Pop culture gets religion

NEW YORK — A pink T-shirt with a cartoon kitten purring, “Jesus loves me” isn’t the kind of thing Jaye Hersh usually sells at her trendy West Los Angeles boutique, called Intuition.

“I’m Jewish … and a lot of my clientele are hip, upscale Jewish women,” said Hersh, who nonetheless is selling the shirt, along with leather cuffs and belts stamped with the Ten Commandments. “A year ago, I probably wouldn’t even have looked at it,” she added, “but right now it’s a trend.”

From tank tops to toe rings, secular fashion with a Christian message is pushing into the mainstream and grabbing the attention of finicky teens and others with a sixth sense for fads. Madonna, who is devoted to a form of Jewish mysticism, has been spotted wearing a “Mary Is My Homegirl” T-shirt. So has Pamela Anderson.

Some of the merchandise works on two levels: fun fashion for the faithful, irreverent commentary for others. Either way, Christian apparel is enjoying a moment of hip legitimacy.

“You don’t have to be hard-core Christian to think Jesus is my homeboy,” said Samantha Lee, a 19-year-old who bought a shirt so emblazoned at the Steve Madden store in Beverly Hills, Calif., after seeing it in magazines.

The homeboy shirts’ maker is Teenage Millionaire, an apparel company previously known for shirts with the slogan “Hot Punk.” The new religious references are ironic, but the purpose isn’t to shock, said Doug Williams, creative director at the Los Angeles-based company.

“It’s 2004,” he said. “People have been shocked to where it doesn’t work anymore. T’s can be thought-provoking, and I hope these T’s make people think.”

Yes, or no

A few major teen retail chains, including Urban Outfitters Inc. and Journeys, are carrying the homeboy shirts, but others are taking a pass.

Mall retailer Hot Topic Inc. caters to trendy teens with T-shirts and music from such Christian rock bands as Blindside and Payable on Death. The stores won’t sell merchandise with religious references or symbols, whether Christian crucifixes or pagan pentagrams.

“We have a general rule,” said Cindy Levitt, general merchandise manager for the 518-store chain, based in City of Industry, Calif. “If someone who isn’t familiar with our store walks by our window display and is offended by what they see, we won’t carry it.”

Some believers like the T-shirts.

“The shirts are cool,” said John Peterson, a youth pastor at the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, in Brick, N.J. “It might have been started as a joke, but it could still have spiritual significance for people. It could also be a means of identification for a Christian kid.”

‘The Passion’ effect

Christian themes, often marginalized in the past, now are increasingly present in pop culture. Most noticeable has been Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which since its February opening has sold more than $360 million in tickets and ranks No. 7 in terms of all-time U.S. box office.

In addition, “Joan of Arcadia,” on Viacom Inc.’s CBS, about a high school girl who talks to God, won a People’s Choice Award for best dramatic series this year. And Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.’s United Artists subsidiary is planning to release “Saved!”, a subversive comedy about a girl named Mary at a Christian high school who gets pregnant by her gay boyfriend.

“Religion in its own way has become a brand — and right now it’s hot,” said Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a New York trend-forecasting company. But before too long, fashion-conscious teens and the retail buyers who cater to them may move on to the next thing, she warned.

Americans spend $200 billion a year on clothes, according to research firm NPD Group. Sales of “Christian apparel” — including sweatshirts with Bible verses or midriff-baring T’s — are just a tiny sliver of about $100 million, according to the Christian Booksellers Association.

Still, retailers are turning up the volume on figure-hugging clothes with Christian messages.

Datomana, the Los Angeles maker of the kitty “Jesus Loves Me” shirts, has other Christian logos that are more ambiguous, including “gee/oh/dee” and “Fear No Evil.”

The company has sold about 5,500 of its shirts since November. Beyonce Knowles and TV’s Carson Daly have been seen sporting them, and MTV2 has aired a Datomana commercial.

Makers of more-traditional Christian T-shirts also are taking note.

Vic Kennett, president of Kerusso Inc., a Berryville, Ark., Christian apparel and gift company, said the bulk of his $5 million-plus T-shirt sales comes from shirts with traditional Christian references, with such slogans as “Tougher than Nails” or “Dead to Sin, Alive to Christ.”

These days, teens want “something cool, so they don’t feel like the Church Lady from ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” Kennett said.

New Testament for teens

Meanwhile, Thomas Nelson Inc., of Nashville, Tenn., has put a teen-marketing spin on the Bible.

The company publishes a teen-targeted “BibleZine” edition of the New Testament. It looks a lot like teen magazine CosmoGirl! and, besides the biblical text, offers reviews of popular Christian bands and pop quizzes such as “Are you dating a Godly guy?”

While a new edition of a Bible may sell 40,000 copies a year, Thomas Nelson said its first BibleZine sold more than 300,000 copies since July — which, at $16.99 a pop, is the largest sell-through in the company’s 200-year history.

So far, Nelson is resisting the temptation to take BibleZines to the bank with aggressive marketing.

Nelson has turned down several offers of tie-ins from Christian record companies and said it won’t rely on endorsers or advertising. “It’s the Bible; we don’t want to mess with it,” said company spokeswoman Laurie Whaley.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Wall Street Journal, via The Baltimore Sun, USA
May 17, 2004
Stephanie Kang, The Wall Street Journal

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday May 21, 2004.
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