The Affective Fallacy, a common term in the world of literary scholarship, claims that it is erroneous to judge a work of art based on the affects it has on its partakers. In other words, this fallacy states that we should evaluate a work of art independently of its impact on us. While I think there is some merit to this fallacy, I also think that a good indicator that a work of art is great is that it generally has a profound impact on those who experience it (or at least those who experience it and understand it). Conversely, a sure sign of a mediocre work of art is that it seldom has such an impact.
Now I’ll concede that there are times when mediocre works of art have profoundly impacted people and when great works have cured people of insomnia. Perhaps there was someone whose life was forever changed after looking at one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. And, on the other hand, I’m sure there are people who have looked at a Rembrandt painting and haven’t been touched in the slightest.
But, generally speaking, we can tell that a work of art is great if it significantly changes people’s lives. Hamlet, the poems of John Donne, Anna Karenina, Dubliners—these are all great works of art and one proof of this is that countless men and women through the years have been transformed by them. On the other hand, the novels of John Irving are decent at best and one proof is that you’ll be hard pressed to find someone whose life was changed after reading any of them.
The fact that The Passion of the Christ is affecting so many people so profoundly seems to be evidence that it is great, not just religiously, but also artistically. (That the movie is having such a huge impact is now undeniable. For example, when I saw it the other night, many, many people in the theater were teary-eyed when it was over; just last week, the movie so strongly convicted one viewer of his sin that, after watching it, he actually confessed to police that he had murdered his ex-girlfriend; and I can personally testify that the movie has been on my mind ever since I saw it and has helped deepen my love and admiration for Christ.)
Some might be tempted to entirely attribute the movie’s impact to its message, but such an attempt fails. If the movie’s impact was solely being caused by its message, then previous Jesus movies would have had equally powerful impacts (although certainly not on as large of a scale). But they have not. This movie is affecting people more deeply, much more deeply, than the others. The reason for all this, I can’t help but think, is that it is artistically superior.
Great art affects people. Bad art, even when its message is profound, seldom does.