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The Passion: Encroaching religion, cultural heritage or signs of postsecularism?

Date:03 April 2013
An image from the finale of last Thursday’s performance of The Passion in The Hague. Here you can see Jesus standing on the water after his resurrection, the giant cross that made its way through the city from the Peace Palace, and the Binnenhof in the background. Courtesy of The Passion Facebook page
An image from the finale of last Thursday’s performance of The Passion in The Hague. Here you can see Jesus standing on the water after his resurrection, the giant cross that made its way through the city from the Peace Palace, and the Binnenhof in the background. Courtesy of The Passion Facebook page

Last Thursday evening, Nederland Een broadcast the live performance of The Passion from The Hague. Erin Wilsonprovides an outsider’s perspective on this emerging ritual in Dutch public life.

As a recent immigrant to the Netherlands, one of the most secularized countries in Europe, the last thing I expected to be doing on Maundy Thursday was watching a live broadcast of a reenactment of the last hours of Jesus Christ performed throughout The Hague. Yet last Thursday, that was exactly what I did.

For those outside the Netherlands who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me give a brief explanation. Three years in a row now, famous Dutch entertainers – actors, singers, comedians – have participated in a musical performance of the Passion of Jesus. Using secular pop songs, yet sticking quite closely to the biblical text, the Passion is a joint venture by Dutch Christian television stations, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the Roman Catholic Church and the Dutch Bible Society, but also supported by secular stations NOS Journal, Goede Tijden Slechte Tijden, Blik op de Weg and Half Acht News on RTL. The performance is free, live and takes place across various urban sites. This year, the setting was The Hague, though previously it has also been performed in Gouda and Rotterdam (1). Jesus and his disciples roamed the streets of The Hague, the popular square De Plein serving as the setting for the Last Supper, the beach at Scheveningen a modern-day Garden of Gethsemane and the Binnenhof, the seat of Dutch parliament, providing the backdrop for Jesus trial and crucifixion (the crucifixion was portrayed through live sand art and the spoken word). Over 20,000 people were out in near-freezing temperatures in The Hague to take part in the spectacle, either as part of a march with a giant illuminated cross from the Peace Palace to the Binnenhof, or as part of the crowd outside the Binnenhof, joining in by yelling “Free Barabas” and “crucify him” at the appropriate points in the story. A further 2.3 million people across the country also watched the performance on television (2).

The Netherlands is not the only place where this idea has been tried – it was originally conceived by BBC TV in the UK. Yet it seems to be the only country where it has taken off so successfully. But exactly why it has been so successful, or even what the point or purpose of it is, remains something of a mystery.

Given who its main supporters are, one would be forgiven for thinking that it is an attempt to evangelize, to bring the message of Christianity back into the Dutch mainstream. Yet the support of secular news programs and broadcasters seems to undermine this interpretation. The presentation also does not include any particularly proselytizing elements, other than the retelling of the story itself. Jesus is presented as an historical figure, not as the Son of God. This year’s performance presented the story as being one about justice and peace, not in more religious terms of redemption or salvation that may have made it less palatable for a largely secular audience. Interviews conducted with people attending the event were spread equally across atheists, Christians, Muslims and others, and noticeably if any of the Christians seemed to be getting too fervent or evangelizing too much in their responses, the interviewer would cut the interview short. In any case, overt proselytizing would likely undermine the appeal of the event in such a secularized society. Though perhaps too, The Passion’s success raises questions about just how secularized the Netherlands is. Formal religious participation may have fallen away in recent years, but a quarter of the population still attends church at least once a month, and over 60% describe themselves as religious (3).

Another possible explanation for its success may be that the performance of the Passion forms some kind of preservation of cultural heritage. The story of Jesus has been a central part of the formation of contemporary Dutch culture, even if it no longer holds the level of accepted truth that it once did. Perhaps the performances of The Passion are in some way an attempt to reconnect contemporary Dutch society with this element of its cultural history. In this way, the story of Jesus, rather than being a religious narrative, becomes akin to a folk tale. In the same way that we retell stories from Greek and Roman mythology, perhaps the story of Jesus is also entering that realm of public myth.

Yet a third way of understanding it could be as an example of an increasing postsecular sensitivity in public life. Rather than rejecting religion for the intolerance and discrimination that it has been responsible for in the past, the postsecular attempts to rehabilitate religion into the public sphere, acknowledging its potential contributions to the pursuit of the common good. The references to justice and peace as central parts of the Jesus story during last Thursday’s performance would seem to support this interpretation. Perhaps the performances of The Passion are an attempt to rearticulate some of the essence, meaning and beauty that Habermas has argued religions contribute to the public sphere and political life, (4) an attempt to (re)introduce sacred inspiration for conceptions of justice and peace into a political environment that seems to be struggling to find sources for encouraging open, participatory and inclusive models of politics (5).

Further, a postsecular reading may also help to explain why Muslims, Christians and atheists all feel equally comfortable participating in this public ritual, for this is what it is fast becoming. Postsecularism takes inspiration from postmodernism, rejecting secular modernist assumptions concerning the neutrality and universality of secular reasoning and supporting a perspective that truth is relative to the individual (6). As such, the story of Jesus contains some truth for everyone, regardless of what perspective they come from. A Muslim interviewee last Thursday evening in essence expressed this. As a Muslim, Jesus is an important figure for him too, though not in the same way as for Christians. He wanted to participate in the event in order to show solidarity with Christians.

I am inclined to think that perhaps all three perspectives shed light on different aspects of this surprisingly successful public ritual. But I also think I need to live in the Netherlands longer before I fully understand its appeal to the national community. As a relative outsider, it still strikes me as somewhat bizarre, but fascinating nonetheless. I might even participate in next year’s performance…

Did you watch The Passion? If you missed The Passion last Thursday, you can view it here. What did you think? Is it an attempt by Christians to evangelize? Is it part of cultural heritage? Does it provide evidence that we are moving from a secular to a post-secular society? What other explanations are there for its success? Let us know your thoughts and insights.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. She is also an Australian, still finding her way in the Netherlands.

(1) Chadwick, Nicola. 2011. “The Passion pulls the crowds in Gouda” Radio Netherlands World Wide 22 April 2011. Available at 2 April 2013; The Passion Netherlands website, “Every episode” Available at Accessed 2 April

(2) Volkskrant, 2013. “Live-uitzending The Passion recordaantal kijkers [Live broadcast of The Passion attracts record number of viewers] 29 March 2013 Available at Accessed 2 April 2013

(3) European Values Survey. 2008. ‘Religion’. Available at , accessed 24 February 2012.

(4) J. Habermas, “Religion and Public Life” European Journal of Political Philosophy 15(1): 1-25

(5) I am thinking here of the widespread disillusionment with politics as usual that has been evident in numerous countries, not just the Netherlands, in recent years. Falling levels of voter participation, hung parliaments and minority governments, not to mention the success of controversial populist parties such as Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), all seems to suggest a need for alternative sources of inspiration for democratic politics.

(6) L. Mavelli and F. Petito. 2012. “The Postsecular in International Relations: An Introduction” Review of International Studies 38(5): 931-942


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