As a teenager in the 1980s, I was in the midst of the booming Evangelical movement in Florida. Just as I began to become more and more interested in music, the church that I was attending was often pressuring me to get rid of my “secular” music. Contemporary Christian music was just beginning to take off, so we were often told that for every band that we liked hearing on the radio, we could find one that sounded just like it in the Bible Bookstore.
In fact, when I would visit the bookstore, there were often buying guides, or comparison charts, instructing the customer that if she liked one certain band that got regular radio time, then she would love this particular Christian alternative.
That was the strange world of consumer-driven Christianity in which my faith was formed. I was taught that nothing spiritual could be found in the “world.” Everything needed to be marketed and packaged with a Christian label so it would be safe for Christian consumption. There was a deep dividing line between the secular and the sacred. The Christian musicians were encouraged to imitate the musical style of what they heard on the radio, but Evangelical teenagers were rallied to burn our “worldly” records and tapes.
I would go to concerts, and it was comforting to be there, alongside so many Christian teenagers who were just as excited as I was. The musicians often preached homilies between their songs, inviting us to ask Jesus into our hearts and encouraging us to buy more albums. Sometimes, if you responded to the “altar” call and accepted Jesus into your heart, you could go backstage, and have a polaroid take with a cardboard cutout of the Christian rock star. Then, you would tape it to the wall, next to all of the other teens who did the same.
If they were written down, we would have had volumes of urban legends dedicated to the evils of secular rock music. We were told about “backmasking,” how bands were trying to brainwash us with hidden messages, and if we played our records backwards, we could hear how they were subliminally encouraging us to worship Satan. Heavy metal bands were linked to Hitler.
And, there were a myriad of stories to scare us about AIDS (as if we needed anything else to scare us about AIDS!), usually by telling us about one of their fans who got carried away in romance, slept with a guy, and was greeted the next morning with a small black box, with a coffin charm and the words, “Welcome to the world of AIDS.”
Christians had alternative rock music, romance novels, business books, radio stations, television shows, children’s cartoons, women’s magazines, stationery sets, sport shirts, and breath mints. If there was any secular product, then it would have a Christian counterpart—a slightly sub-standard replica of the same item, which would most certainly be mutated with a pastel coating, and complete with a Scripture verse stamped on it somewhere.
It was not that Christian artists were all bad, but they were often laboring under extremely difficult constraints. Writers, musicians, and painters were not allowed much creativity in the process. They were under considerable pressure from the industry to keep their music or their writing trendy, but free from anything that might be questioned. They had to make sure that they always had a clear religious message. Songs about depression or even ordinary life were not tolerated unless they were quickly wrapped up with a “Jesus will make it all better” chorus. Musicians could easily be dropped from their labels if they did not play under the strict rules of the game.
As these bookstores were beginning to take up important and expensive real estate in our malls, the products were sometimes of higher price and lower quality. The rapidly expanding industry had to have a strong marketing strategy to build up their products among the competition, so they cultivated a clear message: the products of the world are bad and dangerous; they cannot be trusted. Christians must turn their backs on the secular and buy into the religious. Deep dividing lines between the secular and religious, the body and the soul, the material and the spiritual were set up. We were to shun the former and embrace the latter.
I wonder what effect all of this religious marketing will had on a new generation of Christians. I wonder what it did to us, to be told that cheap replicas are sacred. I guess as I look back, I’m not surprised that a new generation of young adults have left the church. But, I wonder how we can reach out to them now.
photo by Dan Lyle