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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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.