“Jesus used to be king in Hollywood, and they crucified Him. We’re trying to bring him back.”
I heard those words being uttered as I walked into the screening room. It was late June 2003 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I was on the campus of the evangelical megaministry Focus on the Family. The words were coming from a representative of Icon Productions, the movie studio owned by Mel Gibson. Mr. Gibson and some of his associates were there to screen his cinematic Passion Play, entitled The Passion , for a select group of religious conservatives they hoped would support the film. I had been piggybacked into the screening because I knew someone who knew someone.
Since June, the title of the film, to be released this Ash Wednesday, has been altered from The Passion to The Passion of the Christ. I imagine that this change is a way of avoiding confusion about whose passion, exactly, we’re talking about here — because, as you know if you’ve been reading the newspapers and weeklies in recent months, Gibson’s movie has inspired passion of all kinds. Vocal criticisms have been levied against the film as the result of a purportedly purloined script read and reviewed by a group of scholars convened by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League. Those scholars called Gibson, a Traditionalist Catholic, to account for the anti-Semitism and dubious history they found dripping from the pages of the screenplay. The scholars believed that the movie was capable of producing the kind of anti-Jewish sentiment and violence that resulted from some Passion Plays past, and they felt themselves to be performing a humane duty of religious tolerance. Change the film, they advised, or run the risk of promoting anti-Jewish fervor the world over. In a now-infamous refusal, Gibson rebuffed the rebuffs of the scholars, and a battle quickly ensued — over biblical authority, higher critical scholarship, and the ethical responsibilities of religious storytellers.
Late last summer and fall, one could hardly pick up a periodical or listen to NPR without getting an earful about Gibson and his movie. In late December, the story was being touted as one of the year’s “most interesting” or “shocking” or “compelling” in the television news networks’ year-end roundups. And as the release day approaches, newsstand racks look increasingly Warholian, with Gibson and/or his Jesus (James Caviezel) on one cover after another. If all press is good press, then The Passion of the Christ is having the best, least expensive marketing run in movie history.
These rumbles had only just begun when I walked into Focus on the Family’s screening room in June, but the words spoken by Gibson’s associate anticipated the hubbub to come and, more interestingly, correctly surmised the evangelical position on American entertainment. Christian popular culture has always been rooted in an evangelistic impulse: from Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” portrait to the Contemporary Christian Music complex to W.W.J.D. paraphernalia, Christian popular culture is a cornucopia of evangelistic outreaches that have grown up to become consumer goods. Christians have been more or less successful at arriving at something like mainstream success in television, books, music, and decorative art, but have not yet had much luck with the Holy Grail of film. Evangelicalism will no doubt someday have its own filmmaking industry beyond the current straight-to-video apocalyptic thrillers hawked on Christian networks, but the film impulse is currently still in the wishful thinking phase, with no Hollywood corollary to Jars of Clay or Left Behind.
It is into this desire that Gibson and Icon Productions brought the tantalizing Jesus movie, and the private movie screenings, even without all the controversy, were sure to garner the fervor of Christians everywhere. Christian leaders sitting next to Gibson in darkened screening rooms, then defending the movie against the liberal onslaught and telling their contingents that Gibson has made a powerful movie, a faithful movie, a biblical movie — this has been a kind of fast forward button on the evangelical desire to gain a foothold in Hollywood. Jesus is on screen at last, and it is not Martin Scorcese’s all too human Jesus, nor Pier Paolo Pasolini’s androgynous Jesus, nor Campus Crusade’s grainy mission field Jesus — it is Mel Gibson’s Jesus. It is the Jesus of a Hollywood elite turned evangelist, the Greatest Story Ever Told told by a figure with legitimate cultural cache and even the approval of Oscar.
On the morning of the Focus on the Family screening, Gibson made a surprise appearance at a pastors conference up the road from the Focus complex. Five hundred or so pastors were in attendance, and Icon Productions did not pass up an opportunity to rally these pastors and their sizable constituencies around the Jesus movie cause. After a montage clip of Gibson’s movies, Gibson shuffled on stage to ravenous applause. The crowd did its best to make him feel welcome, but Gibson was clearly out of his element. He mumbled appreciation into his shirt. He shoved his hands into his pockets and said he wasn’t sure what to say about the movie except that God had told him to make it. This was not the tuxedoed Mel Gibson of the red carpet, nor the bare assed Mel Gibson of Lethal Weapon. His hair was unkempt, his shirt wrinkled and untucked. This was a Mel Gibson this crowd had never seen.
For the next five minutes, Gibson continued to talk into his shirt as the conference leader asked him questions about the movie. Gibson stammered, uncomfortable expressing the very thing that the audience most wanted to hear: that God had changed him, saved him, and inspired him to make the film. His discomfort only added legitimacy, compounding the audience’s appreciation. Gibson spoke as if he was telling secrets, and for all the audience knew, he was. A decade or so ago, he said, just when his success was at its peak, he felt lower than ever. He was ready to leap out of a building. Instead of jumping, he said, “I fell to my knees, and God saved me. The wounds of Jesus healed my wounds.” Underneath the crowd’s whooping, Gibson warmed and explained that he had been meditating on Christ’s passion ever since. “You guys preach,” he said to the crowd. “I don’t know how to do that. But I can make movies, so that’s what I did.” The movie, as he said that morning and has said several times since, was directed by the Holy Spirit. “I believe this has the power to evangelize,” Gibson told the pastors, speaking directly to their most central concern.
This straightforward gospel enthusiasm is what the evangelical groups have been responding to and rallying around these past months. Not one evangelical or otherwise religious conservative figure has opposed the film or even offered a hesitant take on it. Some have seemed sympathetic with the concerns about anti-Semitism, while others have not. Most have asserted that the issue is not really an issue, since the main thrust of the movie is to evangelize, not to place blame.
But the question persists. Over the past months when people learned that I had seen the movie, they generally asked two questions: Is it really anti-Semitic? and Does it end with the Resurrection? I could honestly respond “No” to the former question and “Yes” to the latter, but instead I hem and haw. The question of anti-Semitism is always germane to Passion Plays (and to the gospels), whether the production is taking place in a nondenominational church up the street or in cineplexes across the country. Discounting the issue as some have done is either insensitive or lazy; likewise, stressing the issue as the overwhelming concern of the film is a blatant misreading. Viewers with strong opinions will bring those strong opinions to the film — while evangelical viewers have been at a loss to find a hint of anti-Semitism, recent screenings for journalists and liberal religious figures resulted in confirmed fears. So the question of whether The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic is largely one that a viewing of the movie may not fully answer — nothing persuades like a presupposition.
But even those inclined to find prejudice will, if they pay attention to what happens on screen, have to admit that the movie attempts to paint a more complex portrait. The animosity of the Jewish ruling council instigates Jesus’ legal troubles in The Passion of the Christ, but only insofar as the Jewish leaders are pawns in a game with greater consequences. Within the movie’s own narrative logic, Jesus has to die because God wants him dead, needs him dead, must go through the motion of killing him. In The Passion of the Christ transcendent spiritual forces both good and evil are the main players, orchestrating and influencing events. As the movie opens in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see that the primary battle Jesus is fighting is a spiritual one, involving prayer and demonic visions and the crushing of a serpent’s head. Many past Jesus movies have opted for realist, earthy tropes to emphasize the historical character of the gospel story, but Gibson plunges directly into the contention that this is a tale that is as mythological/doctrinal as it is historical.
With this in mind, then, to the extent to which the movie is at all concerned with the question of who killed Jesus, it seeks to do nothing so much as portray the classic doctrine that all humankind is responsible. The serpent’s head has to be crushed to fulfill prophecy; this is a death that had to happen, a de rigueur death to address a fortunate fall. In one of the final, most memorable shots, Mary mourns the death of her son as she looks intently at the camera, and therefore at the audience, concomitantly placing blame and suggesting ramifications.
The movie, however, spends the bulk of its energies not pointing fingers or stretching arms, but pummeling flesh. The viewer is sickened not by anti-Semitism (or, for that matter, Jewish duplicity), but by the gore and grotesqueness of Roman capital punishment. We often remember that we are watching a movie by the director of Braveheart , and the gruesome brutality that movie poured onto Scottish and English armies is here funneled onto one character. As Jesus receives the thirty-nine lashes of the Roman guards, I recalled Gibson’s comment that he had been focusing on the wounds of Christ. He forces us to do the same; the scene slows the movie’s pace so that we can hear flesh ripping in two, muscle pulling from bone. “By his stripes we are healed,” reads the oft-quoted verse, and Gibson’s movie details each and every stripe.
This violence may be the legacy of The Passion of the Christ as a movie; it is its overwhelming concern. But as a cultural event, what may prove most remarkable is the memory of the private screenings for religious conservatives. In the past few months, Gibson has provided what evangelicals could not provide for themselves. But he has needed them as much as they needed him, and if the movie proves successful, it will be because of Icon Productions talking directly to the people most invested in the story. Gibson hopes the movie will evangelize, but the initial primary audience will be the already converted who are mobilized by their religious leadership. Evangelicalism’s passion has met with the passion of one of Hollywood’s elite, and everyone believes that a throne is at stake.
Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).