Christian Pop Culture has gone to hell
- ABC News: Pop Goes the Bible — The New Testament Meets Cosmo, as Pop Culture and Religion Intersect
- With religion and pop culture intersecting more and more these days, perhaps it was inevitable: The Bible’s gotten a Cosmo-style makeover.
With a trio of smiling teenage girls on the cover, along with teasers for beauty tips and dating advice, Revolve looks like it has more in common with Glamour than Gideon.
But don’t judge the Good Book by its cover. Revolve is an honest-to-goodness Bible, encompassing the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation. But its magazine-like styling and bright cover will help it seem hipper to today’s girls, the publishers hope.
“We asked teen girls how often they read the Bible,” says Laurie Whaley, one of Revolve’s editors and a spokeswoman for its publisher, Thomas Nelson Bibles. “The response that came back was, ‘Well, we don’t read the Bible.’
“They said, ‘It’s just too freaky, too intimidating. It doesn’t make any sense.'”
Heavenly Father in a Pop Culture World
Revolve is just the latest cross-pollination of religion and pop culture that has seen Christian-themed fiction climb the best-seller lists and Christian rock and rap get a foothold in the music world.
“Really, for the past 100 years, evangelicals have tried to use popular culture to draw people to their faith,” says Lynn Schofield Clark, a sociologist at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication who has written about Christianity, teens and popular culture.
Examples date back to at least the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Many well-known hymns originated in the 19th century as Christian poems set to the music of popular barroom tunes. Martin Luther himself used secular melodies to spread the word.
Jeffrey Mahan, a professor of ministry, media and culture at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, agrees, but he also believes the trend is accelerating. “The old classic description of religion that made divisions between the sacred and the secular are breaking down,” he says.
“It’s really in the last 30 years that that’s taken off,” says Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
They attribute the change to a reaction to political controversies in the 1970s, such as the Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, and the rise of a counterculture interpretation of Christianity around the same time.
Before the 1970s, fundamentalist Christianity took a dim view of mainstream trends like rock ‘n’ roll. At one time, it was uncommon to see rows of Bible-inspired fiction in Christian bookstores, because evangelicals often considered reading fiction a waste of time.
But in recent years, they have been more willing and often eager to harness the energy and appeal of pop culture. The Left Behind series — an 11-installment serial potboiler based on the Book of Revelation — has sold well over 50 million copies so far. has spawned a series of graphic novel comics and kids’ books, as well as scores of other biblically inspired works of fiction.
There are also all manner of Bibles geared toward everyone from high school athletes to toddlers. “I’ve seen Precious Moments Bibles for kids and just everything under the sun,” says Eskridge.
The rise of Christian pop culture also has economic roots, he says. As fundamentalists became more prosperous, a new industry arose to sell them goods to suit their values and beliefs.
Most experts estimate 25 percent to 30 percent of Americans are fundamentalist Christians, and perhaps another 5 percent to 10 percent are broadly sympathetic to those values and beliefs. Those numbers haven’t changed significantly in recent decades, but they have become wealthier and more active consumers, says Philip Goff, director of Indiana University’s Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.
Goff believes the growth of Christian pop culture also reflects the expansion of mainstream pop culture, which has become ubiquitous and ever more varied in recent decades.
“There’s so much more choice in pop culture at large,” says Goff.
The interaction of faith and pop culture is hardly limited to evangelicalism, or even Christianity. From the New Age movement to yoga and feng shui, there are traces of many religions and spiritual movements in mainstream trends.
“People want to lead integrated lives,” says Mahan. “So their entertainment life, their political life and their work life are integrated with their life of faith.”
A Bible With Quizzes, Top 10 Lists, and Celeb Birthdays
Young evangelical Christians like Neille Sybert say a pop-influenced Bible like Revolve is not a bad idea.
“It looks totally like a magazine,” says Sybert, a 19-year-old saleswoman at Loaves & Fishes Christian Store in Vista, Calif. She thinks it would appeal to young girls who might feel embarrassed carrying around a black leather tome.
“It makes it fun to read the Bible,” she says.
In addition to the biblical text — written in the modern English of the New Century Version — Revolve also features teen ‘zine staples such as quizzes, Top 10 lists, and Q&A’s. They focus, however, on religious topics like, “Are you dating a godly guy?” and inner-beauty advice. There are also tips on prayer, volunteerism, and calendars with entries, such as “Pray for a person of influence: Today is Michael Jordan’s birthday” on Feb. 17.
Revolve has been on the shelves for barely a month, but Stephen Virkler, an assistant manager at the Family Christian Store in Fairfield, N.J., says his customers appear interested.
“They have to reach these kids in a different way,” says Virkler, 31.
Revolve and similar efforts typically emphasize aspects of Christianity that might appeal to teenagers’ attitudes. They describe Jesus as a radical who was not afraid to challenge mainstream society.
The content, however, hews to conservative Christian values on subjects like homosexuality and women’s deference to men.
In one hypothetical question and answer, a girl asks, “How do you tell a friend that’s your crush that you’re into him without ruining your friendship?” Revolve counsels her: “You don’t. Sorry. … God made guys to be the leaders. That means that they lead in relationships.”
Older evangelicals like Mike Berthurum, a salesman at The Ark Book Store in Denver who has been selling Christian texts for 30 years, say they don’t have a problem with Revolve if it spurs young people’s faith.
“This looks more like a book or a magazine that a youth would pick up,” he says. “I think it’s a good idea.”
God and the Hulk
The convergence of religion and pop culture has reached into film, music, books.
Christian teens today can tune in to religiously themed pop, rap, and even heavy metal. There are biblically inspired comic books and video games. Brio, a teen magazine published by the Colorado-based Christian radio ministry Focus on the Family, offers a chatty, conservative Christian take on traditional teen topics like celebrities, music and makeovers.
In New York City, a nondenominational evangelical church called Journey Church of the City screens mainstream summer blockbusters like The Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Seabiscuit, and then holds discussions on the movies from a Christian viewpoint.
“A lot of people have the idea that you can only find God in the church,” says Nelson Searcy, a teaching pastor with the church. “We believe that if you seek God you’ll find him, even in the movies.”
Outside Dallas, Lake Pointe Church recently opened a skateboarding park. It’s one of several churches trying to draw young people with fun, teen-friendly activities. The “world’s first skate ministry conference” recently convened in Canada. The Skate Church has been drawing kids with its mix of skate ramps and railings and sermons since 1987.
Going Too Far? Who Would Jesus Date?
The growing stream of Christian fiction, rock music, and so on worries some evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians, however.
“I think that’s a legitimate question to raise,” says Mahan, the ministry, media and culture professor. “People get nervous that these new media presentations … become substitutes for the substantive biblical texts.”
“If it has to imitate the culture in order to try to convert it, how much of evangelical Christianity is lost?” says Indiana University’s Goff.
Most are at least sensitive to the danger of watering down their spiritual message with too many pop-culture trappings.
“Some of it’s good, and some of it can go too far,” says Sybert, the 19-year-old Christian bookstore clerk. “And it kind of loses its meaning.”
Whatever evangelicals make of the trend, they agree it is unlikely to let up.
“I think we have turned a corner,” say Mahan. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
I don’t even know where to begin talking about how mis-guided this is. Why is that Christians are catering to the worst of the world instead of challenging it? I don’t get this at all.