Holy box office!

The quest for mammon takes some strange turns as our writer dives into the growing commercialization of Christ

Illustration By Andrew J. Epstein

People magazine, that vast vessel of knowledge and style, declared, because of the box-office smash The Passion of the Christ, that Christianity is not only hot but also sexy. So, as far as media and marketing trends go, “Christian” is the new “Latino.” Yes, Christians are a huge demographic for the people who really worship money to exploit, for box-office, advertising and merchandising purposes. And because of this, many weird entertainment offshoots have emerged, directed entirely at Christians and mirroring their mainstream counterparts.

As you know, The Passion of the Christ was the No. 1 most successful movie at the box office this year so far (well surpassing Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed). It’s close to grossing a heavenly billion dollars. Yet, I don’t know a single damned person who’s seen the movie. Who the hell are these people? It just goes to show that Christianity and all things Christian have a huge, untapped consumer base. It makes you think there’s a whole parallel universe out there that many of us don’t know about. The Christian parallel universe is somewhat similar to our universe (after all, it is the free-enterprise system), except in that parallel universe, everything—music, movies and even ventriloquists—are all Christian-bent.

Back in the day, Jesus alone was the only selling point needed to get people hooked on Christ. Now, in this modern age, that’s not good enough. It’s all about marketing, and commercialistic offshoots that are just plain weird/funny (unintentionally) with a hardy dose of irony (again unintentionally), in order to bring Jesus to people in ways we’d never fathom. This weirdness is touched upon in the movie Saved!, which highlights such facets as Christian skateboarding and Christian figure skating.

Just like in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, I shall now set out on a pilgrimage into the heart of darkness that is commercial Christian culture U.S.A., sharing my stories and letting you, my amiable guest, decide over a cup of ale which is the best of these Christian tales.


Once upon a time was a
Dwelling in Davis, California,
Where lived a wealthy lout
Who took in guests
For a Christian-music concert
And charged $32.50 a ticket.
And of his craft the man on stage
Was a hip-hop artist
Who did ghetto-rap hand motions
And spoke in street-slang
All for the Lord.

Onstage in a hall in Davis that’s filled to capacity is the Christian equivalent of Justin Timberlake. He wears a basketball jersey and a twisted baseball cap and does ghetto-rap arm motions while a DJ scratches on the turntables.

“This is from the first book of John, Chapter 1, Verse 5!” spouts Toby Mac, the Christian Justin Timberlake, with his faux street attitude, doing a song from his new CD called Freaks (because he’s so craaaaaazy!).

Huge applause. Huge screams. The DJ scratches. Toby Mac moves with blatant sexuality, making the teenage Christian girls in hip-hugger jeans shriek with the kind of excitement they most certainly will have to repress in the eyes of God.

There’s a lot of emphasis put on getting everyone to clap their hands in the air (like they just don’t care!). His energetic band kicks into some hip-hop. At one point, the Christian Justin Timberlake does a flip off of a speaker (I guess to drive home the point of the first book of John, Chapter 1, Verse 5). It’s a big production, with large video monitors on each side of the stage capturing various close-ups of the Christian Justin Timberlake (he must get sooooo much Christian booty). This is just like some weird scenario from The Simpsons—but without irony. It’s like ’NSync gone God-crazy. And this is just the warm-up act.

Who are these people in the audience? Where did they come from to see two bands I have never, ever heard of in my whole entire life? Sponsored by K-LOVE radio, this musical Jesus-fest might be close to being sold out. Yes, the place is packed—the whole entire UC Davis Activities and Recreation Center. Upper and lower levels (not to mention the floor). This is Christian parent-approved music. You can almost imagine the parental unit lecturing, “I won’t allow you to listen to Backstreet Boys, but I do allow you to listen to Toby Mac.” It’s like having to buy the Wal-Mart knockoff version of Nikes (Wikes?).

These people know all the words to all the hip-hop songs for the Lord. They’re singing along. (Where am I?) The crowd is white and very white. People are well-scrubbed, smiling, in button-down shirts, with big hair and of all ages. For some reason, there are a lot of people here with glasses. These are the sons and daughters of people that put born-again George W. Bush in office. These are the people who thought Al Gore tried to steal the last election. There’s a slight feeling of tense repression. Yes, this is Bush’s sterile America.

“Take us to church one time!” the Christian Justin Timberlake commands his dreadlocked bass player, who gets “funky.” There’s thunderous applause and a display of lasers and lights. They mix up the set with covers of ’70s funk songs to get the crowd going, and when the crowd least expects it, they cunningly slip in the Jesus.

Photo By Gregg Matthews

“Thanks for praising God with us in a different sort of way!” shouts the Christian Justin Timberlake with his fist in the air, praising the same Jesus that is found by serial killers while in prison.

Between acts, hoards of fans fork over handfuls of cash to buy the tie-in Christian-music merchandise, at prices that are not very Christian-like on the wallet. A T-shirt of Toby Mac doing a gangsta pose costs $25. A huge line careens around the corner for the “Toby Mac Experience” autographed posters ($5). My concert ticket cost me $32.50.

Like many a porno actor, Christian musicians still must have the driving goal of wanting to cross over to a mainstream music audience. Yes, having a No. 1 Christian album is like being the No. 1 band in Finland, but outside the circle of Finnish people, no on else really knows who you are. Except that this is much bigger than Finland, for the Christian army stretches far and beyond.

The headlining band is called Third Day. I think it’s named that because something significant involving Jesus must have happened on a third day. These guys have been around for 11 years and have seven albums out (including Offerings: A Worship Album and Offerings II: All I Have to Give), and yet I have never for the life of me heard of them until tonight.

With their indie-rock guitar sound, Third Day’s mainstream counterpart would be hard-drinking, Jack Daniel’s-swilling good old boys. But this is the parallel universe of Christians, and they, in turn, are only swilling the Jesus.

The band has a rabid following, and the crowd screams wildly. Sons smile at dads. It’s music you can clap along to while swinging your hips and occasionally bending your knees. At least, that’s what this crowd is doing. The lead singer looks just like Jesus (if Jesus had a short haircut and played indie-rock).

“Are you ready to rock?!” asks Rock Jesus. “This is a new single for you called ‘I Believe’!”

I soon learn that what the band members believe in is, well, love. Yes, that’s what they believe in. Go figure. To be brutally honest, Third Day’s music is crap. At times, it sounds like guitar-driven, watered-down Pearl Jam. The lyrics are a pure cliché fest.

There’s a song about climbing the highest mountain. On the ballad “Wire,” the subtle video shows a man in a suit walking across a tightrope over a large city. Yes, very subtle—not to mention metaphorical. Some of the fans put their hands up in the air, stick-’em-up style in order to channel the Jesus. People are having a spiritual experience here, much like mullet heads would have a different kind of spiritual experience at an AC/DC concert after doing several tabs of blotter acid.

As the band breaks into what I assume is one of its “hits,” the crowd goes even more wild. The next song is about believing—this time not in love, but in Jesus.

“I believe! I believe! I believe!” rings the chorus, emoted by Rock Jesus, as the guitarist, wearing a cowboy hat, does classic cock-rock poses.

Then Christian Justin Timberlake is brought back out onstage. (Hurrah! I like the Christian Justin Timberlake!) Again, he tries to act all street-like in his very white, Christian way.

“What’s going on?!” he asks the screaming crowd.

The Christian Justin Timberlake and Rock Jesus do a big power Christian rock-rap finale: “I got a message! I got a song! Everybody help me sing along!”

There’s nothing like a packed arena full of Christians wanting an encore (or Second Coming). Watching this concert is becoming like some weird David Blaine endurance test. I can’t take any more as Rock Jesus comes back out and does a rock song called “Hallelujah.”

Toby Mac—like ’NSync gone God-crazy.

“Sing, ‘Hallelujah,’” requests Rock Jesus.

Yes, hallelujah indeed. That’s what I’ll be singing when I start running from the building toward my car.


Once upon a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was an actor whose name was Mel Gibson.
Lethal Weapon fame, he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a
Conqueror of box-office hits
That greater was there not beneath the sun,
Especially his film about bloody Jesus,
Which put all the violence in three previous
Lethal Weapon movies to shame.

I come across this ad on Craigslist. It’s an acting audition for a movie of a new genre—Christian sci-fi: “'Gravity: Episode I The Shadow of Joseph’ is a science fiction action adventure film with Biblical undertones. It’s a ‘Star Wars’ meets ‘The 10 Commandments.’ Set in the year 3000 A.D. This is a project of epic proportions considered by some to be the most auspicious Christian film ever attempted and may change the future of the epic film. We pray before every shoot and believe God will anoint the actors with performances that will stun theatrical audiences.”

A phone is reached for. A number is called. Information is needed. Maybe this is the next major The Passion of the Christ-level blockbuster, or maybe it will do for Christians what Battlefield Earth did for Scientologists?!

I get through to Richard Gazowsky, the director. The script for Gravity: Episode I was written by him and his wife and is the first theatrical release for his production company, Christian WYSIWYG Filmworks. The principal photography will begin in February 2005 and will be adventurously done in Turkey, Iceland, Italy, Malta, Algeria and Alaska and on a 144,000-square-foot soundstage on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, which the company is going to rent for eight months. With the whole thing financed by private investors, it sounds like big Christian money is behind Gravity: Episode I.

“Mel Gibson ushered in the golden age of Christian films!” Gazowsky explains, adding that The Passion really stoked the fire for this movie genre. Gazowsky’s film vision is huge. He plans to shoot it on 70 mm film and have a release for IMAX first.

Every film industry needs a Hollywood, and Gazowsky would like to think the new one is in the Bay Area, for such big boys as Pixar Animation Studios, Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Ranch now operate there. And Gazowsky says all have been rumbling about Christian-based cinematic delights in order to get on the Jesus train.

“The Christian film industry is really just a newborn baby,” Gazowsky says. “I’ve seen some of the footage, and it’s some pretty hot stuff.”

Gazowsky personally feels that the companies themselves will not directly take part in the new wave of Christian cinema, for the bureaucracy of a company with thousands of employees is too entrenched to allow that to happen. “If you notice any revolution in filming, it’s always happened outside of the big companies,” he says.

Gazowsky sounds like a philosophically Christian version of Melvin Van Peebles. “You know, Mel Gibson had to go out of the box. We have chosen to go out of the box. Though we have offers from some of the major film companies [Paramount], we’ve chosen not to because we need the freedom outside of the box,” he says.

Not every schmo with a camera can just go out and cash in on the Christian invasion as if it were just another formulaic genre like teen sex comedies. Gazowsky explains to me how to go out of the box and correctly make a Christian movie; it takes a keen insider’s knowledge to get Christians to fork over handfuls of dollars at the box office.

“Mel Gibson knew the core of Christians, this huge massive block of Christians, who have got disposable income. Usually, they don’t smoke, drink, go to clubs, so they’ve got money to go to the theater big time. For example, when we went to go see it, our local congregation, we bought the whole theater. We were buying blocks of theaters and showing it to all our friends. Do you get the idea?” he says.

According to Gazowsky, there are certain story lines that really turn a Christian’s crank. And when it comes to comedy, there are specific things that will make Christians chuckle. “Like, they laugh at the silliness of the church. They think it’s very funny,” he says.

Rocking in a parallel world: Third Day provides an indie-rock sound in a spiritual context.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are certain things in a Christian film that Christians don’t laugh at. They never laugh at the sacred aspects of the church, or the use of the name of Jesus in vain. So, a filmmaker has to understand what Christians call “spiritual innuendoes.” (Coincidentally, Christians also don’t laugh at Carrot Top, because everyone, no matter what religion they are, hates him.)

There’s also certain content that Christian movie buffs just won’t stomach, that just will stop their crank. “I did a test for an early film we shot, called Guardians. In that film, I did a nude scene between a husband and a wife,” Gazowsky says. Gazowsky’s attempt at pushing the Christian film envelope went over like a sandwich at a supermodel convention.

Though it was supposed to be a touching moment in which a wife reveals to her husband that she has breast cancer, it still went too far for Christian standards.

“It did not work,” he says. “I wanted to know as a filmmaker if it would work, so I brought it in, we did a test screening, and people said, ‘Ah, why did you do that? Why did you have the gall to even attempt that?’ But I needed to know. These are areas you don’t go!”

This is not to say that Christians don’t love a little sexiness, for they do, but it’s got to be Christian-style—and not gratuitous in the eyes of J.C.

“It’s very similar to Bollywood. Now, for a girl to look sexy, that sort of thing is cool. But it can’t go over that edge. I can’t describe that edge, but you know it when you see it,” he says.

And there’s a big difference between a Christian film shoot and other shoots. “We pray before we do things. Like Mel Gibson, we invite God on the set, and we’re family-oriented. When we go on location, when one member of the family goes, the whole family goes,” Gazowsky says.

So, what the hell is the film Gravity: Episode I all about anyway?

“It’s the story of Joseph set in the year 3000 with a futuristic, apocalyptic view. So, it’s in the future after a long nuclear ice age. It’s a medieval-type story in the future,” he says. He goes on to explain his mad Christian sci-fi vision of an Earth after a huge nuclear catastrophe, when global warming takes place and then the Earth freezes. Then, Christians’ favorite villain, Satan, is let loose at the end of a thousand years of peace. All the while, the story of Joseph takes place in the midst of this post-apocalyptic mayhem. Explaining the executive decision to go sci-fi, Gazowsky says, “There’s been many biblical stories done about the past, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do a biblical story about the future?’” He adds that it will have to be filmed in an icebox at 18 degrees to authentically recreate the habitat, being that the characters live underground in an ice-type place.

The biggest Christian sci-fi movie to date is the 1999 film The Omega Code. Ancient codes hidden within the Torah reveal the secrets of global events past (i.e. Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Gulf War), present and future. One man is after the code, seeking the power to change the world as we know it—for the worse. Another seeks the truth, risking his life and everything he stands for in order to stop the other man. Look out!

Made for $7 million and viewed almost entirely by Christians, this flick starred Michael York (from the Austin Powers movies) as Stone Alexander, and Casper Van Dien (from Starship Troopers) as Gillen Lane. On the film’s Web site, The Omega Code has been billed by its creators as “The #1 Hit Movie.” Yet, it doesn’t appear as such on any movie sales list. Huh? Maybe this is because churches and Christian organizations purchased blocks of tickets before the movie was even released, to help ensure its success as a protest about the level of sex and violence in mainstream movies. Thanks to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, they made a film with Christian themes and values and wrapped them all together in a very unsatisfying movie as their protest song.

Here’s what was claimed about the cinematic prowess of The Omega Code on The 700 Club: “It’s easy. As a Christian, you can get a neighbor or unsaved person into a theater; they may never darken the door of a church, but you can get them into a movie theater. We’re hoping that Christians will use this as a witnessing tool.”

The Omega Code has a lot in common with The Judas Project, another Christian-themed movie released in 1990. Though both had good intentions, numerous Web sites claim they both are very boring and hard to sit through, perhaps because if you take out sex and violence and Christianize something, then yes, you’re left with nothing but boredom—a major obstacle for Christian filmmakers.

Like the Star Wars movies, Gazowsky’s dream seems to be Gravity I, II, III and IV (and perhaps a few Christian prequels thrown in for good measure). “Yeah, there will be a franchise out of it. We’ve already written the stories of the franchise. We wrote this years ago, so it’s been in development for five years,” he says.

And, like all other Christians in the entertainment industry, Richard’s sights are set on the mainstream: “Any mainstream person would enjoy the film no matter what their religious beliefs. Our film, the thrust of the story, is about a young man who loses his family and then gains it back. You don’t have to believe in God to want your family back together. And what we’ve done, we’ve chosen the science-fiction genre because it’s cool. You know what I mean—for the cool factor.”

Sweet Mary and Joseph! A Christian film company wants to blend <i>Star Wars</i> with <i>The</i> <i>Ten Commandments</i>.

Illustration By Andrew J. Epstein


“Ha, ha!” laughed the
Entertainer from San Diego,
“By Christ’s great suffering,
Now let’s spread his word
Through a wooden puppet
That sits upon one’s knee.”

Yes, they spread the word of the Lord without moving their lips, while wooden dummies sit on their knees speaking about Jesus. Is there anything more ridiculous than Christian ventriloquism? It’s the International Festival of Christian Puppetry and Ventriloquism in San Diego. Not only does this event actually exist, but also there are enough Christian ventriloquists in our country to make it a sold-out event. The convention’s motto: “His Plans … Our Hands!”

The main convention showroom is filled with a multitude of booths, wooden dummies and other paraphernalia, where people swap Christian ventriloquist tips.

“I would recommend this book here, Church Chuckles,” suggests a smiley man with uncomfortably strong eye contact. He holds a Christian ventriloquist script book filled with religious and laugh-provoking routines for every holy occasion. Here’s a sample of the zany Christian ventriloquist dialogue to hone with your wooden dummy, concerning themes of salvation, witnessing and obedience. Remember: God will strike you dead if you move your lips!

VENTRILOQUIST: Christianity has been studied and practiced for over 2,000 years.

WOODEN DUMMY: Wow! Somehow, I feel it’s been studied more than it’s been practiced.

VENTILOQUIST: Let’s pray people will keep practicing until they get it perfect!


A crowd of mostly overweight people is assembled in a large conference room for the art of spiritual ventriloquism. First, a clean-cut ventriloquist puts his dummy in a box and has him sing muffled songs about the Lord. Another ventriloquist pulls out a shy little tiger hand puppet.

“Toby, these are our friends. Do you know what we all have in common?”

The puppet whispers in his ear. The ventriloquist smirks.

“That right, Toby. We all love Jesus Christ.”

The headlining act is a smiley, well-groomed man and his delightful parade of Christian ventriloquist dummies. He brings out a wisecracking bug-eyed dummy named Dexter. We’re told Dexter teaches about Abraham and sacrifice.

The revelatory nature of this mediocre movie was used to convert viewers into Christians.

The act starts with typical, really bad, hacky ventriloquist banter:

“Dexter, you’ve got to remember: Without me, you don’t talk.”

“Well, without me, you don’t eat!”


Then it gets weirdly serious. The whole tone of the room changes. The ventriloquist removes his hand from Dexter’s back. The dummy’s now motionless. The ventriloquist preaches directly to his wooden puppet.

“See, Dexter. You thought you didn’t need me. Just like sometimes we think we don’t need … Jesus Christ!”

What a cunning plot this is to get kids hooked on Jesus through the annoying art of ventriloquism. Because, as we all know, the only thing kids today love more than Christ is ventriloquism, right?

Then the power of the Lord kicks in.

“If we say ‘yes’ to Jesus,” lectures the man to his doll, “he reaches his hand into our life and breathes his breath upon us.”

“I hope he doesn’t have bad breath,” blurts the newly resurrected dummy.


We the audience are simply delighted as we laugh and learn about Christ through the wooden mouth of a puppet.

It’s disappointing the dummy doesn’t suddenly snap and start venomously screaming, “HAIL SATAN! HAIL SATAN! HAIL SATAN!”

Instead, the show ends with a big song. As the music builds, the wooden dummy filled with holy bliss rolls his eyes and proclaims, “Don’t be a dummy like Dexter. Say ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ!”

Amen, oh little wooden friend. Amen!


Now do I pray all those who
Hear this little treatise, or read it,
That, if there be within it anything that
Pleases them, they thank our
Lord Jesus Christ, from whom proceeds
All understanding and all
Goodness and happens to be also a
Great entertainment vehicle for
Hip-hop, sci-fi movies and ventriloquism,
Not to mention big cash dollars.
And if there be anything that
Displeases them, I pray them, also,
That they impute it to the
Fault of my ignorance
And not to my intention,
Which is to someday start a
Christian punk band called
“The No Sex Before Marriage Pistols.”