This is awkward, but when I was growing up I had a huge crush on Roma Downey. As a kid, my family would tune into "Touched By An Angel" every single week and I was glued to the television to hear Downey’s Irish-tinged angelic messages float through the cathode tubes to my waiting ears.
With that little confession session out of the way, let’s fast forward to February 2014. To say the least, I geeked out a bit (okay, a ton) when I had the opportunity to meet Roma Downy at a Son of God screening in Houston, TX. Long story short, I was asked by the local Christian radio station KSBJ to say a few words before pastors and faith leaders from the Bayou City got a sneak peak of the film. I got to talk to Downey after the film and we talked a bit about her husband — Mark Burnett — and her and the faith-based media empire they were building together.
First it was History Channel’s mini-series “The Bible” and then the theater-released “Son of God.” They’ve since followed this up with their most recent made-for-television biblical epic: "A.D. The Bible Continues."
Last week, I got the opportunity to preview A.D. By now, those who wanted to see it have had the opportunity to watch it (SPOILER: Jesus dies…then rises again). While I could comment on its a-little-too-fast-paced narrative (like the Gospel of Mark on steroids), the over-reliance on British actors (is that supposed to make the Bible feel more sophisticated?), or the fact that Burnett and Downey are effectively preaching to the choir with a less than stirring media rendition of a story familiar to most of the people watching it already I am more interested in the reception of the Bible on TV than in its representation therein.
Effectively, I am wondering why is Jesus such a money maker right now? Or, broader yet, why is the Bible such a hot movie ticket and television cash cow?
I mean, we can’t count on two hands the number of biblical movies that have been released, or are coming out, to great fanfare in 2014 and 2015: Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Heaven is For Real, God’s Not Dead, “The Bible,” Son of God, A.D., Mary: Mother of Christ (the prequel to the Passion of the Christ), The Redemption of Cain (Will Smith’s vampire remake of the Cain and Abel story…wha?!), Killing Jesus, Finding Jesus, and the list could go on.
To say the least, biblical movies and Christian films are big money right now. Toss in Bollywood's Hindu epics and other films with religious/spiritual themes and you've got "spiritual movies/TV shows" making up a significant slice of the film and television industry. But why?
In my estimation, there are three reasons for the proliferation of biblical blockbusters and spiritually-themed television and media: 1) the persistence of religion and the re-enchantment of the cosmos in a global age; 2) the important role of media in belief in such an age; 3) the piety of visual culture and media.
1) Persistence of religion, re-enchantment of the world.
It seems, by now, that the dim prophecies of the secularization theorists — that with the advent of modernity religion would fade into the background or go completely extinct in the face of a rising tide of secularization — were overblown at best. While secularization, at the public and private level, is worth studying and is still a potent force at work in the world there has by no means been a drop off, or even a marked decline, in religion across the world.
Indeed, it might be said that there has been the complete opposite. That in the face of late modernity and its global and fast-paced dimensions our world has been re-enchanted with divine intimations and spiritual promptings. As individuals and communities are (re)introduced to a whole buffet of religious and spiritual options to help them make sense of themselves, those around them, and indeed the entire cosmos they are finding that religious options for explanation often outweigh secular ones.
That doesn’t mean that secular values are never present, but they are increasingly consumed, co-opted, and existing side-by-side spiritual affirmations, worldviews, and lifeways. For examples, a staunch affirmation of the theory of evolution can go hand-in-hand with the Gaia principle and a thoroughly modernistic approach can typify the structural approach of a seemingly pre-modern religious terror organization.
The modern and secular are viewed through the lens of the late-modern religious impulse at work within many of us. Those religious systems and spiritualities that are doing best are able to bridge the chasms wrought by modernism. They are able to weave together the global and the local, the transcendent and the imminent, the spiritual and the physical, the personal and the cosmic, the individual and the communal, the imagined and the material. These successful religions are furthermore personal, portable, and practical.
This is where the religious use of the media, and the media’s use of religion, comes to the fore.
2) The important role of media in belief in such an age
Dr. Stewart Hoover, Director of University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion, and Culture, has said that “the media determine the transnational civil sphere in important ways.” Not only does media bear witness to religious and spiritual trends, reporting, recording, and re-imagining them in audio/visual dimensions, but the media also are a source of religion and spirituality, compete for devotees and practitioners, and are indicators of religious and spiritual change.
So what is the proliferation of religious media indicating to us about the trends in the re-enchantment of the world? Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has written about what he calls the shift from "doctrinal religions" to “imagistic" ones. The doctrinal mode of religion is characterized by a top-down hierarchy, involving regularly repeated daily or weekly rituals, written texts, standard teachings, and lower levels of emotional arousal. Imagistic religion is less structured, with little or no hierarchy or doctrine, characterized by periodic festivals with high levels of emotion that mark a break from regular daily life. Imagistic religions utilize ecstatic trance states and altered forms of consciousness to bring about direct divine contact; doctrinal religion employs mediators to interpret the divine. Imagistic can also be imagined in its literary sense in which it refers to a poetic movement in England and the U.S. during, and around, World War I, that emphasized the use of ordinary, vernacular, speech and the precise presentation of images to arouse reaction.
As religious adherents are looking to personalize, localize, pragmatize, and spiritualize their religious practice (over and against corporate, global, sentimental, and institutional forms of belief and practice) they increasingly look to media in order to do so. Hoover, again, said:
Media then become our new “doubting Thomas” encounters. Whereas Thomas was bidden to touch Jesus' side and feel his wounds religion in the media age invites us to see Jesus’ side pierced via "cathode ray tubes" (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s anachronism for television) and to watch his wounds on the big screen.
3) The piety of visual culture and media
And so it is clear that in an age when the world is desiring the spiritual, but not the religious and media is a near-perfect conduit for such religious pursuits it is no wonder that we desire “visual piety.” But what is its effect?
In his book Visual Piety: The History and Theory of Popular Religious Images, Dr. David Morgan illustrates that popular visual images — including television images, velvet paintings, prayer cards, talismans, or movies — have assumed central roles in contemporary U.S. spiritual lives and religious communities.
Not only does Morgan situate American Christianity’s practice of visual piety in the longue-durée of history showing that it is not necessarily new — that it does not represent the rupture we think it does when history is taken into effect (think of icons, stained glass windows, sacred paintings, etc.) — but he also contends that religious aesthetics must be viewed in the context of social reality. That is to say, we have to understand what is happening with us in order to understand what is happening with the proliferation of religious movies and TV shows, etc.
Morgan wrote, “The point behind the visual culture of popular piety is not principally an admiration of skill, which pertains to the manipulation of a medium, but admiration for the object of representation…We can therefore speak of beauty in visual piety as consisting…in the reassuring harmony of the believer’s disposition toward the sacred with its visualization.”
I quote Morgan at length here to silence all the critics who complain about Kirk Cameron’s crappy acting in, well, pretty much any Christianese films he makes these days. It’s also to contend with those who want to critique A.D. based on its visuals or its score or all those British accents. Morgan is making the point that these evaluations are not all that important.
What really makes visual piety in the form of biblical movies and Christian television beautiful is its representation of the divine object itself — in this case the beholding of the Trinitarian God of Christianity (but we could also extend this and apply it to Bollywood's representations of Hindu epics or negatively to the destruction of, and reticence to accept, images of the divine in Islam).
Media, specifically in this case television and movies, embody and represent the very rise of modernity that was to be the harbinger of rapid social change and secularization. The likes of Marshall McLuhan warned of the advent of a new age with the introduction of digital and screen media and the secularization theorists were ridden with a foreboding prophecy of atheism and non-religion just on the horizon. What we have instead found is that all forms of media — from comic books to computer screens, from smart phones to cinemas — have been imbued with sacred images and representations. This means that instead of chasing religion out, media has presented a new conduit for visual piety. Media has become a new way for admire “the object of our [religious] admiration” and over and against the dangers of secularization, late modernity, and pluralism, attest to the reality, the portability, and the visual-tangibility of “our God” via the screen whether we be Christian or Jewish, Hindu or Neo-Pagan.
To sum up, A.D. should not be evaluated based on its award-winning effects, writing, production, acting, or lack thereof. Instead, it should be appraised as a benchmark of the re-sacralization of the world in a new media age. As media and modernization threaten to strip us of our religious imagination these new forms of visual piety are important mediums for confirming, or challenging, our religious curiosities and convictions and bearing us forward as religious beings in a global age. In effect, they are the cathedrals and temples of our age, where we go to encounter the divine.
With that, expect more biblical movies and Christian-themed television shows to come. Just as the faithful have given of their time, talents, and treasures over the years to build edifices to their religious sentiments and to bear testament to the divine in brick and mortar, stone and stained-glass, so too we will shell out our hard earned cash to see a movie that reassures us of our beliefs in visually appealing forms such as TV shows and movies.