Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Golgotha Chainsaw Massacre: A Rambling Commentary on 'The Passion of the Christ'

"’The Passion of the Christ’ is a thoroughly Satanic production . . . Satanists, who despise Jesus Christ, and their Dark Lord, who has fond memories of the Crucifixion, will no doubt love [the movie]. Everyone else, including Christians, should stay at home . . ." ~ from a review written by a fundamentalist Christian [1]

"I tell you, I may be playing Jesus, but I felt like Satan at that moment . . . a couple of expletives came out of my mouth." ~ James Caviezel [2]

There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins
~ William Cowper, 1772 [3]


During the filming of Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, the actor portraying the character of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) was struck by lightning twice, in two separate incidents and in two separate places. Apparently the filmmakers could not take the hint the first time or the second time, and the movie was finished and released to the public on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004.

Then, on the very first day of the movie’s release in theaters, a person in the audience of Warren Theatre East in Wichita, Kansas died while watching the damn thing. According to one news report, “A woman collapsed in an East Wichita theatre this morning, during [the showing of the movie]. Peggy Law apparently suffered a heart attack. She was pronounced dead a short time later at a Wichita medical center [4].” The story goes on to report that the woman, while watching the movie, collapsed during the portion that depicted the crucifixion of Jesus. A few off-duty nurses and doctors who were in the audience attempted to revive her. She was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where she passed away.

The filmmakers, of course, are not to be blamed for this unfortunate occurrence. Peggy Scott Law, who was in her 50s, could have just as easily suffered a heart attack walking through the supermarket. The moment of her death was simply a matter of bad timing and an inconvenient place. Still, this certainly was a head-scratcher of a story.

As an atheist, I am a thoroughgoing naturalist. I do not believe that an actor getting struck twice by lightning constitutes a supernatural sign or omen, even when that actor is portraying Jesus Christ. But as pious Catholics, most of the filmmakers and Caviezel himself should! As for the woman who suffered the heart attack, it is worth pointing out that if she had been revived with CPR while in the theatre, the story would have been treated as a divine miracle, the grace of God working through Mel Gibson’s movie (still, the selective reasoning among believers is such that many who look hard enough and desperately enough for a miracle are apt to claim that is a miracle that all those other hundreds of people in the same theatre audience did not die. We are all sinners, after all).


The foregoing introduction is a very roundabout way of saying that The Passion of the Christ is not a children’s movie, in any way, shape or form, by any stretch of the human imagination. It is not a movie for many adults. The news media back in late 2003 made much of the fact that The Passion was going to be a very gory film with heavy amounts of violence. But connoisseurs of American entertainment are, I believe, so accustomed to the media creating much empty hype over movie violence and accustomed to people overreacting as a result. The collective, unspoken assumption on the part of the moviegoing public seems to have been that, with Christians doing most of the talking about the violence aspect, the movie could not be all that bad.

(Time for a tangent story: I remember watching Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie Braveheart for the very first time when I was sixteen years old. For the past eight years before this, I had heard many adults talking about the battle scenes as being some of the bloodiest, most gory scenes they had ever seen in a movie. I was therefore stoked to finally see it for myself, but was disappointed. Sure, people get their arms chopped off and there was some gore, but it was not nearly as over-the-top and beyond the pale as it was made out to be by my elders).

The Passion of the Christ is an altogether different kind of movie, and for this reason it is little wonder it shocked the moviegoing public and took them for surprise. The highlight of the movie is the scene in which Jesus gets scourged, a scene that is definitely one of the most difficult scenes in cinematic history to sit through, regardless of one’s beliefs. In the movie, the scourge is a great whip with small chunks of spikes, pieces of glass, and cat o’nine tails affixed to the its tip. These accouterments work over the body of Jesus in loving slow-motion detail as his flesh is literally ripped to shreds.

I am of the opinion that the use of violence or any sort of extreme content in entertainment should serve a larger point. And in a sense, Mel Gibson does have a larger point in mind; his intention was to make a movie that is supposed to disgust, horrify and sicken the audience, because his theology motivates in him a desire for others to feel the intensity of what their sin did to Jesus. Passion plays are a very old and time-honored tradition, and this is the very function they have always been intended to serve as well. In the final analysis, knowing when the point comes across becomes a matter of one’s own personal judgment (as opposed to an objective limit) to decide whether watching ten minutes of someone being flayed alive on screen gets the intended point across any more effectively than, say, four or five minutes of it. But for most people, 2 hours and 6 minutes of a bloody and violent theological guilt-trip is overkill.

How do these 126 minutes break down? Well, for about the first five minutes, Jesus is fine. For about the final five minutes, he is doing very well. Every single minute in between, he is constantly being beaten mercilessly into hamburger meat. It is amazing to imagine how many kegs and barrels of fake blood the effects department brought in for the filming. And what kind of continuity problems might the filmmakers have wrestled with? (Oh shit! Yesterday, Jim had a large scar here and a slightly smaller one there. And this ribbon of latex flesh is out of place, dammit!) Then again, Caviezel’s body is so bloody and so scarred throughout the film that very few if any moviegoers would take any notice of any continuity errors, no more than we notice breaks in continuity when grains of sand on a beach are filmed over several days. But I also like to imagine that Gibson had on hand a veritable army of continuity technicians armed with Polaroids, taking tens of thousands of photographs of the cobblestones at the end of every day, just to keep track of where all the blood splatters have landed.


This film is sure to take the wind out of anyone who watches it for the first time, and the viewing experience does not get any less unpleasant on multiple viewings. But does The Passion of the Christ work as a piece of film narrative? I for one am not convinced that it is, for two reasons. The first has to do with the purely ideological motive that drove the production. If anything is clear and obvious about this movie, it is that Mel Gibson was making this movie for Christians. Even months before it was released, the Evangelical Protestant Right – which is not a group usually seen allying themselves with “those Mary-worshippers” like Mel Gibson – were making their rounds in news editorials and reviews strongly rallying in support of the film and talking enthusiastically about what a powerful conversion tool they anticipated it would be for their cause. Some even compared it to Barnet Bain’s 1979 film Jesus, the evangelical blockbuster hit that was distributed worldwide upon its video release. For the past thirty years, missionaries have trundled the Jesus film off to obscure regions of the world and shown it to Bushmen in remote Africa, for example, in the hopes of converting them to Christianity.

“Just wait until the indigenous Bushmen get a load of this,” the Evangelical Protestants must have said concerning Mel Gibson’s Passion (frankly, we can be grateful the movie did not in fact gain any status as a missionary conversion tool. It may have only succeeded in instigating tribal warfare against missionaries . . .)

The second reason The Passion fails as meaningful narrative is that it is devoid of context. The movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested at night by Roman guards and hauled off in chains. Then the beatings begin. Now, while there is such a thing as too much exposition, this movie had none whatsoever. There is very little actual storytelling involved, and the viewer is not given any context whatsoever for all the violence. Those who go into the movie not knowing anything about Jesus or Peter or Mary will not understand it and will be completely lost from beginning to end.

Of course, the argument can be made that most of the people who walked into theatres to see this movie, especially in America, were quite familiar with the Jesus story already. Certainly all Christians are familiar with it (or should be), and most atheists know the Jesus story very well. Therefore, one might say, the lack of context perhaps should not be viewed as a big problem. However, if we examine The Passion strictly as a film narrative – that is, on its own internal merits and independent of external assumptions supplied by viewers – it is problematic that the movie provides no context for why a man is being beaten mercilessly to a bloody pulp for two straight hours. What the script does not do is establish Jesus Christ as a character, that is, establish who he is, what he does and why exactly it is that he angers both religious and secular authorities so much that they literally beat him to death.

Saying that most people going in are most likely going to know in the back of their minds at least a rudimentary knowledge of who Jesus was and what he taught about loving one’s fellow man does not save the film from the above criticism. In fact, if we assess the movie on its own merits, we find that its total lack of context and even explanation renders it nothing more than an exploitation movie. In fact, several negative reviews of the movie coined the term “Christploitation” to refer specifically to The Passion and movies like it, creating a distinct genre in the process. And Christploitation is indeed a very fitting word choice; the violence in The Passion is borderline pornographic in nature.

Gibson focuses on the scourging and crucifixion to the exclusion of (a) Christ’s teachings, except for very brief flashback scenes of the Last Supper in which he basically just tells his disciples to love people, and (b) the Resurrection. Most of the criticism Gibson has received from Christians is concerned with the fact that the Resurrection of Jesus, considered by the faithful to be the foundation and cornerstone of their religion, is for the most part glossed over in the movie’s finale. We are treated only to a very brief scene at the end that appears as nothing more than an epilogue in which Jesus walks out of his tomb with a portentous “it’s-payback-time” look on his face, almost as if we are being tempted to expect Passion of the Christ II: Judgment Day to be in the works (wouldn’t it be great to have a Gibson-produced movie based on the Book of Revelation, in which Jesus is made of liquid metal?) On this point, many Christians and I are in agreement: one of the strongest negative criticisms of this movie is the heavy and extreme violence thrown at the viewer without any context whatsoever, a context that should have consisted of giving us a bit more background on Jesus’ teachings and a fuller treatment of his resurrection.

But in a sense, there is also a part of me that sympathizes with and understands Mel Gibson’s motives for making a movie like this. It seems that what Gibson did not want was just another Jesus movie that adhered to the same old formula and motifs that have characterized all the other Jesus movies (i.e., Jesus is born in a manger, as a man he wanders about teaching and performing miracles for two hours or so, then finally comes the obligatory dramatic resurrection scene at the end, etc., *yawn*, etc.). Instead, Gibson’s intention was to focus on just the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life, highlighted by his scourging and his crucifixion. But then again, that is exactly what a passion play is. Thus, Gibson is not ultimately breaking new ground, because passion plays have been written and performed for centuries. The concept is simply new to many modern people in our day and age. Indeed, one might even say pious Catholics of many past generations have wanted very much to produce a passion play as bloody and violent as Gibson’s but that they simply did not have the technology to achieve such great “special effects,” so to speak.

Another interesting issue that jumps out at me about this movie has to do with the transition from source material to script. The general rule in scriptwriting is that one page translates into one minute of screen time. One minute of screen time per page of script means that a standard film script is about 120 pages. Now, the verses in the Bible that describe Jesus’s execution are much shorter than 120 pages. Even if a screenwriter were to combine the passion narratives of all four Gospels together, they still do not come anywhere close to 120 pages. Thus, The Passion of the Christ contains a great deal of filler, making it rather slow in parts. One of the longest continuous scenes in the movie, the 20-minute scourging sequence, is based entirely on a single verse: “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him” (John 19:1).

Coming as I do from my atheist perspective, I am fairly confident that if I was a person who knew nothing about Christianity or even about the basic story behind the religion, seeing The Passion of the Christ would probably not win me over. In that respect alone, the movie is not a success in my estimation, because it serves no other purpose than preaching to the choir.

But on the other hand, the commercial success of The Passion of the Christ may have ironically contributed to the slow but sure spread of freethought and the rejection of religion in this country. This is because The Passion in many ways forced the American public to come face to face with the undeniable fact that Christianity undeniably has, as its foundation and basis, an extremely violent and bloody event. In fact, Christianity celebrates this central and defining human sacrifice. Hundreds of hymns are written specifically about the blood of Jesus, hymns with lyrics like “Are you washed in the blood / In the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb” [5]. This is rather revolting when one really thinks about what he or she is singing [6]. And is it not true that the believers who take seriously the bizarre Transubstantiation doctrine when they partake of communal bread and wine are actually engaging in cannibalism, if what they believe is really true?


As most consumers and critics of popular culture are already aware, the biggest source of controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ was (and is) the open question of whether it was anti-Semitic in tone and message. In the interest of being as fair and balanced as possible, my answer is that the movie is somewhat anti-Semitic.

On the one hand, the movie features a large cast of bad Jewish characters, with a few good Jewish characters thrown in here and there. On the other hand, there are plenty of bad Roman characters, including two particularly despicable human beings who glean a great deal of pleasure in their work of torturing and tormenting Jesus (reportedly, Gibson’s direction to these actors was to act as if they were throwing a baseball while bashing Caviezel). So the Romans for the most part are not let off the hook.

However, the high-ranking, important Romans do get off the hook in this movie. Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov), the Roman prefect character responsible for issuing the final order to crucify Jesus, is here portrayed as a very courteous and well-mannered man. He does everything within his power to avoid condemning Jesus to crucifixion, but his hand is forced by a rather bloodthirsty mob of Jews. And this portrayal is in fact quite Biblical. Chapter 19 of the Gospel of John has the Jewish mob crying out “Crucify him, crucify him” in unison, and also taking personal responsibility by declaring, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die” (vv. 6, 7). This declaration comes right after Pilate tries to tell them that he can find no basis on which to condemn Jesus. Thus, The Passion does remain true to the original story, in this regard at least. But it is worse than that; Gibson goes out of his way to really focus on this angle. Not only are the important Roman characters portrayed in the best possible light, but a strong case can be made that the high-ranking Jewish characters are portrayed in the worst possible light, as a cruel and bloodthirsty lot. In fact, just about every horrendous thing that happens in the movie is the fault of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest (played by Mattia Sbragia).

Again, the movie in this way mirrors the Bible’s description of how matters played out. In Chapter 18 of John, Jesus is arrested in the middle of the night and hauled away to Caiaphas, who proceeds to interrogate Jesus. What is described in the chapter reads just like a scene out of a mob movie. As Jesus is being questioned, a small number of Caiaphas’s henchmen stand around him. It is easy to imagine them snickering sinisterly, maybe wearing quaint fedora hats. Whenever Jesus spouts his signature smart-ass answer in response to the high priest’s questions (i.e., “Well, as a matter of fact, I am the son of God”), the priestly henchmen are there to rough him up.

Then Jesus is taken before Pilate, and immediately a stark contrast is presented. Pilate displays a very gentle disposition toward Jesus, and they even come very close to engaging in philosophical discourse! The overall impression we get of Pilate, both from reading the biblical account and from watching Gibson’s faithful movie adaptation, is that he is a misunderstood and tormented man who feels forced by external forces working against him to crucify a man he believes is innocent [7].

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that goes out of its way to cast the Jews in a negative light. The vast majority of scholars agree that John was the also the latest of the four canonical gospels to appear, having been written between close to the year 100 CE – some 70 or 80 years after the events related – and the gospel did not begin to be circulated abroad in earnest until well into the second century. The other three gospels place little to no blame on the Jews (Matthew 27:25, the infamous “blood libel” verse, is the striking exception that proves the rule). But John’s Gospel even goes so far as to put words in the Jews’ own mouths to the effect that they personally want to see Jesus crucified and that their own law demands it – again, see John 19:6-7. By this point in late first-century history, Christianity was catching on with great success as a new religion. But with this success came pronounced embarrassment for the Christians when the vast majority of Jews were, to say the least, not wholeheartedly in favor of its message. As Thomas Whittaker writes,
As the orthodox Jews did not enthusiastically receive the new Gospel, or “glad tidings,” the responsibility for the death of the promised Redeemer began to be cast upon them, and withdrawn as much as possible from the Roman governor. Prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem, and parables prefiguring the rejection of the unbelieving Jews from the promised kingdom, were put in the mouth of Jesus. The new sect turned more and more to the Gentiles. The feast is for all except those men who were first invited . . . [8].
Supposedly, Christ came to reveal himself as the “King of the Jews,” but the Jews responded with proper skepticism and doubt. Thus, the writer of the gospel attributed to John had ample political and theological motivation to portray the Jews as a villainous, murderous people, a portrayal that again is largely absent from the other three canonical books. A strong case can therefore be made that John approached his gospel-writing project with a very specific and heavily propagandistic perspective on the events he describes. That is, the author seems to have had a vested interest in providing his readers a reason not to consider the Jews to be credible in their well-founded refutations of Christianity: they were responsible for Jesus’ death, and were henceforth a fallen people.

Thus, by consciously focusing on the Gospel of John, Mel Gibson definitely committed himself to the direction in which his story was to come from. Still, several of Gibson’s defenders have argued that Gibson is not blaming “the Jews” specifically for Christ’s torment and death in this film, but rather pointing the finger at evil, nasty bureaucrats, i.e., people who are in charge or in positions of great political power, regardless of his status as a Jew or Roman or anything else. But the problem with this defense is that the movie clearly does soft pedal the extent of Pontius Pilate’s participation in Jesus’ death, as do the Gospels. Additionally, we can point to the Caiaphas character as a counter-argument to Gibson’s defenders. Caiaphas serves as something of a composite figure, representative of the group of Jewish elders in the Temple as a whole. And they are all unambiguously and unmistakably depicted as the main villains in Gibson’s movie.

Moreover, the movie’s script borrowed heavily from the writings of the nineteenth century stigmatic and mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote a lengthy account of her visions of Jesus’ suffering and death in a work posthumously titled The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout this book, Emmerich often refers to the Jews using epithets that are not flattering, to say the least. Very early in the planning and pre-production stages of the movie, many of the reports that began circulating claiming that The Passion was going to be a horribly anti-Semitic film were driven by concern that the early script drafts were drawing from Emmerich’s writings, not just standard traditional texts like the Gospel of John, which is anti-Semitic enough on its own. Abraham N. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described Emmerich’s work as “an anti-Jewish account [which] distorts New Testament interpretation by selectively citing passages to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism” [9].

(By the way, Emmerich’s influence largely accounts for the presence of several scenes in the final film which are not found anywhere in the Gospels, or anywhere else in Scripture. In one interview, Gibson said of Emmerich, “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of” [10]. A case in point is what is in my opinion by far the most off-the-wall and strange scene of the entire film, that being the sequence in which Judas is hounded by little demonic children who torment him all night and in the morning drive him out physically into the countryside [11]).

People interested in defending the movie from charges of anti-Semitism will want to point out the few Jewish characters that are presented in a positive way, isolated instances though they are. For example, Gibson’s apologists are quick to draw attention to the very poignant scene in which a Jewish bystander on the Via Dolorosa is ordered by the Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross. This he does against his will at first, but then feels an unspoken bond to Jesus by the time they near the crucifixion site. But I cannot help but suspect, cynical as the suspicion may be, that the underlying message in this scene is this: Jews who are actually involved with promoting the Jewish religion are evil and villainous at heart. The “little people” – the Jewish peasantry who simply go about their daily lives and mind their own business – are certainly not evil. Not so with the people who are actively and diligently involved in spreading the Jewish faith. They of course are a very evil bunch!

Finally, it is highly significant that the self-directed curse uttered by the Jewish mob in Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us, and on our children”) is actually a line that is retained in the movie, although not in subtitles. Gibson had claimed that he removed the line out of the movie, but in reality the only thing he removed were the subtitles for the line. All viewers who understood Aramaic quickly caught on to this little tidbit of trivia, and Gibson’s disingenuousness could not be hidden for long.

Of course, it very well may be the case that Gibson was not being intentionally and overtly anti-Semitic in making his film the way he did. After all, as Gibson revealed in a 2004 interview with People magazine, the hands that are seen nailing Jesus to the cross during the crucifixion scene are Gibson’s own hands:
It's the director's left hand nailing Jesus to the cross. The cameo is more than a Hitchcockian gimmick. Gibson feels his telling of the Passion holds all humanity responsible for the death of Jesus. And, he has said, “I'm first on line for culpability. I did it” [12].
So perhaps the anti-Semitic overtones that do appear are due only to the fact that Gibson’s film takes many cues from the Gospel of John, which is at the very least latently anti-Semitic. In any event, those who are not anti-Semitic going in will most likely not end up becoming anti-Semitic going out. On the other hand, people who already harbor anti-Semitic feelings will certainly be able to garner a great deal of ammunition for their already-existing anti-Semitism by watching this film, which can easily be interpreted by them as an opportunity for another “see-I-told-you-so” moment.

In fact, Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver, Colorado made headlines back in 2004 for a large outdoor marquee they displayed the day the movie was released which declared, “’Jews Killed the Lord Jesus’ 1 Thess. 2:14,15 ¡ Settled !” If nothing else, Mel Gibson's new movie emboldened this church to make this public pronouncement [13]. The pastor of the church, Maurice Gordon, was completely unapologetic about the sign, saying “The word of God is the final word.” The Bible passage referenced on the sign, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, reads, “For ye, brethren, became followers of the Churches of God, which in Judea are in Christ Jesus; for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews; who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own Prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men.”

Thus, anyone who wants to throw charges of anti-Semitism at Gibson should first realize that the anti-Semitism they are reacting to does not start with him. There is plenty of fuel for anti-Semitic sentiment in the pages of Scripture. The problem is that people who do not hold repugnant anti-Semitic views have nevertheless unthinkingly committed themselves to saying they believe every word of the Bible to be true. This they do not knowing that the Bible contains many ideas and viewpoints that most people in civilized society today would never want to associate with [14]. Most, if not all, of the people say they believe the whole Bible to be true are people who simply have not read the entire book. They have just heard from their preachers that they are supposed to accept the whole book as truth in order to avoid hellfire, so they say they do.


Pontius Pilate

As mentioned above, The Passion of the Christ closely follows the Gospels’ accounts as far as the anti-Semitism is concerned. But this also means that The Passion, like the Gospels, is not merely historically inaccurate [15], but is overtly and pointedly ahistorical. This is especially the case in the movie’s characterization of Pontius Pilate. Extra-biblical historical sources inform us that the Pilate of history was a bloodthirsty tyrant who was actually recalled from his post in Judea for being too forceful in putting down religious dissent and keeping the Judean populace under the yoke, and also for ordering the crucifixion of too many people. Pilate even managed to offend and alienate the Emperor Tiberius with his extreme ruthlessness. This is significant, because Tiberius himself had a reputation for overseeing mass murder, and he is infamous to this day for his statement, “Let them hate me, so long as they support my government” [16].


Most people are familiar with the passages in the Gospels that refer to the politically-conciliatory tradition, allegedly maintained by the Roman government, of releasing one prisoner every year at Passover as a way of keeping those “uppity Jews” from completely transforming their drunken religious revelry into an all-out uprising and insurrection. The Romans never did any such thing. This is a Gospel fiction (as is the part of the story in which Pilate “washes his hands” of Jesus’ crucifixion; this he never did, and certainly would never have either occasion or motivation to do even if a historical personage named Jesus was executed on his watch). In fact, Bible scholars and historians have not been able to make any sense of the Barabbas story. For one thing, the name does not even make any sense. “Barabbas ultimately derives from the Aramaic Bar-abbâ (בר-אבא), literally meaning “son of the father.” This appears to be just another of many Gospel contrivances. The Barabbas story, it should be mentioned, was the one and only bit of comic relief to be found in the entire Passion of the Christ movie – it is actually quite hilarious to see Barabbas (played by Pietro Sarubbi) strutting around the crowd upon being released and gloating in wild excitement over being let off the hook.

Claudia Procles

Gibson threw in a number of other miscellaneous bits of ahistorical embellishment in The Passion. At one point, Pilate’s wife Claudia Procles (played by Claudia Gerini) personally brings a handful of large linens to Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene and joins the two of them in mopping up Jesus’ blood from the ground after his scourging. This particular scenario was invented by the stigmatic nun and mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, whom we have mentioned above already, in the nineteenth century [17].

“That Old Serpent, Called the Devil and Satan…”

The appearance of Satan as a character in the movie is another very interesting spin that confirms the ahistorical and pro-mythological nature of the movie. Satan is here played by a woman (Rosalinda Celentano), who looks to the uninitiated viewer to be either a very effeminate man or a very butch woman. The physical appearance of Celentano’s Satan is indeed very gender-ambiguous, an effect that was enhanced by altering the actress’s voice (which she consciously made an effort to deepen) with a harmonizer to render the voice more metallic [18]. This gender-ambiguity applied to the Satan character holds underlying ideological significance; Catholic doctrine has traditionally taken an especially strict stance on gender roles, such that failure to fit into a well-defined gender category is condemned by the Catholic worldview as evil [19]. In fact, presenting Satan as an androgynous figure, whose closest approximation to any predefined gender is one of either effeminate male or butch female, may even have been a very subtle anti-homosexual commentary on particular gay marriage controversies current in the early 2000’s.

But subtle underlying politics aside, it was actually fascinating to visually experience the Devil as a presence throughout the movie, especially the scene near the end which has Satan screaming in rage from the pits of hell as a representation of the spiritual defeat he suffered when Jesus completed his self-sacrifice (on that note, the movie actually is worth seeing for the quality of its visual representations, if for nothing else).

Herod Antipas

I want here to point toward the movie’s portrayal of the Jewish King Herod Antipas (played by Luca De Dominicis) as a data point further supporting my thesis that The Passion has an underlying anti-gay message. Gibson has been accused of blatant homophobia ever since his 1995 movie Braveheart, which controversially depicted the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward II) as an effeminate homosexual whose male lover is thrown out of a high window by the prince’s father Edward I. This trend, if understated, continues in The Passion of the Christ, which clearly did not make any strides toward making the homophobia charges against Gibson go away. In The Passion, Herod is made up in a terrible wig and is depicted as one hell of a flamer. This characterization of Herod is taken from Anne Catherine Emmerich’s book of Passion visions, which describes him as a “luxuriant and effeminate prince” [20].

The Appearance of Jesus

Speaking of effeminate-looking characters, it is interesting to note that in Hollywood, Jesus is generally depicted as a fairly effeminate man. Very rarely is he butch, big or beefy (Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ is one of these rare exceptions, perhaps the only one). However, Jesus does have a beard in most every movie about him, probably to offset any unwanted impressions or interpretations from the viewing public.

But it appears I digress for the sake of segueing smoothly. My main point in commenting on the physical appearance of Jesus in a section about “Historical Errors and Theological Extras” is really to make the observation that the very fact that the Jesus Christ character actually does appear on screen as a physical person in the movie necessarily renders it a historically-embellished dramatization. This is because no record exists of what Jesus’ physical appearance might have been, whether he was a real historical figure or not. This seemingly straightforward observation is one I need to “flesh out” carefully (no pun intended):

Throughout history, it has been quite typical for passion plays to represent the Christ figure as being very European and even Anglo-Saxon in appearance. The “European Christ” is the most traditional rendering that originated, of course, with the Roman Catholic Church. It has remained a staple feature of most all passion plays for many centuries, and all the Hollywood portrayals of Jesus owe much to the Roman Catholic Church in this regard. There is hardly anything new about it.

The Passion of the Christ is certainly no exception and breaks no new ground in this area. There are indeed many white people in the movie. While actor Jim Caviezel in his role as Jesus looks somewhat Semitic, he does so only in the modern sense. In contrast, Jews in first century Palestine probably looked a specific way that was not achieved by the movie’s make-up artists. If Jesus existed historically, he would most likely appear to all eyes as a very typical Jewish peasant living in the Middle East at the time. Any attempt by dramatists to make the Jesus character stand out from the crowd or appear distinctive is thus highly inaccurate.

A common tactic that has often been used in passion plays throughout history (at least the plays that had some anti-Semitic bent) was to make Christ look almost Aryan, complete with blue eyes and beautifully-groomed blonde hair, as a point of contrast to the villainous and very Semitic-looking Jews. Such depictions belied either ignorance or apathy toward the fact that Jesus, assuming he existed, was himself a practicing Jew.

This prejudicial typecasting has a long history; even in paintings from a thousand years ago which depict crucifixion and other passion scenes show, we see a very Aryan Christ surrounded by people who are clearly made to appear very Jewish. And while some people will make more of it than others, there are indeed a lot of “hooked noses” so to speak among the shouting mobs in Passion of the Christ.

As a counterpoint, it is only fair that I come full circle and make certain concessions. As I pointed out already, Jesus’ physical appearance is not described anywhere in the Bible, and there is not even much detail to be found anywhere concerning his heritage. It is therefore not impossible that Jesus could have been white (Christians do believe that half of his genes came from God, which I presume can operate and manifest themselves however they want). But the fact of the matter is that even if we had good, solid rock-hard evidence that a man named Jesus Christ existed and that all the things claimed of him actually happened historically, no one knows what his appearance would have been. No one knows anything about Jesus Christ’s appearance, regardless of whether he is mythical or historical – and this includes the Nazarenes who believe they have special knowledge of Jesus’ hairdo.

The fact remains that virtually all visual representations of Jesus made throughout history were intended to serve the purposes of dramatic effect, not historical accuracy, and this is demonstrably true of Gibson’s movie (again, the entire 20-minute scourging scene in the movie is based on a single sentence in the Bible).

Judas Iscariot

Bible nerds who are bothered by the two opposing accounts we find in the New Testament of the manner in which Judas Iscariot dies may want very much to see The Passion of the Christ. The answer they are seeking, according to Gibson’s Gospel, is that Judas hangs himself, as related in Matthew 27:5: “And he [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” Gibson does not even attempt to harmonize this with the conflicting version found in Acts 1:16-19, which informs us that Judas threw himself off a cliff with the result that he “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” [21]. So thanks to Mel Gibson, we now know that the Acts passage is the one that is not divinely inspired.

However, given the over-the-top nature of the rest of the movie, I was actually a bit disappointed that the filmmakers opted for just a plain hanging, instead of the “human landmine” version where special effects would treat us the viewers to the spectacle of actor Luca Lionello literally exploding and spraying the screen. In fact, if it were up to me, I would definitely have chosen to use the variant version of Judas’s death preserved by the early church father Papias: “Judas walked about in this world a sad [literally translated ‘great’] example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out [literally translated ‘were emptied out’]” [22].

Indeed, Gibson had a great many folkloric elements to choose from in portraying the character of Judas Iscariot. In fact, scholars are not even agreed on just how many legendary and mythical elements have found their way into the Judas cycles. A majority of scholars interpret the whole character of Judas, including the name itself, to be a metaphorical figure designed to symbolize the Jews as a whole [23]. The name “Iscariot” is thought by some scholars to be a Hellenized epithet identifying Judas as a member of the Sicarii (the plural form of the Latin word meaning “contract-killer” or “assassin”). The Sicarii, a band of Jewish Zealots, were one of many extremist rebel groups that existed at the time [24].


Due to the copious amount of publicity and pre-release hype, The Passion of the Christ made $26.6 million on opening day. It pulled in $117.5 million in its first five days of release, making it the second-biggest five-day opening of all time (coming in behind 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which made a record $124 million in its first five days). Mel Gibson enjoyed a release screening before an audience of 3,000 for a movie that would have suffered an early death in art houses had it not been a movie about Jesus Christ. Not only is The Passion a foreign language film, it is a dead language film with subtitles, making it a movie accessible only to the literate. On top of this, the movie is hyper-violent and received an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America when it should have been given an NC-17 rating for its level of violence if the MPAA rating board had treated it impartially. Domestically, the film topped off at close to $371 million, half of which went directly into Gibson’s pocket.

All this goes to show that there is no better publicity for a movie than when great controversy surrounds it. But this is not necessarily an unfortunate fact when it comes to The Passion. In writing this lengthy negative review, my purpose is not to dissuade or prevent others from seeing this movie if they have not already. The movie is very interesting and culturally relevant, and every atheist should watch it. On top of this, I believe it actually works well as a potent antidote against conversion to Christianity for fence-sitting nonbelievers [25]. After all, the quote from the fundamentalist Christian reviewer in the epigraph at the opening of this essay must be indicative of something positive.

In the interest of being generous and balanced, I want to end on a conciliatory note. I wish to stress that I fully and completely support the efforts of any filmmaker in making any film they see fit to make. As a strong atheist as well as a strong supporter of freedom of speech and of expression, I will always come out foursquare against any movement that attempts either to inhibit a filmmaker from making a religiously-themed movie or to inhibit the release of a religious movie. I am passionate about artistic freedom, and I say more power to Gibson for managing to make off like a bandit with his Christploitation flick.


1. Barbara Aho, “Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’: An International Hoax,” Watch Unto Prayer n.d. (last updated April 25, 2008), (accessed 13 June 2012).

2. Associated Press, “Role of Christ Lands Caviezel in Lion’s Den,” The Gadsden Times February 19, 2004, C1-C2.

3. William Cowper (1772), “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” in A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, from Various Authors: For the Use of Serious and Devout Christians of Every Denomination Eleventh Edition, ed. Richard Conyers (York: Thomas Wilson and Sons, High-Ousegate, 1824), p. 120-121.

4. KAKE News, “Woman Collapses During Showing of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” KAKEland online Feb. 25, 2004, (accessed 13 June 2012).

5. Elisha A. Hoffman and J.H. Tenney, eds., Spiritual Songs for Gospel Meetings and the Sunday School (Cleveland, OH: Barker & Smellie, 1878), Hymn # 15.

6. For my critical analysis of the violent and gory aesthetics of Christian hymnody, see Nathan Dickey, “Songs of Human Sacrifice: An Exploration of the Theme of Redemption in Christian Hymns,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 14 May 2010, (accessed 13 June 2012).

7. While Pontius Pilate himself did not control an appreciably large garrison of Roman soldiers, there was a very substantial garrison of Romans was maintained in Caesarea. This larger garrison had an established practice of bringing in reinforcements to Jerusalem every Passover, because that was a time when the Jewish populace tended to become particularly “uppity.” Thus, while Pilate’s political forces were sufficiently small enough that he sometimes had to placate others in charge with conflicting interests, the presence of this large Caesarean garrison of Roman soldiers completely invalidates any apologetic defense of Pilate’s actions, whether in reference to The Passion or to the Gospels.

8. Thomas Whittaker, The Origins of Christianity: with An Outline of Van Manen’s Analysis of the Pauline Literature Fourth Edition (London: Watts & Co., 1933), pp. 38-39.

9. Anti-Defamation League, “ADL Concerned Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ Could Fuel Anti-Semitism if Released in Present Form,” (ADL Press Release, August 11, 2003) (accessed 13 June 2012).

10. Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession,” The New Yorker September 15, 2003, 71.

11. However, it is an open question whether the movie’s demon-children sequence was drawn from Emmerich’s visions or just from Gibson’s own imagination. I quote from Emmerich’s narrative to show my point: “Then, but too late, anguish, despair, and remorse took possession of the mind of Judas. Satan instantly prompted him to fly. He fled as if a thousand furies were at his heel, and the bag which was hanging at his side struck him as he ran, and propelled him as a spur from hell; but he took it into his hand to prevent its blows . . . I again beheld him rushing to and fro like a madman in the valley of Hinnom: Satan was by his side in a hideous form, whispering in his ear, to endeavour to drive him to despair, all the curses which the prophets had hurled upon this valley, where the Jews formerly sacrificed their children to idols” (Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ [New York, NY: Cosimo Books, 1923], pp. 174, 175).

12. Allison Adato, “The Gospel of Mel,” People Vol. 61, No. 9 (March 8, 2004).

13., "’Jews Killed Jesus’ Sign Causing Controversy," Denver News February 25, 2004, (accessed 13 June 2012).

14. See Nathan Dickey, “The Unholy Bible: A Case Study in Obscene and Perverse Literature,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 25 March 2011, (accessed 13 June 2012).

15. Numerous minor historical inaccuracies find their way into the movie that many historians were quick to pick up on. To take just one example, the movie has Roman soldiers speaking a colloquial street Latin when (to be historically accurate) they should have been speaking Greek, the official language for administrative communication. See Dr. Andrea Berlin and Dr. Jodi Magness, “Two Archaeologists Comment on The Passion of the Christ," AIA Publications (March 2004). Posted at (accessed 13 June 2012).

16. W. Francis H. King, ed., Classical and Foreign Quotations: A Polyglot Manual of Historical and Literary Sayings, Noted Passages in Poetry and Prose Phrases, Proverbs, and Bons Mots Third Edition (London: J. Whitaker & Sons, Limited, 1904), p. 238.

17. Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 211.

18. Angela Baldassarre, “A Very Passionate Celentano,” Newswire March 21, 2004. Available from online, (accessed 13 June 2012).

19. See, for example, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., “A Conservative Catholic Point of View,” Catholic Planet n.d. (last updated January 7, 2012), (accessed 13 June 2012). Of course, this narrow view of gender roles has not been restricted only to Catholic Christians of late.

20. Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 195.

21. The fact that Gibson does not choose to harmonize the two different accounts of Judas’s death is quite surprising, since Emmerich, the stigmatic mystic upon whose passion visions the movie is based, did present an imaginative resolution to the discrepancy: “Overcome by despair Judas tore off his girdle, and hung himself on a tree which grew in a crevice of the rock, and after death his body burst asunder, and his bowels were scattered around” (Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 176).

22. Fragments of Papias, Fragment III, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume I – The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus (American Reprint of the [1885] Edinburgh Edition), eds. Rev. Alexander Roberts, Sir James Donaldson and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950-), p. 153.

23. Christianity’s depiction of Judas as a treacherous betrayer stems primarily from a deeply-rooted anti-Semitism. The English word “Jew” is derived from the Latin word Iudaeus. This root word in turn is very similar to the Greek Ιουδαίος (Ioudaios), usually translated to mean “Judaean.” In the Gospel of John, it is very possible and even highly probable that either the original writer or a later redactor/editor attempted to go out of his way to construct a parallel between Judas, Judaea, and the Judaeans (or Jews) in 6:70-71. This would strongly suggest that the similarity between the name “Judas” and the word for “Jew” in the various European languages has been instrumental in facilitating and encouraging anti-Semitism among the orthodox branches of Christianity. See Hyam Maccoby, Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 14.

24. Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 179.

25. I argued that a very similar “conversion antidote” case can be made for the massively popular Christian end-times fiction series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. See Nathan Dickey, “The Subcultural Apocalypse: A Critical Analysis of the ‘Left Behind' Series,’” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 14 June 2011, (accessed 13 June 2012).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 4): Christian Novels

I shall become your apostle whether you like it or not. I shall construct you and your life and your teachings and your crucifixion and resurrection just as I wish [1].

In 1678, Reformed Baptist preacher John Bunyan published his famous allegorical work The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, a work which, despite its sectarian Protestant overtones, has nevertheless captivated readers across many wide-ranging branches of Christian denominations. One of the earliest known examples of the Christian Novel, Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical narrative illustrating through metaphor many aspects of the religious life of devotion (in essence a novelizing or dramatization of the New Testament epistles) by way of the story of Christian, an Everyman character who embarks on a perilous journey from his hometown, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City where he seeks the culmination of the salvation and escape from judgment he found along the way. The narrative is notable for the way it takes abstract theological doctrines and issues and concretizes them for the reader, making abstract concepts more real by turning them into people and obstacles that the protagonist encounters within the confines of the secondary world. The story is related in the form of a dream experienced by a nameless wanderer who makes a brief appearance at the very beginning: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I dreamed a dream [2].”

This allegorizing technique was used by the medievalist and novelist C.S. Lewis in his famous series of novels The Chronicles of Narnia [3], which followed in the tradition that was in many ways pioneered by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, illustrating key religious and theological concepts and teachings by way of creative storytelling whose plotlines, themes and characters parallel a number of items of Christian faith. Prior to Pilgrim’s Progress, the technique was utilized by poets rather than novelists, prominent instances being Dante’s Divine Comedy (1321) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)[4]. Both these epic poems dramatized, with creative license, doctrines relating to the afterlife (prime fodder for satiating peoples’ imaginations with added details) and the Fall of Adam and Eve, respectively [5].

The distinctive art form known as the Christian Novel represents the religious devotee’s desire to “dream,” to cognitively move beyond the “wilderness of this world” to experience a fuller and more complete narrative that goes beyond the familiar texts of canon scripture and satisfies gaps left in the imagination by that familiar canon. The “dream” of Bunyan can thus be viewed as a metaphor for religious escapism through the medium of fiction, an escapism for which there is a fine line between enhancement of a religious worldview and what many might lampoon as “spiritual pornography [6].” In this sense Dante’s Divine Comedy was not much different from Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron.

The enhancement of traditional, over-familiar faith texts that religious fiction novels offer is analogous to the particular kind of enhancement known as etiology. Deriving from the Greek word aitiologia (“giving a reason for”), etiology refers to the study of why things occur, including the reasons underlying why things are as they are and behave as they do. For example, an etiological myth seeks to explain the rationale for names of places or peoples, and/or to create a mythic history for those places and peoples [7]. In other words, etiological supplements provide fodder for filling in gaps in knowledge and for satisfying conceptual difficulties in the process of imagination. A great deal of fan fiction falls easily into the category of etiological supplements. And of course, Christianity and the Bible hold a massive fan fiction base larger than any others combined (especially in America), and in fact have for centuries.

Dimestore Apocalypses

The more enigmatic and mysterious a particular portion of Scripture comes across, the more likely it is to receive fan fiction treatment in the interests of fleshing out tantalizing details not disclosed in canonical scripture. This explains the great popularity and success of Christian novels that deal with the “end-times” as described by the major prophetic books of the Bible, such as Daniel and Revelation. Take, for example, the Christian concept of the Antichrist, a figure who is mentioned in only one verse in the whole Bible (I John 2:18), but who nevertheless has utterly fascinated believers and nonbelievers alike for the last two thousand years, likely due to the equation of “Antichrist” to the “Beast” in Revelation and the “Man of Perdition” in Daniel. As religious historian Bernard McGinn remarks, “What is most significant about Antichrist’s appearance in literature has been the attempts to probe the motivation (and at times even the psychology) behind ultimate human evil . . . It is probably no accident that novels and novellas, where motivation and character development are so important, display the most interesting Antichrists [8].” A great deal of these fictional accounts, certainly the ones we are primarily concerned with here, are the brainchild of religious believers seeking to present a doctrine they view as theologically accurate in a compelling, contemporary way which will not only titillate believing readers, but also draw in potential converts who would not normally pick up a Bible or a Bible commentary.

The wave of Christian end-times novels that have flowed into the Christian subculture for the last fifty years serve a dual function: they are a way of making sense out of the failing of Jesus to return, and they feed off the certainty that he is still coming back. What believing connoisseurs of these novels are actually doing is the former. What they say they are doing is the latter. What seems to be clear upon reflection is that the function of these novels and movies about the Christian end of the world is to psychologically fill in glaring gaps; according to the beliefs which fundamentalists have hammered home to them in church every week, the Second Coming ought to be happening at any time now. In fact, it should have happened before now. Needless to say, it is not happening. So what is the next step? In their imagination, they are able to visualize the apocalypse happening, and this largely suffices. The imagination serves to soften and soothe the wound of disappointed expectation.

A striking example of this psychological function is seen on the back-cover blurb summary of evangelist Ernest W. Angley’s 1950 novel Raptured, a novel which is clearly and unambiguously fantastical in nature: “With God’s help, determine for yourself whether the days of rapture are fact or fairy tale! Read about real people, in real situations, in this remarkable, inspiring book [9].” One finds this technique again with Jim Grant’s novelization of the 1972 evangelical horror film A Thief in the Night: “After reading A Thief in the Night, there is only one question you need to answer: Whose place would I want to be in? – Patty’s or Jim’s?”[10] By way of background, Patty in this story is the hapless character who, due to her lack of salvation, “had discovered too late that the loving God, who had allowed the world to go on as He had just so that as many as would could come to Him, had finally called a halt and moved into the next phase. She had discovered that the straight way was the only way. And now she was straight in a crooked world [11].” This indulgence in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy is seen to an even greater extent in Salem Kirban’s 1970 novel 666, a novel in which photographs and actual newspaper clippings are interspersed throughout the text to lend it a subliminal realism. In the introduction to his novel, Kirban writes, “This book . . . is a novel. Therefore much of it is fiction. However, it is important to note that very much of it is also FACT [12].”

There have been enough failed predictions within most adults’ lifetimes that many of them must have experienced disappointment, but the power of fiction is such that it eases the frustration. Seeing the vicissitudes of the Tribulation play out on the page via the imagination may not be as good or satisfying as the real thing, but wounds of disappointment and yearning are salved nonetheless.

“The secularization of the sacred apocalyptic myths,” writes Conrad Ostwalt “has been completed in Left Behind [13].” The Left Behind series of novels, conceived in the early 1990s by evangelist Tim LaHaye and written by Jerry B. Jenkins, is arguably the most popular and influential set of Christian novels of the last hundred years [14]. Called “The great Christian apocalypse of our day” by Bible scholar Robert M. Price [15], the Left Behind series represents the culmination of a long, struggling (often awkwardly-handled) tradition among Christian writers to dramatize or novelize the apocalypse. Total sales of the books have surpassed 65 million copies, and since the release of the first book in 1995 [16], the venture has spawned a multimedia franchise that includes three movie adaptations (all starring popular evangelist Kirk Cameron), a spin-off series aimed at younger readers entitled Left Behind: The Kids, comic books based on the novels, three video games, and radio dramas that in many ways mimics George Orwell’s famous War of the Worlds radio drama.

The wild popularity of the series demonstrates that evangelical culture has become extremely proficient and competent in adopting secular standards to improve the Christian message. This is made all the more fascinating when one considers the extremely literalist standpoint with regard to theological doctrine that the authors of Left Behind assert and from which the storyline and concept is derived. As Robert Dreyfuss notes, “[LaHaye’s] books depict a fantastical, fictional version of what he and his followers think is in store for the human race . . . If the Bible (Revelation 9:1-11) says that billions of six-inch long scorpionlike monsters with the heads of men, ‘flowing hair like that of women’ and the teeth of lions, wearing crowns and helmets, will swarm across the globe gnawing on unbelievers – well, that’s exactly what LaHaye says will happen [17].”

Secular, mass-market novels in the horror genre that borrow elements from religious apocalypses adopt an ostensibly different approach than the material written primarily for Bible believers. For one thing, secular treatments of biblical themes in general display more flexibility, more comfort and ease at using creative and artistic license with sacred texts. The Omen series of novels and films, which appeared in the 1970s and marked the beginning of a tidal wave of secular novels that incorporated religious end-times elements, is a great example of this. Stephen King’s apocalyptic blockbuster The Stand (1978; revised, restored, expanded, 1991) was another significant contribution to this trend, one of the best examples of highly selective adaptation of scripture.

Interestingly enough, however, an analysis of these secular mainstream novels finds that there is not as great a divide between them and their more religiously-oriented counterparts as one might initially expect. For example, The Omen was originally conceived by evangelical Robert Boyd Munger, who intended the film to serve as an evangelistic scare. As Bible scholar Robert M. Price points out, “The producers even took on Hal Lindsey as a consultant, but he dropped out when he saw the project going off in what he deemed unscriptural directions [18].” Hal Lindsey, of course, is the infamous author of The Late Great Planet Earth , the single bestselling title of the 1970s [19]; his evangelical influence on the first stages of the film’s production is retained in a few isolated but still eye-raising bits of dialogues. For instance, in David Seltzer’s novelization of the screenplay, a Catholic priest frantically pleads with Ambassador Thorn, the story’s main protagonist and unwitting abettor of the child who will become the future Antichrist: “You must accept Christ as your Saviour. You must accept him now [20].” However, there exists a decidedly anti-Catholic bent among many Christian end-times prophesiers, and Lindsey is no exception. Catholics, of course, are portrayed as heroes in The Omen series. Thus, while one can still detect some evangelical influence, it is for the most part drowned out in the final product.

Another peculiarity worth pointing out is the fact that that in Gordon McGill’s novel version of The Final Conflict (the third installment in the series), Jesus is reborn just as the evil Antichrist character Damien Thorn expected and tried to plan for by attempting to kill every infant boy in Britain. Damien cannot get to his target, however, because Jesus is born without any birth records among Gypsies living in the countryside [21]. In the movie version of The Final Conflict, this premise is changed completely. As it turns out, Jesus returns miraculously to earth as an adult, just as the fundamentalists expect. It is rather apparent that an individual or group exerted religiously-motivated pressure on the screenwriter to alter the originally-planned ending.

The Stand by Stephen King is an example of an apocalyptic novel that delivers to readers real, genuine suspense. Unlike in LaHaye’s series, in which every jot and tittle of the Book of Revelation is dramatized, the characters here do not immediately understand what is happening to the world. Some only suspect that what is described in Revelation might be playing out, but they are not played out blow-by-blow, heightening the mystery:
The Antichrist, that’s what I think. We’re living out the Book of Revelation right in our own time . . . how can you doubt it? “And the seven vials were opened . . .” Sure sounds like the superflu to me.

Ah, balls, people said Hitler was the Antichrist [22].
By contrast, there is no real suspense element at work in LaHaye’s series, because he has simply mapped the biblical apocalypse out literally and invited his readers to grab their proverbial popcorn and watch it come to life. Additionally, because LaHaye and Jenkins attempt to track the Bible as accurately as they imagine the Bible is guiding them to, it becomes easier for their audience to accept their narrative in a literal way, subconsciously believing in its truth based on the Bible’s teaching that what they read is how events are going to unfold, while consciously recognizing the novels as fiction. This process of assimilation is prodded on by the authors’ incorporation of constant obtrusive preaching in the form of various characters explicating to each other exactly how they know what is in store for them based on their readings of biblical prophecy.

Of course, fundamentalist Christians are the primary audience LaHaye and Jenkins have in mind, but no doubt they are also interested in attempting to save the unconverted through the vehicle of a bestselling fiction novel series. The Left Behind series ostensibly serves the same intended function of Pastor Rick Warren’s massively popular book The Purpose-Driven Life [23]. Both were written for fundamentalist audiences for whom the dogma contained in both must have been familiar territory, and yet The Purpose-Driven Life was billed and heavily advertised as a book filled with great new insights, new and profound epiphanies that could be effectively employed as a convincing evangelistic tract. The same mindset underlined the emergence of the Left Behind franchise, which has developed into a full-blown example of pop culture “Wal-Mart evangelism” that seeks to scare general fiction readers into salvation in the checkout aisle.


1. Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1960), 478.

2. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678; reprint ed., New York: Signet Classics, 2002), 11.

3. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: A Story for Children (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950); Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951); The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952); The Silver Chair (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953); The Horse and His Boy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1954); The Magician’s Nephew (London: The Bodley Head, 1955); The Last Battle (London: The Bodley Head, 1956).

4. John Milton, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained (1667, 1671; reprint ed., New York: Signet Classics, 2001); Dante Alighieri (1321), The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003).

5. Modern Christian writers, in addition to writing novels, have also imitated the epic poem genre, most notably Calvin Miller’s blank-verse epic poem The Singer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), an allegory of the life of Christ.

6. For example, see Fred Clark, “L.B.: Explicit Content,” The Slacktivist (blog) 6 June 2005. (accessed 10 June 2012).

7. See Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga & History, trans. W.H. Carruth (1901; reprint ed., New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 25.

8. Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 263. See also Nathan Dickey, “The Literate Antichrist: A Dilemma for Christian Eschatology,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 22 March 2011. (accessed 10 June 2012).

9. Ernest W. Angley, Raptured: A Novel on the Second Coming of the Lord (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1950), back cover blurb.

10. Jim Grant, A Thief in the Night (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), back cover blurb.

11. Ibid., pp. 83-84.

12. Salem Kirban, 666 (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1970), 11.

13. Conrad Ostwalt, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 96.

14. For my critical analysis of the series, see Nathan Dickey, "The Subcultural Apocalypse: A Critical Analysis of the 'Left Behind' Series," The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 14 June 2011. (accessed 10 June 2012).

15. Robert M. Price, The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 271.

16. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995).

17. Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone 19 January 2004, 45.

18. Price, The Paperback Apocalypse, 241.

19. Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).

20. David Seltzer, The Omen (New York: New American Library, 1976), 60.

21. Gordon McGill, The Final Conflict (New York: New American Library, 1980).

22. Stephen King, The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition (New York: Signet, 1991), 888.

23. Richard Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 3): Contemporary Christian Music

Coming into contact with outer entities / We could entertain each one with our theosophy ~ Blondie [1]

In 1974, Christian music composer and singer Ken Medema presented a song on his now-rare album Son Shiny Day that cleverly and subtly encapsulated the burgeoning new trends and inroads the Evangelical counterculture was creating in the entertainment industry. The lyrics of the song, entitled “You Can’t Go Back,” tells an imaginative, high-concept story that illustrates the importance and necessity of moving beyond the traditional, tried-and-true musical forms that conservative religion was accustomed to:
High in the towers of Ecclesia they heard it
They heard the wind blowing hard across the land
They saw the fire, it was burning down the statues
They tried to stop it but they did not understand
They sat in silence as they saw the disillusion
They looked for safety but safety wasn’t found
Within the walls of the fortress was confusion
Their mighty castles being burned down to the ground
I said you can’t go back
To the music of yesterday
You can’t go back
To the music of yesterday
You got to stop hiding
And you got to stop running away [2]
Despite its use of metaphor and allegory, the words of this song speak all too clearly about the growing recognition among young evangelical musicians in the early 1970s that they had the potential to express their faith in a far more culturally-relevant way than had hitherto been explored. This urge to break the barriers between sacred and profane was largely catalyzed by the general zeitgeist created by the music of the 1960s, a time when the Top 40 charts featured the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Henry Mancini, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin. The war in Vietnam was raging, and many people, particularly college students, were much more exercised and angry about the war than their counterparts are in our day about the war in Iraq. Intense protests took place that created a flood of “protest music,” a completely new musical paradigm.

The contemporary Christian music subculture emerged almost seamlessly from this new musical paradigm from among members of the significant fraction known as the “Jesus Movement” that branched off from the hippie counterculture [3]. Most of the young people who came into the Jesus Movement upon their conversion to southern California-style Christianity were disillusioned with the culture they once called home, finding that “free love” was often not free, and perhaps not even love. Calvary Chapel, which gained a reputation as a radical, edgy church at the time for allowing its congregants to attend services in jeans and barefoot, drew them in with offers of “real love” through Jesus [4]. The new religious music style they gave birth to “began as a fledgling venture, with members of the youthful Jesus Movement using existing rock and folk music to communicate the gospel message to alienated youth of the Vietnam era [5].” Larry Norman, whose 1969 debut album Upon This Rock is widely considered to be the very first Christian rock album ever made, was a hippie who came to Christ. Barry McGuire, a former protest singer famous for his song “Eve of Destruction” (one of the prototype protest songs of the 1960s) became a Christian believer as a result of the Jesus Movement. He went on to create a Christian album entitled Seeds, released by Billy Ray Hearn’s Christian label Myrrh Records.

Given the emotionally-manipulative nature of music, it is no surprise that music was the major force that drew in disillusioned youth out of the hippie movement. When combined with religious themes and imagery, music becomes an especially potent tool for conversion and then subsequently for reinforcing faith through the emotional responses it elicits. Robert M. Price, a former evangelical and current Bible scholar, made an especially revealing comment on the power of contemporary Christian music on his Bible Geek podcast:
When I think back on the period in which being a born-again evangelical was the most exciting for me (around 1976), I remember how I was listening to “Contemporary Christian Music” like Love Song, Chuck Girard, Danny Taylor, Randy Matthews, The 2nd Chapter of Acts, Larry Norman, and others. This wasn’t merely compatible with spirituality. I realized later that this was my spirituality. Having these songs (and what they meant) running through my head all the time in the background really did paint the canvas of my thinking and feeling all the time . . . this really was the lifeblood of my Christian consciousness. Yeah, I was reading a lot of apologetics and reading the Bible and trying to pray and all of that. But more than anything else, I found that this Christian music was the breathable atmosphere of spirituality for me. I imagine Christians of an earlier generation had some of the great hymns of the faith running through their minds in the same way [6].
The “music of yesterday” mentioned in Ken Medema’s song is a reference to these “great hymns of the faith” that ran through the minds of earlier generations of believers. Even classical and traditional church music had an aggressive side stemming from its emotionally-manipulative power. “[H]ymn-singing is, as a matter of fact, the most insistent and clamorous of all the ways in which the Christian faith and worship makes impact on the world around it . . . You can close your eyes; you can stay away from the church and so neither taste nor see that the Lord is good. But you cannot close your ears, and if a group of Christian people chose to sing a hymn under your windows you are defenceless [7].” When one spoke of “Christian music” in the late 1960s and early Seventies, one immediately thought of inspirational choir music or classic hymns, material that was more in the vein of a George Beverly Shea type of artist at a Billy Graham Crusade. In the early Seventies, people found the utterly novel concept of “Christian rock” utterly fascinating.

But even the classical, traditional and hymnological “music of yesterday” was not elevated from the use of appropriation of popular culture for religious ends. “With the Gospel Hymns came a more popular tone and greater effort to reach the man in the street; and out of the social forces at work a little later a demand for a hymnody specially adapted to the needs of the new age [8].” To take a strong example, Charles Wesley, a prominent figure in the Methodist movement of the 18th century, wrote about 6,500 hymns during his lifetime “on hundreds of Scripture texts and on every conceivable phase of Christian experience and Methodist [9],” the tune of most of them being lifted directly from a great number of popular tunes current at that time. This was mainly due to the fact that Wesley lacked any formal musical training and ability.

Compare the pop-culture appropriations of Charles Wesley over 200 years ago to the modern Christian rock band ApologetiX, a parody group that rewrites the popular secular songs they cover with explicitly Christian lyrics. Within their lyrical canon, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll” becomes “I Love Apostle Paul” (“I love Apostle Paul / He put a lotta lines in the Good Book baby / I love Apostle Paul / From Romans into Philemon yes indeed10). Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” becomes “Learn Some Deuteronomy” (“Learn some Deuteronomy – can you name those laws / Learn from Deuteronomy – c'mon try because / Learn your Deuteronomy – you ain't good enough / God's Law – is tricky to keep – born again you must be, yeah11). Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” is transformed into “Smooth Grandmama,” a pious elderly woman who “karaokes to old tapes of Sandi Patty” and proselytizes the Christian faith to her grandson [12]. Even Eminem’s “Slim Shady” alter ego is given a pious reworking:
I've sinned greatly, but Christ's for real, baby
It's a wonder He saved me and just didn't hate me
So won't you tell Him "Save me," please stand up, please stand up, please stand up
Yes, I've been crazy, yes, I've been real shady
Always wanted Him to save me, but just didn't say it
So won't you tell Him "Save me," please stand up, please stand up, please stand up [13].
Music serves as an intertextual narrative to our lives, and when the story it serves as an enriching soundtrack for is a religious one, the modernized results can be very surprising and often humorous. But what about enriching or enhancing text itself?


1. Blondie, “(I Am Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear,” from Plastic Letters (Chrysalis Records, 1978).

2. Ken Medema, “You Can’t Go Back,” from Son Shiny Day (Word Records, 1974). This song predates a much more well-known song by the progressive rock band Rush, which dealt with a very similar story theme involving a freethinking individual living in a future dystopian totalitarian society, who rediscovers the long-lost guitar and presents the newfound musical form to the totalitarian authorities in the hopes of ushering in a new musical paradigm (“I can’t wait to share this new wonder / The people will all see its light / Let them all make their own music / The priests praise my name on this night” (Rush, “2112,” from 2112 (Mercury Records, 1976).

3. William D. Romanowski, “Contemporary Christian Music: The Business of Music Ministry,” in Quentin J. Schultze, ed., American Evangelicals and the Mass Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Acadamie Books/Zondervan, 1990), 143-169.

4. As the Christian rock band dc Talk put it in one of their hit songs, “The word ‘love,’ well it was once overused / Back in the 70s the word was abused / But I refused to let love be diluted / We can’t allow physical lust to intrude it” (“Say the Words,” from Free At Last [ForeFront Records, 1992]).

5. William D. Romanowski, “Evangelicals and Popular Music: The Contemporary Christian Music Industry,” in Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, eds., Religion and Popular Culture in America (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 105.

6. Robert M. Price, “December 23,” The Bible Geek Podcast 23 Dec. 2010 (TalkShoe Recordings [], accessed 4 June 2012), 14:26 - 16:14.

7. Erik Routley, B.D., D.Phil., Hymns and Human Life (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), 2-3.

8. Benjamin Brawley, History of the English Hymn (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1932), 234.

9. Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 84.

10. ApologetiX, “I Love Apostle Paul,” from Spoofernatural (Parodudes Records, 2001).

11. ApologetiX, “Learn Some Deuteronomy,” Spoofernatural.

12. ApologetiX, “Smooth Grandmama,” from Grace Period (Parodudes Records, 2006).

13. ApologetiX, “The Real Sin Savior,” from Keep the Change (Parodudes Records, 2001).

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 2): Secular vs. Religious Uses of Mass Media

Religion in America, especially Christianity, has sought to transcend the superficiality of merely riding on the waves of popular culture and picking up its signals. Hence, a very distinct subculture of religious popular culture has emerged over the course of the last century, a subculture whose distinctiveness from secular counterparts in literature, music, film, radio and the press arises from religious adherents’ desire to conform to the scriptural teaching of being “in the world but not of the world.” As R. Laurence Moore observes, “To halt what they [clerics] viewed as a decline in moral and religious seriousness, they descended into the marketplace to erect some competition . . . In their own churches and in forums outside the regular market, they invented, and used as enticements, Christian forms of fun [1].” But Christian forms of popular culture have evolved into something much more than merely a pious imitation of the secular world for those who want a similar escapist experience without the “corrupting” influence (although, as we will see, that is indeed a significant aspect to study). It has also become an exercise in seeking out and maintaining relevance to the larger outside community. The message coming from culture-savvy ministers of religion, says Conrad Ostwalt, is hard to mistake: “[I]n order to grow, in order to reach a lost world, they must address the existential concerns of a secular society by adopting its language and customs to appear relevant to such a society [2].” The result has been the transformation of American religion into a marketplace commodity on the cultural shelves. Hence, one can today walk into a major bookstore chain or music store and find a special “Christian Fiction” section set apart from general fiction, and “Contemporary Christian Music” set apart from the sections of general music genres any one Christian artist or band might fit into. Then of course there are many store chains which are billed as specifically Christian, in which one can find literature, music, movies and recreational spaces and events that have found a home in this sequestered subcultural space.

The irony is that this subculture has created an environment whose effects, for those participating within its confines, is not qualitatively different from those of the larger secular media. Much of religion’s original meaning and context is lost in transmission to popularized vernacular mediums, and the process of assimilation and interpretation by its consumers is equivalent to that occurring in the larger secular media world, the only difference being that the religious subculture is a specialized, custom-made model, a portrait in miniature of its more diversified and universal parent.

Of course, religious themes and references are everywhere to be found in secular popular culture as well, and comparing secular uses of religious ideas to those within subcultures explicitly marketed as religious yields a number of highly interesting insights to the culturally-aware critic. The primary difference is often one of nuance and subtlety versus a straightforward rendering that is self-evident in its second-handedness and in its creative appropriations. Secular culture is replete with unspoken homages to religious themes. The figure of Christ, for example, is an “archetype [that] assumes innumerable dramatic forms [3].” Motifs and themes that reflect religious imagery and ideas, when utilized creatively by secular culture, very often assume universalistic characteristics. As Moseley remarks, “The correlative of Christ is the something through which the Western writer frequently gets at everything [4].” Countercultures, on the other hand, by their very nature take the elements of whatever they are reacting to and bring them to the forefront. In the case of the religious counterculture in America, this process is especially noticeable. In many cases it is a process of reclaiming, as evangelists who have a finger on the pulse of popular culture take the universal aspects that secular society has recognized and found compelling and convert these aspects into narrowly-construed and specialized art forms that mimic and imitate secular narratives that have seen huge success. Witness, for instance, Christian novelist Ted Dekker’s The Circle series, a sci-fi/fantasy epic that purports to be a more Christianized version of the immensely influential Matrix trilogy of movies [5]. Or take a look at Tim LaHaye’s Babylon Rising fiction series [6], which basically asks and fleshes out the question, “What if Indiana Jones was a devout Christian?”

Examples of such imitation in the interests of providing a more “virtuous” alternative are everywhere to be found. One Christian organization has created “JesusWeen,” an outreach that offers a more pious alternative way for people of faith to celebrate Halloween [7]. In Orlando, Florida, a Christian-targeted theme park called “The Holy Land Experience” recreates the sights and sounds of ancient Jerusalem, including replicas of famous biblical scenes and live reenactments of the Passion ordeal of Christ. In the category of “Christ-honoring products,” the Christian cartoon series Veggie Tales achieved success partly as a result of Disney boycotts [8], and videos featuring Bibleman, an evangelical action hero who quotes Scripture as he battles evildoers and is protected by a literal “helmet of salvation” and “breastplate of righteousness,” present a pious alternative to heroes like Superman or Batman (who display more humanistic values) while also incorporating video game tropes and popular music [9]. The secular DC Comics’ series Infinite Crisis has been imitated by Archangels: The Saga, a comic book series dealing with spiritual warfare in which warrior angel superheroes seek help from a superior power. For Christian teens who take offense at raunchy and irreverent teen comedies such as Road Trip and American Pie, director Eric Hannah offered a more wholesome alternative with 2001’s Extreme Days, a road-trip comedy about five college students who manage to live morally-upright lives but still be hip and cool.

These trends extend even to the text of the Bible itself. Most people are aware of new Bible translations such as The Living Bible, The Way and The Message which rewrite the Bible in completely modern language and vernacular, but a relatively new phenomenon in the Christian publishing industry is Transit Books’ Revolve: The Complete New Testament [10], billed as the first Bible designed to look just like a teenage fashion magazine for girls, and Refuel: The Complete New Testament [11], the same concept as Revolve only this time with teenage boys as the target audience. There is even Metal Bible on the market, a Bible edition specially designed and geared for fans of heavy metal. The publishing company responsible for this product, Bible for the Nations, has also released many other Bible editions, including a Biker Bible, Trucker Bible and Football Bible.


1. R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 268.

2. Conrad Ostwalt, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 60.

3. Edwin M. Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel: Motifs and Methods (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), 34.

4. Ibid., p. 35.

5. Ted Dekker, Black (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004); Red (Nasville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004); White (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004); Green (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

6. Tim LaHaye and Greg Dinallo, Babylon Rising (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003); Tim LaHaye and Bob Phillips, Babylon Rising: The Secret on Ararat (New York: Bantam Dell, 2004); LaHaye and Phillips, Babylon Rising: The Europa Conspiracy (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005); LaHaye and Phillips, Babylon Rising: The Edge of Darkness (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006).

7. Sonia Van Gilder Cooke, “The Latest Christian Halloween Protest: JesusWeen,” Time NewsFeed 10 October 2011. (accessed 3 June 2012).

8. Hillary Warren, There’s Never Been a Show Like Veggie Tales: Sacred Messages in a Secular Market (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005).

9. Richard W. Santana and Gregory Erickson, Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008), 12.

10. Thomas Nelson, Inc., Revolve: The Complete New Testament (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2003).

11. Thomas Nelson, Inc., Refuel: The Complete New Testament (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2004).

12. Johannes Jonsson, coord., Metal Bible English Version (Howell, MI: Starve The Flesh, 2011). A preview of this product can be viewed at