a bit more context: "Because thou art lukewarm . . . I will spew you out of my mouth"--not a sentiment one expects from a peppermint.

Then there's the Bible Bar, featuring the seven foods listed in Deuteronomy 8:8--"Nutrition As God Intended." "The Women of Color Study Bible." The Last Supper jigsaw puzzle. And the "Depend Upon Christ the King" rubber ducky.

Godly retailing got started in the late 19th century with Grandmama's Sunday Game of Bible Questions and a handful of other products. Today it's a $4 billion-a-year business, with bestsellers and Grammys and trademark lawyers. Once available only in Christian bookstores, many of the items now command premium space in Wal-Mart and Borders. Christians may be struggling in the public square, but they seem to be prospering in the public bazaar.

I started looking into this world in 1999, around the time of conservative activist Paul Weyrich's open letter advocating Christian separatism. The culture war is over, Weyrich declared, and Christians lost to the "enemies of our traditional culture." Now, Christians should hunker down. "What steps can we take to make sure that we and our children are not infected? We need some sort of quarantine."

The new godly merchandise, I figured, represented the quarantine at work. Instead of protesting obscene gangsta rap, Christians were listening to Gospel Gangstaz and Lil' Raskull. Instead of trying to transfigure the mass culture, they were building a cloistered subculture, a gated community of faith. Jesus' Great Commission--"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations"--was giving way to the Great Escape.

That was my preconception. Then I visited a Christian retailers' convention in Atlanta, attended concerts, read books, listened to CDs, watched videos, ate spiritual candy, and, along the way, discovered something more complicated than quarantine. More complicated and, at least to an outsider--a lapsed Episcopalian with only a spectator's feel for evangelicalism--a bit more unsettling.

To start with, the parallel world is spilling beyond its borders. Some Christian artists and merchandisers endorse cultural segregation, but many others advocate integration--mingling people and products of faith with Weyrich's enemies of traditional culture.

Take music. The separatists favor songs with an explicit Christian message, performed before Christian audiences and sold in Christian stores. The integrationists want obliquely Christian songs--plenty of crossover appeal, and not much "noisy vocabulary of religion," in the words of rock group Jars of Clay--performed before mainstream audiences and sold in secular superstores. In this schism, the separatists think the integrationists are sellouts, while the integrationists think the separatists are mired in a ghetto mentality.

Their area of disagreement, though, may be less significant than their common ground. The separatists and the integrationists both seek to make a difference and, in the process, make a buck. For both groups, moreover, mimicry is ministry: They're doing God's work by putting a Christian gloss on American popular culture.

The two sides unite in embracing contemporary pop culture, in retooling God's message to fit drastically different forms, and in celebrating the fact that, as a 14-year-old girl tells YM magazine, nowadays you can be "cool and Christian."

TODAY'S CHRISTIAN MUSIC still features Up With People wholesomeness--perky female trios, well-scrubbed boy bands, earnest Michael W. Smith (whose publicity photos show him bowed in prayer)--but you can also find shaved heads, body piercings, tattoos, soul patches, spandex, and Goth makeup. Music styles include hyper pop-punk, holy hip-hop, and something called hybrid death tuneage. A reviewer in the Christian music magazine HM salutes Green Olive Tree for "the best worship disc for butt-rockers I've ever heard."