Pop culture, religion finding ways to mix

Sacred themes sell; Christians embrace high-tech values

Published: Thursday, Aug. 10 2006 12:24 a.m. MDT

Consider the Florida theme park called "The Holy Land Experience," says Mark Pinsky. Or the Evangelical Christian video game "Eternal Forces" or the mega-bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" or Christian romance novels published by Harlequin.

Everywhere you look, says Pinsky, popular culture has gotten religion, and religions are adapting popular culture to serve their own ends. It's a confluence that has changed popular culture, and at the same time has helped Evangelical Christians "hold on to their kids," he says.

Pinsky, a religion journalist and author of "The Gospel According to the Simpsons," spoke Wednesday night at the kick-off event of the 2006 Sunstone Symposium.

Pinsky, whose most recent book is "A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed," defined himself as a "left-wing Jew" who agrees with Christians who say that much of popular culture is hypersexualized and violent.

To counteract that "toxic" culture, Evangelicals know they can't just forbid their children to watch TV or listen to hip-hop. Instead, they've invented alternative books, music, movies, TV, radio stations, theme parks, computer games and stand-up comedy acts.

There is no category of popular culture — "except porn, so far" — that has not been adapted by Evangelical Christians, Pinsky says. To succeed, though, these need to have high-production value. They've come a long way, he says, from the days when Christian entertainment meant showing Billy Graham studio movies in church basements.

The unintended consequence of all this new media is that they're "providing effective outreach for the unchurched."

At the same time, the secular media has found that including religious themes, plots and characters is profitable, from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to HBO's "Big Love." The secular publishing house HarperCollins recently bought up a Christian publishing house, Pinsky noted.

Instead of just doing, at most, one TV series a year that incorporates religions — "Highway to Heaven" or "Touched by an Angel," for example — Hollywood studios "are now salting their TV shows with Christian themes, plots and characters."

In the same way that ensemble television comedies and dramas now often have a "gay character," these shows may soon have "the Christian" as a stock character, Pinsky predicts.

Is this intersection of religion and pop culture irreversible? "I think so," Pinsky says — unless Christian movie producers or the commercial studios "produce a string of high-budget bombs at the box-office."


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com

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