The Blurred Line Between Pop Theology and Holy Writ

In April of 1999, songwriter Tom Waits released “Mule Variations,” a rough-edged (though often comical) lapse into cynical territory, punctuated by heavy-handed piano playing and the constant plucking of poorly tuned banjos. Waits has always been the stuff of the impoverished poet, the raspy singer who records in barns and buys his equipment used from country pawn shops. The album’s seminal track was entitled “Chocolate Jesus,” and served as nothing less than an indictment of a host of American attitudes towards religion — through that hoarse cough of a singing voice, Waits accused America of wanting a “candy savior,” ignoring all versions of God other than the ones found convenient and appealing. The song was released amidst the first waves of the newest invasion of religiously-informed popular media overtaking America’s cultural landscape but, like so much good art, got virtually no popular attention. Regardless, Waits was examining something he saw in American society, a cultural tendency to cling to certain images of God that are neither accurate nor helpful but that seem appealing nonetheless. The reasons for this are traceable: Firstly, that, like sex and violence, religion sells. It is provocative, charged, and potentially controversial. Secondly, that these specific texts often resonate with readers because they may be seen as a reaction or a challenge to traditional ideas about organized religion. The Da Vinci Code and "Stigmata", for instance, both capitalize on the more secret aspects of Catholicism’s history, setting up scenarios in which the Catholic Church is called into question. On the other hand, works like "The Passion of the Christ" and Left Behind may serve as a buffer to the more questioning texts. Thirdly, they actually do raise important questions about religion in America and do help to enlighten readers to the notion that there might be more to their religion than what they were taught to believe. Unfortunately, these texts also tend to supply their own answers to the questions raised, filling in the blanks through their narratives, and readers don’t always separate the fact from the fiction.

The presence of religion in popular culture is anything but new. The 19th century in particular saw an upsurge in religious themes in commercial media, truly signaling for the first time that religion functions as a commodity with surprising success. (Moore 213) R.L. Moore traces the history of religion as a market commodity in Selling God, from the first Protestant printing companies to the aggressive marketing of televangelists. For Moore, the simplest and clearest indication of a religious market presence in America, however, is right under our noses:

One major reason why the extent of religious publishing goes unnoticed is the policy of the secular press not to count sales made in religious bookstores when compiling the best-seller lists. If we truly want to know what Americans read, the policy has done a considerable disservice. There are over six thousand Christian bookstores across the United States, mostly affiliated with the Christian Booksellers Association that was formed in 1949. Gross sales approach two hundred million dollars. An astonishing number of the book titles deal with prophecy and the final days before Christ's Second Coming. If it is at all plausible to imagine that people take what they read seriously, we probably have as a proportion of the population as many Americans anxiously awaiting the end of the world in the 1990s as in the heyday of the Millerites.
Religion sells. It sells because it is something larger than all of us, something that we see around us and yet something that demands that we are greater than the sum of our parts. It is divisive and controversial, sparking interest and holding it there, and “Christian books” are marketed in Christian bookstores as the next step towards strengthening one’s relationship with God.

"Stigmata" (Dir. Rupert Wainwright, 1999) is one of the most blatant examples of a cultural text with revolutionary overtones. Often seen as a direct challenge to the legitimacy and spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, it hinges on the possession of a young woman and a series of miraculous occurrences surrounding her, coinciding with the hidden discovery of the Gospel of Thomas. "Stigmata" plays upon the skepticism of its audience, calling the institution of Catholicism into question, and this question resonates particularly strongly with an incredulous portion of the American populace. Problematically, however, the film intersects with actual academic fact in only two places: Firstly, that the stigmata are historically received by especially pious individuals, and that these individuals only receive one or two of the wounds of Christ. Secondly, that the Gospel of Thomas presents a view of God and Christianity that is less concerned with organized religion and more focused on the omnipresent nature of God and the personal connection between mankind and the divine. Appearing multiple times (including on the main character’s apartment wall, scrawled in her own blood during a bout of possession), only one passage attributed to this gospel is featured in the film: “The Kingdom of God is in you and all around you. Split a piece of wood and you will find me. Lift a stone and I am there.” This quote is, in fact, not a saying (this gospel’s equivalent to a “verse”) from the Gospel of Thomas, but rather fragments from two separate sayings (saying 3 and saying 77, respectively) removed from context and appended to each other. Presented as largely representative of the entire work as a whole, the quote does highlight the gospel’s pantheistic tendencies. However, the discovery of the text throws the entire Vatican into disarray, bringing to light perpetually deepening levels of conspiracy in a treacherous effort to conceal the truth of the text. This is a work of total fiction, absurd in its narrative assumptions. The Gospel of Thomas is of course not lost and can be purchased from any major bookstore’s religion section. Furthermore, the text’s legitimacy is so questionable as to be nearly negligible by the Church, let alone important enough to cover up. Recognized as the simple telling of an entertaining story, the film is hardly problematic in terms of hampering legitimate religious discourse, but nonetheless it should be taken in context.

In a similar vein, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) toys with the idea of an alternate Christian history, one focused on the prospect of Mary Magdalene giving birth to the child of Jesus, giving rise to a Church-protected divine bloodline. Like "Stigmata", it raises questions about that which many see as unquestionable — the Catholic Church. However, it also examines the notion of a feminine aspect of God, a radical notion in many Christian minds regardless of denomination. "Stigmata" also features a woman in a radical religious role, and in this case she isn’t even religious, tying into the film’s overall message that God is less concerned with rules and organization than with the good hidden inside of individuals. Brown backs his assumptions about the bloodline of Christ with a reputation for producing mountains of research, but at the end of the day, nowhere does he manage to produce solid evidence that any of the controversial aspects of his book are anything more than speculation. (Furthermore, he occasionally explicitly states as fact things that are anything but.) Driven by its intense plot and media hype, readers have devoured the book in record-breaking numbers, coming away with a handful of questions on the nature of the Church they’d never thought to ask before. This, in and of itself, is fantastic, as it spurs theological dialogue and encourages original, unique thought. However, in taking away new questions from Brown’s book, they also come away with a handful of speculative answers, which are then conveniently placed hand in hand so that The Da Vinci Code is treated less like a novel and more like an expose.

While both "Stigmata" and The Da Vinci Code may draw their gravity from a position of opposition to the hegemony inherent in institutionalized Christianity (especially Catholicism), two other money-making wonders with religious themes exhibit radically different points of view. If "Stigmata" and The Da Vinci Code call into question the traditional history of the church, "The Passion of the Christ" can be seen as a reaction to these unorthodox tests, its strongest proponents touting its historical and scriptural accuracy while still portraying Jesus and Christianity at large in a purely noble light. The Left Behind series came from a similar place, attempting to bring to the mainstream a view of Christianity that is in many ways a response to secular culture. Left Behind and "The Passion of the Christ" have grossed a total monetary amount surpassing both of the prior works discussed, sparking both controversial debate and religious revival.

The latest in a long line of so-called “passion films,” movies portraying the final days of Jesus Christ’s life, Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" was making waves in Hollywood before it even came out. Its supporters cited its exhibition of the Aramaic language and its tight historical backing, citing it as more of an objective look at Christ’s last days than a tool for proselytizing. Its attackers labeled it anti-Semitic and a transparent attempt at guilt-tripping viewers into belief. Even the popular television series South Park poked fun at it, one character concluding, “Lots of people were tortured and crucified in those times. It shouldn’t be about Christ’s suffering. It should be about his teachings.” Regardless of where an individual falls in this debate, one thing is abundantly clear: "The Passion of the Christ" is an intensely spiritual experience for a myriad of Americans, and for reasons beyond the scope of traditional ministry. The film features none of the teachings of Jesus or the majority of his life, instead focusing solely on his torture and execution, complete with all the blood and gore compulsory to any violent blockbuster. Regardless, were Mel Gibson portraying the brutal execution of any other man, audiences would undoubtedly be smaller and the film’s defendants less numbered. The film’s reputation as historically based lends it a credibility as a story that is transferred to the dogma attached to the crucifixion — if it’s the truth that Jesus existed and died in this fashion, then his teachings must also be true. For a movie with no claims of ministry, it nonetheless spawned countless converts and received immeasurable support from religious groups nation-wide, making it a tool towards the advancement of a traditional Christian doctrine that swept the attention of the mainstream media.

To say that Left Behind also works as a response to secular culture is an understatement; its very premise is that in the end days Christians will be carried into heaven, leaving the unbelievers behind to suffer through the apocalypse in a final attempt by God to convert them. Backed up by creative interpretations of specific passages in Ezekiel, Revelations, 1 Thessalonians, and Daniel, Left Behind tries to reconcile a need to form a clear sequence of events for narrative purposes with a handful of Biblical passages that are anything but clear, resulting in a dangerously speculative interpretation of end-times events unfolding. Left Behind, then, plays upon the mysteriousness of apocalyptic Biblical texts like Revelations, offering readers a plain, easy-to-understand interpretation of how things may work out. Heather Hendershot illuminates this point in Shaking the World for Jesus:
Apocalyptic fiction sells, in part, because it is exciting. But it also claims to dramatize Biblical truths, which are, of course, vital to evangelicals, who emphasize the individual’s ability to study and understand the Bible without priestly intervention. That’s easier said than done. (178)
The Left Behind series wouldn’t be a problem were its readers willing to take the stories with a grain of salt, supplementing their desire for end-times knowledge with more scholarly sources. This apparently isn’t the case, however, as evidenced by the not-so-subtle fact that Tim LaHaye’s non-fiction books on the same material (essentially backing up the assertions he makes in Left Behind) are also snatched up from bookshelves in record-breaking numbers. Melani McAlister has much to say on the phenomenon:
What makes these novels work is that they seamlessly integrate an apocalyptic religious view with a strongly conservative political vision, and locate both in a universe of supernatural action adventure in which good and evil are fully and finally revealed. (35)
If taken as a cultural dialogue, these texts exhibit a fascination with illuminating aspects of the Bible that are inherently unclear, open widely to varying degrees of liberal interpretation. Thoughts on religion change in response to these texts, and the next round of cultural texts themselves change in response to these tides of opinion; the entire process is ultimately detrimental to successful dialogue. The aforementioned Melani McAlister recognizes this symbiotic relationship in Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, carefully examining the intersections between culture, politics, and public opinion. In one relevant section, she examines the film "Black Sunday", a movie released in the wake of the Munich hostage crisis that tells the story of pro-Palestinian terrorists orchestrating a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl. (187) The film stemmed, she asserts, from the underlying fears of the American populace about its place in the world and the position of Islam on a global scale. American sentiments are expressed not only through which movies are made, but which are successful, and "Black Sunday" was a huge triumph for director John Frankenheimer. Not only are American sentiments expressed through cultural mediums, though, but those mediums in turn influence more Americans. If "Black Sunday" was successful because it played upon fears over a terrorist attack, it also instilled that same fear in many Americans who were previously unconcerned. This same effect is encountered in every instance that “popular theology” inundates the marketplace.

Religion being a passionate subject for many, the differing viewpoints represented by these texts tend to compete for cultural supremacy, each denouncing the other as misrepresenting the true nature of Christianity. Tom Engelhardt has coined the term “victory culture” in The End of Victory Culture to define a trait historically present in the collective American mindset – that is, that Americans have historically viewed their collective nature in terms of triumphing over “the other.” He asks a simple question with what is at best an intensely complicated answer: Can a picture of America’s history be formulated that doesn’t include an enemy being fought against? In this context, the hegemonic discourse by which cultural power is perpetuated is through an underdog mentality that is exhibited in each of these works. The Da Vinci Code and "Stigmata" feature misfit-ish characters rallying against the corrupt history of the Church, Left Behind follows a group of redeemed sinners facing the end of the world itself, and "The Passion of the Christ" pits Jesus against both human torturers and the weight of the world’s sin. Audiences plug into these texts and feel that they too can relate, rallying behind the importance of their text of choice. This competitive mentality fuels the fire that drives this cultural dialogue along.

What we are left with, then, is a series of texts that establish a cultural dialogue on the nature of the Church and the role of Christianity in America (or at least what it should be), one that is becoming increasingly more concerned with the more speculative aspects of Christian theology and history but which simultaneously undercuts the validity of this very same dialogue. This is a pattern that has repeated itself in various forms throughout human history, and unless an academic fervor for theological matters can be instilled in American minds, popular culture will simply continue to be the only source through which the majority of Americans find information.

Works Cited:
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Englehardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Culture, Politics, and the Cold War). 2nd ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts P, 1998.
Hendershot, Heather. Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 2004. 176-209.
Lahaye, Tim F., and Jerry B. Jenkins. Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1995.
McAlister, Melani. Epic Encounters: Culture Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California P, 2001.
Miller, Robert J., trans. "The Gospel of Thomas." The Complete Gospels. Santa Rosa: Polebridge P, 1992.
Moore, R.l. Selling God. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

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