Thursday, March 12, 2009

‘Jesus People’ gives Christian music the ‘Spinal Tap’ treatment

The foibles and flaws of Evangelical Christian subculture are hard to miss in the art it produces. Its movies are often forgettable dramas marred by trite plots, two-dimensional characters and unearned moralism. Its contemporary music is often derivative in all the wrong ways, following rather than forging musical styles while writing lyrics which depict the Savior as an object of a high school crush.

Corrupting so many of these attempts at art-making is the spirit-killing willingness of aspiring Christian artists to substitute piety for talent and solid morals for long-practiced craft.

The Christian marketing industry amplifies this failure. Its promoters trumpet how the latest album release will lift one’s soul and how the latest movie will save hundreds of marriages, if not the nation itself. D-list celebrities and almost-famous pastors are sought for endorsements, while the bad art sold deadens its patrons to true beauty and perhaps even true religion.

As Hank Hill observed, these efforts do not make Christianity better, but rather make movies and music much, much worse.

“Jesus People,” the product of Hollywood Christians, aspires to exploit this parody-ripe phenomenon.

Available in several webisodes and an upcoming full-length movie, “Jesus People” follows the Evangelical habit of aping successful moviemaking.

But in this case, “Jesus People” apes the mockumentarian spirit pioneered by “This is Spinal Tap.”

The series’ initial webisodes follow the new Christian band “Cross my Heart” and its four members: the once disgraced Christian pop music star, the self-righteous young prig, the token black singer who conceals his “impure” past, and the novice Christian woman who has cracked open more beer bottles than Bibles.

The band is produced by a portly megachurch pastor reminiscent of a goateed Rick Warren. He has already entered the culture industry with his book “The Jesus Diet.”

Even for viewers like me who are outside the borders of Evangelical subculture, the real life targets of satire are recognizable enough: the shriveled first idea of a brainstorm session being treated as divine inspiration; the friends of the pastor being allowed to inflict their ramshackle production values on the untested band and the uncaring world; the twin goals of evangelization and mass marketing fusing in a dumbfounding chimera of good intentions and crud.

Some endearing brief subtleties also make “Jesus People” worthwhile, such as the pastor’s enthusiastic admiration for U2’s Bono, a sly reference to the clichéd “wheat field at harvest time” imagery of Christian music videos and a “famous Christian” author’s desperate poorly-concealed attempt to sell her book to the camera.

While the film displays a judicious cynicism, its actors ably convey that earnestness which makes for horrible art but also powers sincere contrition, prayer and charity.

The webisodes of “Jesus People” climax with this music video. As you watch it, know that it is preceded by an enjoyable backstory:



The dance pop tune is catchy, like some of Spinal Tap’s songs. The lyrical and visual satire, I think, effectively balance absurdity and realism.

Many Hollywood efforts at religious satire try to make Christians look ridiculous by ridiculing Christianity, or rather the filmmakers’ juvenile interpretation thereof.

This tired approach often directs scorn towards God Himself, driving away the religious audience while cultivating the superficial habits of sneering atheists.

These secular efforts often fail artistically precisely because they miss the human target, and thus the joke. Their comic effect, such as it is, lies in grass-fleshed man’s presumption to stand in judgment over the Almighty.

The strength of “Jesus People” is that it knows Christians are ridiculous and therefore revels in the phenomenon, believing that even laughable failures can be redeemed.

Watch the first webisode:



The series refines itself through its short run of perhaps 50 minutes. Its professional depiction of unprofessional art bodes well for the full-length movie.

The very novelty of a well-made Christian mockumentary likely covers a few of its flaws. The judgmental band member cannot escape comparisons to The Office’s Dwight Schrute. The music video’s style appears stuck in the early nineties, though that feature may be true to life. The Rapture may even be sacrosanct for those who believe in it, undercutting any claim that the movie’s satire is salutary and not scoffing.

Inevitable comparisons with “This Is Spinal Tap” also make “Jesus People” seem opportunistic. While Rob Reiner’s movie assailed drug-addled and obliviously egoistic rock superstars, this film targets the amateurs.

In the age of blogging and YouTube, amateurism is omnipresent and entirely excusable. As the webisodes progress, the filmmakers’ professional attack on unprofessional artists appears more and more unchivalrous, like an expert theater critic sniping at a high school musical production.

Though accusations of elitism are lazily thrown about, it is hard not to sense snobbery in elements of “Jesus People.”

Every artist starts out horrid. Lacking the lucre and pride of superstardom, “Cross my Heart” is just another megachurch band. A too-critical spirit of these aspirants may actually prevent great art from emerging.

Fortunately, it appears this concerns will be alleviated in the full length movie. It reportedly will flash forward two years into the band’s career after it has achieved stardom and expert ludicrousness.

In classic dramatic theory, the comedy is about the restoration of right order. Despite the flaws of its heroes and the deviousness of its villains, at its conclusion a comedy’s characters and audience react with surprised wonder, silently asking each other “How did that happen?”

Despite having no heroes or villains, “Jesus People” will leave its audience with similar smiling questions. The first puzzle is how Christian artistic endeavors could fail so epically with such great material. The second puzzle is how Christianity could possibly succeed despite the worst efforts of Christians.

A third question is how such a promising Christian satire like “Jesus People” could have taken so long to arrive. We may hope its debut marks the progress of Evangelical culture and American moviemaking to a happy place where prayer and satire kiss.


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By way of Barb Nicolosi, we find that Christianity Today, always eager to flog the shortcomings of Evangelical culture, also reviews the film as The Christian Spinal Tap.

Besides YouTube, the series is available at Blip.TV. The web site of the full film, which includes a trailer, is at JesusPeopleFilm.com.

As a final comment, I doubt whether a similar satire could be done about U.S. Catholic culture. There is so much variety in American Catholicism that the common references necessary for humor are lacking.

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