The Chicago Tribune reports on a trend of questionable size and gravity: Christians pressuring other Christians to see The Passion of the Christ against their will, and -- wait for it -- implying that Passion patrons are more holy than those not inclined to add to Mel Gibson's record-setting box-office numbers. Call it Passion Gnosticism -- akin to some Christians' measuring spiritual maturity by participation in Cursillo, Education for Ministry or 40 Days of Purpose.
The endless pressure, the unrelenting chorus goading these besieged Christians to conform, lurks in the Tribune's opening paragraphs:
Velma Dority managed to tune out the chatter on religious radio stations calling on all Christians to see "The Passion of the Christ." She ignored her virtuous friends who bragged about seeing the film countless times.
But when Dority's five sisters told her she must see "The Passion" -- that watching Jesus suffer would make her a better Christian -- she took action. She called her doctor and obtained a written excuse saying the movie would be harmful to her health.
So far, the story is describing what is usually called marketing (those chattering "religious radio stations") and possibly busybody advice from friends. But reporters Geneive Abdo and Lou Carlozo have picked up the scent, and they have another 1,300 words to write.
They describe Colleen Hayes as experiencing "peer pressure and discomfort from all directions, including family gatherings and her classes at Loyola University Chicago."
"It makes me feel not in touch with the people who have seen it," said Hayes, who is completing a marketing and communications degree.
"It tends to be a conversation in so many circles and it makes me feel out of it -- but not far enough out it to want to go see it."
A Baptist pastor takes it up a notch:
"We were approached by a sister church in our neighborhood that is also Baptist about buying a large number of tickets together," said Keith Herron, senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. "If we did that, we would have clout with the [theater] manager and essentially could do anything we would want to do."
What could that nefarious "anything we would want to do" include? Rituals so secret and evil that you take your life into your hands even to acknowledge them? Shouting "Glory"? Wearing brightly colored polyester clothing? No, it's worse than that: "The idea was clear, Herron said -- the theater could be turned into a stage for saving lost souls."
You know how it is with those power-mad evangelicals:
Herron said a number of evangelical churches are "absolutely" compelling worshippers, families and in some cases young children to see the film.
"There's incredible pressure to go see it," Herron said.
The reporters do not explain in what ways these churches are "absolutely compelling" members to attend Gibson's R-rated film, so there's no solid charge for pastors to deny.
Naturally, the story includes ominous remarks from an academic who sets it all in furrowed-brow perspective:
"This phenomenon . . . of people putting pressure on other believers to participate in what they define as holy is not a passing phase," said Amanda Quantz, a professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. "This kind of fanaticism -- you are a good Christian or you are a bad Christian -- has much more fuel than the movie. The movie is just a tool for this type of thought."
Gibson has to date been accused of fomenting anti-Semitism, turning Jesus' suffering into a homoerotic fantasy and filming The Passion to make millions of dollars from Jesus' crucifixion. But now he stands accused of what may be the most divisive action of all: making some Americans feel left out of a discussion about a film they choose not to see.