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CHRISTIAN ROCK // BORN AGAIN

Those used to vanilla-bland contemporary Christian artists such as Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman might be surprised by the new wave of modern-rocking Bible thumpers _ punk and rap-influenced acts that boast in-your-face music and lyrics.

If not for the exploding popularity of Christian music, they might have remained an intriguing curiosity, like heavy metal evangelists Petra.

But, as the industrytops $1-billion in sales _ growing at a rate faster than any other music style, including modern rock and country _ artists such as D.C. Talk, the Newsboys and Jars of Clay are moving into the secular and religious mainstream with astonishing speed.

The Newsboys have signed a deal with major label Virgin Records, Jars of Clay's self-titled debut album has sold more than 500,000 copies and D.C. Talk is fielding offers from Virgin and Atlantic Records.

The success has even prompted a snide article in Spin magazine, which declared "Christian Contemporary Music has crusaded into the Alternative Nation with a righteous vengeance, leaving the devil with nothing but Norwegian death metal and Bryan Adams to call his own."

The revolution has begun.

"We feel called to reach Oasis fans, Radiohead fans and Seal fans," said Michael Tait, vocalist with D.C. Talk. "We're reaching kids that have never even been in a church, because we talk about things that bother them, like racism and violence."

When they first emerged in the early 1990s, D.C. Talk was often the subject of scorn and criticism in the Christian music industry, as more conservative elements struggled to make sense of the band's use of rap and rock flavors.

These days, however, the Nirvana-inspired pop of the band's album Jesus Freak fits right in with the sound on most rock radio playlists.

"When I first heard (contemporary) Christian music in '86, we felt the message was there, but it seemed to be obviously more important than anything else," Tait says. "With each album, we've tried to push the boundaries of the music farther."

They're not alone. From the pop/punk sounds of MxPx to the hard-nosed rap of the Gospel Gangstas and the Hootie-style acoustic rock vibe of Jars of Clay, contemporary Christian artists have begun to produce a wide range of cutting-edge music aimed directly at a youthful, MTV-bred market.

"Why should the devil have all the good music?" cracks Jars of Clay vocalist Dan Haseltine, reeling off a line he often uses on those who question the band's modern rock sound.

"The Christian music industry has been stagnant in developing creative artists," Haseltine told CCM magazine recently. "I think God calls us to do the best with our abilities and be relevant with style."

"There's no subject or style a Christian band should be afraid to address," adds Bruce Wright, a born-again Christian who runs Joe Mocha's coffeehouse/punk club in St. Petersburg. "Art is art. When you get plumbing done on your house, you don't ask if he's a Christian plumber."

Still, these emerging bands have their critics in the Christian community. "Some people are a little (slow) to accept this stuff," says Dave Kirby, program director for WCIE-FM in Lakeland, a station that has built a reputation on playing progressive Christian music.

"We get calls from people who say, "That sounds like what I used to listen to from before I was a Christian,' " Kirby adds. "But I don't think you have to live in a box to be a Christian."

One area where many of these new artists will not compromise, however, is in their theology. Though some _ like Australian rockers Hoi Polloi _ present music with ambiguous lyrics, many other bands in this new wave are explicit about their Christian faith.

"I have more responsibilities than Eddie Vedder or Seal," Tait says. "Christ is a big part of our lives, so we talk about our struggles as Christians in the real world. I just wish it didn't have such negative connotations with some people."

"As Christian music gets closer to the secular world, what do we have to set us apart?" Kirby says. "If they can't point to a Christian lifestyle and outlook, what makes them any different?"

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