Second Thoughts about 'The Passion'
March 22, 2004
My current theory is that Christians and Jews see two
different films when they watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of
the Christ." For example, when Satan slithered through the crowd,
I saw nothing objectionable.
It's conventional Christian theology that the temptation
to do evil (or Satan himself) is everywhere. But many Jews saw Satan
acting through a specifically Jewish gathering, yet another in a
long line of Christian libels. For Jews, this film was very close
to the traditional passion play so often used to incite anti-Semitic
violence. Jews also noticed that when God becomes angry at the killing
of Jesus, he doesn't wreak havoc on the Roman forum or Pilate's house.
He doesn't even confine the damage to Herod's palace and Caiaphas's
house. He destroys the temple.
Jews don't understand why Christians don't seem to
get this. They tend to think that Christians are either blind to
the movie's message, or insensitive to the feelings of Jews. I don't
think that's it. I think the emotional impact of this film was so
powerful that it tended to blot out concerns about history, accuracy
These concerns dominated among intellectuals and media
types. But ordinary Christians were so overwhelmed by the film that
they didn't much want to involve themselves in yet another debate
about whether a few Jews or a few Romans were mostly responsible
for killing Jesus. This was the first movie, available to a mass
audience, that powerfully portrayed the scope of Jesus's sacrifice
and what it means for the way Christians lead their own lives. That's
why so many came out of the theater shaken, weeping or talking about
their need to become better Christians. Nobody came out wanting to
talk about Mel Gibson's father.
The Christian unwillingness to analyze this film showed
in a more obvious way. The core audience, evangelicals and fundamentalists,
is meticulous about literal reading of Scripture and at least stand-offish
about Catholic interpretations. Yet they flocked to a film with a
profoundly Catholic sensibility, based on the sometimes eccentric
visions of a 19th century nun, and filled with free-wheeling scenes
found nowhere in the Bible. You could argue that Gibson's movie departed
from the Gospels almost as much as Hollywood potboilers like The
But to audiences, this didn't matter much. It was emotionally
true to the Gospels, and audiences found that good enough.
There's also a culture-war aspect to the film. Christians
are very much aware that they are increasingly held in contempt by
so many in the elites and the arts community. This treatment is everywhere,
and runs from anti-Christian plays and movies to dung-and-porn-covered
madonnas and attempts to degrade Christians symbols and rituals,
such as the ridiculous and swishy Jesus figures in gay parades. After
a year-long campaign to destroy Gibson's movie before anybody had
seen it, the New York Times ran a review of the film that compared "The
Passion of the Christ" to a Simpsons episode. What are the odds
that a Times reviewer would compare a serious black play to an episode
of Amos and Andy?
Many Christians were clearly relieved that "The
Passion of the Christ" wasn't yet another attempt to trample
their values. In this context, the hundreds of millions of dollars
that "The Passion of the Christ" is ringing up amount to
a large cultural statement. The columnist Mark Steyn nicely jabbed
at the elites this way: "All those liberal columnists who champion
the necessity of brave transgressive artists when it comes to giving
us a horny Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ), a gay Jesus (the
Broadway play Corpus Christi), or a Jesus floating in the artist's
urine ("Piss Christ") have finally discovered a Jesus it
would be grossly irresponsible to show to the public."
On anti-Semitism: a survey released last week by the
Institute for Jewish and Community Research reports that Gibson's
film is not producing resentment against Jews and may actually be
reducing anti-Semitism. According to the survey, 83 percent of people
familiar with the film say it made them neither more likely nor less
likely to blame Jews today for Jesus's crucifixion. Two percent said
they are more likely to blame Jews. Twelve percent said the film
made them less likely to do so.
The numbers in the poll were small. It was done in
early March when only 146 of the 1003 people surveyed had actually
seen the film. But the results are an indicator that the dire predictions
of a big wave of anti-Semitism were wrong. Some 40 to 50 million
Americans have seen the film, and the mainstream press still seems
to be awaiting an explosion of anti-Jewish feeling among Christians.
It hasn't arrived. I don't think it will.
©2004 Universal Press Syndicate
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