Art, Faith, and the Marketplace

Beginning next week, on Ash Wednesday, we will all be witness to the largest mass act of arts/humanities consumerism since the last Harry Potter book. Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion will be released. It is widely believed to be the most powerful film representation of Christ’s crucifixion ever made.

Churches all over the country are organizing to distribute tickets and see the film. Is this sacrilege? The conventional wisdom, left and right, might suggest so. In many states, local laws restrict what you can buy and sell on Sunday, for religious reasons. Catholics still take it on the chin for trafficking in indulgences hundreds of years ago. Christmas and Easter are said to be debased when they are “commercialized.”

Why no complaints that anticipation for The Passion partakes of a similar sin? For one thing, the conventional wisdom has held that religious movies aren’t money makers. When Mel sunk $25 million of his own money into the project, people said he was crazy. But it is slowly dawning on people that the potential market for this film is darn close to unlimited. Might this become at once the most religiously pious and financially successful film ever made? It might, which does indeed raise the issue of religion and commerce.

Is it wrong to make lots of money off the religious sentiments of others? Is it bad to profit from trafficking in piety? It should be clear that these are loaded questions. Anyone who is excited about the film can generate an easy response. Gibson made the film because he cared about the topic. The actors and crew joined the effort because they too cared. People are willing to pay to see it because they care about it. Some people make money but that’s fine. Making money is better than losing money.

In short, there’s really no issue here because everyone is benefiting and no one is being debased. This much might be clear to people who think about the problem a bit, but let’s explore. Why does the issue of the morality of profit come up at all? Profits are calculated in terms of money, which is a tool for allowing us to engage in transactions beyond barter.

With money, we don’t have to bring a chicken or a piece of software to the theater and bargain with the owner, who then has to find things to trade with the distributor, who then has to find stuff that the producer likes, and on and on. Instead, we all use money, which allows us to calculate and put a price on various goods and services for which we would otherwise have to find direct users. Money is simply a tool, though one essential to a developed division of labor, and therefore prosperity. It can be a means for accomplishing great things (saving people from lives of misery) or evil things (30 pieces of silver), but it is still essential to an economy beyond the level of primitive autarky.

When voluntary exchange results in tremendous quantities of money landing in the possession of a single person or group of people, it can only signal one thing: that the good they traded was highly valued by others. In this sense sky-high profits are a sign of social service, and the higher the profits, the more we can say that this money’s owner served society. Profits are not ill-gotten gains, but signs of successful activities on behalf of the needs and wants of others. In a free market, this is universally true.

Profits serve also as a signal for other producers to come into a certain line of work. It doesn’t matter whether those who chase profitable undertakings are in it “for the money” or whether they passionately believe in doing the most economically useful activities in society. The greediest motive and the most humanitarian one both yield the same result: profits attract resources in their direction. Eventually, of course, new entries into an otherwise unchanging market drive down profits until they are very low, which is why business must constantly improve and cut costs to stay ahead.

If there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall over time, what is the source of high profits? In a word: entrepreneurship. This is the act of correctly anticipating a yet unmet consumer desire and making a judgment that this desire can be met in an economically viable way. Good entrepreneurial calls yield above average profits, while bad calls net losses in a process that signals over time how best to go about making good judgments about the future. Sometimes the least plausible judgments yield the highest return.

That a movie about a 2,000-year-old event could generate the amount of public interest that this one has was certainly an entrepreneurial judgment. If the movie is good and audiences are willing to shell out to see it again and again, and rent it later, it could turn out to be the greatest entrepreneurial judgment in the history of film. For one thing, Gibson certainly went his own way with this one, depending on none of the established channels for making movies. If this movie is a blockbuster, there is going to be wailing and gnashing of teeth all over Tinseltown.

Also, by the logic of economics, you can know that the high profits associated with this film are going to attract new entries into this genre. We are going to see movies about many episodes from the gospels, made very much on the model of this one and seeking to serve the same audience. Thus will we have the capitalist marketplace serving religious endsu2014something we are often told is impossible.

For decades and centuries, many Christians have condemned commerce on grounds that it doesn’t serve godly ends. In fact, there are no ends (both good and evil) that commerce cannot serve. Money changed hands to bring about the crucifixion. But money also changed hands to buy the tomb, and to bring about this movie.

If you like The Passion, and you like Mel’s vision in having seen a need where others did not, and the saga of the film and all the obstacles inspire you, remember that none of this would be possible without the institutions of the market economy. To make a movie like this requires more than a good story and courage. It also requires private property, market exchange, investment capital, flexible wages, distribution networks, discretionary income, freedom of association, and sophisticated financial systems to keep track of it.

Go see The Passion, and if you are among those who are always yammering about the evil of commerce, stop it.

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