catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 6 :: 2004.03.12 — 2004.03.25


Overcome with Passion

As the student activities coordinator on a college campus, I spend a lot of time researching what a friend of mine refers to as “cultural spasms.” I’m particularly interested in how evangelicals interact with and respond to popular culture, so I’ve had a field day with the spasm du jour: the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Weeks before the film opened in theaters, the media buzzed with speculation about anti-Semitism, gratuitous violence, and an almost hypnotic religious zeal. The hype was inescapable, particularly in Christian media outlets, some of which touted The Passion as “the greatest outreach opportunity in 2000 years” and ardently defended Gibson’s vision, giving tearful accounts of the VIP screenings they’d attended.

At first, I was encouraged by the excitement over the film. After all, evangelical Christians are usually in the habit of either condemning pop culture outright or dismissing it as irrelevant to lives of faith. But after taking in story after story, I began to notice a disturbing pattern.

Very few Christians were actually evaluating The Passion as a film, as a work of art. We’ve heaped rapturous praise on its portrayal of Christ’s sacrifice, its evangelistic qualities, its faithfulness to the gospels. But by and large, evangelicals have not truly engaged with the movie. On The Passion’s faithfulness to its medium, we have been strangely silent.

Or maybe not so strangely. Though it’s disappointing that the film’s cinematic merit seemed unimportant to Christians, it’s not surprising. On the surface, it seemed unusually broad-minded that pastors were teaching their congregations that a film was about more than its “R” rating, that evangelicals were flocking to theaters en masse to experience, rather than just view, a movie. But actually, evangelicals’ unequivocal embrace of The Passion is the latest indicator of a long-standing evangelical shortcoming: we don’t have a context for understanding art.

Although there are exceptions, evangelicals tend to have few means for situating artistic appreciation among the virtues of their faith. As our collective flying leap into Passion-mania demonstrates, we fall short in assessing the value of a work of art beyond its resemblance to the original text, its potential for evangelism, and its affirmation of values we hold dear. This is not a condemning statement, though it is an invitation to a teachable moment. The Passion gives us, the church, an opportunity and an imperative to learn how to see art through the sharpening lens of faith.

Now that opening-week frenzy has died down, what can we learn from our reaction to The Passion? There are several positive responses to this film that, if applied only to this movie, will perpetuate not-unfounded stereotypes about the self-referential, insular nature of the evangelical community. My greatest fear is that Christians’ collective appreciation of this movie is a one-time-only deal, because it tells a specific story (about Jesus) in a specific way (with a salvation message). I am concerned that when The Passion leaves theaters, pastors will once again endorse an unspoken ban against “R”-rated films. I worry that Christians will retire to their churches until the next big-budget Jesus movie comes out, offering an opportunity to hear our own story and exhort others to get saved. As Spencer Burke of emergent church ministry points out, if we choose this path—undoubtedly the easiest one—we risk appearing hypocritical and bigoted to non-Christians. But we also sell ourselves short: our calling is higher and broader and deeper than this narrow, convenient understanding of art.

We are on the right track with some responses to this film, however. We are learning that art is more than just personal preference: “I liked it” or “I hated it.” We are learning that movies can be more than entertainment. If we allow God to transform these reactions, we will make significant progress in not only understanding art in the form of film, but understanding the world in which God wants us to be active participants.

“R” can stand for reality and redemption

I was sure I had stumbled into the evangelical twilight zone when I heard Rick Warren’s endorsement of The Passion. The senior pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, Warren was instructing his enormous sphere of influence to see an “R”-rated film. “This is probably the only R-rated movie I’ll ever recommend that you attend,” Warren said. “But this time ‘R’ stands for ‘realistic’, not ‘raunchy’.” I read a statement of support from another well-known pastor that also approved The Passion for his normally conservative audience on the grounds that “R” stands for “redemptive.”

These endorsements get at something true, but they ultimately indicate a compartmentalized faith. Why is this the only “R”-rated movie they’ll ever recommend? The special dispensation given to evangelicals for The Passion assumes that “R”-ratings are only worthwhile when they depict “reality” rather than myth (even though fictive interpretations can also be an effective means of telling the truth). This exception also insinuates that “R”-rated movies can be edifying or redemptive only when they tell the story of Jesus in a particular way. Warren’s statement, in particular, implies that every other film with an R-rating is “raunchy.”

For Christians, this approach is too narrow. It is also simply untrue. Not every film with an “R”-rating is raunchy, although there certainly are plenty of vulgar movies that receive that rating. Additionally, untruth transcends ratings systems; a “G” or “PG” film could just as easily—and more subtly—be at odds with a Christian worldview. An “R” usually just denotes a film’s subject matter as inappropriate for children and young adults, but this does not automatically disqualify its redemptive potential for adult viewers. Simply because a film contains offensive behavior doesn’t mean it endorses that behavior.

P.T. Anderson’s 1999 film, Magnolia, is a prime example. It received an “R”-rating for its raw (one might say realistic) portrayal of sexuality, profanity, violence, and generally offensive behavior. But the film in no way revels in this portrayal: one by one, its characters suffer and crumble and break under the weight of their own sinfulness, until they are forced to surrender to grace. Is this a difficult film to watch? Yes. Is it offensive? Absolutely: but it is meant to offend, to awaken the viewer. Magnolia has powerful lessons for Christians about the consequences of unfaithfulness, generational sin, and the mercy of God—but many evangelicals passed it over because of its restricted rating.

Of course, it is not imperative to one’s faith to watch “R”-rated films. Christians must know their own limits and pay attention to the Holy Spirit’s leading. The point is that evangelicals own the kernel of truth in promoting of The Passion. If R can stand for reality and redemption, let’s lift the unequivocal ban on “R”-rated movies, including those that don’t tell Bible stories.

Art can communicate truth

Traditionally, modern American Christians have approached art with skepticism at best and scorn at worst. It is encouraging, therefore, that the evangelical community has enthusiastically embraced The Passion, praising its ability to communicate powerful truths in a way other mediums cannot.

Prominent in our endorsement of The Passion, however, is the notion that art is only worthwhile if it tells the truth for specifically evangelistic purposes. Many Christians were excited about this film because they believed it presented an opportunity to share the good news of the gospel. One church in Dallas rented a theater to show the movie, launching into an evangelistic presentation and altar call as soon as the credits started to roll. Not only is this disrespectful to the filmmaker’s work, it misses the point of how art communicates and for what purposes. It is, in fact, no longer art. It is propaganda.

In art, it is impossible to tell the truth without witnessing to the Truth. All truth, the saying goes, is God’s truth. Even if a story is not specifically about Jesus or his salvific power, it can still tell the truth about a sphere of life—and in doing so, it points to the one who created all spheres.

This holds true even if a film is made by someone who is not a Christian. We would do well to participate in art and experience wisdom from “beyond the fold”—something at which we’re not very adept. Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet (who is also a Christian) notes, “Believers come out from behind the walls of their churches only when they have their own story to talk about. They do not show much interest in hearing, much less discussing, the stories the rest of the world has to tell.” If we follow Jesus’ example, this is not a good response. Jesus listened because he cared deeply about those he walked among.

It’s worth examining what kind of message our lack of interest in cinema sends to non-Christians. To go a step further, we may also be missing an important message for ourselves. Madeleine L’Engle writes wittily that God “chooses his artists with as calm a disregard of surface moral qualifications as he chooses his saints.” If God uses anyone he pleases to tell his stories, we never know when or where he is going to show up. We never know when a door might open to the numinous, and so we must be alert to all art.

In fact, we might pay attention to “secular” films even more for this reason. L’Engle continues, “If I cannot see evidence of incarnation in a painting of a bridge in the rain by Hokusai, a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, in music by Bloch or Bernstein, then I will miss its significance in an Annunciation by Franciabigio, the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, the words of a sermon by John Donne.” To translate this into modern, filmic terms: if we are unable to see hints of incarnation in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, the Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, then we are likely to miss the truth in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

In The Passion, God has used a pre-Vatican II Catholic known for aggressive action flicks to communicate something true about his character. Imagine what the truths we might discover if we visited the cinema more often than when a film that tells “our story” plays there.

Art can also lie

Unfortunately, when most Christians do go to see a movie, they leave their faith at the concession stand. (Sometimes faith doesn’t even make it out the door of the church.) This is a more dangerous—and decidedly unbiblical—attitude than out-and-out refusal to see any and all movies. Films can tell the truth, but because they are created by imperfect human beings, they also can and do tell lies. If we lack the tools to tell the difference—to appreciate, understand, and engage with our culture’s artistic offerings—we leave ourselves incredibly vulnerable.

This is partly why The Passion has generated so much hoopla in the church. As previously mentioned, our main tool for understanding films is whether or not they’re telling a story central to Christianity. In this case, the marketing of The Passion was so precise that we fell for it hook, line, and sinker, no questions asked. Luckily, Gibson was presenting a generally good and faithful product.

But what happens when another filmmaker courts the evangelical crowd, giving lip service to Christian values but possessing devious motives and a shoddy work of art? (There will be a next time, by the way, thanks to the success of The Passion.) We need to learn to examine the truth and the lies within any and every work of art, even those calling themselves “Christian,” or we will find ourselves taken for a ride, perhaps even directed off-course theologically.

With the release of The Passion, evangelicals got excited that a celebrity was telling “our story” with reverence and “accuracy.” But, in our excitement, we forgot to remember that Gibson’s film was an artistic interpretation created by a sinful man, not the fifth gospel. We forgot to exercise a discerning spirit. We forgot that films can lie. Like any other story, The Passion contains falsehoods along with the truth. Because we live in a world that has been infiltrated by the prince of darkness, much of what we consider “safe” or “sanctified” is actually contaminated. It is imperative to discern art made by Christians with the same scrutiny we would examine the work of a non-Christian. If we remember this, we will not be deceived by the lies told by any film.

Taken together, these lessons add up to more than the sum of their parts: they mean a realization that all art matters. This realization demands a series of responses. We are not on our own, however. In addition to pioneers like L’Engle, whose book Walking on Water is a bible of faith and art, there are many currently working to help their brothers and sisters engage “Christianly” with art. Overstreet, for instance, provides guidance through Christianity Today’s weekly online Film Forum, as well as inviting dialogue via his Promontory Artists website. The reviews of Overstreet and his colleague, Peter Chattaway, are the first I read for an informed, biblical perspective on new releases and all manner of “cultural spasms.” Spencer Burke hosts lively cultural debate at, even suggesting that, in line with the principles above, evangelicals back underfunded, independent filmmakers—not just those with star power—creating important works of art. Author David Dark explores “the sacred revealed” in popular culture in his book Everyday Apocalypse.

Genuine attention to the redemptive qualities of art and its ability to refract truth through image and story will do much to enrich our spiritual growth and our mandate to be “in the world.” I challenge the evangelical community to carry over these positive responses to The Passion to affect how we engage with every film. If we recognize the importance of showing up at the multiplex on a regular basis—not just when someone’s waving our flag and speaking our language—we will become the thoughtful, compassionate people God intends us to be.

Kate Bowman helps students look for God in art and pop culture as student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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