TCS Daily

The Crucifixion Will Be Televised

By James Pinkerton - April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Am I the only who thinks it's miraculous that we could all watch the workings of one of the world's oldest religions, live on worldwide TV? Seeing Pope Benedict XVI's appearance before the throng at St. Peter's Square, I thought about the continuity of the Roman Catholic Church, reaching back almost 2000 years -- and how the new Pope's debut was, in effect, an open-air mass, a religious rite available to any and all global villagers.

Of course, those electronic villagers could cheer, or jeer, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger according to their wont. For his part, when the just-elected and renamed Benedict, showing a slightly awestruck, almost childish expression, raised his hands to the masses, I couldn't help but wonder what past Vicars of Christ might have looked like -- how they, all 264 of them, might have acted if had been on TV, across the millennia, all the way back to St. Peter himself. How would St. Peter the first pope, have played?

Peter, of course, walked with Jesus. What was that like? How can we ever know? Pondering about those remote and un-photographed times, I couldn't help but think of the 1971 rock opera, "Jesus Christ Superstar," in which Judas Iscariot sings to the dying Jesus, "You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned/Why'd you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?/If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation/Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication."

Yet, of course, it all worked pretty well for Jesus and his message. Despite the lack of technology, Christianity spread rapidly in the first century, and for many centuries thereafter. Indeed today, after schisms, reformations, and scandals, the Catholic Church has a heck of a "brand" -- if one will forgive the descent into marketing terminology.

In today's world, dominated by Schumpeterian creative destruction, the Catholic Church, love it or loathe it, is a rock. It's the real thing, with deep roots in the collective memory-cavern that lies underneath our electronic village. It's an organization whose leaders talk like ancient Romans; in these men, we hear echoes not only of the Apostles, but also of the Caesars. Pretty cool.

And while the church has made only the barest concessions to modernity, the moderns love the church -- at least to gawk at. All those robes and rituals, paintings and piazzas: it's all so much iconographic eye candy for the media. In a multi-million-channel universe, in which images and ideas come and go with the evanescence of electrons, the Catholic Church is instantly recognizable; it has a permanent foothold in the planetary mindshare, even among non-believers.

And so, I mused, what if Jesus's crucifixion had been televised on 24/7 cable news? Please, bear with me. The heart of Christianity is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; Christians believe those events to be historical facts. And so imagine, if you will, the life, death, and life of the Son of God as reality television -- either proof that God exists, or, for skeptics, the greatest conspiracy theory ever videotaped. But all that blood, all that violence -- how would folks react today? Would they change the channel? Demand censorship and V-chips? Or would they stop and watch?

My guess is that many would watch. It's hard to watch people suffer on television, but sometimes it's hard to not watch. Suffering makes for powerful, even transformative, viewing -- it gets eyeballs. That was a point made by Peggy Noonan in February, when she wrote of Pope John Paul II's agonized public appearances, in which the visibly dying man struggled to so much as speak: "His suffering has meaning. He is teaching us something through his pain." Teaching us what? According to Noonan, "He is telling us it is important in an age like ours to honor the suffering of the old and the infirm. He wants us to know they have a place in life and a purpose. He not only says this; he lives it. He was an actor as a youth; he teaches by doing and showing, by being. His suffering is a drama he is living out quite deliberately. John Paul stands for life, for all of life. He wants to honor what the world does not honor."

So the agony of John Paul II was a deliberate drama, put on display for the spiritual benefit of Catholics and perhaps would-be Catholics. In a media-mix full of faked-up images and faked-up faces, it was real -- and people seem to be perpetually searching for the real. The death of John Paul II was brilliant counter-programming; it transfixed the world.

As I thought about the heuristic of suffering as a tool for evangelism, it finally hit me: I don't need to wonder about how the Passion of the Christ would be received by today's audiences -- because it's already been received, in the form of a movie entitled, of all things, "The Passion of the Christ". We all know about that film; scourged by the critics, flogged for its abstruse use of ancient languages, lashed by rival religions, the Mel Gibson-directed movie proved to be one of the greatest triumphs in cinematic history.

So here's a prediction: over the next few hundred years or so, other megahits, such as "Gone With The Wind," "Titanic," and even "Star Wars," will be eclipsed by "Passion." That is, even if the elites never come around to Gibson's side, for many generations to come, audiences will flock to that movie to See What It Was Like. And eyeballs watching "The Passion" will convert into souls for the Church.

Of course, the process of melding modern story-telling to that ancient story is far from over. It's always possible that some better movie, or some even more vivid technology, will come along to supplant Gibson's opus. Total Religious Recall, anyone? Now that would be a powerful tool for evangelism.

Some say that the Catholic Church is in crisis. Not enough priests, not enough parishioners in its historic heartland, not enough openness, not enough liberalism, not enough input from The New York Times. But the Church, to be sure, has always been in some sort of crisis. But it has endured, in spite of schisms, plagues, wars, and the onslaught of the modern media.

Indeed, the modern media might yet strengthen the church, because the media are ultimately about message, and the Church, indeed, has a powerful message.


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