Magic bullets, stalagmites and The Passion

Anyone 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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