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“Culture” or “religion”?

Understanding the popularity of the Passion
17 April 2014

The Passion has become a wildly successful pop culture phenomenon in the Netherlands. As a foreigner living here, I have found this popularity surprising to say the least. 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 supposedly secular country?

The most convincing explanation seems to be that the Passion is a cultural, rather than a religious phenomenon. Like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Noah, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Children of Eden, the Passion makes use of biblical narratives for the purposes of 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.

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 are the main driving force behind the production and its broadcast. 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 200,000 euros towards the costs of putting on the Passion, and we can see that the Passion represents a complex entanglement of religion, culture, politics and public life.

Some have argued that classifying certain symbols and rituals as culture and others as religion is a way to keep the “cultural” practices of the majority in the public realm and exclude the “religious” practices of the minority. Very specific assumptions are made about what religion is and what its relationship with public life is or should be. Religion is seen as irrational, contributing to violence and chaos and incompatible with the requirements of rational secular public reason. It is also a matter of personal choice, and thus a private concern. These assumptions imply that religion 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. It poses no threat to public order and can even enrich public life. Yet, “culture” is often seen as something abstract. “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. 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. While nationally televised public performances of the Passion, amongst other examples, may be attempts to preserve the importance of Christianity in the Dutch public sphere, if only historically, it may also, in other ways, emphasize and potentially further its decline. 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.

Yet 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?

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

Last modified:04 December 2015 4.54 p.m.
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