By Nicole Greenfield
Evangelical marketing strategies became the focus of national attention with the release of The Passion of the Christ in February 2004. Advance screenings, rumors of controversial themes, and the grassroots efforts of church pastors and ministries helped create the hype that sent millions running to the theaters on its opening day. The film’s box office success prompted the immediate production of T-shirts, books, CDs, and jewelry, which raked in even more money. While the majority of conservative Christians praised the film and utilized it as an evangelizing tool, some saw its overt commercialism and connection with the godless world of Hollywood as problematic.
Few concerned evangelicals have publicly voiced their opinions on this tension, however. The secular media has reported that evangelical Christians worry about marketing techniques directed specifically at them, but it’s difficult to find outward opposition expressed in the Christian media or by individual believers. It’s for this reason that evangelical Rik Swartzwelder’s recently released short satirical film, The McPassion, comes as such a relief. Launched on Ash Wednesday, coinciding with the second anniversary of The Passion’s official release, the film will remain at www.themcpassion.com throughout Lent and be removed at midnight on Easter Sunday.
The four-minute film parodies church-targeted commercialism and marketing by linking The Passion with America’s ultimate commercial symbol, McDonald’s. Claiming to be the tie-in of tie-ins, the short advertises the McPassion Happy Meal, which comes complete with a crown of thorns, round fries and blood-tasting ketchup, an “authentic simulated leather cat of nine tails,” and a kid-size crucifix with a McPassion hammer. It ends with an unmasked jab at the commercialism of Christianity: “Buy one today, make Jesus happy.” But in case the point is missed, Swartzwelder includes additional remarks in the discussion section of the site. “Look,” he writes, “I’m no theologian, but whatever ‘the Gospel’ is, I know this much — it’s free. No one ever has to buy another anything to get closer to God.”
Swartzwelder is clear that he was deeply moved by Gibson’s film and that his satire is in no way a parody of Jesus or the blockbuster itself. His goal, rather, is to make a case for redrawing a firm line between Christianity and secular world of shameless advertising and commercialism. For him, the crossover has gone too far.
Swartzwelder’s film is well-made and funny. It’s an insightful and important commentary on the marketing strategies employed to attract Christian consumers, by a Christian consumer. Unfortunately, though, it has not received the media attention that it deserves. News of The McPassion has found its way to countless blogs. But, with the exception of a short interview with Swartzwelder in Christianity Today, both secular and evangelical mainstream media have ignored this significant piece of criticism. Perhaps Swartzelder’s fellow Christian media-makers don’t want to promote such a possibly offensive subject; or maybe they fear widespread support for a renewed separation of Christianity and commercialism. But I see no reason why large secular publications have failed to shed light on Swartzwelder’s film. Satirical shows like South Park, The Family Guy, and The Daily Show are favorites among secular audiences, after all. It could be that they just haven’t heard of The McPassion. Maybe it boils down to a simple marketing problem.