On the occasion of the Easter weekend, Jill Rowbotham reports on the growing harmony between Christianity and popular culture
HERE’S one for the stranger- thanfiction file. Late last year, just as the competition to become the next Australian Idol was building nicely, a Sydney tabloid newspaper reported that contestants had been warned not to talk about their religion in media interviews. Huh?
The report said television stories claiming some finalists were being supported by ‘‘ a huge Christian voting audience’’ were of concern to organisers: they worried about the effect on the show’s street cred.
It’s a safe bet those in charge had never heard of, or didn’t recall, the psalmist’s directive to
make a joyful noise unto the Lord’’, as you might do if you were a Christian singer. But stifling a natural gratitude among people who may have felt the benefit of divine intervention in the cut- throat contest seemed a bit rich.
And a tad bizarre when the first Australian Idol was Guy Sebastian, whose talent was incubated in Adelaide’s Pentecostal Paradise Community Church. He has never made any secret of his background.
It was also odd given Christians in the music industry include Peter Garrett, Marina Prior, Bono and Amy Grant. Bob Dylan was in the same category for a while. Even Nick Cave is reportedly a theist. We are hardly in the territory of Pat Boone or Cliff Richard any more.
Even if the mainstream TV world is wary, the music industry remains a broad church, as it were, and Christian music is a vibrant sector. Indeed, Christian culture, or entertainment, in the same way as all culture and entertainment, is proliferating: music, TV and radio, stand- up comedy and books abound.
There is no official figure for annual retail sales of Christian music in Australia and estimates can be rubbery. They vary from just a few million dollars to a high of about $ 40 million.
Publicist Wes Jay, who specialises in Christian artists, estimates it at about $ 20 million in the past 12 months. In the US, in contrast, the genre accounts for about half the $ US11.5 billion ($ 12.4 billion) music market.
Jay has been watching Christian entertainment in Australia for a long time. He recalls the singing nun who started it all with her cross- over hit, The Lord’s Prayer . ‘‘ In 1974 we had this incredible song from Sister Janet Mead, who didn’t want any of the fame,’’ he says.
According to Jay there are 40 full- time licensed radio stations in Australia with a million- plus weekly audience, some of which play only Christian music. There is even a Christian cable TV station, run from Buderim, in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
Music industry analyst Phil Tripp is another expert: he estimates Christian music sells slightly more than country and western. ‘‘ They have great production values,’’ he says of Christian CDs. ‘‘ They do not skimp. Also, their audience is very devoted, pardon the pun.’’
While the major record companies, such as Sony BMG, EMI and Warner, as well as distributor Hardrush, all have a presence in the market, the first name in the Australian industry that comes to Tripp is Hillsong, the 20,000- strong Pentecostal congregation based originally in Sydney’s northern Hills District.
Hillsong has produced one of the sector’s biggest success stories, Darlene Zschech. She came to Sydney from Brisbane in her early 20s and burst out of the local market into the American scene with her 1994 song Shout to the Lord , now sung each week by an estimated 25 million to 30 million churchgoers.
‘‘ Human beings are always in search of a connection to the divine and music has always been one of those things that has provided accessibility,’’ Zschech says.
Hillsong’s Pentecostal partiality to music has been spun off via Hillsong Music Australia into 16 live worship albums, which have gone gold. As recently as June the new album from its group, Hillsong United, All of the Above , made its debut at No. 1 in three US Billboard Christian music charts and entered Billboard ’ s top 200 chart at No. 60. It also won an award for international impact in the Christian artists category at the Gospel Music Awards in Nashville last May. ( In Australia the album peaked at No. 6 on the ARIA charts and was at one stage the second most downloaded album on iTunes.)
Australian Christian music is doing well in the US, Zschech reckons, because it is ‘‘ very blunt lyrically, not perfect’’. ‘‘ The Australian personality is very real, very down- to- earth,’’ she says. ‘‘( We say:) ‘ We do not want any garbage, just tell me the truth’, and I think it comes across in the music, in a lot of the secular music and the Christian music.
‘‘ They are real people on a real journey in search of a real God, and that touches a real nerve on the planet,’’ she says of the artists. ‘‘ And when people hear it, combined with the music, it’s so stirring and they have just loved it. I have had thousands and thousands of letters saying: ‘ I wanted to say that and I did not know how to.’ ’’
It is tempting to predict there will be more Christian success in the broader Australian music scene on the basis of what is happening in the US, where some bands are making their mark in the broader market. A report in The New York Times in 2006 offered an example of how Christian rock and mainstream music were moving closer together, citing Christian band MercyMe’s latest rock album, Coming Up to Breathe, as ‘‘ one of the season’s most anticipated’’ and noting the group regularly outsells many secular bands.
MercyMe’s 2004 album Undone sold more than 600,000 copies, about the same as an album Bruce Springsteen released the same year.
It isn’t going to happen here, says Richard Leonard, Jesuit priest and director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting. ‘‘ Most people who talk of Christian culture are talking about American Christian culture, which is influential, but in Australia we do not have professedly Christian culture; I can’t see Hillsong has made big inroads into our music industry,’’ he says.
Another commentator on Christianity and popular culture, Greg Clarke, a director of the Centre for Public Christianity, agrees Australia has nothing resembling the American Christian subculture. But that’s all right: ‘‘ I reckon it’s better when Christians are having to negotiate with the culture rather than having economic and social power within the culture,’’ he says.
It’s no revelation that music is the most accessible part of the Christian subculture. ‘‘ Christians have always communicated their message in song; in fact, the Bible says to do so,’’ Clarke says. ‘‘ So it isn’t surprising that Christian music is popular. Even ardent atheists find themselves humming Amazing Grace now and then.’’
Non- believers are less likely to have an appetite for Christian books, but the faithful certainly do. Perhaps the best- known blockbuster has been the 16- book Left Behind series by Americans Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, a fictional treatment of the last days, which began being published in the mid- 1990s.
But in Australia, according to family- owned Koorong Books chain’s managing director Paul Bootes, the biggest seller is American pastor Rick Warren’s 2002 nonfiction book, The PurposeDriven Life. ‘‘ I think its sales in Australia would be in the hundreds of thousands,’’ says Bootes, who has expanded the business from one outlet into a 16- store chain in 30 years. Bootes estimates Australian retail sales of Christian books, music, DVDs and gifts at $ 70 million a year. He regards the Christian book market as mature, at about 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the total book market. ( In the US, religious books represent 3 per cent of the $ US24.2 billion market, and have been rising steadily during the past five years.)
Apart from Warren’s primer for living the Christian life, the works of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and English writer C. S. Lewis are unlikely to go out of print.
The latter is famous all over again, and with a new audience, following the 2005 film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, adapted from the first in his series of novels published in the 1950s.
It appeared just before the 2006 film of novelist Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which fingered the Catholic Church and its member organisation Opus Dei as the culprits in a 2000- year- old cover- up of the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, a union that produced a child and a line of succession.
Although this theme was highly provocative to some Christians, it also brought the story of Jesus into the headlines with a splash that could hardly have been bettered. And conspiracy lovers were spoiled for choice among the slew of books on similar themes that followed. There was even more press when two of the English authors of the 1983 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail , Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, sued Brown for plagiarism. Their suit failed.
The movie of Brown’s book was spectacularly successful. Jesus had already made something of a comeback: it had been only two years since Mel Gibson had stunned Hollywood with his Aramaic- language version of the crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ, which grossed more than $ US370 million. As Brown’s juggernaut reached maximum strength, out came the latest crop of atheist manifestos, led by Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2006 and followed last year by Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great. This triggered responses from Christians, including Alister McGrath, who wrote The Dawkins Delusion? , and geneticist Francis Collins, who last year published The Language of God.
There have been more films, such as last year’s Amazing Grace, which tells the story of William Wilberforce and the fight to abolish the slave trade and was pitched to a Christian audience, unlike the film of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels, The Golden Compass. Some of
us may have gone on blissfully ignorant of the allegory but for Pullman deciding to spell out his anti- God stance in the press. Surely, for God, all publicity is good? Up to a point, Leonard says.
‘‘ The Da Vinci Code did Christianity a favour because it got people doing what I’m sure no theologian has been able to achieve: getting ordinary Australians talking about early Christian history and the formation of the Bible around the barbecue on Saturdays. What we lacked were people who could counteract the erroneous thoughts with simple, immediate and effective explanations.’’
Likewise J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. ‘‘ On one level it was a missed opportunity because Christians got worked up about magic and witchcraft but the Harry Potter novels were profoundly theological, they were about good v evil and the formation of the hero who combats evil,’’ Leonard says.
So here lies the modern problem for Christians in a world where popular culture rules: the failure to convert an opportunity in a strategic way. Part of it may simply be not knowing what to do, as Leonard implies.
Clarke says there is a tendency for Christians to disappear into subcultures, which doesn’t help their other aim: to engage with the broader society. ‘‘ This often happens when Christians feel really oppressed by the culture around them, so they batten down the hatches,’’ he says. ‘‘ Or when they are starting to gain momentum and numbers and begin to think, ‘ Maybe now we will be able to tell people how things should be done.’ ’’
But coercion is out, persuasion is in, and has been for many decades. Unfortunately, Leonard says, the church is handicapped by its attitude to modern forms of entertainment.
‘‘ I think the church was most comfortable when artistic culture meant high art,’’ he says. Who can argue with St Peter’s Basilica, Gregorian chants, Michelangelo, the Wesleyan hymn tradition and John Bunyan? ‘‘ But as the 20th century drew on, the artistic culture became more democratic and explicitly modern, and then postmodern, challenging all universal truth claims. And then the churches generally felt as if the only course was retreat from a culture of which they were once patrons.’’ These days the church has concluded that modern forms such as books, film and TV are hostile towards its cause.
‘‘ The church is deeply suspicious of media that entertains,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘ I think we have to let go of the suspicion of artistic culture that entertains, believing we cannot use popular forms. That’s a mistake because Jesus used the artistic form of his day, which was the parable, to communicate the most profound lessons.’’
It’s good ‘‘ when people are laughing, crying, being confused and confronted’’, not necessarily by religious stories but ‘‘ the power of the story can say something so important about humanity and about the things of God’’.
Clarke sees Bono’s U2 as striking the right balance. ‘‘ They are the great example of Christian artists working beyond the church borders,’’ he says. ‘‘ They sing gospel without telling you that’s what they are doing; they are evangelists in all but name. For heaven’s sake, their last album contained a song entitled Yahweh . They named God; you can’t get much more specific than that.’’
Another of Christianity’s strong suits, according to Leonard, is its involvement in education through church- run schools and ‘‘ the whole cultural package that goes with that. It’s about the life of the imagination: the stories that are told, the formation of people’s sensibilities.’’
There is also plenty of reason to be hopeful on other fronts. ‘‘ There are some good signs now,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘ For example, the internet: because one of the things about it is that it is largely text- based and education and information based. The church understands that media, it gets that and it can afford its costs.’’
Right on cue came the news in December that significant corporate money was backing the combination of Christian culture and modern communication: News Corporation ( parent company of News Limited, publisher of The Weekend Australian ) had bought spirituality and faith website Beliefnet for an undisclosed sum. The site claims more than 3.1 million individual visitors monthly and about 7.6 million subscribers. And in January publisher HarperCollins, another News Corporation company, announced it would make a digital edition of the classic hymn book Mission Praise available for churches to download and use to create playlists.
The church is built for the long haul and with clear signs it is getting the hang of the digital age, from websites for believers to texting votes for the next Australian Idol, it may yet learn to mobilise popular support for its eternal message.
Spreading the word: Clockwise from top, far left, Guy Sebastian; members of the audience at the 2007 Hillsong conference in Sydney; Hillsong singer Darlene Zschech; Christian rock band MercyMe