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Heaven in the Real World indicates why Chapman has developed such a following: As a songwriter, he can hold his own with any of his pop/adult contemporary peers--Christians or atheists. "King of the Jungle," "Dancing With the Dinosaur" and the title cut, for which a pricey video has been made, are all slick, ultra-tuneful offerings with instantly recognizable hooks and vocals from Chapman that are every bit as accessible as Elton John's. And "Love and Learn," a tear-jerking ballad, is as effective a dose of shlock as anything that Michael Bolton has borrowed from more talented songwriters.
The lyrics, too, are earnest and intelligent--but if you're not sympathetic to Chapman's style of subtle proselytizing, the words get in the way. "Heaven in the Real World" can be read ambiguously until its concluding section, when Chapman croons "Jesus is heaven/Heaven in the real world." And the song "Treasure of You" links earthly love with the more supernatural sort: "God made everything, and of everything He made/More than anything He treasures you and me."
Even though lines like these aren't nearly as didactic as Christian music from the Seventies and Eighties, the imagery still makes secular radio programmers skittish. For this reason, Amy Grant, an established Christian star, made her first foray into the mainstream with "Baby, Baby," a pop song she said was written about her child. But the video, which gave a sexual reading to the lyric, sent shock waves through the CCM community. She and Michael W. Smith were both seen by critics as having forgotten the Christian-music fans whose support had lifted them from obscurity in the first place. The backlash was such that Grant has spent much of the past year mending fences; she hosted the annual Dove Awards broadcast, which gives prizes to top CCM artists, and has released material to Christian broadcasters and retailers that's more overtly religious than the tunes her main label, A&M, has delivered to mainstream stores and stations.
Chapman recognizes that his next moves will be watched closely by those CCM fans who felt betrayed by Grant and Smith. "There's been a feeling that once you get to a certain level, you realize that you're limited to some degree if you're going to continue to write pretty pronounced Christian music," he admits. "So I think people into Christian music think, `He's probably going to follow the steps that these other guys have taken.' There is this fear among some people--`Are we going to lose you, too?'"
In responding to that question, Chapman defends Grant and Smith, who regularly attend the same Nashville church he does. But he doesn't make a pledge never to write a song without mentioning God. "I ask myself these things daily," he notes. "I ask, `Is there a way to write songs that would allow me to reach more people and still communicate about my faith without compromise, but that avoids some of the trappings that might limit the message?' I struggle with that, and feel some pressure by that, but it's something I feel challenged by, not weighed down or oppressed about."
By the same token, Chapman's certainly not shying away from relationships that might set non-Christians' teeth on edge. For example, his current tour is sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by convicted-Watergate-conspirator-turned-born-again-evangelist Charles Colson. Specifically, Chapman (who describes Colson as "a real inspiration--almost a mentor") is heading up something called Project Angel Tree, which plans to distribute thousands of gifts this Christmas season to children of inmates. Those presents will include cassettes of Heaven in the Real World. Another Chapman fan is James Dobson, whose Focus on the Family empire is selling Heaven and promoting Project Angel Tree.
"Maybe through this we can somehow bring hope into these kids' lives and do something that's really positive," he says. "That's what I try to do with my music. It's not preachy, abrasive, in-your-face. This is just a real honest expression of what motivates me artistically and creatively. And if people listen to it with an open mind, I think they'll like it."
After the Newsboys' McNichols encore, a Prison Fellowship Ministries spokesman grabbed a microphone and pitched the Angel Tree program, then promised that Steven Curtis Chapman, the star of the show, would emerge in fifteen minutes. A whoop went up from practically everyone except two young Newsboys fans, one of whom was distinguished by a blue, gang-style bandanna and a sullen expression. When his girlfriend chided him for his lack of enthusiasm, he pretended to go to sleep.
Nonetheless, even this attendee jumped to his feet when Chapman took the stage in a shower of light and a crash of chords. His first song was "Dancing With the Dinosaur," and Chapman sold it with an energetic performance that included some rudimentary choreography and a fresh-scrubbed demeanor that had young women shrieking, "We love you, Steven!" with the fervor of Beatlemaniacs from a generation earlier. Chapman followed this cut with several more up-tempo tunes, all of which sounded like adult-contemporary hits you couldn't quite place. Between songs, he made a few cheerful comments that referred to his faith (at one point, he thanked Jesus for taking in the show), but he was hardly doctrinaire. If anyone present stumbled into the arena by accident, it might have taken him a few minutes to discover that Christianity was the flavor of the evening.