American Idol is the beating heart of pop religion. Thirty million people watch the show, not once, but twice a week. Most Christians don't even go to church that much.
So, when four Christians snuck their way into the top 11, was it time to celebrate or cringe? One camp says, "See! Christians are cool, too!" Another camp says, "So what? The whole thing is pop rubbish."
The media have rallied four Idol contestants under the Christian flag (whether or not they are believers): towering teenager Jordin Sparks, baldilocks Phil Stacey, big-thing-in-a-small-package Melinda Doolittle, and big-thing-in-a-big-package Chris Sligh.
Ecclesiastical roots have always been in vogue in American music. Just ask Elvis. Maybe church music gives vocalists the kind of soul they need to sell records. Maybe it's proof that the singer isn't completely a fabrication of the pop textile mill. Anyone who sings "I'll Fly Away" for free on a Sunday morning can't be all that bad.
Except the four Idol contestants with Christian connections aren't singing "I'll Fly Away." Chris Sligh didn't perform any "Christian" songs on Idol, and a recent Associated Press story quoted a spokesman for Bob Jones University, where Sligh attended, as saying, "We really are somewhat disappointed with the direction he has gone musically."
True, evangelicals feel besieged by the culture, and so, when the culture embraces believers, it's natural to want them to wave the Christian flag. But when pop stars talk and sing about God, too often it comes off like a bad Idol audition: tinny, self-indulgent, forced. Like pointing to heaven after a touchdown.
Sligh, alas, was voted out of the competition March 28. But if Sparks or Doolittle or Stacey wants to sing "Peace Like a River," go for it. But what will surely be more pleasing-to the judges, to us, to God-is for them to sing well.