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Folk piety links politics, ‘Code’ and ‘Passion’

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Imagine for one moment a country so suffused with religious sentiment that its bestselling novel and most widely seen film are constructed from popular pieties, a place where even politicians have to reckon constantly with the sensitivities of entrenched and influential theological traditionalists.

Would we be discussing the Taliban-ridden Afghan hill country? Perhaps the Wahabi hinterlands of Saudi Arabia’s implacable Koran Belt? Iran under the mullahs or the Vatican City?

Actually, the correct answer is none of the above.

The place we’ve described is these United States on this first day of spring in this, the Year of Our Lord 2004.

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Consider, for example, the triumphant progress of the season’s most popular film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Mel Gibson’s version of Jesus’ arrest and execution recapitulates virtually every crude anti-Semitic stereotype that ever has disfigured Christian memory. But by Sunday night, it’s likely “The Passion” will have been the country’s top-grossing film for four weeks in a row.

Newmarket Films, which is distributing “The Passion,” has told the press that the film could top $400 million in domestic ticket sales before the year is out, making it one of the half dozen top-grossing films of all time.

Gibson’s film, which he financed entirely out of his own pocket, already is history’s highest-grossing R-rated movie -- ahead of “The Matrix Reloaded” -- and has become the most successful independent film ever released, surpassing “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Along the way, it also topped “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as the most lucrative foreign language film ever distributed in the U.S. and Canada. When the projected release of 22 million DVDs turns “The Passion” into a kind of digital Oberammergau and all the soundtrack CDs, crucifixion coffee mugs and jewelry are sold, experts think the 48-year-old filmmaker stands to make something north of $400 million.

And most of that won’t have come from the Bible Belt. As Newmarket President Bob Berney told the Los Angeles Times, one of the film’s highest-grossing theaters is the AMC Empire in Manhattan. Berney has also noted that urban areas around the country are doing well, with strong business among African Americans and Latinos.

Among those Americans who’d still rather stay home curled up with a good book, there’s another kind of religious excursion, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which this week became the biggest one-year seller in the history of American publishing with 6.6 million hardcover copies in print. Brown’s book is one of those intricately plotted post-literate novels that many people enjoy between catnaps on long airplane flights -- diverting, but not demanding, in other words. This one, though, is a magpie’s pastiche of extra-canonical early Christian texts -- mainly Gnostic -- New Age speculation about the Holy Grail and other assorted bilge, including centuries-old plots by the Vatican.

The novel involves a Harvard professor and his romantic interest, a French police cryptologist, who find themselves caught in the crossfire between the semi-legendary “Priory of Sion” and Opus Dei, a conservative association of mostly lay Catholics. The priory has custody of the grail and is keeping alive a pre-Christian feminist faith that involves ritual intercourse. In the book, Opus Dei has been charged by the Vatican with destroying the priory, which knows the secret that would undo all Christianity: that the grail was actually Mary Magdalene, who was married to Jesus and bore him a daughter, whose descendants are with us still.

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What Gibson’s ultra-traditionalist film and Brown’s trendy heterodox novel have in common is their connection to a wide current of popular religiosity that operates wholly apart from mainstream faith-based scholarship or denominational discipline. The problems with Gibson’s literalist reliance on the problematic Gospel of Matthew have been widely discussed. Two knowledgeable reviewers from perspectives raised similar issues concerning Brown’s book.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly, Father Andrew Greeley rather good-naturedly asks: “Is this stuff anti-Catholic? In a sense it is.... However, the worst the book will do is upset some dedicated Catholics who won’t leave the church anyhow and feed the bigotry of some hard-line anti-Catholics.” Greeley, himself a bestselling novelist, also finds the notion of the Vatican’s paying 20 million euros to an Opus Dei hit man a bit out of sync with his experience of the church.

“I am hardly a defender of Opus Dei,” he writes, “but I cannot imagine them setting a killer loose.... Nor can I imagine the Vatican picking up the tab for serial killings. As usual in such stories, the Roman curia is pictured as smooth, sophisticated schemers who will stop at nothing to preserve the power of the church.... It is in fact a fractionalized bureaucracy whose heavy-handed personnel would have hard time conspiring themselves out of wet paper bag.”

Margaret M. Mitchell, who chairs the department of New Testament and Early Christian literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, examined the novel for the school’s Martin Marty Center and found -- on a cursory reading -- nine major assertions that are “patently inaccurate.” Among them are Brown’s claims that there originally were more than 80 Gospels, that “the earliest Christian records” were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and that Constantine fixed the Christian scriptural canon. Her review goes on to list far more “facts” that simply are misleading, including Brown’s propagation “of the full-dress conspiracy theory for Vatican suppression of women.”

Here’s where the link between these pop cultural manifestations of America’s folk piety and electoral politics comes into play. Something in this religious tendency inclines those who engage it not only toward credulity but also toward a belief in conspiracy. That’s a dangerous blend in a society that now virtually demands that its candidates for office express some sort of fealty to what has become a de facto established religion.

Less than half a century ago, John F. Kennedy virtually had to promise never to think a Catholic thought in the Oval Office to win election. Today, could an atheist or even an agnostic be elected president?

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