RC Talk is expanding its beat to cover more of pop culture

This column was launched in the late 1990s in the middle of a tremendous time of growth for contemporary Christian music.

Artists such as Steven Curtis Chapman were turning heads with mainstreamlike sales figures, the band dc talk and others were debuting albums near the top of the pop charts, and the genre was making room for itself on the shelves of retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart as well as Christian bookstores.

With a hub of Christian music activity in the area at Ichthus Ministries, which presents the annual Ichthus Festival, a steady stream of Christian concerts coming through the region and a regular flow of interesting new releases coming out, it seemed like time to launch a regular column about Christian music in the Herald-Leader.

That was 12 years ago. But times have changed, as they have a tendency to do.

Christian music went through an interesting evolution during that time, bifurcating into praise and worship music that almost literally is for the choir and rock acts that aim for the mainstream as much as the faithful. Those generalizations don't cover everything, but they are a majority of what is in the market these days. Changes in the market and the recession have rocked the center of the Christian music industry, for want of a better term, with the Gospel Music Association nearly going under last year.

That's all inside baseball. The biggest message to me that things have changed might have come last month, when I started thinking about what I would put on a list of the top 10 Christian pop records of the year.

It was hard to think of anything. I get discs, watch for new releases, and download them and listen. But in the past year, it became really hard to identify visionary, inspiring music about faith.

Hard to find it, that is, in what is embraced as contemporary Christian music.

Now my favorite album of the year might contain some of the most provoking thoughts about faith I have heard for a while in popular music: The Roots' How I Got Over. Be cautious in running out to buy it, as it is a mainstream album with mainstream profanity. But on that album there are great meditations on God, how he works in our lives and how he works in this world. It's as honest an expression of faith and exploration as I have heard in a while. (It is also hip-hop, a genre Christian audiences are still astonishingly slow to embrace.)

And recently, that's where I have tended to see the most interesting looks at faith: in places where it is not viewed as a commodity but is simply a manifestation of our culture. Glee's "Grilled Cheesus" episode made a lot of people mad, but it was fascinating to see one of the top shows on TV focusing on faith and asking serious questions.

There was a time recently when the changing world of faith-based music and some changing realities here at the newspaper made me seriously contemplate ending the column, just writing about things like Ichthus when they come along.

But work like How I Got Over and "Grilled Cheesus" tells me there is something interesting to keep an eye on in faith and pop culture.

A long time ago, I think it was when I saw an unintended Christian message in Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down, I started saying you can find God in a lot of places.

So while yes, this column will continue to keep an eye on faith-based pop culture and highlight things that come out of that market that are exciting and intriguing, it also will take a broader look at faith in pop culture. We're talking about music, movies, TV, new media, news and other manifestations.

It might not be as safe or tidy, but it should be different and about the world we all live in.