Skip to main content

Forget about Janet Jackson's nipple and Britney Spears's navel, and while we're at it, erase Elvis's hips and Gene Simmons's tongue and Mick Jagger's lips from your mind.

Sex has no place in popular music.

God does.

Spiritual rapture is the new sex. Abstinence is the latest turn-on. If there's any lust in the lyric, it should be for Jesus's love.

That's the message of Rebecca St. James, an Australian-born Christian singer, now living in the United States, whose music is edging closer to the mainstream.

"Christian music, in general, is being better received," she explains. "The quality has gone up because a lot of the Christian [music]companies are now owned by the mainstream record companies. Albums are sounding better, which helps prevent the stigma that Christian music has had for a long time. It was seen as old-fogey church music," she adds brightly.

She will be performing a soundtrack on the upcoming Disney movie version of the C. S. Lewis classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, her first involvement with a mainstream movie. She has an agent in Hollywood, looking for acting roles in family-friendly movies. She's open to doing a television series, if it upheld the right Christian values. And she's been praying to God to give her the songs that would give her crossover appeal.

"I've prayed about that for years," says the 27-year-old singer-songwriter who won a Grammy in 1999 for best rock-gospel album. She is working on her eighth album, and over the past 10 years has had nine No. 1 Christian-music singles. "Lord, if you would have my music expand in that way, please let it happen. Please open the right doors and please make it the right song," she says, recanting her prayer over the phone from her tour bus deep in the heartland of Wisconsin.

It's weird having a cultural anomaly on the line. I feel as though I've caught a fish from the deepest part of the ocean.

St. James has been gaining attention not just because of her music. She is an alternate-pop-music icon -- the Other Madonna.

Britney Spears started out as a teenager who promoted virginity. But look what happened to her. Unwittingly, it seems, she has become a cautionary tale about how dewy innocence can lead to trailer-trash vulgarity. "My overall sentiment toward Britney is that I feel sad for her," says St. James. "I do think she has been positioned by people around her in a very promiscuous fashion."

At 16, St. James took a vow of no sex before marriage at a True Love Waits rally, a movement that encourages sexual abstinence among teenagers, and which Spears was also promoting at the start of her career.

St. James wears a silver purity ring, symbolizing her commitment to banish sex, and any sexual thought, until her wedding night. In 2002, she wrote a book, Wait for Me, Rediscovering the Joy of Purity in Romance. On a roll with her newfound success as the voice of the modern Christian woman, last year she co-wrote SHE: Safe Healthy Empowered, with Lynda Hunter Bjorklund, which attempts to recast feminism according to Biblical values.

"All of us, especially women, have a built-in desire to be protected," reads the text of that book. "Feminism, materialism, immorality, and obsession with beauty become some of the masks we hide behind as we desperately search for this lost security."

Hers is the ultra contra-feminist stance. You need a man, even if He's the Invisible One. Another book, SHE Teen, will be released this fall.

St. James exudes virginal simplicity, a childlike Eve-before-the-apple view of the world. She maintains strict rules for herself about how she behaves around men. She won't drive alone with a man. When she is entertaining a boyfriend -- she has had several, she tells me -- she always puts a shoe on the threshold, so the door remains ajar. She dates only Christians.

Despite her international career, she lives a protected lifestyle. She tried living in her own house for a while, but grew very lonely, she says. The eldest of seven children, born into a deeply Christian family, she moved back home with her parents.

Her father, David, is her manager. A concert promoter of Christian performers in Sydney, he moved the family to Nashville when she was 12 in order to take up a job with a record company.

She carefully selects her wardrobe. "T-shirts today are short so that you show your bellybutton, and I don't want to show that, so I wear a little spaghetti-strap shirt underneath," she says.

"I don't show cleavage, and if I wear a skirt, I generally wear pants underneath." On stage, she worries that a skirt will fly up or that lights may make it see-through. "When you are wearing very promiscuous clothing and you're showing a lot of flesh, you're really asking for sex," she says.

"I don't want to be an object that induces lust."

In St. James's world, a woman is always in the male gaze, either in His or in that of the horny dude on the nearby barstool.

Her appeal, however reactionary, is that she is everything Americans fantasize they are. Wholesome. Friendly. Successful. Family-oriented. Good as apple pie.

Her image is not prudish or sexually repressive, like that of a Victorian high-collared, buttoned-up schoolmarm. She is more like a vision of a beautiful, unplowed field, hair wafting in the wind. She is the America that the pioneers first glimpsed, full of hope and promise. Routinely, she refers to modern society as "fallen."

So, of course, in disillusioned, fearful America, she is a voice of the conservative right, and is an exemplar of the innocent, unquestioning faith the Christian community has in President George W. Bush, who, they believe, will lead them back to a time when everything was safe and good and simple.

St. James is part of the millions-strong Presidential Prayer Team, even though she has never met him. "People who know him say he is a very legitimate Christian and is really wanting to seek to be led by God," she explains.

Bush has embraced St. James and the True Love Waits movement as part of his sexual-abstinence program that aims to reduce teenage pregnancy. According to Planned Parenthood, 34 per cent of American teenagers experience pregnancy, double the rate in Canada. The U.S. has the highest rate of unwanted teenage pregnancy in the developed world.

Extreme problems invite extreme solutions. In her Wai t for Me, she explains the boundaries of hanky-panky before marriage: Don't let him touch any part of you a bathing suit would cover. Don't let any body part of his enter your body. That means no to French kissing.

And masturbation? "The problem with masturbation is that it's a very selfish act. And it's an addictive habit. If you start it, it just gets harder and harder to stop," she says.

The goal of sexual purity is to be able to share it with the man she ends up marrying. "I dream about my wedding night," she says. "On that night, I will be able to focus only on my husband and not on any other memories of anybody else that I've been with. We can learn and discover this new adventure together. To me, that's beautiful and the way it was meant to be."

She trades heavily in fantasy. Wait for Me begins with a dreamlike description of a prince on a white horse carrying his virgin bride off to Happily Ever After.

"I truly believe that deep down, people know that's the ideal," she says. "Prince Charming coming to sweep up his virgin bride. People long for that."

Her parents were virgins when they wed, and she knows many people who describe how their dreams came true, she says.

Still, she wishes she could meet The One. "Last year, I really struggled with being single," she admits, adding that her schedule makes relationships difficult to maintain. But God told her not to worry. "I do feel that God will probably provide an amazing man for me," she confesses.

In the meantime, she dreams about how to be the perfect woman. "I'm preparing for when I meet the man who will be my husband. I'm reading books about how I can be the best woman that I can be, becoming a great soul mate for somebody. That's exciting. That's fun," she giggles.

But doesn't she worry that she's setting herself up for disappointment?

"Would you prefer to dream and never get your dreams, or to have never dreamed at all?" she asks rhetorically. "I would prefer to dream and enjoy the romance and the possible anticipation than to live a life that is stunted and real as anything, but boring and unadventurous and lacking joy. I think a part of life is dreaming."

Do you hear the sound of horses' hooves pounding through the forest in her direction? I do.

She is a storybook woman for a certain kind of wannabe Prince. When she marries and has children, she plans to give up her singing career. Someone has to keep the home fires burning in that America of yesteryear.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct