Friday, 1 May 2015

Christian Media Industry

I consider this blog to be one largely about current events and popular culture, but occasionally I like to write about religion (or, let's be honest, Christianity). Don't worry - I'm not going to use this blog to try to shove the Bible down anyone's throats, because I know that I HATE getting preached to. In fact, today's post isn't so much about the Christian religion itself, as it is about the chaff that surrounds the Christian community. I have touched on my thoughts on the Christian music industry in the past with my post on Ozzy Osbourne, but this post will expand on that to cover my thoughts on the entire Christian media industry.

First, I'll lay a little groundwork on how businesses can compete with each other, to provide a context for what the Christian industry is and how it operates. The most visible and familiar kind of business is the one which is directed at the mass audience. This category would include stores like Wal-Mart (easily the best exemplar of this principle), major blockbuster films, pop musicians, etc. These kinds of businesses tend to have high overheads, but because their appeal is so wide, the potential for profit can be extremely high if they can capture that mass audience. This also means that their services and marketing will be tailored towards the lowest common denominator.


Attempting to compete with a mass market provider means that you're going to have to go all-out, because if you can't offer service as well as your competition, then you're going to get left in the dust. The obvious example here is the mom-and-pop stores that Wal-Mart just annihilates when it moves into an area. However, it also applies to other big chains, such as Blockbuster. Another great example of this is Target, which recently was involved in a sudden and high-profile bankruptcy in Canada. They made an aggressive expansion into the country, opening around 150 locations and spending billions to get a major foothold. However, this was still not enough to allow it to compete with the Wal-Marts and other retail chains present in the country (not to mention that their service here was distinctly worse).

So what is a small business supposed to do to try to compete with the Wal-Marts of the world? The solution to this problem is actually quite simple and becoming increasingly popular: ignore the mass market, and focus all your efforts on marketing to a niche audience and foster brand loyalty. Some good examples of this philosophy would be vinyl record or health food stores, metal bands, low budget horror movies, etc. The thought process behind this approach is that there are a practically unlimited number of niches out there which the mass market cannot cater towards, so by providing their specialized service, they basically eliminate the need to compete with the mass marketers. In addition, there is a smaller overhead compared to the mass marketers, the individuals in the audience will typically spend more money than the individuals in a mass audience, and it increases the likelihood of repeat purchases and brand loyalty.


In case it wasn't obvious, the Christian entertainment industries are in the niche market category and live or die by these principles. This can probably best be evidenced by how the money spent on Christian media seems to be tied into their rate of success (in order of their prominence, Christian media is dominated first by books/magazines, then music, then movies and finally video games being by far the weakest of the lot). This highlights the first issue I have with Christian media, and that's the ethics of it. One of the more famous passages in the gospels is when Jesus comes to the Jewish temple and sees people selling sacrifices and creating booths for money changers (people who exchange currency basically, and who almost certainly would have been charging for this service). He drives them out in anger, claiming that they have turned God's residence into a den of robbers. I'm torn on this particular issue. At its basis, the Christian media industry is either commodifying worship and teaching, or it is cynically preying on Christians' beliefs to sell a product that wouldn't be able to stand on its own otherwise. However, at the same time, this is how our society works. If we did not pay Christian artists for their work, then they wouldn't be able to make a living (and for most Christian artists, it's a modest living at that)... with that in mind, I think the bigger ethical issue is the use of the "Christian" label in the use of marketing them, especially when it is used in a particularly cynical manner. While there are obviously a lot of people within the industry who are actually looking to enrich the Christian faith, I think it's fair enough to state that the primary drive of the Christian industry is to market products and make money.


Also, before I go any further, I really want to stress that I am by no means making a blanket statement that artists in the Christian industry suck or are worse than the mainstream media (except for the Christian film and video game industries, which just plain suck in general due to a lack of funding and talent, or because they are produced by "Christian" subsidiaries of major companies in order to make a quick and cynical buck). There are many who are extremely talented, but whose lyrical/writing focus does not appeal to a mass market, or because they have been trapped in the Christian label (which I will also cover soon). I should also mention that I believe that Christians probably have a disproportionately high number of talented musicians and singers, because the church system tends to foster and provide access these talents due to choirs, youth bands, worship services, etc. In contrast, someone growing up outside the church would have to find these talents through school, extra-curricular activities and adult encouragement - obviously not impossible by any means, but there's just less access and fostering.


While the niche market approach may be what is keeping the Christian industry alive, it is also a major weakness in many ways. Probably the most obvious reason is because many Christian artists actually want to reach out to the broader culture, but their message doesn't get the needed reach. This is because of prejudice towards Christian media in general, but also because the Christian industry only really caters towards the Christian market, leaving any further promotion for the aritsts to deal with themselves, or for the consumers to create word-of-mouth. In Christian music especially, when an artist does cross over into the mainstream, the Christian label continues to haunt them. Anberlin, Switchfoot, P.O.D. (especially), and countless other bands that have crossed over have been stuck forever with the label of "Christian" rock, which always remains a part of the dialogue surrounding them. As I Lay Dying has perhaps the most extreme example of this problem, as their lead singer, Tim Lambesis, ended up slowly finding himself renouncing Christianity. However, he was the head of a Christian band during this whole process, and he couldn't exactly turn away from his Christian audience, or he would lose a huge portion of his audience. He ended up sticking around and pretending to still be devout, until he tried to have his wife killed, at which point all of this came to light. Of course, this led to the inevitable retroactive questions of "Can we really consider As I Lay Dying to be Christian anymore?", even though Lambesis was the only member who had recanted.

Moving beyond these thoughts and onto more personal concerns, I have been wondering recently why it seems like the Christian industry seems to cater towards conservative Evangelicalism*. This should seem quite strange, since Catholicism remains the largest Christian denomination worldwide, with an estimated 1.2 billion adherents. I have come up with a few probable explanations to this question. For one thing, the USA is a cultural juggernaut and is the source of most of the Christian media. Of course, socially conservative Protestantism is the majority in the States, and so the producers will naturally cater towards their own understanding of Christianity (hell, as someone who grew up in an Evangelical church, I wouldn't even be surprised if many of them were only dimly aware of other Christian traditions, or didn't bother to acknowledge them with any legitimacy). Beyond that though, the majority of Catholics are based in Latin America and Africa, and which don't tend to be priority markets. Another possible explanation is that the Christian media industries' emergence as something distinct from the rest of culture correlates with the rise of Christian revival movements in the 60s-80s, such as the so-called "Moral Majority", and the growing political power of right-wing evangelicals starting in the Reagan era. Naturally, this sudden surge to prominence and growing political important would require the market to cater towards them, and for the artists amongst them to express their faith to others.


It seems to me though that it makes sense for the Christian industry to market towards the social Evangelicals from a purely-economic mindset. A socially conservative Christian is more likely to consume Christian media, since they will be more opposed to mainstream culture than a mainline, Progressive or a Catholic. This, unfortunately, creates a bit of an evangelical monopoly in Christian popular culture though, which can have some serious problems... I can't be the only person who grew up in an Evangelical church, consuming their media, and believing that they were the only ones who were doing things the "proper" way.

If it wasn't obvious, this virtual monopoly means that, in North America at least, the conservative evangelicals control most of the dialogue on what is and isn't "Christian". It scares me when this gets applied to platforms like RightNow Media, which is obviously seeking to be the Netflix of the Christian media industry. If it succeeds in this regard, then the market will become even more monopolized. What are they going to allow/disallow as the gatekeepers of this content? Are they going to decide that it's only "Christian" to teach young-earth creationism and leave no room for alternate interpretations (and then suffer the inevitable backlash from conservative evangelicals boycotting them if they do not)? Do they let people on who promote Islamophobia in the name of Christianity? Where is the cut-off line, and how is it determined? This isn't just me seeing

When I was attempting to write my first novel**, I really had to sit down and decide if I was going to market myself towards the Christian industry or if I would risk going for something more mainstream. In the end, I figured I had a better chance of success if I went for the Christian market, but this affected the writing process somewhat: I had to exercise some self-censorship, mostly in regards to swearing and throwing in some arbitrary Bible allusions. The funny thing though is that either way, I'm still a Christian who wrote a book, so isn't it more than a little arbitrary that it's only considered a "Christian" work if I submit myself to the market gatekeepers' standards?


...and as great as that last paragraph would have been to end this one, I can't write about the Christian media industry without spewing vitrol about perhaps the most cynical corner of it: the prophecy industry. Christian bookstores dedicate multiple shelves to hundreds of books claiming to interpret the many vague prophies in the Bible, predicting what is going to happen in the "end times" and how current events tie into this. Spoiler alert: they're all routinely bullshit. The people who write these books tend to be either misguided/short-sighted Bible scholars, cynics looking to make easy money by saying whatever they want to without having to have any accountability if it ends up being false, or people who are literally as insane as your average conspiracy theorist.


Let's get this out of the way: it is frankly idiotic to assume that the so-called "end times" will occur in our lifetime. EVERY generation since the birth of Christianity has believed that they were the ones who were going to be present for Jesus' return. I think that the Christians being slain by the Roman Emperors, Martin Luther going to war with the Catholic Church, the troops witnessing the horrors of the first and second World Wars and the even the people living under the threat of nuclear annihilation all had better claims to support this assumption than this generation, and yet it is the Christians living in a rich country with practically no Christian persecution who are screaming the loudest that their time is finally coming. It's little more than human arrogance to believe that the "story" is going to end with us, and thereby contextualize the entire Bible according to our current and limited understanding of the world. For example, at some point during the Cold War, someone decided that the Bible was prophecizing that Russia and Iran would attack Israel based on a reference to a pair of "northern nations" who would do so in Ezekiel and Revelations... oh and what do you know, Russia and Iran happened to be our enemies at the time! With all of the evils that ISIS has been perpetrating for the last year, there is also a renewed sense of Islamophobia which is increasingly being worked into end times narratives (despite the fact that ISIS has been targeting its Muslim neighbours almost exclusively... in fact, I would bet that Israel is actually helping to fund ISIS to attack its enemies).

Anyway, to tie this back into the main thesis of this post, the prophecy industry only is able to exist and shill its toxic bullshit because of the economic realities of the Christian media industry. As a Christian, I enjoy quite a few aspects of the industry (many of my favourite bands are, or were, a part of it, and I quite like some of the authours within it), but I am left conflicted and concerned by the many ethical and ideological issues that plague it. Unfortunately I don't have the answers to these issues, aside from a hope for some gradual cultural shifts... but I sure as hell can complain in the meantime.

*This is based on personal observation, so this might be just personal biases, but I am confident that this is the case. In general, Christian media will be ambiguously non-denominational, but when a denominational bias is intentionally put forth, it seems that the conservative Evangelical position is the most represented of the lot across all media.

**I never finished it, unfortunately. I got almost 40,000 words in before I grew really dissatisfied with it and shelved it. It was a post-apocalyptic road trip story about four people travelling west across the desolation left in the wake of a nuclear war, with the intent of making it more realistic than your average apocalyptic story. It was very much a therapeutic exercise for me at that point in time, dealing with how to love somebody, communism and some abstract religious philosophy. I started conceptualizing it in November 2010, but by the time I got writing it, post-apocalypse stories were already a really tired genre (and a post-apocalyptic road trip was already very much a thing with The Road). Plus, it was a really serious story, and I don't really think I write "seriously" well enough. In addition, The Last of Us basically did the best post-apocalyptic road trip story I've seen, and covered a lot of the themes I was exploring as well, so the basis of the idea has more-or-less been done better than I could have. Finally, and probably most importantly, the personal issues I was tackling at the time have been resolved for quite some time now, so it just doesn't feel relevant to me anymore. Who knows, maybe I'll revisit the incomplete manuscript someday and give it a huge overhaul, but for now I'm going to focus on my efforts elsewhere.

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