This last week, I attended a work-related conference on the general subject of internet ministry. The highlight of the conference for me was a Saturday afternoon discussion titled “Lessons We Learned from The Passion.” It was basically an informal forum in which the two presenters discussed the film and the church’s response to it, and addressed questions from the audience. Since the discussion touched on a lot of the topics mentioned in a previous post here, I thought I’d summarize a few of the presenters’ observations.
The two presenters were Terry Mattingly (of GetReligion.org, which extensively observed/critiqued media coverage of the film) and David Bruce (of Hollywood Jesus, an ongoing dialogue with postmodern youth and culture). When either of these guys talk about media and the church, I pay attention.
Without further ado, here are summaries of several of the points raised (as I understood them–corrections by others who attended the discussion are welcome):
- David Bruce felt that the church did a good job of responding to and talking about The Passion–much better than it has done with past “big events” like 9/11. (According to Bruce, after 9/11, despite a temporary spike in churchgoers seeking answers, few churches specifically or meaningfully addressed the topic.) When the issue of the Barna research (which found that there was little increase in churchgoing or “conversion” in the wake of The Passion) came up, both presenters suggested that evangelism efforts around The Passion need to be seen as just one small step in an ongoing effort to be a culturally relevant church, and that trying too hard to estimate the success or failure of any particular step in that never-ending process can produce misleading results.
- The hostility of many mainstream (“secular”) critics of The Passion was almost entirely ideological. Many critics were clearly motivated by a hatred of Mel Gibson or by offense at the idea of a literal telling of the Gospel story. Many critics railed about meta-film issues and controversies and in doing so missed the entire point of the film.
- Mainstream critics were not the only ones blinded by ideology. Evangelical commentors, who generally praised the film, almost completely overlooked and ignored its omnipresent Mariology and Catholicism. The presence of these elements doesn’t necessarily “ruin” the film theologically for evangelicals, of course, but it’s interesting that leading evangelicals, historically hyper-sensitive when it comes to this sort of thing, scarcely mentioned the film’s blatant Catholicism.
- Similarly, evangelical critics also broke with past tradition in not condemning the film’s extreme violence. Bruce suggested that this trend indicates that at least in the area of violence, evangelicals are demonstrating a willingness to interpret sinful behavior depicted in film within the context of the film itself. He noted that a similar phenomenon took place in the wake of Saving Private Ryan, when many Christian film critics embraced the film in spite of the violence and profane language in it. This trend indicates that evangelicals increasingly desire to move beyond the “count-the-swear-words-and-sex-scenes” style of media analysis; they’re paying more attention to message and story in film, and are putting less emphasis on specific visceral content than they have in the past.
- Mattingly suggested that the harsh divide between enthusiastic supporters and detractors of the film can be traced back to the split between (culturally) liberal and conservative Catholics, not animosity between Christians and Jews. This is an issue that Mattingly has discussed in the past at GetReligion.org and in his On Religion syndicated column.
Those are the points that most interested me, and I hope I’ve relayed them accurately. As for myself, I see a lot of merit in most of these ideas, although some of the specific contentions are beyond my immediate ability to confirm or debunk.
At any rate, it was a fascinating discussion, and the general mood was a positive one. There was a sense that evangelicals are at least trying to shake off some of their outdated ways of approaching film, media, and culture. There were plenty of warnings for and critiques of these efforts to achieve cultural relevance, but I left the discussion feeling optimistic about the ways that evangelicals are talking about God in this entertainment-driven post-postmodern world. What do you think?