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Religion Enters Media Mainstream

Big Public Response to Christian Message

NEW YORK, JUNE 4, 2006 (Zenit) - Demand for religious content in the media continues to grow. This can have its downside, as "The Da Vinci Code" and the "Gospel of Judas" demonstrated. But it also means that doors are opening up for Christians who want to get their message across.

Domestic sales of religious products in the United States are likely to reach $9.5 billion by 2010, the New York Times reported April 26. The estimate comes from market research publisher Packaged Facts. In addition to the film market, sales of Christian-oriented books, music, video games and computer software are increasing.

Television is also opening up to religious programs. On May 21 the British newspaper Observer reported that the BBC is putting the finishing touches to a project that will depict the life of Jesus and the events leading up to his crucifixion. Scheduled for Holy Week in 2008, it will consist of a series of nightly programs in a drama-style format.

The article also commented on the recent annual awards for religious television programs, held in Lambeth Palace, the seat of the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury. The head of the judging panel, Jane Drabble, a former BBC executive, expressed her surprise at the good quality of the contestants.

The winner was "A Test of Faith," from the channel ITV. It reported on reactions from those affected by the London terrorist bombings of last July 7. The runner-up was an experimental series, "Priest Idol," shown in prime time by Channel 4. It chronicled the efforts of Anglican priest James McCaskill in trying to revive a dying parish. "The Monastery," a reality-type show that followed the experiences of five men who spent 40 days in an abbey, won a merit award. The program attracted 2.5 million viewers, and a sequel is being planned.

Reality shows

On May 22 another British paper, the Independent, also reflected on the popularity of reality-type religious programs. June will see "The Convent," from BBC2. It will follow the experience of four women as they spend six weeks in a community of nuns. June will also see Channel 4 transmit "Six Feet Under: The Muslim Way," about a London-based Muslim funeral service.

The Independent observed that in order to attract the attention of a new generation, religion needs to entertain. And the human-interest angle typical of reality television shows is one way to do this.

The reality format for religion is also taking off in the United States. "God or the Girl," a five-part series started on Easter Sunday, broadcast on A&E Television. The four protagonists had to decide whether to enter the seminary or to opt for marriage.

A U.S. version of the British show "The Monastery" is also in preparation, and set to screen this fall in 10 parts on the Learning Channel. Five men and five women from a variety of backgrounds are depicted as they spend 40 days in a monastery, the Boston Globe reported April 11.

The men lived from early February to mid-March at the Monastery of Christ, located north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The women spent time at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey on a farm near Dubuque, Iowa, from December to early February.

"We're interested in exploring how people like us can live a good and purposeful life and what the 1,500-year-old monastic tradition can teach modern people," explained the producer, Sarah Woodford.

Publishing boom

In the print sector a wave of religious books is hitting the stores, Reuters reported March 28.

Authors are anxious to ride the coattails of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Offerings include Michael Baigent's "The Jesus Papers," which denies Christ died on the cross. Books criticizing Brown are also enjoying success; Erwin Lutzer, an evangelical minister, has sold 300,000 copies of his "The Da Vinci Deception."

Other books include "Divine," a parable about a modern Magdalene figure, by Karen Kingsbury, described as a Christian fiction writer. Her books have sold more than 4 million copies, according to Reuters. And Bart Ehrman will be coming out with "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene." The book looks at some of the issues raised by Brown, and denies there is evidence of any marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

On a lighter note, religious comic books are also selling well. The London-based Telegraph newspaper on March 26 reported on a project to turn the lives of the saints into comic books. It's part of an effort to attract young people to the Catholic Church.

The comics are published by Arcadius Press, of Springfield, Missouri. The series will be launched in Britain later this year, and the plan is to issue four comic books a month.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, a comic book version, in a number of installments, of the New Testament is being published, reported the South China Morning Post on May 21. Apeiron Production Company was commissioned to publish the text by Australian-based property developer Larry Lee Siu-kee.

Lee said he was spurred to do it after the recent publication of what he called falsehoods. "By stating their stories as fact, like in 'The Da Vinci Code,' they are poison for young people, many of whom will think it is real," he explained. Lee said that the 6,000 copies of the first installment have been flying off the shelves, prompting him to print a further 20,000 copies.


From print to the electronic media. The best-selling series of apocalyptic "Left Behind" books is now being converted into a video game, the Los Angeles Times reported May 10. The game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," made its debut at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, in Los Angeles.

It was not alone. Another producer was marketing games based on the "Veggie Tales" series of Christian videos for children. And another was pushing "Bibleman: A Fight for Faith," reported about a superhero who stands up for the word of God.

Christian-inspired video games still have a long way to go, according to the Los Angeles Times. One of the best-selling Christian based video games, "Catechumen," produced by the San Diego-based Christian Game Developers Foundation, has sold 80,000 copies since 1999. This falls far short of such successes as the 5.1 million copies of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

Other initiatives to get the religious message across include a satellite radio station for New York City. The Catholic archdiocese there recently announced a venture with Sirius Satellite Radio to establish a channel, the New York Times reported May 11. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the channel is scheduled to begin this fall.

The article noted that of the 17,000 licensed terrestrial radio stations in the United States, 1,700 are Protestant or evangelical Christian in nature, but just 130 are Catholic. According to Stephen Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association, the number of Catholic stations has been growing by about one station a month.

The Church celebrated World Communications Day last Sunday. In his message for the occasion, dated Jan. 24, Benedict XVI urged the media to "contribute constructively to the propagation of all that is good and true" (No. 2).

The Pope also noted that Christians are called to share God's message with others. This call stems from recognition of Christ's dynamic force within us, "which then seeks to spread outward to others, so that his love can truly become the prevalent measure of the world" (No. 1). A force that is increasingly finding an outlet in the media.


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