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The Bible Is Cool, the Passion is Hot
3 March 2004

". . . and Darkness was on the face of the Deep." Great religious texts and grand myths are replete with mystery. From the sublimely abstract imagery of Genesis to the intricate riddles of Revelation, from the lilies of the field to the loaves and fishes, the Bible evokes wonder and imagination. The evocative quality of its language and imagery is one of the ways that such a great text puts us in its thrall. Even those Fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of the text find themselves forming personal relationships with parables, miracles and fantastic imagery as they seek to unlock their truths through active reading.

McLuhan gave us a way to understand the evocative in any medium in Understanding Media (1964) with his distinction between "hot" and "cool" media. A medium is "hot" if it is high-definition - saturated with information - especially along one sensory dimension. A "cool" medium is less saturated and so invites more imaginative participation from the "reader" (or viewer) in that they are called upon to "fill in." By this definition, the language of the Bible can be described as "cool" in many respects. In contrast, the visually saturated medium of film can be seen as "hot" (with certain artistic exceptions that are intentionally ambiguous). You see where I am going with this.

Mel Gibson sought to make the Passion immediate and compelling in his recent film. The highly saturated imagery of Christ's suffering is evocative of high emotion in its viewers, but it leaves much less to the imagination than the Bible itself. Gibson's mysterious figure that lingers behind the cross provides a bit of cool ambiguity. But the scorchingly graphic depction of Christ's suffering is media at its hottest.

So what has happened here? I would posit that Gibson may have achieved the reverse of his intended effect. If McLuhan's principle applies, the evocative qualities of the biblical story are negated by the highly saturated filmic representation. Although emotions may be aroused in response to the film, these are qualitiatively different from the participatory engagement invited by cool media. To put it another way, evocative engagement can be seen as more personal than emotional reaction in that the reader actively constructs meaning with his or her own mental and spiritual materials. For those believers who saw the film, their emotional responses may in fact retain this deeply personal quality precisely because they have already been actively engaged with the text. But to a non-believer or an armchair Christian, the film may register in the same category as "Gladiator" or "Lord of the Rings."

For future generations, "The Passion" may be just another movie - a 21st century example of the genre to which films like "The Robe" and "The Ten Commandments" belong. "The Passion" is a classic case of a mismatch between medium and message.