In his essay, Spencer examines the sensation that is Mercy Me's song "I Can Only Imagine" finding success on secular radio stations as well as Contemporary Christian Music stations. For example:
In a day when anti-Christian sentiment is clearly on the rise, when Christmas symbols are banned and mentioning anything remotely related to Christianity can get you sent to the university re-education camp, "I Can Only Imagine" has spent most of a year on the secular charts. This isn't Stryper or some song where you could just as well be singing to your boyfriend in the hot tub, it's the kind of Christian music that usually turns non-Christians off faster than you can say "TBN."
Spencer goes on to examine the reason Mercy Me is gaining such attention and theorizes that the reason is because "[r]eligious stuff sells big in America." I suspect that he's probably right, especially when he goes on to examine in more detail exactly which aspects of religion -- specifically Christianity -- sell well:
This, however, doesn't really explain much of Mercy Me's success. Most of the CCM that has found its way to secular radio play has been ambiguous pop with the overtly Christian elements hidden in the romanticized or obscure lyrics. Artists like Stacie Orrico will not turn anyone's head lyrically. U2's Christianity is a matter of constant debate. But "I Can Only Imagine" is so upfront it should send many listeners checking the radio to see if they are on the right station
There is one topic, however, where Christian pronouncements are tolerated with little objection, and that is the subject of heaven. It is no accident that the most popular CCM tune of all time is about heaven.
As usual, Spencer reaches one of many great conclusions in his essay.
While some believe the success of "I Can Only Imagine" is an indication of increasing spiritual hunger and interest in Christ, I tend to think it is an example of grasping onto the comfort of Christian hope without taking hold of the cross and the Gospel.
Spencer reaches that conclusion about halfway through the essay and keeps going with more great insights. There's so many interesting snippets in this essay that I'm tempted to cut-n-paste the entire essay, but I'll stop now. There's really enough good stuff in this essay to make two pieces instead of one, but Spencer does a wonderful job of weaving the several themes he brings up into a nice tapestry of words and thoughtful insight, especially in his observation that "Americans are near-universalists at heart" and how that fact is playing out in today's cultural arena. He goes on to observe that "I Can Only Imagine's" increased popularity might not be a great thing in the advancement of the Gospel.
I heartily recommend the essay as an interesting, thought-provoking piece and encourage everyone to go read it now.
(x-posted to christianity.)