Senator Zell Miller was spitting mad about the Super Bowl. In his “Deficit of Decency” speech, the Georgia Democrat compared watching the broadcast to driving over a skunk-“the scent of this event will long linger in the nostrils of America.” Miller claims the event embodied the “culture of far left America” as served up by “Value-Les Moonves” (that would be CBS Television president Leslie Moonves) “and the pagan temple of Viacom-Babylon.” Miller’s speech is a classic example of “culture war” rhetoric, which pits Christians against Hollywood, as if either could be understood in such simple and monolithic terms.This same culture war rhetoric has helped to frame the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Fundamentalists (both Protestant and Catholic) crow that the movie’s $125 million opening weekend gross represents the triumph of the Christians over Hollywood, while media pundits scratch their heads and wonder how this film can double or even triple the industry’s estimates of its likely box office yield.
Over the past several decades, (hyperventilation about cultural alienation) has served both to estrange evangelical Christians from the American cultural mainstream and to blind liberals to just how many people are consuming Christian media. Just dropping the word “Christian” in many online discussion lists sends some people into a frenzy and others running for the exit. Many liberals act as if the complex history of Christian debates about the relationship between spiritual and secular matters can be reduced to a glib dismissal of Jerry Falwell’s “campaign” against the Teletubbies. But not all conservative Christians wish to censor others. Many want simply to protect and promote their own traditions in the face of what they see as the onslaught of contemporary media.
Call it the Christian Counterculture. Rather than rejecting popular culture outright, a growing number of Christians are producing and consuming their own popular media on the fringes of the mainstream entertainment industry. Still others are gathering in church basements and living rooms to promote their own brand of media literacy-seeing commercial culture as a “window” into the culture of unbelievers. What we see here is consistent with what media scholars have found within other subcultural communities-a desire to make and distribute your own media and the desire to challenge and critique mainstream media.
While many Christians have felt cut off from mass media, they have been quick to embrace new technologies-such as videotape, cable television, low-wattage radio stations, and the Internet-that allow them to route around established gatekeepers. The result has been the creation of media products that mirror the genre conventions of popular culture but express an alternative set of values.
In Shaking the World for Jesus, to be published next month, media scholar Heather Hendershot offers a complex picture of the kinds of popular culture being produced by and for evangelicals. Frustrated by network television, cultural conservatives have created their own animated series and sitcoms distributed on video. They have produced their own science fiction, horror, mystery, and romance novels, all of which can be purchased online. And alarmed by contemporary video games, they have produced their own-such as Victory at Hebron, where players battle Satan or rescue martyrs.
The emergence of new media technologies has allowed evangelicals some degree of autonomy from commercial media, allowing them to identify and enjoy media products that more closely align with their own worldviews. Technology has also lowered the costs of production and distribution, enabling what remains essentially a niche market to sustain a remarkably broad range of cultural products. Of course, as “niche markets” go, this one may be astonishingly large. According to a recent ABC News poll, 83 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christians, and Baptists (only one of the evangelical denominations) make up 15 percent of the nation.
As commercial media producers have realized the size of this demographic, the walls between Christian and mainstream popular culture are breaking down. VeggieTales videos are finding their way into Walmart, Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey records get distributed as kids’ meal prizes at Chick-fil-A, the Left Behind books become top sellers on Amazon.com, and Christian pop singer Amy Grant breaks into top 40 radio. In the process, some of the more overtly religious markings get stripped away. Network television has begun to produce some shows, such as Touched by an Angel, Seventh Heaven, or Joan of Arcadia, that deal with religious themes in a way designed to appeal to the “searchers” and the “saved” alike. Predictably, some evangelicals fear that Christianity has been commodified and that Jesus is becoming just another brand in the great big “marketplace of ideas.”
And it’s in that context that we need to understand the staggering success of The Passion. The Christians knew how to get folks into the theaters to support this movie. Taking lessons from the blogging community and MoveOn.org, one website, Faith Highway, urged local churches to raise money to sponsor local television advertising for the movie. Many churches loaded up school buses full of worshippers to attend screenings. Some church leaders have acknowledged backing this film in the hopes that its commercial success will get Hollywood to pay more attention to them.