What a trend we have in Jesus

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

Jesus Christ Superstar, indeed. Pop culture’s reigning “It” guy is not some prefab pop star or some scruffy-haired actor with a million-dollar smile. Rather, it’s 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 culture’s current fascination with Christ has more to do with America’s 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 it’s very superficial and in many ways, it’s done in the form of entertainment.”

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

“They’re searching for someone who can give them hope for tomorrow and give them meaning in their life.”

Though the impetus may be in dispute, Jesus’s status as a hot topic isn’t.

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” earned more than $150 million its first week, and has carved out a home for itself as one of Hollywood’s all-time biggest blockbusters. Not bad for a film that up until a few months before its release didn’t 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. Switchfoot’s “The Beautiful Letdown” is at No. 68 on the Billboard 200, and its single “Meant to Live” has been on Billboard’s 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 Gibson’s 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).

“It’s personally saying not that Jesus is my savior, but He’s my best friend and buddy,” Thompson says. “We have a huge population of unchurched people (in America), but often, they aren’t leaving spirituality behind. They still have a desire to feel a spiritual connection, but on their own terms. They’re 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 isn’t 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 there’s 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, there’s still a fear of embracing Christ, especially in commercial circles.

On “Jesus Walks,” a standout track on Kanye West’s “College Dropout,” the country’s 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 won’t get played?”

The record is, however, getting played. Despite the fact it hasn’t been released by the record company as a single, WJLB-FM (97.9) is spinning the track roughly 10 times per week. “It’s a great record. I didn’t 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 Billboard’s 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, that’s coming up.”

Whether it’s through gospel or hip-hop or Hollywood or T-shirts, the image of Jesus is forever shifting as society changes. As Teenage Millionaire’s Hoy says about the “Jesus is my homeboy” shirts, “The message sells itself.”

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