“Culture” or “religion”? Understanding the popularity of the Passion

A window display in Groningen as retailers attempt to cash-in on "Passion fever"
A window display in Groningen as retailers attempt to cash-in on “Passion fever”. Source: the author

The Passion comes to Groningen in 2014. A hugely popular event, it raises many questions at the same time. Is it a form of religion reasserting itself in the public sphere? Is it a purely cultural event, as some commentators suggest? Is it a combination of the two? What are its political and social implications? In today’s post, Erin Wilson reflects on these questions, asking what happens when we try to label something that has been “religious” as “culture”.

The Passion has become a wildly successful pop culture phenomenon in the Netherlands. Last year, over 20,000 people were out in near freezing temperatures in The Hague to take part in the spectacle, with a further 2.3 million people watching on television across the country. This year, the Passion comes to Groningen and organisers expect it to be even bigger. 3.2 million people watched the event on TV on 17 April.

As a foreigner living in the Netherlands, I have found the popularity of the Passion surprising to say the least. The Netherlands has a reputation for being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. How is it that this religious narrative, performed each year in the days leading up to the Christian celebration of Easter, has become so popular in such a secular country?

The most convincing explanation for this seems to be that the Passion is a cultural, rather than a religious phenomenon. It tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the use of secular pop songs and drama, with celebrities taking on the roles of Jesus, his disciples and his mother. At first glance there is nothing terribly remarkable about this. Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Noah, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Children of Eden all make use of biblical narratives for the purposes of cultural production and entertainment. The popularity of the Passion is also no doubt tied to cultural traditions in the Netherlands involving the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion around Easter each year. Musicals, films, oratorios, public spectacles like the Passion are all considered primarily cultural traditions and products, rather than carrying any religious significance.

Arguably, it is much more complicated than this though. While the production itself is highly secularized, there is a strong emphasis on explicitly religious activities in the side events. Two Christian television stations, along with the Protestant Church in the Netherlands and a number of Christian civil society organisations are the main driving force behind the production and its broadcast.[1] As such, it is difficult to justify defining it in purely cultural terms. Add to this the fact that the City Government of Groningen contributed approximately 50000 euros towards the costs of putting on the Passion,[2] and we can see that the Passion represents a complex entanglement of religion, culture, politics and public life.

So what does it mean to describe a ritual like the Passion as “cultural” rather than “religious”? What impact does this have on how we perceive and respond to these rituals? And what are the implications for how we understand the place of both religion and culture in public life?

It’s not just in relation to public spectacles like the Passion that we see this distinction between “culture” and “religion” being made. In the Netherlands, Italy, Canada, the United States and Australia, amongst others, discussions about the presence of religious symbols, rituals and practices in the public sphere also make use of these categorisations of “religion” and “culture”. Crucifixes in public school classrooms, government buildings, the saying of the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of parliament sittings are all positioned as important elements of the “cultural heritage” of these countries, and as such having an important space in the public sphere. This is different from the “religious” symbols of minority groups, such as headscarves and turbans, which represent a dangerous encroachment of religion in the public sphere, according to this discourse.

Lori Beaman from the University of Ottawa has argued that classifying some symbols as culture and others as religion is a way to keep the “cultural” symbols of the majority in the public realm and exclude the “religious” symbols of the minority.[3] In such cases, there seems to be very specific assumptions being made about what religion actually is and what its relationship with public life is or should be. In particular, religion is assumed to be a threat to public order. That is why the formal separation of religion and state is so important – to protect both from undue influence from the other. Religion is also considered irrational, contributing to violence and chaos and incompatible with the requirements of rational secular public reason. It is also conceived as a matter of personal preference and choice, and thus a private concern. Each of these assumptions about the nature of religion imply that it should be kept out of the public sphere. Defining some symbols as “religious” thus justifies their exclusion from public life.

“Culture” on the other hand is benign, with no aspirations to public influence or control. As such, it poses no threat to public order and can even in many cases enrich public life. Yet, as Marshall Sahlins has argued, “culture” is often seen as something abstract.[4] “Culture” represents something that is separate from society and politics, outside of them, perhaps forming a backdrop to them, but ultimately with little to no impact on them. It is viewed as something separate from and subordinated to the “real” business of politics and society. Similarly, when we designate something as “cultural heritage” to be preserved and protected, we imply that it is weak, in the past, that it no longer has any real significance or power. As such, while nationally televised public performances of the Passion, the presence of crucifixes and the saying of the Lord’s Prayer may be attempts to preserve the importance of Christianity for Western cultures, if only historically, they also, in other ways, emphasize and potentially further its decline. Frederick Gedicks and Pasquale Annichino argue this classification of Christianity as culture rather than religion in the Western public sphere represents a “shallow trivialization and stereotyping of formerly powerful religious narratives.” “These symbols,” they argue “continue to fit, if at all, only as something other that the confessional symbols they are – hence the redefinition of such symbols as secular even, and especially by the religions that use them and with which they have traditionally been associated.”[5] The Passion becomes redefined as a secular cultural event that everyone can participate in, rather than a sacred story for a community of sincere believers.

There may, however, be a double agenda going on here. As David Lowenthal has pointed out, the identification and development of cultural heritage is actually much more about constructing and defending an identity that is important for the present.[6] When we talk about Christianity as part of our cultural heritage, we are highlighting a unique part of Western identity, something that makes us different from other regions of the world (and immigrants who come from those other parts of the world), however secular we may have become. This has implications for our understanding of community, particularly of who is “in” and who is “out”. Who is being excluded, however subtly, by the celebration of Christianity as culture, rather than religion?

Most scholars of religion would suggest, though, that religion is part of culture, that it can only be effectively understood within its embedded cultural context, not something that can be neatly separated from it.[7] As such it is important to unpack just what is going on when we try to separate the two out from one another. At the same time, perhaps the success of the Passion suggests that the Netherlands may not be as secular as we assume it to be. At the very least, it encourages us to continually reflect on religion and its place in public life, both as it is discussed and how it is experienced in practice.

Erin K. Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

[1] http://passion.groningen.nl/partners

[2]http://www.groningerkrant.nl/2014/02/provincie-draagt-bij-aan-popevenement-the-passion-2014/ ; http://gemeente.groningen.nl/evenementen/groningen-in-2014-decor-van-the-passion

[3] Lori Beaman. 2012. “Battle over symbols: the ‘religion’ of the minority versus the ‘culture’ of the majority” Journal of Law and Religion 28(1): 67

[4] Marshall Sahlins. 1999. “Two or three things that I know about culture” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5: 399-422

[5] Frederick Gedicks and Pasquale Annichino. 2013. “Cross, crucifix, culture: an approach to the constitutional meaning of confessional symbols” European University Institute Working Papers series Available at http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/29058/RSCAS_2013_88.pdf?sequence=1

[6] David Lowenthal. 1998. The heritage crusade and the spoils of history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[7] Olivier Roy. 2010. Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways. New York: Columbia University Press; Kocku von Stuckrad. 2010. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. 22, p157-8; Birgit Meyer, 2006. “Why Media, Aesthetics and Power Matter in the Contemporary Study of Religion” Available at http://www.vu.nl/nl/Images/Oratietekst%20Birgit%20Meyer_tcm9-44560.pdf esp pp5-6

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2 Replies to ““Culture” or “religion”? Understanding the popularity of the Passion”

    1. Hi Mike, that’s exactly the point. Some of the discussion about the Passion has tried to make a distinction between religion and culture to say that it is mainly a cultural event, not a religious event. The same thing has happened in debates and in some legal decisions about Christian symbols in public spaces in countries like Italy, Canada and the United States, they try to say that these symbols are cultural, rather than religious in order to justify keeping them in the public sphere, while they try to exclude religious symbols and rituals of minority religious groups. But it is an artificial distinction because religion and culture are entwined, as you say.

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