Two years ago on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opened for American movie audiences to resounding success. Churches rented movie theaters and packed the seats like pews on revival night. Many moviegoers attended not for entertainment but for a ritualistic remembering of Christ’s Passion. A remarkable film in many respects, Gibson’s movie was variously exalted for bringing the story of Christ’s suffering to film in all its brutal reality, excoriated for being anti-Semitic, praised for its faithfulness to the Bible, and critiqued for taking great liberties with the biblical text. The theology of the film was debated, and its violence engendered controversy. By the end of 2004, The Passion of the Christ was the third highest grossing film of the year. The Passion of the Christ is an important film for all the reasons cited above, but even more so because it brings into sharp focus the co-dependent relationship between religious and popular culture in America.
The fact that conservative Christians flocked to movie houses to view an R-rated film that looked much like the same Hollywood entertainment that religious groups often critique for excessive violence clues us in to the co-dependency between religious and popular culture in America. American popular culture and religious culture interact in dynamic ways, such that the boundaries between sacred and secular culture become flexible and permeable. Secular media, like popular film, television, and literature, promote and contain obvious or implied religious content. For example, The Passion of the Christ, the television show Lost, and the Left Behind series of popular, apocalyptic novels all are popular cultural products that carry explicit religious messages. At the same time, religious institutions use secular forms to promote theological messages and worship practices, using contemporary musical forms, computer technology, and sophisticated films in worship settings offering everything from aerobics classes to child daycare within the walls of the church (see Ostwalt, Secular Steeples, Trinity, 2003). Gibson’s film highlights this contemporary co-dependency between the sacred and the secular and is worth revisiting two years after its release to ask what it tells us about our culture—not about theology per se, but about American myths and beliefs.
In the first place, it is apparent that many Christians watched and admired the film because of its seeming veracity and faithfulness to the biblical Passion story. And in outward form, the film contains enough of the gospel Passion narratives to be recognizable to most people familiar with the broad outlines of the story. However, its plot is unmistakably informed by the ritualistic Stations of the Cross, a plot structure lost to many Protestant viewers. And one of Gibson’s important sources for the film’s focus on suffering was Sister Anne Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion (1833), not to mention his own traditional Catholic faith. All of this, in addition to the incredible visual effects, make this a very rich film. Gibson’s film employs multiple understandings for the sacred story of Christ’s suffering and brings the Passion into sharp visual focus in a way never before accomplished in film. Perhaps because our culture is becoming less textual and more visual, the film virtually supplants the gospel narrative in its effectiveness. Thus, its graphic and visual nature make it more real than the text for contemporary culture. A popular cultural product displaces the sacred narrative it is meant to depict.
And so it is with much of American popular culture—films, books, music, and even sporting events are saturated with religion in America and create religious messages. The lines between sacred and secular have become so blurred that we often cannot distinguish with any critical sophistication which is which and what is what. Viewing The Passion of the Christ becomes a ritualistic activity, while some major American churches cancel Sunday rituals on Christmas Day in deference to the family. The secular functions religiously, and the sacred defers to secular Christmas. Many Americans receive religious tutelage and moral instruction from popular culture as well as from houses of worship.
In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives us a look at American Easter. The film captures a particular emphasis of the Passion narrative, namely Christ’s suffering, and relegates the resurrection to a supporting role. After a long and intense depiction of Christ’s scourging, agonizing walk to Golgotha, and crucifixion, the film gives us hardly a glimpse of the resurrection, indeed just enough to hint at a sequel, perhaps an apocalyptic sequel of equal violence and graphic suffering. So while Gibson’s film may be an Easter story, it is not a resurrection story, but rather one of suffering, “redemptive suffering.” Gibson’s Christ is not primarily one who conquers death, but rather one who endures suffering, unwarranted but righteous suffering in the service of redeeming humankind. And although this is part of the Christian narrative, it is magnified to the point of eclipsing any other aspect of the Easter story. Thus, Gibson’s film gives us a particular kind of Passion play, a passion of suffering, violence, and bodily mutilation, and in doing so situates the Christian Passion narrative in a way that can be acceptable in the context of American cultural myths and paradigms.
Indeed, the theme of suffering is to be found everywhere in the movies we watch; from Shawshank Redemption to Braveheart, many popular movies have at their heart an exploration or glorification of redemptive suffering. Films with and without religious overtones reenact the myth of heroic suffering in which heroes willingly endure pain and sacrifice for the good of all. This American myth has informed a work ethic, a war ethic, a political ethic, a civil religion, and, perhaps, even cultural racism. Redemption, salvation, and justice are bought by the sacrifices and suffering of our heroes, suffering that visual media can bring to life through special effects and graphics.
Gibson gives us an American Christ in his Passion (see Stephen Prothero, American Jesus. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003). This Christ boldly and willingly accepts the scourging, the sadistic torture, the hideous execution. He bears it courageously and with stoic determination as his flesh is pulverized from merciless blows from Roman guards. He endures pain as the boyhood heroes of my youth endured torture: without fear, without failure, without breaking, but with dignity even unto death. By situating the graphic torture of the Passion narrative at center stage, Gibson has cast the Christian story to appeal to an American audience, and his Passion story is ingeniously positioned for contemporary American popular and religious culture. It plays to popular audiences because Christ embodies the myth of cultural heroism; it plays to certain religious audiences because it reinforces visually and with great effectiveness the suffering of Christ that is central to the Passion story. In this sense, the graphic nature of the movie produces a cultural communion for the secular audience and a visual Eucharist for the faithful. And in reaching one audience, it speaks to the other, and the co-dependency continues.
Could this be the real reason why The Passion of the Christ was embraced by the evangelical community in America while another Passion story, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was rejected and boycotted by conservative Christians? Martin Scorsese’s film, based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, portrays a Christ whose last temptation is avoiding the cross and enjoying a normal life of family happiness. While not giving in to this vision, the Christ of Kazantzakis is weak in comparison to Gibson’s. He waffles and vacillates rather than pulling himself up off the scourging floor as Gibson’s Christ does, ready for more torture. Gibson’s Christ taps a heroic archetype and embodies the American mythic hero, while Scorsese gives us a Christ who, while more human in his misgivings and fears, is less heroic in his suffering.
The Passion of the Christ demonstrates how culture and religion interact on many different levels. With it we see a secular medium of entertainment perform a ritualistic and religious function. And with Gibson’s depiction of Christ, we see a film present and glorify a cultural Christ, a Jesus tortured and crucified as much by cultural myth as Roman guards. As an Easter and religious film, The Passion of the Christ will remain important, functioning more effectively than any Passion play or presentation in memory. But it functions in a certain way, with a certain nod to culture and with a certain theological slant. And as a result, as a film highlighting the intersection of cultural and popular religious belief, The Passion of the Christ will become a classic.
Conrad Ostwalt is Chair of the Department of Religion at Appalachia State University and Professor of Religion and Culture.