Magic bullets, stalagmites and The Passion

passion.jpgAnyone who studies conflicts between conservative Christians and Hollywood — think SpongeBob and his co-conspirators — knows that the former tend to go nuts when they see the latter producing material that they think will be harmful to (a) America, (b) their beliefs or both.

In the world of mass-media theory, this means that cultural conservatives often buy into what many call “magic-bullet theory,” the belief that one powerful media signal can lead one person to commit one act. People try to prove this kind of cause-and-effect relationship all the time and it is next to impossible to do. There are always too many other factors at work. Take free will, for example.

This doesn’t mean that media signals are not important. Many people accept what some call a “stalagmite theory” approach, which argues that many media signals, over time, can be shown to have some kind of impact — shown in statistics –n on a culture. People who spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns that start with the SuperBowl tend to accept this theory.

I bring this up because of an interesting article that was featured at Beliefnet the other day, titled “Did ‘The Passion’ Fulfill Its Promise?” Here is author Kimberly Winston’s lead:

A year ago, Mel Gibson’s much anticipated, highly feared and loudly lauded film “The Passion of the Christ” debuted nationwide. And while the film was predicted to usher in everything from a massive Christian revival to an epidemic of anti-Semitism, only one forecast has come entirely true — Mel Gibson and his company, Icon Productions, made a fortune, taking in $370 million for a movie that cost only $30 million to make.

One of my colleagues at Palm Beach Atlantic University quickly jumped on the irony noted by this article. This was the rare case where people on both sides of the Hollywood wars seemed to buy into the same basic media theory. To overstate the case, one side seemed to think this one movie would ruin the world and the other thought it would save the world. Here is how my friend Dr. Alex Wainer put it:

Interesting case study in the media-effects debate, eh? Those who expected the bullet theory effect — massive attacks on Jews or massive conversions from one film. It’s also a study in what people think art is for — an evangelistic tool rather than something to be contemplated, pondered and valued for its beauty and truth.

Precisely. Winston’s notes that the film did not produce a firestorm of anti-Semitism, although some Jewish leaders say they now fear the prolonged — stalagmite? — impact of the DVD. For me, the new territory explored in this article is linked to the expectation among some Christians that The Passion of the Christ would be a tremendous tool for evangelism. Well?

According to a Barna poll conducted last May, only one in every six viewers who had seen the film said it had affected their religious beliefs in any way. Eighteen percent said some aspect of their religious behavior had been changed, with most reporting that they prayed more. Only eight percent said they attended church services more often because of seeing the film.

Readers interested in seeing a summary of that Barna study can click here. Here is the bottom line. Mass media is powerful, but it is not magic. It is pre-evangelism, not evangelism. Thus, we can say that The Passion was important, but it was not the apocalypse. Amen.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Doc

    Interesting. I would like to see the reciprocal discussed in terms of “Million Dollar Baby.”

    Maybe I’ll do it.

  • Stephen A.

    It’s a bit odd to speak, as Barna does, of the “lasting impact” of a film not even a year old, but I suppose in today’s straight-to-video flat sales movie market, that’s an acceptable measure, even for this film.

    No, the movie wasn’t going to have the extreme effects Gibson’s fervent supporters and most virulent critics said it would. No one film can do that. I don’t even think Gibson himself thought it would have that kind of effect.

    But I bet it had more subtle effects that were perhaps more immediate, though unreported in surveys or by secular reporters.

  • W Harris

    To follow on Stephen’s suggestion of “subtle effects”, could it be that Gibson’s aesthetics of violence and the particularities of his understanding of the Catholic faith serve to reinforce impressions of Christians? That is, does the violence of movie reinforce the idea that Christians are (politically) violent and not to be trusted?

  • PaperMuse

    This is an interesting article; I enjoyed it.

    With all of the magic bullet and stalagmite theories, I think that there is something that has been left out of this text, and commentary – the Holy Spirit. I truly believe as Jesus said in the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8, that seeds (such as the Passion) might land on either a rough roadside to be trampled, rocky soil to wither, in thorns to be choked, or in good soil to grow a hundred fold. I believe that many seeds were planted with this film’s release. And, while all may not have taken hold, some have. I saw the explosion of this first hand as many churches ran the film and held week’s long messages about it. Our church held a Q&A for many to ask, What’s it all about? The Holy Spirit will cultivate these seeds in His due time. I think the measuring of this will be playing out for years to come, and the effect will be plain to us all.

  • Molly

    If anyone else using Safari is having trouble accessing the comments page, switch to Explorer.

    Gosh, I hate to say that..

  • bgeerdes

    No problems over here with Safari 1.2.4. Nor with Mozilla 1.7 (which I’d recommend over Explorer).

  • Cathy

    Love the article
    I have had trouble IE and have had to switch to Mozilla.

  • Charlie Lehardy

    The “magic-bullet” theory is probably always overstated, but all art becomes part of the fabric of culture and has influence over the way we see ourselves and the world around us. I think it’s too soon yet to know how The Passion will affect our view of Jesus and Christianity, but long-term I think the result will be positive. Gibson’s movie is a powerful and beautiful re-telling of a story that continues to arouse debate and wonder.

    But as powerful as art and images are, I can’t think of a single historic example of a work of art that shifted a culture in a direction it was not already pre-disposed to move in. Art may be a leading indicator of cultural shifts, it may even have the power to normalize the abnormal, but it is never the agent of change that we Christians fret about so often.

  • Stephen A.

    WHarris: No, actually, the Subtle Effects I was getting at were those long-term effects gained from constant reinforcement.

    I don’t get your connection to politics here, and don’t see any evidence of Christians en masse calling for violence of any kind.

    I suppose using that rather interesting analysis, the aesthetics of sexual promiscuity and perversion in film and TV reinforces the impression that liberal/permissives can’t be trusted with our eyes and ears?

    I know that some Christians were shocked (shocked, I say) to learn that the Crucifiction was actually a VIOLENT event. If Mr. Gibson did anything, it was to show a generation raised on sanitary 1950s portrayals just how much suffering occurs when a man in nailed to a cross.