Christianity gains pop culture appeal

Arts: The big-money success of `The Passion of the Christ' sparks wider interest in religious-themed entertainment.

April 11, 2004|By Mary C. McCauley | Mary C. McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

John Styll feels as though he and other evangelical Christians inhabit "an underground parallel universe" in which they shop, listen to music and go to the movies but are invisible to the rest of society.

"We have our own concert venues, our own [music] stores, our own magazines and our own festivals," said Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, the trade group for the Christian music industry. "Every year, 80,000 people come together on a farm in the middle of Pennsylvania for the Creation Festival. But it never makes USA Today; it's just a `Christian thing.'"

So Styll and other evangelicals can't help feeling taken aback at signs that their heretofore unseen world is about to come into focus in a big way.

In the aftermath of Mel Gibson's box-office behemoth The Passion of the Christ, secular America is suddenly discovering that there is big money to be made from Christian-themed entertainment - and not just in movies, but also in popular music, television and books.

There's even a new $16 million Holy Land theme park in Orlando, Fla. - near Walt Disney World - with attractions based on Jesus' life and the Bible.

Heading into this Easter weekend, The Passion of the Christ had raked in more than $330 million in six weeks in the United States, becoming the 10th-highest-grossing movie domestically of all time.

"I would not be surprised if the film did $25 [million] to $30 million over the Easter holiday weekend - unprecedented for a new release," said Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database. Its soundtrack, book and a CD of songs inspired by the film are also nationwide best sellers.

Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm that markets to religious audiences, thinks that the movie could have a galvanizing effect on pop culture.

"Christian is the new gay," he said. "Passion's success is like when Ellen DeGeneres came out on TV. It got a ton of attention, and in the wake of that, gay characters were able to become main characters in shows. Maybe now Christian characters can appear on mainstream sitcoms, and there will be story lines that explore their journey of faith."

That appears to be happening. In September, NBC will present Revelations, a miniseries about a group of Christians fighting to stave off the apocalypse.

In the pipeline

In the film industry, where the production process is far longer, The Passion of the Christ's true impact might not be felt for three or four years. But already in the pipeline for release next year are Disney's The Narnia Chronicles, based on C.S. Lewis' classic children's series, and Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, about the 12th-century Crusades. The Black Livingstone, a script based on the true story of the first African-American missionary, is making the rounds of Hollywood studios.

"It certainly has woken up the movie industry," Simanton said. "Religious-themed films will have a better shot than they did formerly."

The extent of the movie's popularity might be unusual, but it's not the anomaly some might think. Christian-themed books and music are breaking records in their own industries.

In March, ABC's World News Tonight and CBS' Evening News with Dan Rather scheduled competing segments with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the phenomenally popular Left Behind series of novels. The apocalyptic thrillers have sold more than 60 million copies in eight years - and that was before the 12th book, Glorious Appearing: The End of Days, was released March 30, selling out its initial press run of 1.9 million copies.

According to Book Industry Trends, an annually published analysis of the book business, religious books accounted for $1.3 billion, or 18 percent, of the estimated $7 billion in trade book sales in the United States in 2003, a rate that has remained steady since 1997.

Since the 1980s, Lynn Garrett wrote in Book Industry Trends, religion books "have posted impressive sales gains and found their way out of denominational ghettoes and into the mainstream, onto best-seller lists and the shelves of general-interest bookstores."

Religious music

The mainstream music industry is also realizing that there is gold - and platinum - to be made from religious songs. The most recent success story is the Texas-based band MercyMe, whose new single, "Here With Me," was added to more radio station playlists Monday than any other song released last week.

The song's popularity was paved by MercyMe's previous single, "I Can Only Imagine," which became a huge crossover hit last year - two years after its debut in the Christian radio market.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, which compiles statistics for the music industry, Christian contemporary and gospel music sold 47.1 million records in 2003, more than jazz and classical music combined.

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