If, a few years ago, I had been told there was a big Hollywood movie coming out about Jesus Christ directed by a man named Mel, I probably would have assumed that they were talking about a comedy by Mel Brooks -- a la his famous Spanish Inquisition high-kicking dancing nuns routine in the movie "History of the World, Part I." After all, the last two Hollywood Christ-story movies were Monty Python's satirical "Life of Brian" and Martin Scorsese's heretical "Last Temptation of Christ." I would never have guessed the movie would be a sincere, faithful, non-ironic portrayal of the Biblical account.
Similarly, if I had been told that a New York Times reporter asked the Democratic candidate for president whether he believed that God was on our side, I would have assumed it was in some Harvard University Hasty Pudding satirical review -- not in a CBS presidential debate. The last time I had heard that phrase in public, it was in a 1960's Joan Baez anti-war folk song in which the competing armies both ironically had "God on our side." The only moral in that song was relativism.
And if I was informed that millions of practicing Christians were likely to vote for the president just because he opposed, on religious and moral grounds, homosexuals getting legally married to one another -- I'm sure I would have been baffled that the topic had even come up.
Add into this mix last year's General Boykin affair, in which Christians around the country rallied to the defense of a leading terrorist-fighting American general who was almost run out of the service for giving witness to his Christian faith (which he said he believed to be the true faith, in contrast to Islam) -- while off duty on Sunday mornings in church.
The Germans have a word for it: Zeitgeist -- the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era. Suddenly, religion, of all things, is in the zeitgeist. Americans have become more conscious of our religious faith, and seem to be moving it back from the margins toward the center of our national life.
It is true that there has been a general religious revival going on in the private and community lives of Americans for many years now. But since September 11, 2001, our national -- not merely private or local -- consciousness seems to be drawing those religious instincts into it.
The human body, when it senses fear, reflexively draws blood from the stomach and intestines to the brain and muscles where it is immediately needed for the purpose of fight or flight (what we call butterflies in the stomach is in fact blood evacuating the stomach and rushing to the brain). So, too, perhaps, in the aftermath of the Islamist assault on our nation and culture, the body politic instinctively is drawing its moral strength toward its action nerve center -- national politics.
It is not that the war against Islamist terror is necessarily going to turn into religious war -- although it is clearly intended to be so by the Islamist terrorist aggressors. Rather, because we are being attacked because we are Christians or Jews (as well as Americans), we are necessarily more aware of our religious faith. And for many Americans, we are finding a renewed strength in that faith.
Of course, Mel Gibson was planning his movie years before September 11, 2001. The evidence that religious consciousness is now in the zeitgeist is not the fact that he released the movie this year, but the fact that unprecedented millions of Americans are rushing to see the movie. However, they are not seeing it for its entertainment value, but as an act of religious faith seeking or strengthening.
Those who review it as a movie (whether favorably or critically) are missing the point. It should be judged as one would judge a cathedral -- by its success at drawing and strengthening the faithful. A beautiful cathedral built to a false god that drew no congregation would be a failure -- as a cathedral. A full cathedral is, by definition, a success. Mel Gibson's cathedral is filled to the rafters.
If religion is coming back to the center of our national thoughts, irony -- at long, long last -- is beginning to slip to the margins. Even John Kerry recognized that, when he answered the question whether God was on our side. Only a few years ago not only Mr. Kerry, but most people, would have given a flip, ironic answer to the question. But last Sunday he labored through, what at least was intended to sound like a sincere answer. He re-affirmed his belief in God and averred that he regularly prayed for America.
Of course, I may well be wrong. These events -- and others (such as public revulsion for the immoral conduct of Janet Jackson, Howard Stern, etc) -- simply may be random phenomena signifying nothing. Or it may be a sign of things to come.