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And God made the world . . . BOOTYLICIOUS?

Christians.

Bootylicious.

Bootylicious Christians.

Christians who happen to be bootylicious.

Nope. No matter how you work it, these two words don't sound right together.

So what do we make of Destiny's Child, the popular R&B trio who proclaim their Christianity in nearly every interview, but whose latest single is suggestively titled Bootylicious and whose videos are high in thigh and cleavage content?

A sampling: I don't think you're ready for this jelly, the group sings in the chorus. Cause my body's too bootylicious for ya, babe. ("Jelly" is a term of pride given to the rotund gluteus maximi of Destiny's Child.)

The women of Destiny's Child are among a number of secular musicians who strive to make religious convictions part of their personas. Others are Lauryn Hill and R. Kelly, Britney Spears, DMX and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (formerly Puff Daddy).

Thing is, their lyrics and public lifestyles don't always jibe with traditional religious beliefs of right and wrong. Watch any music awards show. The artists thank their families, friends and fans. Then they hold up their statuettes and thank God for chart-topping records about bad boys, booty and bling-bling (slang for sparkling gold jewelry).

But it's when secular musicians go beyond the token "thank God" _ when they make religion part of their image _ that questions arise about their lives and their music.

"God was with us. We overcame our struggles," Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child said in Ebony magazine's September 2000 issue about changes in the band's membership.

A month later, Essence magazine noted that moments before Destiny's Child hits the stage, they "give thanks to the Almighty."

Lyrics from the group's song Survivor: I'm not gonna compromise my Christianity. . . .

"God has a plan," Knowles said in the May 24 issue of Rolling Stone. "And God is in control of everything."

Even Booty?

G. Craige Lewis, a minister and gospel music artist from Texas who travels the country talking to youth groups about music, isn't buying it. Members of Destiny's Child "gyrate and make sexual moves," he said. "It's not anything of God."

If their lyrics and videos don't click with what their pastors taught them about right and wrong, some secular artists try to cover up by letting everybody know they believe in God, Lewis says.

"Christianity a lot of times is used as a tool for justification," he said.

And lyrical righteousness yields much bling-bling for musicians these days. According to Newsweek magazine's July 16 issue, the number of evangelical Christians has increased sharply over the past two decades. The young ones want to groove but keep it clean, which is one reason contemporary faith-based music is now the industry's hottest genre, with sales of $747-million last year.

Grammy Award winner Lauryn Hill's music is not on contemporary Christian racks, but the popular singer is admired by many Christian youth and walks a fine line. In her 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she included socially conscious and inspiring lyrics that encouraged self-respect. Several songs made reference to Hill's Christianity and to God. Still, as a hip-hop artist, Hill sparingly used streetwise language to make her point _ Showing off your a_ because you think that it's a trend? Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again! That Hill was an unmarried mother living with her baby's father, as well as her parents, was not lost on some.

The title of a June 1999 article in the online magazine Salon.com: "Lauryn Hill: Hoochie or Hero?"

In 1999, as Hill accepted an award from Essence magazine, she clearly knew some had a problem with her combination Christian/hip-hop lifestyle.

"I want to let young people know that it is not a burden to love him (God) and to represent him and to be who you are, as fly and as hot and as whatever, and still love God and to serve him," said Hill, who was in tears. "It is not a contradiction. It's not a contradiction."

Traditional churches may beg to differ. Still, a growing number of ministers are becoming spiritual advisers to musicians notorious for obscenity-laced lyrics.

"Spirituality is guiding a lot of choices these days," Russell Simmons, of Def Jam Records in Manhattan, said in a Wall Street Journal article about hip-hoppers and religion last year. "Rappers want to be good fathers and husbands, just like everybody else does."

Take rapper-producer Combs, whose projects have routinely earned "explicit lyrics" labels. New York minister and gospel recording artist Hezekiah Walker is his adviser. Combs and Walker have been working on a gospel CD for several years. The CD, said to be titled Thank You, is a collection of songs from various secular and gospel artists and, according to Amazon.com, is scheduled for release in August.

Combs, you'll recall, was arrested on gun possession and bribery charges stemming from a shooting inside a Manhattan nightclub in 1999. In March, he clutched a Bible as jurors acquitted him.

Contemporary gospel singer Kirk Franklin befriended R&B singer R. Kelly several years ago. At a Franklin concert in Chicago three years ago, Kelly proclaimed he "used to be flying in sin, now I'm flying in Jesus," according to Ebony magazine.

Entertainment reporters scrambled for interviews with Kelly, known for salacious lyrics, or what some dubbed "babymaking music." His hits included Bump 'N' Grind, Sex Me and Your Body's Callin' Me.

In 1997, Kelly released I Believe I Can Fly, an instant hit that even youth choirs sang. In January, Kelly was spotted praising God at Without Walls International Church in Tampa during Super Bowl festivities. During the church's contemporary gospel concert, singer Donnie McClurkin called Kelly onstage to sing. Kelly did, but then changed the song's words to a personal plea to the audience: "Pray for meeee," he crooned, his eyes closed. "Oh, pray for me. . . ."

The crowd extended their hands toward Kelly and prayed for him.

But now on Billboard's Top 10 is Kelly's latest single, Fiesta, an ode to getting drunk, smoking marijuana and partying: We be off in the club sippin' lot. Red eye deep in the club puffin' lye. Strippers in the back of the club showing live. Soon as I get a buzz I'm showing out. . . .

Then, there's rapper DMX. During a December concert in Tampa, he promised to do the Lord's work and to not worship money. "My soul needs resurrection," he confessed.

From his song titled Prayer: Lord why is it that I go through so much pain? All I saw was black, all I felt was rain. . . .

From another song on the same album: You f___ right we did it. What the f_- you gonna do when we run up on you? F___ with the wrong crew. Don't know what we going through.

Britney Spears, comparatively, is mild. Once a singer for the Mickey Mouse Club, Spears has highlighted her Christianity and nightly prayers in interviews. But the pop star has become increasingly seductive, evidenced by her bare stomach, cleavage and her vamping in videos and publicity shots. No more baby face. Old enough to vote, Spears is now a woman, bold and ready to flaunt her sexuality in skintight clothes.

"Britney's no monster . . . but bare midriffs and almost-sensual lyrics can leave the young confused," Texas youth minister Richard Ross told a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service last year.

Destiny's Child, scheduled to perform at Tampa's Ice Palace on Aug. 18, continues to make hit singles and headlines.

Published reports this year said group members Knowles and Kelly Rowland donated $500,000 to their church in Houston for a recreation center, which a pastor is considering naming for the two.

In June, they were booed by a Philadelphia crowd for wearing Lakers outfits during an NBA finals halftime performance. The group sang Survivor and Bootylicious. Before leaving the disgruntled crowd, one member still managed a wave, a smile and a "God bless you!"

The debate about the conflict between their music and their Christianity has not been lost on fans. A recent discussion on ZJAM.com, a Web site for Christian teens, went like this:

"I heard on the radio this morning that the group Destiny's Child claims to be a Christian group and that they use their music to tell people about God who wouldn't regularly read the Bible. hhhmmm . . . I dunno . . .," wrote Linz.

Godsgirl responded: "I recently attended one of their concerts and I admit that I was surprised that they seemed like Christians. . . . They also did a really neat thing for the people shot in San Diego and they sang Jesus Loves Me. They also all thanked God for each other in the introductions. I know many groups do things like that. . . ."

And from wolfpackgal: "why everyone +claims+ to be Christians. . . . it's like they're just doin that to satisfy both crowds!!!"

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

+ + +

The three women of Destiny's Child, performing here in New Orleans on July 5, mention their Christian beliefs in nearly every interview, but their latest single is titled Bootylicious.

Britney Spears, at the Ice Palace last March, is tamer than some, but her costumes have gotten tighter and smaller as she's gotten older.

Rapper DMX sings to God in one song and trumpets the f-word in another, all on the same album.

Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' projects have routinely had "explicit lyrics" warning labels, yet he's also working on a gospel CD.

R. Kelly, known for his salacious "babymaking music," also released a song church youth choirs have performed, I Believe I Can Fly.

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