"Christian kitsch" or "Jesus junk" has been criticized by high-minded fellow Christians and ridiculed by the non-Christian culture. Despite the criticism, it generates more than $3 billion in revenues annually. Impediments beyond sporadic criticism have remained surprisingly few—even when we've deserved them.
We tend to create our own cultural artifacts by tweaking famous icons from pop culture. In the 1970s we created signs saying "Jesus Christ: He's the real thing" in Coca-Cola lettering. In the late 1980s, we moved on to harder stuff: "Budweiser, King of Beers," became "Be Wiser, King of Kings." Today, usurping from dairy farmers ("Got Jesus?") and Taco Bell ("Yo Quiero Jesus") are the hotter trends. That we have not been sued is amazing.
Actually, one Christian company has. Ty, Inc., makers of the hugely popular Beanie Babies, filed a lawsuit in September against HolyBears, Inc., makers of similarly designed (but Christianized) beanbag animals.
The case is far from black and white, and it is for the courts, not Chrisitanity Today, to decide if HolyBears actually infringe on the copyright of the Beanie Babies. HolyBears do look a lot like their more famous cousins—substituting a Bible on the paw and a wwjd on the chest for a heart on the ear. Then again, Beanie Baby bears and HolyBears look pretty much like teddy bears have since their inception at the turn of the century.
Legal specifics aside, the HolyBears case illustrates our need to have theological and ethical guidelines when it comes to appropriating popular culture for our own ends. Inter acting with popular culture in a Christian manner means more than simply embroidering wwjd on a stuffed bear or deciding to record a Christian swing album because swing music is popular.
Bill Romanowski, professor of communications arts and sciences at Calvin College and author of Pop Culture Wars (InterVarsity, 1996), sees four ways Christians have dealt with popular culture: condemnation, consumption, appropriation, and transformation—with the last being our true calling. "Appropriating culture," taking possession of a cultural trend for "Christian" use, he says, "is imitation rather than actually trying to engage or critique culture. It demeans cultural activity by limiting its purpose to mere ecclesiastical functions."
Like our cover story author, Randall Balmer (see p. 32), Romanowski is skeptical about the Contemporary Christian Music industry in general. "There tends to be this attitude of 'Buy my record and worship God,' where consumption is equated with worship," he says. But neither does he dismiss bands like Jars of Clay—or other "Christian culture" artifacts—out of hand: "I don't want to demean what some people are trying to do, but you have to go into it knowing it's loaded with weaknesses."
One reason Jars of Clay has been so successful, not only in Christian circles but in the culture at large, is because the band pursued originality. The members may claim to be influenced by the Beatles and Radiohead, but they never attempted to be, like some other Christian bands, "a Christian Radiohead." The VeggieTales video series has likewise gained a massive audience because it is creative and surprisingly unlike anything currently offered in secular or Christian stores.
It is neither legally nor ethically justifiable to steal intellectual property from the mainstream culture under the guise of ministry, outreach, or relevancy. So here's to more creativity in the mindset of transforming culture. And let's pursue transformation rather than imitation.
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