From Comics to Music to Film, Faith Is In

Christianity’s Inroads in the Culture Wars

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NEW YORK, JUNE 25, 2005 ( Anti-religious sentiments abound in contemporary culture and the media, but this is not the whole story. Increasingly, Christians are creating their own currents, and with notable success.

On Wednesday a report by Reuters noted that the sales of religious books is booming in the United States. The article cited data from the Book Industry Study Group showing that total U.S. book sales rose 2.8% in 2004 to $28.6 billion. In the same period, sales of religious books increased by 11% to nearly $2 billion. And this might understate the situation, as the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association says sales of its members’ books amount to $2.38 billion a year.

The growth is in both nonfiction and fiction. In the first category self-help books based on evangelical spirituality are selling well. Fiction too is popular, according to Joan Marlow Golan, executive editor of Steeple Hill, an imprint of romance publisher Harlequin dedicated to «faith-based» fiction. The company’s editorial guidelines exclude alcohol consumption by Christian characters, as well as dancing, gambling and sexual intimacy.

And on Tuesday the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on a new computer video portraying Jesus. Titled «The GodMan,» it took four years and $6.2 million to produce. The company behind the video, the Book of Hope organization, is dedicated to giving away Bible-based books.

«We still have a simple goal: to tell the story of Jesus in the most relevant form for the children of this generation,» said Rob Hoskins, the organization’s executive director. The 52-minute video has already been translated into Spanish, and plans call for it to be translated into many other languages.

It starts with the creation story of Genesis, then goes directly to recount the life of Jesus, highlighting the main episodes, from the nativity to the crucifixion and resurrection.

The Sun-Sentinel noted that another Christian video was released on DVD last year, «The Animated Passion Trilogy.» The birth of Islam was also told in animated form, in a version that ran in cinemas late last year.

Comic relief

Comic books are another area where religion is appearing. According to June 3 report by the Associated Press, the number of Christian comic books has grown rapidly in the last few years. A cooperative has been set up for Christian artists, Community Comics LLC, to help promote and distribute their work.

Sales figures are difficult to obtain. But Steve MacDonald, who runs the Web site, told the AP that the numbers of titles has doubled in the last year. His site lists Christian comic books and graphic novels and where to get them.

«Christians have the best stories to tell,» said Sherwin Schwartzrock, a Christian comic book artist and graphic designer. «The world is full of hurting people, with drug abuse and with all types of problems that we have as human beings. Jesus Christ is an answer.»

The comics range from adaptations of scriptural stories, to the creation of superheroes with a Christian angle. Schwartzrock noted that kids don’t want to be preached to, so it is important to entertain them, and to do so in an appealing way.

Christian music is another success story, Reuters noted June 11. Apart from popular music by Christian artists, a recent trend is the increasing interest in hymns. Singers are taking the lyrics familiar to regular churchgoers and setting them to different musical styles, from country to jazz to Southern gospel.

One artist, Amy Grant, had a recent recording of hymns take the No. 1 spot on the Top Christian Albums chart in May, so far selling 54,000 copies. A 2002 collection of hymns sung by Grant has sold 465,000 units.

Another singer, Bart Millard, told Reuters that he chose to take do a hymns album because he wanted to create something special for his young son. «The way that music is going, there may be a chance that my son won’t have memories of old hymns as I did growing up,» he said. Many churches have replaced hymns with contemporary worship music, Millard explained.

Meanwhile, singer Ashley Cleveland noted: «There is a mind-set that they represent antiquity, they are dusty old relics that aren’t relevant, but to me nothing could be more relevant. There is so much division in our culture and even within the Christian community, but when you pull out a hymn that everybody knows, we are all unified.»

Fit to print

From England, the London-based Times newspaper reported April 11 that a new tabloid, The Son, is off to a strong start. The paper is produced by a reporter, Hugh Southon, who converted to Christianity eight years ago. The inaugural edition sold 40,000 copies, and the second, published at Easter, 62,000.

«We wanted to produce an uncompromising, proactive and provocative newspaper that will put Jesus back into the center of society, but we wanted it to be fun to read and relevant to today’s celebrity culture,» said Southon. The paper is bimonthly, with plans to come out monthly next year. Its sales are mainly through the evangelical Christian network.

Even the world of fashion models, not known for its ascetical ways, is seeing inroads by Christians. A report May 17 by the Irish Independent newspaper described the activities of the New York-based group Models for Christ.

The organization was set up by a former Ford agency model, Jeff Calenberg, to give spiritual guidance to models. «There are plenty of people in our industry who have gone through tragedy because of the pressures on them,» he explained.

The group was set up in 1984 and in recent times has gained strength, with a mailing list of around 500. Local chapters have also been established in Los Angeles and Miami. One of the organization’s functions is to support those who are recovering from crises or addictions. But it also encourages members to give their time to help the poor, and to serve as mentors to young models starting out in the industry.

Calenberg also encourages models not to accept jobs that they are uncomfortable with because of their religious beliefs. And the group also operates its own network for photographers and agents who share the same beliefs.

Profitable fare

The public’s thirst for wholesome media fare is evident in the success of family movies. On March 15, the Associated Press reported that last year PG-rated films grossed more than R-rated ones for the first time in 20 years. PG titles took in $2.3 billion in U.S. sales, compared with $2.1 billion for R-rated films. The data were released by the National Association of Theater Owners. The most popular category were PG-13 movies, with $4.4 billion in ticket sales.

Then, on June 7, the Associated Press reported that a study by the Dove Foundation, a group that encourages the production of family friendly movies, found that G-rated movies are more profitable than R-rated films.

According to a study of the 200 most widely distributed films by the major studios during 1989-2003, the average G-rated production was 11 times more profitable than the R-rated films. If nothing else, the bottom line might yet make believers out of Hollywood moguls.

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