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What a trend we have in Jesus

The Detroit News, USA
Mar. 8, 2004
Adam Graham
www.detnews.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday March 10, 2004

… but is pop culture looking for religion – or entertainment?

Jesus Christ Superstar, indeed. Pop cultures reigning It guy is not some prefab pop star or some scruffy-haired actor with a million-dollar smile. Rather, its none other than Jesus Christ.

Christ has always been a presence in pop culture, and is frequently the first figure thanked in awards show acceptance speeches and in album liner notes. But Jesus popularity has surged in recent weeks, with a Christ-themed work setting the box office ablaze and spinning off successes on television, on the music charts and in trendy fashion circles.

Whether caused by a search for comfort in a society of elevated terror alerts or an embracing of old-fashioned religious beliefs, Jesus is seen as a pretty hip dude right now. As a matter of fact, thinking about Jesus as being hip is not so bad, says Elayne Rapping, professor of media studies at the University of Buffalo.

Pop cultures current fascination with Christ has more to do with Americas sociopolitical and economic climate than it does with people looking for direction through religion, Rapping contends. People are looking for something to believe in, she says. People are turning to traditional symbols, but I think its very superficial and in many ways, its done in the form of entertainment.

Not so, says Marcia Labeau of Canton Township. I think this is a time where people are searching, theyre hurting, theyre hungry, they want something more than what this world is giving them, theyre fed up with all the evil and the violence. People are just getting fed up to their neck, says Labeau, 48.

Theyre searching for someone who can give them hope for tomorrow and give them meaning in their life.

Though the impetus may be in dispute, Jesuss status as a hot topic isnt.

Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ earned more than $150 million its first week, and has carved out a home for itself as one of Hollywoods all-time biggest blockbusters. Not bad for a film that up until a few months before its release didnt even have a distributor.

Tonight, ABC will air Judas, an interpretive dramatization about the man who betrayed Jesus. After sitting on the shelf for two years, the film is getting aired due to audiences current interest in Christ.

In music, bands such as Switchfoot whose ties to the Christian music scene and affinity for Jesus are no secret are making waves on mainstream pop charts. Switchfoots The Beautiful Letdown is at No. 68 on the Billboard 200, and its single Meant to Live has been on Billboards modern rock chart for eight months.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack to The Passion of the Christ the second-best selling CD last week at Amazon.com sold more than 48,000 units its first week in stores, enough to enter the Billboard 200 at No. 19. Only two score-driven soundtracks have had better opening weeks, and both belonged to Star Wars films.

The Passion soundtrack has spurred a spinoff album of its own. Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ, featuring songs from Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and The Blind Boys of Alabama, will hit stores April 6.

In bookstores, the hardcover accompaniment to Gibsons film, The Passion: Photography from the Movie the Passion of the Christ (Tyndale House Publishers, $24.99), is a Top 10 seller at Amazon.com, and will have more than a half-million copies in print by the end of the month.

Passion for Christ has people running to video stores to snatch up copies of films such as Jesus of Nazareth and King of Kings, says Jim Olenski, who runs Thomas Video in Clawson.

And on stage, the long-running musical sensation Jesus Christ Superstar plays Tuesday through Sunday at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.

Even before The Passion hit screens, pop culture had reinvented the image of Jesus. Tabloid fashionistas such as Pamela Anderson, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck and Lara Flynn Boyle have all been seen sporting the popular Jesus is my homeboy T-shirts.

Los Angeles-based clothing company Teenage Millionaire introduced the design three years ago. We were looking at pop icons of the 21st century, and Jesus topped the list, says Chris Hoy, a partner in Teenage Millionaire. (The shirts) appeal to the religious people and the hipsters alike.

The shirts present a friendly, down-to-earth image of Jesus, far from the tattered, crown-of-thorns wearing Jesus central to religious texts. They are a more mainstream way for people to support their religious beliefs, rather than the classic crosses and traditional stuff, says Angie Muir, a manager at Urban Outfitters in Ann Arbor where the shirts are carried.

The message of Christ as homeboy is evidence society is moving from less of an organized religion view of Christ and more to a personal, spiritual view of Christ, says Vicky Thompson, author of Jesus Path: 7 Steps to Cosmic Awakening (Red Wheel, $16.95).

Its personally saying not that Jesus is my savior, but Hes my best friend and buddy, Thompson says. We have a huge population of unchurched people (in America), but often, they arent leaving spirituality behind. They still have a desire to feel a spiritual connection, but on their own terms. Theyre embracing Christ, but from a different viewpoint.

Rapping says at the same time people are supposedly embracing Jesus, their lifestyles are not reflecting that. There isnt a whole lot of morality to our everyday lives, Rapping says. For example, the divorce rate is not going down and adultery is not going down, but theres a lot of lip-service being paid (to Jesus).

She says the Jesus is my homeboy shirts are little more than the modern day equivalent of Che Guevara shirts, with people sporting them for fashion purposes but with little belief in what the figure actually represents.

For some, theres still a fear of embracing Christ, especially in commercial circles.

On Jesus Walks, a standout track on Kanye Wests College Dropout, the countrys No. 2 album since it was released Feb. 10, West raps about being told not to make such an overtly religious song. They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/ But if I talk about God, my record wont get played?

The record is, however, getting played. Despite the fact it hasnt been released by the record company as a single, WJLB-FM (97.9) is spinning the track roughly 10 times per week. Its a great record. I didnt shy away from it at all, says WJLB program director K.J. Holiday. (West) is taking the message of Christ, and relating it to all the thugs out there.

Holiday says Jesus is going to continue to gain an increasing profile in popular music and culture. If you look at it, Jesus is now a cool figure, he says, pointing to gospel artists such as Smokie Norful, who has two albums charting in Billboards Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart.

He predicts in the next five years, gospel is going to blow up the same way young country blew up in the mid-90s. Mark my words, this is the biggest wave of music, outside of hip-hop, thats coming up.

Whether its through gospel or hip-hop or Hollywood or T-shirts, the image of Jesus is forever shifting as society changes. As Teenage Millionaires Hoy says about the Jesus is my homeboy shirts, The message sells itself.

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