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JEFFREY BROWN: At the cineplex the Passion of the Christ earning $370 million and counting in the U.S. alone. On TV a show about a modern Joan of Arc is a ratings hit.
At the book store the Purpose Driven Life, the number one best seller for 2003. And on the radio, Christian rockers like POD top the charts.
Christian entertainment has become a multibillion dollar business and arguably a growing influence on American culture as a whole.
At the Christian Booksellers Association convention here in Atlanta this summer, industry representatives gathered in force to show their wares.
SINGERS: Jesus loves. All about you…
JEFFREY BROWN: This was a business convention that started with prayer and song, and openly mixed retail and religion.
MARILYN McCOO, Recording Artist: We’ll never forget that in the midst of all of the business that’s going to be transacted that it’s really focused on one person, and one only.
MAN: That’s right.
MARILYN McCOO: Praise the lord.
JEFFREY BROWN: Stretched over several football field sized halls, computer software.
MAN: Let’s see how easy it is to soy the bible.
JEFFREY BROWN: Christian rappers posed for photos. Paintings of Jesus and puppets of the devil; candy with a spiritual message. Most of all, books of all kinds, the actual bible of course. But also the biblical cure for yeast infections.
SPOKESMAN: I’ve been in the industry for 30 years.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bill Anderson is president of the Christian Booksellers Association, now called the CBA.
BILL ANDERSON, President, CBA: This is largely a business gathering with Christianity being the central theme. We’re really an industry of one book, the bible, and all of these other products are to help us as customers understand what does the bible really say.
JEFFREY BROWN: The CBA represents some 2400 Christian book stores across the country. One in five Americans bought a Christian themed book last year, Anderson says some of the boom is about the baby boom.
BILL ANDERSON: I think as the baby boomer generation ages and we look in the mirror and we see wrinkles that didn’t used to be there and the reality of mortality sets in, where am I headed after this life is certainly an issue.
Four out of five Americans call themselves Christians, and so there is a large audience who has a desperate need not only for figuring out life but a desire to have faith and life connect.
JEFFREY BROWN: There was also a noticeable focus on huge youth market.
SPOKESMAN: Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun.
JEFFREY BROWN: For small children, Veggie Tales, videos with a Christian message. For teens, magazines that ask, are you dating a godly guy?
And for 20-somethings, Relevant Media — founded by a young entrepreneur named Cameron Strang.
JEFFREY BROWN: One thing I noticed, you don’t look like most of the people here, you have earrings for one thing.
CAMERON STRANG, Relevant Media: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: What’s going on?
CAMERON STRANG: I’m 28, and we are making media for us. My whole staff is in their 20s and we all love God and we’re Christians, and we want to impact culture and impact our generation with that that message.
So we are who we’re trying to reach. We don’t formally fit into the suit and tie mold.
JEFFREY BROWN: Strang’s business includes a magazine, and a Web site, all intended to bridge a gap he sees between the organized church and young people filled with questions and ideas.
CAMERON STRANG: The church doesn’t know what to do with that, they kind of freak out because their whole thing of faith is belief so, if you start to ask questions, that’s seen as doubts.
But the thing is that we’re not doubting, we want an authentic faith we’re seeking things, we want a relevant faith, a faith that matters, a faith that’s worth living and dying for.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another clear presence here, major entertainment companies from Time Warner to recording giant EMI who saw a growing market and now have their own religion imprints and labels.
In fact, the boom in Christian entertainment has been tough on many small Christian retailers, once the prime providers of religious books and music. Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly has covered the convention more than a decade.
LYNN GARRETT, Publisher’s Weekly: The book stores are struggling because they are facing competition they never faced before, from the chains, from online sales, from Wal-Mart and K-Mart.
Even ten years ago these books were only sold in Christian book stores, you really didn’t find them anywhere else, now that has changed tremendously.
JEFFREY BROWN: Garrett credits the Left Behind series with opening the door for Christian fiction into general interest book stores, like Barnes and Noble and Borders.
The 12 apocalyptic thrillers based on the book of revelations and other texts have sold more than 60 million copies since the first was published in 1995. Former pastor Tim LaHaye co-authored the series.
TIM LaHAYE, “Left Behind” Series Co-author: There are 81 million born again Christians or evangelical Christians in America, now the media is waking up to the fact that, yes, some of those people listening on the telecast or watching the telecast or reading the newspapers are evangelical Christians and we should address them, whether or not we agree with them is one thing, but at least they’re out there, they’re potential clients.
JEFFREY BROWN: But the commercialization of Christian culture and the scramble for religious tie-ins, diet and exercise books, Harry Potteresque fantasies, and the inevitable how to succeed in business guides, have drawn concern from within the Christian community, even here at the convention.
OS GUINNESS, Evangelical Sociologist: Evangelicalism has lost its way, and one of the problems is a narcciccism, 80 percent of the books here are about I, myself and me. Huge problem of consumerism.
JEFFREY BROWN: Os Guinness is an evangelical author and sociologist.
OS GUNNESS: Many of the publishers here will admit they follow all the trends in the mainstream, they have this goal of relevance. But what they do is pursue relevance in the wrong way and they end up profoundly irrelevant, they’re a copy of the mainstream.
The great theologian in England, Dean Ing, he said he who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.
JEFFREY BROWN: C BA President Anderson sees it differently.
BILL ANDERSON: Well, the economy, the format in which this takes place is certainly commercial, what’s behind that, why do we write this book, why did we write this song, why do make these available.
And there we try to keep that ministry motive out in front of the people reminding them in the picture is much larger and what they’re really trying to do is help people understand the Christian world view on a particular subject that that author has written about.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Christian retailers and writers also know the American cultural wave they’re riding can crash quickly. Jerry Jenkins is co-author of the “Left Behind” books:
JERRY JENKINS: My biggest fear with the success of both our books and the Gibson movie is that we become the flavor of the month.
And then people will follow and imitate, and instead of doing quality work, just do anything with jesus in it or on it and then Hollywood and New York will decide, well, it’s not as popular as mel’s movie or our books, and so the genre is shot and we’re off the table. My hope is that people follow with quality work and that we keep this conversation alive for a long time.
JEFFREY BROWN: For now the boom in Christian entertainment shows no signs of abating, with new works coming soon to a movie theater or book store near you.
JIM LEHRER: In an upcoming second report, Jeff will have an extended conversation with the authors of the “Left Behind” series.