Religious Experience in the Age of Digital Reproduction*

Article excerpt

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. God called out to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. " And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. " And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

-Exodus 3:2-6

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. "

-Acts 9:3-5

The Passion of the Christ is the best movie I have ever seen. It was graphic and faithfully stayed with the Gospel texts. The neck of my shirt was soaked with tears during the scourging, and I felt like a softball was lodged in the back of my throat as the movie concluded. The nearest feeling that I can compare it to was an altar call experience with God-a heart-pounding, barely breathing, intense moment with God.

-Rev. Steven Usry, Harvest Point United Methodist Church, McDonough, GA[double dagger]


Less than twenty years ago, it was common for believers in the United States to criticize the many ways in which mass culture misrepresented or ignored religious experience.1 The few portrayals of religious people as then existed on television or in the movies-and there were not many-were usually of caricatured fanatics or immoral predators. In the vast world of television and film, it seemed that the only people who actually went to church each Sunday were Bill Cosby and the Huxtables.

Times change. Mass culture is now replete with portrayals of religious experience. Spiritually themed television, movies, and books have proliferated across the mass media. A growing number of network dramas have spiritual themes, suggesting that the positive portrayal of believers in popular culture has become, well, popular.2 Movies with Christian themes are steadily filling the shelves at video rental outlets,3 and novels and nonfiction books with spiritual themes are now consistently appearing on best seller lists.4 In the world of music, "worship albums" featuring praises to God are reaching large audiences, and so-called "Christian Rock" is viewed as one of the few vibrant rock genres left.5 Scriptural and religiously oriented slogans have even taken off in the fashion industry.6 Christian booksellers, for their part, believe that the mass success of spiritual themes in popular culture reflects a '"widespread spiritual yearning"' felt beyond the world of conservative Christianity.7 In much of America, it would seem that Christian pop culture is the only popular culture there is.8

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is yet another popular success,9 notwithstanding widespread negative reviews criticizing its relentless violence, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and controversial deviations from historical and Gospel records.10 But The Passion is more than popular; the film touched a deep spiritual chord among its mass audience, particularly conservative Christians. One reviewer observed that the crowds who exited the movie on its opening night, Ash Wednesday, were marked by "ashes on their foreheads, eyelids swollen from crying, and a stunned silence."11 Another remarked that audiences wept, cried out, and turned away at The Passion's intense images of Jesus's suffering, and concluded that for believers, the movie is not a "docu-drama, but a religious experience."12

"Religious" or "sacred" experience refers to extraordinary events that occur against the backdrop of ordinary life. Believers define the meaning of their lives by these experiences and thus the reality in which they each live. …