On the oc­ca­sion of the Easter week­end, Jill Row­botham re­ports on the grow­ing har­mony be­tween Chris­tian­ity and pop­u­lar cul­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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