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From Azcentral.com

Pop culture, Christianity converge (tru calling mention)

By Jaimee Rose

Sunday 11 April 2004, by Webmaster

This Easter, Jesus is having a moment. Of course, he has always been in homes and hearts, but now he’s king of amazon.com, a hot seller at Urban Outfitters, and making appearances on Madonna’s wardrobe.

That we’re consumed with Christ shouldn’t seem surprising. This is his holiday, after all. But during this commercial frenzy of plastic eggs, Peeps and frilly pink dresses, it is.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ continues its $300 million box-office spree; the book series Left Behind remains untouchably popular; and the religious mystery The Da Vinci Code is the best-selling book in Arizona on amazon.com (Producer Ron Howard has a film version on the way).

On the newsstand, Jesus is the cover of Time, the debate in the New Republic, and the big headline on the April 5 issue of People, which asks "Does Hollywood have faith?" At the theater, previews are screening for Saved!, a Mandy Moore comedy that questions: "Are you down with G-O-D?" In hip shops, like Urban Outfitters on Tempe’s Mill Avenue, shirts that declare "Jesus is My Homeboy" sit near miniskirts and tube tops (Madonna wears "Mary is my Homegirl").

And religious-product sales are projected to hit $8 billion this year, up from $5.7 billion in 1999, according to MarketResearch.com.

Now, conversation over the cubicles flits from that darn line at Honeybaked Ham to the Crucifixion scenes from The Passion. At lunch, there may be a quick click to spirituality.com, where people discuss Left Behind.

Of course, it’s not that America has suddenly discovered Jesus. Gallup polls consistently have reported that 90 percent of Americans believe in a higher power. But leave it to Hollywood to make him hip.

Jesus the Savior meets Jesus the Homeboy is a concept some find offensive and irreverent, but others argue that talking about God in any form is a change for the better, even if it means wearing faith on T-shirt sleeves.

"Pop culture and Christian culture have lined up and are asking similar questions at the same time," says Daniel Richards, a priest at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Tucson. "It’s created a peak in interest" in God, he says.

Questions that have come from The Passion - - this week Time asks, "Why did Jesus have to die?" - have created a lot of the fervor, he says. But America has been buzzing about Jesus and religion for a while: The gay-marriage debate, the Catholic priest scandals, and prayers for soldiers in the Iraqi war have brought faith to the media forefront.

And there’s a history here. Jesus’ last big pop-culture moment was during the Vietnam War when posters of a hippie Christ popped up everywhere and Jesus Christ Superstar ruled stages and movie theaters. Jesus is everywhere now, says Bob Hodgson of the American Bible Society in New York, because of events that have been building over the past few years. After all, Brad Pitt was wearing that "Homeboy" tee and people were reading Da Vinci long before Passion was on the cover of People.

"Part of it is anxiety surrounding Sept. 11, the ongoing security threats to our nation, a lagging economy - all that hard news traditionally brings people back to their faith," Hodgson says.

As for treating Christ casually, well, Tucson pastor Richards wears a "Jesus Surfs Without a Board" shirt from Urban Outfitters, where you can also find a Jesus action figure and Pope-on-a-Rope soap.

"If Jesus is so reverent that we can’t laugh about him, then Jesus isn’t in our everyday lives," says Richards, 28. "One of the great losses in Passion is there’s no sense of humor, no lightness. All you get is the violence of Jesus’ death removed from his life, which has funny moments, awkward moments, sensual moments."

But when it comes to being king of the mall, other religious scholars wonder, what would Jesus do? Undoubtedly, he’d want it to stop, they say.

In the Bible, Jesus drove all the market people out of the temple, angry that religion had been turned into a commercial enterprise, notes Jim Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio, a Roman Catholic university.

"That seems to be what’s going on now," says Farrelly. "It trivializes the sacred while at the same time exalting the profane - ’love of money is the root of all evil’ stands as a warning to all those who exploit religion for their own monetary gain."

At ShareThePassionoftheChrist.com, people are buying the works: mugs emblazoned with the cross, lapel pins in Aramaic, and sterling silver nails strung on necklaces for $50.

For some, those are artifacts of faith, but, says Farrelly, they’re also worn by "people who like to stand out as knowing what’s hip at the moment."

And when it comes to "being down with G-O-D," hanging with the homeboy, and all of that, Farrelly says, "what they’ve done is make religion into something that they are comfortable with.

"People want to go to church and experience what they might at a rock concert. How can you then see your connection to something supernatural or divine when you’re making everything into a natural or ordinary experience?"

Teens feel comfortable with Jesus at Journeys in Phoenix’s Metrocenter mall, where teens snap up $74 Phat Farm sneakers along with $24 Jesus-decorated shirts that say "Passionate."

Jesus has a slot on prime time now, where a number of fictional hit TV shows, from Joan of Arcadia to Tru Calling, talk God and religion in one way or another.

And Jesus is at the office, too. At Screensavers.com, he’s enjoying increased popularity at No. 5 on the celebrity download list, just below Johnny Depp.

And did you know that he can rap, too? At River of Life Tabernacle in Phoenix, Christian rappers meet to worship and spin lyrics about Christ. They just finished their first hip-hopera, The One, about Jesus reclaiming hip-hop from Satan. So popular, it will be reenacted in June. Listen as rappin’ Christ takes on Satan: "You’re a stumblin’ block, building up then breaking down, stealing hopes and dreams from my peeps."

You can giggle or get upset, but River of Life associate pastor Mike Sims explains: "I myself have never been a great fan of hip-hop, but I recognize the opportunity to reach people who respond to this music."

Tempe’s Vocab Malone, a Christian rapper who helped write The One, says putting the message of Christ to music can make it easier for young people, from tweens to 20-somethings, to understand.

"I don’t want to take Jesus and turn him into a cool fad," says Malone, 26, whose non-rap name is John-Mark Rieser. "God is God, he is who is, and he is gonna permeate everything I do."

After all, artists have long chosen religion as a subject. In their day, Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam were considered cutting-edge religious art.

So the idea behind Christian rap is "nothing new," says Malone, who hopes that Jesus the Savior and Jesus the Homeboy can find some middle ground.

"I hope that people don’t make (Jesus) all untouchable and silly, I hope that’s not the perception of Christ," he says. "But I hope they don’t make him into some modern type of hippie that walks around talking about peace and love. The place to really find him is in the scriptures."

And maybe all of this is just Americans thinking too hard.

Phoenix middle-schooler Kasey Judd, 14, wears her "Jesus is My Homeboy" hat to school and softball and church. Sure, she considers Jesus a friend and is faithful, but mostly, her reason is this:

"I like wearing hats and it’s a trucker hat and there’s pink writing and pink’s my favorite color."