People are supposed to meditate in church, but the epiphany that rocked
filmmaker Rik Swartzwelder two years ago was different.
It started when he visited several churches in Charlotte, N.C., while
visiting family. In service after service he heard preachers telling
people it was their "Christian duty" to rush out and buy a ticket for "The
Passion of the Christ." There were brochures for Mel Gibson's bloody epic
in the bulletins, posters in sanctuary lobbies and preview clips for the
Swartzwelder began thinking about the biblical drama in which, as St. Mark
said, "Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold
and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers,
and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man
should carry any vessel through the temple."
So he pounded out a sarcastic -- some would say bitter or blasphemous --
script entitled "The McPassion," a feverish vision of what would happen if
Hollywood and the fast-food industry teamed up to sell Holy Week. The
script sat on a shelf until Swartzwelder decided that Tinseltown's love
affair with born-again marketing was growing instead of fading.
The results have been posted at www.TheMcPassion.com, a 4-minute blast
that opens with chipper children scarfing down their McPassion meals,
complete with a crown of thorns and round fries that the announcer notes
are "shaped just like the Eucharist." Then there's the McLast Supper from
Burger King of Kings or the McLoaves and Fish Sticks dinner (all you can
eat, while supplies last). The meals come with toys, like the pretend
stigmata tattoos, a simulated leather cat of nine tails, Shroud of Turin
towelettes, a kid-sized crucifix and the "cool McPassion hammer."
The pitch ends with this call to commerce: "Buy one today! Make Jesus
happy! ... Alleluia, God's lovin' it!"
None of this is terribly subtle.
"I want people to wince," said Swartzwelder. "I wince when the girl says
that dipping the body of Christ in ketchup is fun. I wince when the boy
hits the girl's palm with the toy hammer and you hear that clink, clink
The goal was to inspire heated discussions and Swartzwelder and director
Benjamin Hershleder were more than willing to infuriate many Christian
viewers in order to get their point across. The result was an online
firestorm that has been both painful and gratifying.
"I keep reminding people that I am a Christian and that, if they really
want to know, I am a big fan of what I thought was a courageous movie by
Mel Gibson," said Swartzwelder, a freelance filmmaker in Burbank, Calif.
He is best known as the creator of "The Least of These," a short film
released in 2002 that won 27 awards and played at mainstream and religious
film festivals around the world.
The Emmy Award-winner stressed that he is glad that "The Passion" rang up
$370 million at the U.S. box office, opening doors for more artists to
make more films -- From "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" to "The End of the
Spear" -- that can tap into a faith-friendly marketplace out in Middle
America. As an admirer of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, he is glad that
the "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is
rising toward $290 million in U.S. ticket sales.
Swartzwelder is even pleased that many evangelicals, after decades of
merely throwing stones at Hollywood, are now seeking positive ways to
engage the world of entertainment.
The problem, he said, is that some religious leaders have allowed movie
publicity campaigns to bleed out of the marketplace and into the church
sanctuaries that are supposed to be safe havens for vulnerable souls.
"At some point we have to ask: What is the purpose of worship? What is the
purpose of the pulpit?", asked Swartzwelder, who also has led filmmaking
workshops at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Even with the best of intentions, using the pulpit to push movies -- even
good ones -- is dangerous. And what happens when we start seeing more
people making more movies for this audience? How do we decide which movies
to plug? There could be, no there will be, abuses and that's going to lead
us into murky waters."