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
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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."

Although some singers complain about the market's JPM quota--Jesuses per minute--a lot of contemporary Christian music seems more contemporary than Christian. Some is instrumental, including a couple of albums that sound like New Age's Second Coming (John Tesh is, in fact, a major draw at Christian music festivals). In other songs, only the lyric sheet discloses that "I love you" is actually "I love You." Faith may be expressed in acronym (the band Phat Chance takes its name from Praising Him at All Times) or allusion. "When will you begin your killing spree? / Let it begin with me," sings S.S. Bountyhunter, a sentiment that HM construes as a metaphor for "offering ourselves to the Lord." Born-again Christian Alice Cooper deems his concerts, with their simulated beheadings and spattering blood, "very anti-satanic."

Of course, listeners can disregard even straightforward lyrics if they feel like it. According to Christianity Today, Jars of Clay's song "Flood" became a favorite in gay dance clubs. People praises Jennifer Knapp's "Lay It Down" as "good music that just happens to have a Christian subtext," and adds: "If so inclined, the listener can screen out the religious elements and just enjoy the music. Hey, it works with Bach."

Some groups, especially the hugely successful ones, try to dodge the Christian label. "No, we are not a Christian band," declares Creed's website. "A Christian band has an agenda to lead others to believe in their specific religious beliefs. We have no agenda!"

Many Christian musicians do harbor an agenda, and they're eager to advance it by reaching beyond fellow believers. "Jesus didn't hang out in the churches all the time," Michael Tait of the group dc talk told one interviewer. "He hung out in the weird places and He hung out with people who were ostracized by society, and the freaks, because they were the ones that needed to hear." "We would reach a lot more unsaved people if we weren't so boxed in," says singer Natalie LaRue, 18, who, with her brother Phillip, 21, forms the pop duo LaRue.

But there are plenty of questions about just what integration means. Some musicians make the transition from Christian market to mass market and never look back. Toby Mac of dc talk says Christian music isn't supposed to be a "minor-league experience" for musicians dreaming of secular glory.

I raise the crossover issue with Bill Anderson, president of CBA, the Christian retailers' association that's sponsoring the immense trade show in Atlanta. (Formerly the Christian Booksellers Association, it's now simply CBA, reflecting the fact that these stores sell lots more than books.) "For Christian artists who had their start in the Christian market," Anderson says, "there is a certain sense that we helped them get started. Will they continue to be our artists, or everybody's? Our people applaud the idea of taking the message into the broader market. But the issue for us in crossover is, did they take the cross over?"

While some missionaries go native, sacrificing message purity for street cred and stardom, others continue producing Christian songs but have trouble adhering to role-model standards. "A lot of the music world can be a bit hard, the road life especially," Natalie LaRue tells me. "You can get off track, and think you're not out there to minister to people but to make money. . . . And you get exposed to a lot you maybe don't want to see." "It's not, like, drugs-sex-rock-'n'-roll," says her brother Phillip. "But there's definitely temptations."

Not everyone can resist. Nikki Leonti, a teenage singer who touted abstinence between songs, got pregnant. She told Christian music magazine CCM: "If the God of the universe can forgive me, I'd hope people would be willing to as well."

Many in the industry still can't forgive superstar Amy Grant--she merits five entries on CCM's list of the "100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music," more than anybody else--for divorcing Christian musician Gary Chapman and marrying country singer Vince Gill. In a letter to CCM, one reader announced that he wouldn't be buying a ticket to Grant's Christmas tour. "I would have a hard time listening to Amy sing 'Home for the Holidays,'" he wrote, "knowing that she is not."

AS IN MUSIC, just about every publishing genre has inspired a godly counterpart. Magazines include Christian Computing, Christian Cruise, and Christian Motorsports Illustrated. On the health shelf, you'll find Christian books addressing fibromyalgia, obesity, anorexia, and menopause ("Holy Hormones!"). "Redeeming the Season" will help your family vanquish Christmas commercialism--just $16.99. One self-help volume is called "How to Live Through a Bad Day: Seven Powerful Insights from Christ's Words on the Cross"--talk about your bad days.

The message has been updated and streamlined. Hendrickson markets small paperbacks with splashy layouts, including "The Bible Made Easy," "Prayer Made Easy," and (a note of humility) "Knowing God's Will Made Easier." God.com promises to lead you to the Almighty's home page. The "Extreme Teen Bible" features "edgy study helps" and "funky book introductions." Available in "slimey limey" and other "hip fashion colors," it's part of Thomas Nelson's Extreme for Jesus line. The brand manager honed her teen-marketing skills at Nike--from swoosh to cross.

The king of recent Christian nonfiction is an obscure figure from, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, "one of the dullest sections of the Old Testament." In the Book of Chronicles, a man named Jabez utters a one-sentence prayer: "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain." God grants the prayer, and that's the last we hear of Jabez. Not much to work with, but Atlanta preacher Bruce Wilkinson made it the centerpiece of a book.

"God really does have unclaimed blessings waiting for you, my friend," Wilkinson writes in "The Prayer of Jabez"--but "if you didn't ask Him for a blessing yesterday, you didn't get all that you were supposed to have." Be sure to ask extravagantly: "For you, nothing but God's fullest blessing will do." Don't worry about coming across as selfish, for this is "exactly the kind of request our Father longs to hear." Routinely utter the Jabez prayer and "you will be so overwhelmed with God's graciousness that tears will stream down your face." You may even find yourself telling God, "It's too much! Hold some of Your blessings back!"

Chronicles describes Jabez as "more honorable than his brothers." Might that explain his success? Could it be that you have to cultivate honor, and not merely incant magic words, for God to enlarge your territory? "Prayer of Jabez" doesn't say. On the website prayerofjabez.com, Wilkinson says Jabez's honor may have preceded the prayer, or the prayer may have instilled the honor--we have no way of knowing. "My own viewpoint is, don't worry about it. Don't worry about it."

Wilkinson's 93-page, $9.99 "Prayer of Jabez" was the bestselling nonfiction title of 2001, according to Publishers Weekly. It has sold more than 9 million copies, spent 24 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list, and spawned endless spinoffs: a devotional volume, an illustrated gift edition, a journal, a Bible study course, "Prayer of Jabez for Women," and "Prayer of Jabez for Little Ones" ("Dear God, Please bless me in a great big way!"), not to mention greeting cards, calendars, mugs, mousepads, and a planned feature film.

Those are the licensed products. The enlarge-my-territory prayer also appears on wristwatches, bumper stickers, pens, candy bars, "Jabez: A Novel," and much else. "It's from the Bible, so I guess they couldn't copyright it," muses one CBA exhibitor. Several others tell me that editors are scouring the Bible in search of another nobody with star quality.

While Wilkinson's book led last year's nonfiction chart, the bestselling novel was "Desecration," the ninth book in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Since the original "Left Behind" appeared in 1995, the novels and children's versions have sold more than 50 million copies, beating the Harry Potter books, and spawned a new genre, what Publishers Weekly calls "prophetic/apocalyptic/endtimes thrillers." The 10th installment, "The Remnant," was released July 2 with a first printing of 2.75 million hardcovers and a Time cover story. Books 11 and 12 are scheduled for 2003 and 2004. And LaHaye is branching out: For four novels about a born-again Indiana Jones (more mimicry), Bantam Dell is reportedly paying him an astronomical $45 million.

Repackaging the endtimes for our times, several movies also feature, as a character in the film "Apocalypse" calls him, "the infamous Antichrist." Cloud Ten Pictures has produced a half-dozen Revelation-based films since 1998, resurrecting such circa-1980 stars as Gary Busey, Margot Kidder, Howie Mandel, Corbin Bernsen, and Mr.T. Along with its own productions, Cloud Ten handles "Waterproof," a celebration of "emotional and spiritual rebirth," which stars Burt Reynolds, fresh from "Boogie Nights," a celebration of pornography.

Cloud Ten produced "Left Behind: The Movie," starring "former 'Growing Pains' heartthrob Kirk Cameron." Publicity materials speak of "the runaway bestselling novel" but scarcely mention its authors. That's no accident: LaHaye has filed suit against Cloud Ten, alleging that the film falls short of what was contractually promised. The suit is still pending, though it hasn't kept Cloud Ten from moving ahead with "Left Behind II: Tribulation Force," released on video in October, and a planned "Left Behind" TV series.

Lawsuits, of course, are commonplace in Hollywood. "On the one hand, all of this does show that Christian filmmaking is coming into the mainstream," Cloud Ten's Peter LaLonde told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "But it may also seem to show the mainstream world that we are just like them."

THE JUST-LIKE-THEM ISSUE arises in retailing, too. In the words of one pending trademark application, WWJS: Where Would Jesus Shop?

The owners of Christian stores fret when "Prayer of Jabez" and other huge-selling products end up in secular outlets. The Christian retailers crave and sometimes demand exclusive marketing rights. They argue loyalty (we made your products a success), ministry (it's more than a business to us), expertise (we can help customers find what they need), and necessity (if the hottest items are available at superstores, especially at a discount, fewer people will shop in our stores).

"Milk is always at the back of the store because they want to pull you through," says CBA's Anderson. "So there's a lot of importance in having lead products that people need. In the Christian market, those are bestsellers and household names."

But Christian manufacturers want to sell their products to non-Christians and to the many Christians who don't shop at religious bookstores. ("If you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the church pulpit," Ralph Reed once said. "If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart.") The manufacturers note that Christian stores gladly sell secular products with a godly subtext, such as the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Why shouldn't secular stores carry Christian products with broad appeal? The retailers' ministry may demand segregation, but the manufacturers' ministry demands integration.

And, it seems, everybody's ministry demands self-promotion. At leftbehind.com, you can click on one taskbar button to "SEEK GOD" or the neighboring button for "WHERE TO BUY." At a Christian concert last year, a preshow announcer urged audience members to hurry on down and buy CDs, "only a few left," though they actually had multitudes--treading the thin line between puffery and false witness. Some retailers offer special discounts to pastors as a way of "saying thank you for all you do for the Kingdom," in the words of the Family Christian Store website.

With 330 stores, Family Christian is the largest chain of Christian retail outlets. "We're a business as well as a ministry," says Les Dietzman, a director of the company who until recently was president and CEO. He consciously tempers his competitive instinct: "Daily my prayer, my petition, my request to God is guard my heart, guard my motives." But, he notes, "retailers by nature are competitive people. . . . If somebody comes right in your face, I know how to compete. I know how to cut the legs out from under somebody."

CHRISTIAN PRODUCTS provoke a good deal of mockery. Arlo Pignotti of godisdead.com, for instance, entertains atheist conventions with his collection of Bible action figures and other "holy paraphernalia." I was surprised, though, to find equally pointed jabs coming from evangelical Christians.

In 1978, the Wittenburg Door magazine published a "Where's Waldo"-type challenge--"find the hidden Christ" in a photo of a Christian trade show. The answer: "We can't seem to find Him either, but keep looking. He must be in there somewhere." Now called The Door Magazine, it still skewers from an evangelical perspective, with editors asking themselves, "Who would Jesus mock?"

Editors of the Christian magazine Credenda Agenda have published hilarious, dead-on parodies of "Prayer of Jabez" and "Left Behind." The parodists explain, referring to their targets, "These are our brothers who write these things; they represent us too. We have no doubts about their sincerity and good-hearted goals and wonderful characters, but we all must do light years better. . . . In order to mature, evangelicals need to move beyond the bumper-sticker shallowness of the past four decades and long for true wisdom."

"They're schlock," author and columnist Cal Thomas says of Christian bestsellers. "I think my next book is going to be 'Recipes for the Endtimes.'"

I ask CBA's Anderson whether, in wandering around the Atlanta trade show, he has seen any products that make him cringe. "Yes," he says. "A lot of times it's backed by good intentions." But, as he points out, the secular marketplace has plenty of schlocky goods too. "Hopefully there are fewer of those in the Christian market, but we're certainly not exempt from bad taste."

Taste, though, is only part of what's disconcerting. There's also the blending of faith in things not seen with things seen, sold, flaunted; ultimate concern embodied in plastic. It's like Evelyn Waugh's anecdote about touring a crucifix factory and hearing a worker boast: "You can stomp on 'em and they won't break!"

To be sure, believers have always commemorated intangible faith through tangible things. The University of Utah's Colleen McDannell observes in "Material Christianity" (1995), "People build religion into the landscape, they make and buy pious images for their homes, and they wear special reminders of their faith next to their bodies." Old forms, perhaps like old religions, may seem more decorous--cross necklaces but not cross tongue studs, crucifixes but not Jesus action figures (now available with light or dark skin). The familiar gets grandfathered, or Our Fathered, in.

But times change, and so do Christians. According to a Barna Research survey in 2000, born-again Christians are just as likely as other Americans to have cable TV, VCRs, DVD players, and satellite dishes. "Born-again adults," the study reports, "spend an average of seven times more hours each week watching television than they do participating in spiritual pursuits such as Bible reading, prayer, and worship." Why not follow the flock?

It's hardly a new question. In "Selling God" (1994), Cornell University historian R. Laurence Moore charts nearly two centuries of "interpenetration of American religion and commercial popular culture." As entertainment and leisure options expanded in the 19th century, organized religion first condemned the newcomers and then, when that didn't repopulate the pews, began endorsing moral variants. Three-quarters of a century before God.com, adman Bruce Barton's "The Man Nobody Knows" (1925) depicted Jesus as a glad-handing sales guru, "the founder of modern business." Even evangelicals, often deemed implacably resistant to modernity's pressures, have adopted and adapted secular forms. Examining popular evangelical books of the 1950s through the early 1980s, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter found prominent strains of hedonism and narcissism, those staples of the secular self-help genre.

Perhaps, though, there's something different about this latest round of cultural appropriation. In "All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes" (1989), Kenneth Myers cautions that pop culture promotes attitudes of autonomy, self-centeredness, and "careless restlessness," as well as a yearning for immediate gratification. The medium may subvert the message. "Rather than starting our own TV networks, movie production companies, or imitations of People," he writes, "we would do much better to make the church a living example of alternatives to the methods and messages of popular culture."

But, for better or worse, the average Christian kid's choice these days probably isn't between dc talk and a church activity; it's between dc talk and Eminem. By the same token, a kid who's not religious is probably more open to hearing a Christian message from dc talk than from some unhip preacher.

To its defenders, godly pop culture simply answers the Scriptural admonition to be in the world but not of the world. "Jesus was never irrelevant to the people he was speaking with," says Bill Anderson. "He is our master model. Whether He was talking to the woman at the well or a child or a fisherman or a lawyer, He was able to connect with people where they were and take them to the Father's truth without compromising."

In this view, pop culture represents simply one more dialect to master. Writing in CCM, author John Fischer revises Paul's counsel in Corinthians ("To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews") for today: "To the punks I became like a punk; to the skinheads I became like a skinhead."

Along with language and style, shared assumptions change. Anderson observes, "Back in the '40s, '50s, you could talk about certain values that people held quite widely. . . . There wasn't the challenge in the face: 'Really? You believe that? Why?'" Principles once taken for granted now require reasoned articulation. A couple of generations ago, nobody wondered (a current book title) "How to Talk About Jesus Without Freaking Out."

Which makes perfect sense. There's much, in fact, to respect about this new-time religion and the people behind it, including near-pervasive sincerity, pockets of remarkable artistry, and faith that's not confined to Sunday morning. Yet aspects still inspire unease--the seeming commandment to be fruitful and accessorize, the gimme gospel of Jabez, the materialism suffusing material Christianity, the T-shirt drawers where J. Crew lies atop J. Christ (the Word become logo), plus the suspicion that the reigning credo isn't "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," but rather "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Anderson suggests that it's a mistake to view Christian merchandise in isolation. The products are intended to supplement Scripture, not to supplant it. But if some Christians are getting total spiritual nutrition from this stuff, what are they missing? What does "Left Behind" leave behind? What gets lost when the Bible becomes "The Bible Made Easy"? What happens to teachings that can't be made trendy, lucrative, "extreme," or instantly gratifying? Does spreading the Word--casting it in new directions, new forms, new genres--sometimes conflict with keeping the faith?

A partial answer comes from a survey of CBA's bestselling books of 2001, published in World magazine in July. Writer Gene Edward Veith found that family and women's topics accounted for nearly half of the titles. Of the 100 books, just 6 were about the Bible, 4 about Jesus, and 3 about evangelism. "The Christianity of the bestseller lists tends to be personal, private, and interior," writes Veith, "with little attention to objective theology or to the church." The Army of God meets the Army of One.

Anderson acknowledges that the market can skew the message. "The books on success tend to be more popular than the books on how God uses suffering to shape character," he says. "That's human nature." But aren't Christians instructed to seek mastery over their flawed natures?

Maybe this parallel world is just the latest manifestation of a tendency that sociologist Will Herberg observed half a century ago: Many American Christians don't like to let faith get in the way of pride, prosperity, leisure-time diversions, or, indeed, much of anything. What some observers termed cultural Christianity, a watered-down version of the real thing, now has been diluted a bit more. The result: pop-culture Christianity. When a 20-year-old woman delights in discovering "music that fit my personality and was also God-related," as a P.O.D. fan tells YM magazine, you suspect that the personality fit held top priority, followed, perhaps distantly, by God.

In "The Gravedigger File" (1983), evangelical scholar Os Guinness criticized Christian consumerism and other developments that, he wrote, signaled the church's slide "from culture-blind to culture-bound to culture-burnt." Nearly two decades later, he's in Atlanta, gamely promoting his latest book, "Long Journey Home." It's a witty, erudite analysis of Christian and non-Christian views of life's meaning, a book that, as he would be the first to admit, isn't likely to outsell "Prayer of Jabez."

Perhaps, Guinness tells me, Christian pop culture is expanding to fill a vacuum. Fewer evangelicals these days are absolutists on elaborate matters of doctrine. Seminaries and other evangelical institutions have lost some measure of authority. Household-name Christians Billy Graham and Bill Bright are elderly and infirm, and nobody has risen to take their places.

"Who speaks for evangelicals?" asks Guinness. "No one. It's just chaos." He gestures toward the exhibit floor, that vast acreage of action figures, holy hip-hop, witness wear, and Extreme for Jesus books. "In many ways," he says, "it's held together by this."

Stephen Bates is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly and the author of "Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Our Schools" (1993).