Passionate predictions (and a few reflections)

Andy Rau

Mel Gibson is back in the news. There's a story making the rounds this week about his upcoming not-Bible-related film Apocalypto--specifically, the big news is that this film, like The Passion of the Christ, will feature dialogue in an obscure language. (A Mayan dialect, it seems; the story isn't clear about whether the language is "dead" or just really obscure.)

That's interesting, but what really caught my eye in the story was this paragraph midway through:

At least three studios passed on the project before Disney bought it. Nevertheless, the fact that more than one studio bid for the project shows Gibson's viability and makes laughable last year's prediction by the New York Times that Gibson would be blackballed by Jewish executives after the "Passion" controversy.

That charge never really had much traction, said sources within Gibson's agency....

"That charge never really had much traction": it seems to me that you could say this about an awful lot of the predictions, both hopeful and fearful, made during the media frenzy that led up to The Passion's 2004 release.

It's been a over a year since the film came out; is it too early to try to evaluate the predictions made about it? Let me think of a few predictions that I recall hearing or reading:

  1. Prediction: Even if it's successful, The Passion will mark the end of Mel Gibson's career in Hollywood. As the above story indicates, this obviously didn't come to be. Money talks, and The Passion made a whole lot of money.
  2. Prediction: The Passion will fuel anti-semitism. This was the big prediction, of course, and fortunately it doesn't seem to have come true at all. The Institute for Jewish and Community Research published a good early analysis of The Passion's effect on attitudes towards Jews. Lots of data worth reading there, with this conclusion:
    Initial attempts to evaluate the possibility the film would encourage anti-Semitic sentiments among the viewing public hint that the fears were exaggerated. Although this is only a preliminary examination of the effects of "The Passion," at the moment the findings are showing that Gibson's audiences have not been coming out of the film with a feeling that the Jews are guilty.

    Interestingly, the same study revealed the following:

    Nine percent said that the film made them even less prone to see the Jews today as responsible for the crucifixion and only 2 percent said that they now felt a greater tendency to blame the Jews for killing Jesus. On the 146 respondents who have already seen the film, 80 percent said that it had not affected their opinion, 5 percent that it had increased their inclination toward blaming the Jews, and 12 percent said that it had decreased this inclination.

    Is it possible that the highly public debate about the film's alleged anti-semitism (whether or not the charges were accurate) actually served to decrease anti-semitic views? That's what the article hints at, and given the number of evangelical leaders who stepped forward to address the issue at the time, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the controversy proved to be a worthwhile "teaching moment" for the entire evangelical church. (Of course, it's also possible that anti-semitism wasn't and isn't the issue for evangelicals that some Passion critics believed it to be.)

    This dire prediction, then, did not unfold the way many feared it would.

  3. Prediction: The Passion will spark a renaissance of evangelical-friendly movies in Hollywood. This hopeful prediction is a bit harder to gauge, since it's only been a year since Gibson's film hit theaters. Looking at the last year's worth of Hollywood films, I'm deeply skeptical about this, although there are certainly some indications that Hollywood is retooling its focus a bit towards evangelicals (from the article: "The astounding success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ last year has helped make Hollywood studios keenly aware of the power of Christian conservatives and has altered many of the images and dialogue presented in current movies.")

    That sounds promising, but I'm not sure that Hollywood's idea of "Christian-friendly" is quite the same as many Christians'. The brief article above continues: the recent Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a crucifix was hung on a rearview mirror in a chase sequence and the stars at one point wore jackets reading 'Jesus Rocks.' On the other hand, actor Peter Sarsgaard recently disclosed that the epithet 'Jesus' was stricken from his dialogue in the Disney movie Flightplan and replaced with the word 'shoot.'

    That doesn't sound like a Hollywood revolution; it sounds like they're taking existing movies and tweaking just enough surface elements to market them semi-convincingly to evangelicals. But I could be wrong on this; after all, we've got a sure-to-be-a-hit C.S. Lewis movie coming up in a few months, and there might be more Christian-friendly stuff to follow. But before we proclaim 2005 the year of Narnia, let's remember that it's also the year of Sin City.

  4. Prediction: The Passion is the greatest evangelism tool in years. This is a prediction close to my heart, because I hoped it would turn out to be the case. This is also a prediction that's particularly difficult to judge, since it involves somehow figuring out whether or not hearts were changed and lives were given to God as a result of the film. We can't look into people's hearts, of course, so we'll have to rely on what we can see with our eyes, and what the surveys and studies are telling us.

    And the surveys and studies are telling us that The Passion's evangelistic impact, while not negligible, did not match up to the hopeful rhetoric. Here's a good overview of the studies that have tried to gauge the film's impact on personal faith and lifestyles. (Of the studies mentioned in the article, the Barna survey is especially worth reading.) Here's the heart of the article (forgive me for the lengthy quote):

    The Gallup survey, for example, asked respondents if "after seeing the film was your faith strengthened or were you repelled by the violence?" (74% answered faith strengthened.) Similarly, Gallup asked "did seeing the movie strengthen your religious faith?" (78% yes). Related, Gallup also asked "did seeing the movie give you a new understanding of what your religious faith is about?" (64% yes).

    However, when probing more specifically about changes in religious beliefs or practices, the Barna data reflect a far less profound influence for The Passion. When asked if the film had affected their religious beliefs in anyway, 16% said it had. When asked specifically what these shifts might have been, roughly 3% of the aggregate audience for the film indicated each of the following: 1) a shift in the perceived importance of how they treat others; 2) becoming more concerned about the effects of their life choices and personal behavior; and 3) gaining a deeper understanding of, or appreciation for, what Christ had done for them through his death and resurrection.

    As the Barna report notes, despite heavy speculation that the film would serve as a conversion tool for Evangelicals, less than one-tenth of one percent of respondents who had seen the film said that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film's content. Nor did the film apparently promote evangelicalism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.

    This is fascinating--if these studies are to be believed, The Passion had a bigger discipling effect than an evangelical effect. In other words, it seems to have inspired and helped people who already believed in Christ, but did not pack the evangelistic punch that was expected of it. Most Christians who spoke publically about their hopes for the film--and most ministry efforts to supplement the film with evangelistic materials, tracts, and study guides--envisioned the film as an ideal evangelism tool with which to reach unbelievers. Did we miscalculate the way this film would affect people?

Looking at these predictions, none of them turned out exactly the way people hoped/feared, and in some cases the actual results of The Passion were quite different from expectations. I'm very interested in what the evangelical community will take from this entire experience. What can we learn from this film, from the hopes we had for it, and from the accuracy of those hopes?

If we could go back in time, would we talk about this movie differently? Would we change anything in our approach to it?

If another film similar in theme and popularity to The Passion were to come along next year, would we, the Christian community, handle it differently than we did The Passion?

Were we wrong to place such high evangelistic hopes on a single movie like this? Should we have guessed that it would have a bigger discipleship effect than an evangelistic one? Should we have paid so much attention in the first place to its potential spiritual effect?

Has our response to the Passion phenomenon reflected Christ to the world?

I don't know. But I'm sure we haven't seen the last movie like this, and I hope that we've given this experience some careful thought before the Next Big Thing arrives.

update: see this piece on Hollywood's new fascination with Jesus.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism