by Bill BoisvertChristianity is providing the popular culture with a lot of good materialthese days, from supernatural soap operas like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"and "Touched by an Angel" to apocalyptic Hollywood thrillers to raffishcritiques like "Dogma." Organized Christianity has been loathe to return thecompliment. The evangelical world makes sporadic, and generally failedattempts to play in the mainstream-the movie version of the bestsellingendtimes novel, "Left Behind" recently went straight to video-but radicalChristians historically tend to view pop culture as a cesspool of blasphemybetter raptured out of altogether.

That attitude is starting to change. The late Bob Briner, a sports-marketingexecutive, sternly challenged Christians in his book "Roaring Lambs" to gobeyond boycotting movies and try to bring a Christian influence to bear byworking with, and even in, pop culture industries. Christian rock bands aremore openly and avidly seek mainstream audiences. Christians working inHollywood have been emboldened to meet to strategize about ways to have agreater effect on what scripts get made and how.

In the oldest Christian trade, the publishing industry, the change has comemore slowly. But now Brazos Press, a new imprint of the revered evangelicalpublisher Baker Books, aims to bring an intellectually sophisticatedChristian perspective to bear on secular culture.

A look at some of Brazos's upcoming titles reveals a surprisingly nuancedconversation between the religious and the secular. Stanley Hauerwas's "ABetter Hope" will "look at the Church in the context of capitalism,democracy and post-modernity," according to Brazos marketing director BobbiJo Heyboer. "Eyes Wide Open," a book of cultural criticism by ChristianReformed author Bill Romanowski, discusses Bruce Springsteen, "ER" as wellas "Titanic" and "The End of the Affair". "Many Christian critics thinkChristian criticism means noting the amount of profanity, sex or violence,"says Romanowski, a professor of communications at Calvin College. But as thetitle indicates, Romanowski wants to get beyond that blinkered approach. "Ihave a section on sex and violence, but also ones on materialism, and genderstereotypes."

According to Editorial Director Rodney Clapp, while there are nodenominational quotas, Brazos expects about a third of their authors to beevangelicals, another third Mainline Protestants and the rest Catholic orEastern Orthodox. But while political and economic views will run the gamutfrom conservative to liberal and even radical, in religious terms they willall be "creedal Christians"--grounded in the creeds of the early churchcouncils.

Clapp admits that, by taking Christian doctrine seriously, Brazos is"running against the grain" of a secular culture that exalts faith butdisparages doctrine as a source of fanaticism and divisiveness. "People areaverse to religion, but more friendly to spirituality, which can be putforth vaguely and amorphously and doesn't seem to disallow anything. But wesee Christianity as a particular kind of spirituality, and indeed religion.We value the expression of religion through the church. We will be aboutpromoting that."

Clapp believes that leaves a "wide circumference" for Christian writers andintellectuals. His own book, "Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses inPopular Culture and Public Affairs," ranges over territory including JohnColtrane, Hank Williams, and "The X-Files."

Clapp points to Coltrane as an example of a cultural icon unfairly shunnedby Christians. "Ten or fifteen years ago, prominent Christian evangelicalcolleges would say 'don't teach jazz in your conservatory of music.' Theyjust want to say jazz is evil." But to Clapp, a jazz figure like Coltrane,whom Christians might dismiss as the Pied Piper of dissolute Beatniks,provides plenty of "grist for the mill" of a Christian critic. "Coltranesaid he hoped eventually to be a saint. He was on a very deep religiouspilgrimage. I don't try to make John Coltrane either into a devil or aMessiah. I ask what questions can a Christian critic bring to his life andmusic."

Some wonder whether any one publisher can stem evangelicals' rejection ofthe wider culture. "There's a great fear of scandal, of being attacked, ofbeing the whipping boy of the next newsletter of some popular Christianleader who points to a book as evidence of decline and apostasy," saysChristian writer Daniel Taylor. Still, Taylor is hopeful about Brazos'sability to forge ahead. "I think if anybody can do it, he can," Taylor saysof his former editor. "He's a very thoughtful guy, and has a vision for howChristianity can and should interact with modern culture."

Culture wars aren't the only pitfall; there's also the issue of marketing.Due to the segmentation of retail bookselling, Christian bookstores have adifficult time selling books on a secular topics, or for mainstreambookstores to sell books with a Christian stance. "Neither side is capableor experienced in [selling such books]," says Intervarsity Press publisherBob Fryling. Mainstream chains, Fryling says, "tend to put anythingpublished by a Christian publisher in the religion section, rather than insociology or science or business," whereas Christian bookstores might passup a cultural studies tome for the latest bestseller by "a popular pastor."

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