Shrewd parents teach their kids that to get along with polite company, there are two conversation topics to avoid: politics and religion. But even as a kid, Shanny Luft just couldn’t help himself.

He chattered about philosophical puzzles and religious conundrums to anyone who would listen. He wanted to debate, ask questions, find out what made people believe the things they did. And that was how, as a young Jewish kid, he ended up with a bunch of evangelical Christians for friends.

“Evangelicals were some of the few people I could talk to about this stuff and have really passionate, excited discussions, but who also wouldn’t be disgusted with me at the end,” says Luft, a doctoral student in religious studies. “They had life experiences and attitudes about the Bible and God that were so different from mine, and I was so intrigued by how they understood all this.” Some tried to convert him, Luft says, but most just settled for his dialectical camaraderie.

Like a lot of kids, Luft spent weekend mornings channel surfing for cartoons. But half the time, sweating preachers in powder-blue suits monopolized the three or four stations that came in clearly. Boring, he sighed.

Until the mid-1980s, that is, when scandals over sex, hypocrisy, and greed in the televangelist community surfaced — TV personalities such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker collected millions of dollars of their followers’ donations only to belly-flop from grace when their dirty secrets came to light.

“It was like a soap opera,” Luft says. “I was really curious about who watched these shows, and what they were getting out of it.”

Theme parks and megachurches

Evangelicalism isn’t a religious denomination, Luft says; it’s a religious movement. So to clear up any confusion: evangelicals work to spread their religious beliefs, and believe in literal interpretations of the Bible and the importance of being “born again” (a spiritual rebirth that involves making a renewed commitment to Christ). Not to be confused with Christian evangelists, who are specifically church pastors but who also go out and actively try to spread their religious messages about Jesus Christ to others. And militant evangelicals are called Fundamentalists. Still with me? Good.

Today’s evangelical Christian church communities want to seem welcoming and inclusive to potential members, and their embrace often includes whatever glitzy new technologies they can use to attract young followers. Slip into a more traditional Christian church, and right away the hushed tones and stained glass say it’s time for some quiet, old-world contemplation. But stroll into an evangelical megachurch, and it’s a whole ’nother world.

Click to read photo caption. Lakewood Church, ©2007 Endeavors magazine

Luft says many megachurches are more like town plazas than churches, and they’re popping up all over the country. Visit one, and you may find stages with swanky lighting systems set up for full bands, pastors showing movie clips and conducting PowerPoint presentations during their services, racquetball courts, bookstores, Christian-themed t-shirts for sale, coffee shops, restaurants. When Luft visited Grace Fellowship Church near Baltimore, he found it sat several thousand people during each of its three or four services every Sunday.

“It was like going to the mall,” he says. “You could hang out there all day.”

Modern evangelicals have found lots of ways to draw in young parishioners. A Christian theme park in Orlando, Florida — The Holy Land Experience — is situated just down the road from Disney World and Universal Studios. The sixteen-book thriller series Left Behind, which depicts a post-Rapture world, has sold over forty-three million copies — and now there are two Left Behind movies and a video game. (The Rapture, as the Bible’s Book of Revelation tells it, is when all Christians will disappear from the Earth, leaving non-Christians behind to suffer the Antichrist’s horrible Tribulation for seven years until Jesus’ second coming.)

In other cases, the morals behind the media aren’t so blatantly Christian, and so they seep out to a wider audience. For example, popular radio stations have played the rock band Jars of Clay for years, and there are still plenty of listeners who don’t know that behind the hard-rock sound are Christian messages. Mike Allred, who’s known for his illustrations in Marvel and DC comics, is now turning the Book of Mormon into a graphic novel. Movies such as The Omega Code, Veggie Tales, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (the most profitable Christian movie of all time) have also stretched beyond the Christian audience.

Luft says that evangelical churches today don’t put the same kinds of restrictions on their members as their more conservative predecessors did, say, fifty years ago. Church leaders used to be vehemently rigid about what kinds of media members could consume. Today they’re hesitant to impose strict rules, he says, for fear they’ll drive away potential initiates.

The devil’s bible

For more than a century, Luft says, evangelical Christians have always been at the ready to grab on to new forms of media that could further their cause, including the printing press, the radio, and even television. “Evangelicals blow away moderate Protestants and Catholics when it comes to getting on the air, buying TV time, and creating media outlets,” he says. After all, their primary dictum is to evangelize, and so every new medium presents an opportunity.

But at the same time, conservative evangelicals have a pretty rocky history with certain forms of entertainment. Through the nineteenth century, they blacklisted playing cards, calling them “the devil’s bible.” They associated dancing with sexuality, and banned it entirely. Reading novels was another big no-no because they supposedly promoted idleness and folly.

Leisure is an especially prickly issue here because the Bible doesn’t really address it very clearly, Luft says. So when the rise of the middle class in the twentieth century caused the leisure industry to explode, evangelicals had some choices to make. We Americans had more time and money on our hands than before, he says, and all of a sudden, we could take road trips, go to amusement parks, go bowling, play board games.

“Evangelicals look to Scripture as their guide for how to live,” Luft says. “And the Bible is not a very satisfactory guide for, you know, whether or not you can play Monopoly.” And so conservative evangelicals had to parse out which leisure options were okay and which weren’t.

Movies were decidedly not okay.

It didn’t start off that way, though. At first, evangelicals jumped into the movie industry. Some of the first films were actually Passion stories (which tell about Jesus’ suffering during his crucifixion) — one aired in New York in 1898, Luft says. But as the movie industry grew during the 1920s and 30s, films began to rely on fancy lights and expensive cameras. It was pretty much impossible for anyone who wasn’t a Hollywood insider to be a part of making mainstream movies at all.

And while Christian animosity toward the theater started nearly two thousand years ago, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century — when the dawn of the movie age made movies positively ubiquitous — that things got really ugly.

In his 1938 book entitled What is Wrong with the Movies?, evangelical John Rice wrote:

“Movies ruin the spiritual influence of Christians. They debauch the minds of children, inflame the lusts of youth, harden the hearts of sinners. They are a trap for souls, a mocker of God, a curse to America!”

“Most of Rice’s 117-page book sounds like this,” Luft says.

Click to read photo caption. Image courtesy Shanny Luft, used by permission of Methodist Publishing House. ©2007 Endeavors magazine

The too-big screen

While 1930s Hollywood was turning movies into a major American phenomenon, theaters sold between sixty and eighty million tickets a week. And even though the population has tripled since then, movie theater ticket sales have dropped to a mere thirty million a week.

“In the 1930s, the population was around a hundred and fifty million people, so it seemed like literally half of the country was going to the movies weekly,” Luft says. The big screen had gotten way too vast for evangelicals to write off.

So Christian leaders preached against the evils of movies as seemingly innocent as Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Because even if you go to see one of the few movies that are wholesome and good, they told their congregants, you’ll enjoy the experience so much that you’ll have to go see another, and chances are that that one will corrupt you.

Since its inception in the nineteenth century, Wheaton College, the flagship of evangelical liberal arts schools, strictly banned its students from ever setting foot in a theater. While digging through the archives at the Chicago school, Luft unearthed the pledge cards that specifically stated that students must swear not to dance, play cards, join secret societies, or go to the theater (movie and otherwise). Many of the dusty cards were complete with scribbled signatures across the bottom.

Luft also found that Wheaton’s policy stayed in effect until 1967. “That’s amazingly recent if you think about it,” he says. “And it strikes me as a very ironic time to end a prohibition against movies, because in the late 60s and early 70s, Hollywood movies got coarser, more intense, more violent.” Hollywood had just lifted some of its stricter production codes, and so for the first time, movie-goers could take in gory horror flicks, gruesomely realistic Vietnam War movies, and films with antiheroes who were almost indistinguishable from the villains (think Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). This era also played host to the rowdy genesis of the porn industry.

But by this time, theaters were common in towns of all sizes across the country. Billy Graham had even started his own Christian filmmaking company in 1952 — World Wide Pictures— which still produces a few movies a year. And by the 1960s, television (whose networks regularly showed movies) was everywhere. So Wheaton was left with no choice but to lift its ban on movie-going, and although it took some flak from other evangelical institutions, others soon followed suit.

Our daily bread

Religion sells, plain and simple. Evangelicals have found ways to market their ideas to potential newcomers as things they can wear, play, watch, and rock out to. And they’re not the only ones to turn conviction into a business — members of plenty of other denominations and religions advertise their beliefs through t-shirts, tattoos, jewelry, stand-up comedy, and food. Take “Ezekiel Bread” for instance, which assures consumers that their product is prepared using the same ingredients listed in Ezekiel 4:9. Buy it regular or with raisins at a grocery store near you. (“I can vouch for the raisin kind,” Luft says.)

So Luft asks his students: how does our religion affect the things we buy, and wear, and eat? And in turn, how do different kinds of media exposure dictate what we believe?

Lots of undergraduates who don’t necessarily plan to major in religious studies come to Luft’s introductory classes to do some religious window-shopping, he says. And when Luft talks to them about religion in terms of popular culture — using examples ranging from Left Behind to South Park — they can relate.

“College is about coming into contact with other points of view and experiences,” Luft says. “Introductory religion classes are windows into how the world isn’t all like their family or their neighborhood or their home town. And my interest in talking about religion is ceaseless.

Shanny Luft is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. His research at Wheaton College was sponsored by the Perry Travel Fellowship in Religious Studies from UNC. His dissertation, which will be complete in May 2007, focuses on evangelical attitudes toward Hollywood and the mainstream film industry in the first half of the twentieth century.