Pop Culture Puts Religion in the Spotlight

From the glittering hills of Hollywood to the houses of worship dotting the Bible Belt, tongues are wagging about religion, scripture, history and Jesus’ passion — thanks in large part to pop culture.

Churches are reserving theaters for their congregations to see Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ (search); people are returning to bookstores to research the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene after reading the best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” (search); and TV viewers are tuning in weekly to see Joan of Arcadia (search) communicate with God.

Some experts are thrilled that the entertainment spotlight is shining on religion, but others are doubtful — and even worried — about the impact it ultimately will have on secular America's perception of Jesus and faith.

Ted Haggard, president of The National Association of Evangelicals, who sees the “The Passion” in particular as a tremendous outreach opportunity, is encouraged by pop culture’s focus on the spiritual.

"People appreciate movies and theater that acknowledge faith," he said. "People appreciate when 'Touched by an Angel' or 'Joan of Arcadia' or 'The Passion' represents them honestly and not as a caricature."

But some historians are wary of all the God talk, saying lay people may take away only what they want from popular culture versions of scripture.

“Different Jesuses appeal to different people. [These interpretations] are carving apart the Gospels," said George Parsenios, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who points out that "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Passion of the Christ" represent two extremes of Jesus' story.

"Da Vinci" by Dan Brown, a story about searching for the Holy Grail (search), paints the Catholic Church as a patriarchal, manipulative entity that subverted the real story of Jesus' life. "The Passion of the Christ," on the other hand, claims to adhere closely to the actual Gospels.

In truth, neither version is likely to appease scholars.

"All scholars would say the Gospels represent an interpretation of Jesus anyway," said Parsenios. "They are not just giving the facts, ma'am. Events in one are transposed in another to draw out new meaning from them."

Parsenios is also wary about having pop culture educate people about religion.

"Most college students get their news from Letterman. It’s similar to that," he said.

In response to all the media attention on "The Passion," groups such as The Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College are making an effort to inform the public about the subtleties of religion. They've posted a study guide for portrayals of Jesus' passion, and also held a series of lectures aimed at educating the community.

Ruth Langer, the group's associate director, said the film is, in a sense, providing an opportunity for education, but added that the group would rather not have to fight the possibility of misconceptions that could come from the film.

"Unfortunately, it takes a controversy to bring something to people’s consciousness," she said.

Bishop Savas Zembillas of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in New York is also concerned about how Gibson's film will be interpreted, especially by those not well versed in the Gospels. 

"Somebody coming at this cold, if they don’t know Jesus’ story, they are going to be at sea, really," said Zembillas, who screened an early cut of "The Passion."

Like some others who have seen the film, Zembillas expressed concern over its graphic nature.

"[There's] a flogging scene that goes on for a good quarter of an hour," said Zembillas. "By the time it’s over, he’s been flayed. I stopped believing at that point. I can’t believe a man can stand up and carry a tree up a hill for 20 minutes while being lashed."

But Gibson, an action movie star accustomed to on-screen gore, and others who have come out in support of the film say the bloody scenes are appropriate for today's movie-going public.

"People know how to watch movies and people know how to read books.... We know they can differentiate between a documentary and a historical account," said Haggard. "Mel’s movie feels like the real thing.... When people say it’s too violent, they mean 'It’s too violent for me.' I think the fact that audiences are used to violence gives [Gibson] permission to make it authentic."

Haggard added that some people will always take books or films too literally, but reasonable folks will know the difference. "'The Da Vinci Code' is a novel. The same people who believe the Earth is hollow and that's where UFOs come from will believe it's fact."

As for whether "The Passion" will inspire more religious curiosity among people who are not already churchgoers, Zembillas is skeptical.

"I don't think a lot of people do homework after a movie," he said. "If it does that, more power to Mr. Gibson." 

Zembillas added that Americans who aren't already faithful to a particular religious sect have probably only marginally been influenced by shows like "Touched by an Angel" and "Joan of Arcadia," as well the surge of mainstream Christian rock bands. 

"You have to almost listen for the message to know there is a message," he said.

Ultimately in America, faith, as it's portrayed on television, in films and in popular books, presents so many versions of Jesus that most Americans take what they want from these interpretations of his story, said Parsenios.

"With all these Jesuses floating around for sale," he said, "you can just pick the one you like."