On the evening before Easter Sunday, the Holy City of the Wichitas held its 97th annual passion play, the Prince of Peace Pageant. Volunteers reenacted the gospel, from the Annunciation of Mary to Christ’s resurrection, to onlookers sitting on a Cache, Oklahoma, hillside.
At dusk, a member of the Wichita Tribe signed the Lord’s Prayer in Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). Then, music blared over loudspeakers, and a spotlight moved through vignettes in a half-mile area, including the nativity in Bethlehem, the mount of Jesus’s titular sermon, and Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. The expansive tableau had more than one actor depicting each main character, and a cast of Roman soldiers, angels, Pharisees, and others pantomimed scenes with sweeping gestures. The voice actors read the script in a stentorian manner that evoked a biblical epic like The Ten Commandments.
The pageant is a remnant of Hollywood’s Golden Age, or the period of film lasting through the 1960s. At the height of its popularity in 1939, the Prince of Peace Pageant drew 225,000 visitors. According to the playbill, “Hollywood came calling” nearly ten years later to produce The Lawton Story, a film inspired by the pageant. These were the days when audiences felt awe from a passion play or biblical epic. That is, audiences felt connected to something greater than themselves.
Mainstream audiences’ tastes have changed since Hollywood’s Golden Age. As I’ve drowned in bottomless content on streaming services or social media, the Prince of Peace Pageant showed me what I’m missing: a sense that I belong to a community with shared values working towards a common project. This is because most content no longer depicts shared values, which causes civic disengagement through low voter turnout or faux activism. But a few habit changes could revive awe-inspiring art, thus reviving the shared stories that encourage civic responsibility.
“Awe” means something different to each culture, but diverse examples of awe-inspiring art show their commonalities: they depict foundational stories or follow the “hero’s journey,” a template found in stories from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In this template, the hero faces trials in a supernatural world, bringing back moral wisdom to his or her people.
Awe-inspiring art is inextricably linked to civic responsibility because, in conjuring the divine or supernatural, it reminds audiences that they’re made in God’s image (or something like Him). The project for any society is to live up to His image by working towards moral perfection, whether that work takes place through voting, debate, or performing community service (i.e., civic responsibility).
These days, awe-inspiring content is the exception rather than the rule. This isn’t, however, an argument about quality or a claim that it’s the end of art. Instead, new content encourages hyperindividualism. In political scientist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, he uses bowling as a metaphor for the decline of social groups: when he wrote the book in 2000, more people were bowling but fewer belonged to leagues. The problem is now exacerbated by social media and streaming services. Public viewing experiences such as the Prince of Peace pageant once brought people together. In recent years, attendance has been a mere 2,000 to 5,000 people annually. The passion play is part of a nationwide trend as more people prefer the isolation of home entertainment to live theater and moviegoing.
But the problem is not only that people are streaming alone; they’re not even watching the same content. Ross Douthat wrote in his column that we lost “The Movies,” or movies that everyone “had to see.” He likens “The Movies” to a shared language — jokes and references or “cultural specifics” — that collapsed once Netflix, TikTok, and other platforms generated recommendations for specific people.
People once consumed awe-inspiring art that reminded them of shared values (for Americans, these include optimism, autonomy, and work ethic). Conversely, content curated for niche audiences seems valueless because its success no longer depends on common denominators. Consider, for instance, the difference between The Searchers (1956), a Golden Age Western, and Netflix’s The Power of the Dog (2021), a neo-Western. One was a critical and commercial success because of its common denominators. Its hero had traits — grit, commitment to family, and mercy — that were decidedly American. The other is a technical achievement but boring and nondescript (though The Power of the Dog developed the vague theme of “toxic masculinity” by poisoning its cowboy lead).
A good therapist will say that most problems are communication problems. Americans can no longer communicate because they lack a shared language through shared values. Problems of civic responsibility ensue. Jonathan Haidt’s recent article in the Atlantic points out some of these problems. Americans are more polarized. Clicks and retweets don’t incentivize serious political discussion but a cancel culture that deals quick call-outs, punishing anyone who deviates from a narrow ideology. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street don’t seek to improve institutions but end them. To use Putnam’s metaphor, people went from bowling alone to disagreeing on the very definition of bowling.
Reviving Civic Responsibility
Haidt’s solutions to these problems are mostly institutional, including encouraging compromise in Congress by ending closed party primaries. The solutions to our troubled civics should also include an artistic one that involves a healthy dose of awe.
For secular thinkers, there’s an aversion to anything that’s religious, spiritual, or otherwise labeled as “woo woo.” For them, there’s no place for woo woo in a pluralist society in which private beliefs peacefully coexist, and those private beliefs stay out of institutions.
However, ditching the woo woo altogether has harmed other shared beliefs. I once argued that secular thinkers should consider that skepticism towards religion (“woo woo”) devolved into skepticism towards reality itself. People subscribe to postmodern teachings, which assert that there is no universal truth. As a result, they turn inward, treating truth as whatever they want it to be (think moral relativism, conspiracy theories, and performative civic engagement). With troubling voter turnout and declining participation in community organizations, more Americans choose to tweet rather than effect change. Society’s project — using shared beliefs to achieve moral perfection — is difficult when people no longer believe that there is such a thing as moral perfection.
Awe might not have a place in state institutions, but awe-inspiring art can have a positive impact on civic responsibility. I can’t tell people what to produce or consume, but I can at least ask them to consider what happens when art no longer reminds viewers of shared values.
Consumers can use apps to limit the amount of time they spend on social media. They can seek communal viewing experiences, substituting live theater or the local art festival for an evening of binge watching TV. Producers might take inspiration from art that attempts a thesis. I hope to see more TV shows like Yellowstone, a neo-western that America Magazine calls “a biblical epic,” or movies like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), which ends with the main character reconnecting with her Catholic faith.
Art is not necessarily the cause of the civic disengagement that prevents people from voting or engaging in meaningful debate. However, art fulfills a role that secular institutions cannot: providing the feeling of awe, which helps people develop shared beliefs from the importance of democracy to our nation’s origin story.
The Prince of Peace at 100
At the end of the Prince of Peace Pageant, the spotlight shifts from the earthly to the heavenly. Jesus walks among his apostles after resurrection to dispense his final wisdom. Suddenly, the scene on the ground goes dark, and Jesus appears on the highest point of the tableau. Light floods behind him as the “Hallelujah” chorus plays, signaling his ascension into Heaven. His hero’s journey has ended, but the one for his followers has just begun.
As the passion play nears its 100-year anniversary, I hope that a larger crowd will join me on the Cache, Oklahoma, hillside. Our civic engagement depends on it.
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