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I don’t know about you, but I was sick of Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie about six months ago. By that point, New York Times columnist Frank Rich had already smacked The Passion of the Christ — sight unseen — for potential anti-Semitism, and L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten (who also hadn’t seen it) compared producer-director Gibson to an “unwholesomely willful child playing with matches.” In retaliation, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly attacked the baleful “secularism” of those who would criticize the film — Mr. No Spin has a business deal with Gibson’s production company, incidentally — while in The New Yorker, the devout Mel was placidly turning the other cheek, saying of Rich, “I want his intestines on a stick.” You can take the movie star out of Braveheart . . .
Naturally, that was just the beginning. It’s a Bush Culture trademark that the media stagger from one seizure to the next — Janet Jackson’s bare knocker, Howard Dean’s yeaargh, Dubya’s dodgy military record. Lately we’ve been deluged with stories piggybacking on Gibson’s movie. CNN broadcast Who Was Jesus? Newsweek’s cover asked, “Who Really Killed Jesus?” And Dateline sent Stone Phillips to Jerusalem to investigate the realstory of Jesus’ final days. (I kept waiting for a CSI team to turn up and do DNA work on the nails.) Gibson was working the cultural refs as energetically as Bobby Knight. Even as his face popped up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, wearing a thorny crown made of celluloid, the man himself was turning in a spooky performance on ABC’s Primetime. Jumpy, jokey and possessed by The Truth, he seemed like the wacked-out hero of Conspiracy Theory impersonating . . . Mel Gibson.
It’s easy to make fun of this conga-line of idiocy, yet there’s a reason why Gibson’s movie and the hoopla surrounding it have claimed so much attention. More and more, Americans address huge social issues not on news shows, op-ed pages or the campaign trail, but through popular culture. We use Michael Jackson and Eminem to explore racial identity, Martha Stewart and Buffy to examine changing ideas of womanhood. With The Passion of the Christ, our modern secular culture has bumped against a homegrown explosion of fundamentalist belief. Where the Singaporeans and French confront such an issue by banning Muslim head scarves in public schools, Americans do it by talking about a motion picture.
Of course, were it not for Gibson’s celebrity, the movie would have struggled to get any publicity. Although the Christ myth dominates Western civilization, our mainstream media pay shockingly little attention to Christian life (aside from those modish pedophile priests) and even less to Christian art. The “Left Behind” series sells books by the Rapturous millions, but these novels get far less media coverage than the thrillers of that Oliver North wannabe Tom Clancy. Even a well-reviewed film like the recent Gospel of John got virtually no ink except in its connection to The Passion of the Christ.
To be fair, you can understand the media’s fascination with Gibson’s fascination with the Passion. It’s unheard of for a movie star to ante up $30 million of his own money to make any film, let alone an earnest, literal-minded version of Jesus’ final 12 hours. Such ambition alone would make Gibson’s project newsworthy, but his story offers the added frisson of two clashing patrimonies. On one side is Gibson’s 85-year-old father, Hutton, who is (to put it charitably) a crackpot: A traditionalist Catholic, Gibson père is an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and says Jews want to establish “one world religion and one world government” — he vocally insists that they’re conspiring with the Vatican and U.S. Federal Reserve. On the other side, Gibson is a child of a Hollywood film industry famously invented by Jews (in Neal Gabler’s phrase) as “an empire of their own.” While that empire has faded, it is the Jewish community that feels most threatened by the visceral feelings that could be unleashed by this cinematic Passion Play, which, in Gibson’s conception, finds the essence of Christianity not in Jesus’ teachings but in his blood sacrifice. Over centuries, Jews have suffered from the passions unleashed by the Passion.
From the beginning, the tug-of-war between Hutton and Hollywood has shaped our perception of The Passion of the Christ. No one doubts Gibson’s sincerity or religious fervor — his movie’s about “the Christ,” after all, not just any Christ. Donning the mantle of the holy fool, he’s done the supposedly uncommercial thing of aspiring to biblical “truth” and “realism,” laying on endless scenes of excruciating goriness — Gibson’s work has always shown a taste for ultraviolence and martyrdom — and making his characters speak in Aramaic and Latin, meaning the film must be subtitled. Yet even as he’s vaunted himself for keeping his story “pure,” he’s been up to classic movie industry tricks, from casting handsome Jim Caviezel as Christ — you won’t find Paul Giamatti playing the Redeemer in Mel’s picture — to employing a marketing strategy so cynical Harvey Weinstein could only genuflect in admiration.
Gibson and his people got oodles of free publicity by pointedly excluding Jewish viewers from early screenings — playing Rich for a patsy in the process. Later, they claimed to have gotten an Ebert-style “thumbs-up” from Pope John Paul II, the very man Gibson and his father actually disdain as a false pontiff, a betrayer of the true faith. Gibson may genuinely want to spread the gospel, but he’s not exactly heroic about it. For centuries, missionaries bravely ventured into foreign lands where merely expressing their beliefs could get them killed. Ever the Hollywood control freak, Mel didn’t want to show his movie to anyone who might not be with the program. It’s not for nothing that his company’s called Icon Productions.
The PR strategy obviously worked. Not only has the movie sold millions of dollars’ worth of advance tickets — Variety predicts it will turn a tidy profit — but it’s gobbled up acres of free publicity. Much of the mainstream media seems to have been mau-maued into treating the film as a Serious Event. Tuesday’s L.A. Times took the depressingly unprecedented step of running its (negative) review on the front page, as if the film were a big news story — “Extry, Extry, read all about it: Messiah nailed to cross. Jews under arrest.” The movie also received schizophrenic reviews from mainstream critics like Time’s Richard Corliss, who, after beginning with obligatory praise for Gibson’s integrity and craftsmanship and blah-blah-blah, makes it clear that he dislikes the film and detests its unrelentingly sadistic delight in Christ’s torture. “He takes a flaying and keeps on praying,” writes Corliss, who credits The Passion of the Christ with inventing a new genre — “the religious splatter-art film.”
Although the discussion leading up to the film’s release focused on whether it might spark violence against Jews, an even larger story may be the ongoing clash between fundamentalism (in this case, Gibson’s dangerously blinkered, old-school Catholicism) and the whole of our mass media, which is itself a kind of modern church. Because it’s rooted in secularism, pluralism and materialism, this media culture prefers to deal with religion as lifestyle accessory (Buddhism is cool), social philosophy (anti-war priests), comforting spiritualism (Joan of Arcadia) or time-honored metaphor (Willem Dafoe as a Christ-figure in Platoon). Faced with hardcore faith in sacred mysteries, most mediacrats don’t quite know what to do. This was obvious in Gibson’s Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, who acted as if she’d never before met a true believer. At one point she solemnly asked, “Do you believe that God wrote this film?” The question struck me as utterly clueless — but Mel paused to think about it.
And so, I suspect, would millions of other Americans. One reason the coverage of Gibson’s movie has been so hysterical is that the high-powered editors and producers on the two coasts have finally begun to grasp just how thoroughly contemporary America has become steeped in religion. After all, it’s one thing to know abstractly that 60 percent of Americans believe in the mumbo-jumbo of Creationism, quite another to have a born-again president address the issue of evolution by saying, “Religion has been around a lot longer than Darwin.” It’s one thing for that faceless 60 percent to think that the Bible is accurate history, quite another for a world-famous movie star to insist that the gospels are literally true. (By the way, do you think that 60 percent of modern Greeks believe that Zeus and Hera actually lived on Mount Olympus?)
For those of us who are devout nonbelievers, the international resurgence of “traditional” religion is dreadful news, whether it’s murderous Islamist militants with an eye on celestial virgins, expansionist Israeli settlers who believe their God gave Jews the land, Hindu fundamentalists who burn Muslims to death in Indian religious riots or literal-minded Christians who believe their purchase on the truth overrides the Constitution (think of Judge Roy Moore and his 10 Commandments statue) or any concern about the polarizing anger their beliefs might engender. As one faithful to secular, tolerant democracy, I happily defend Gibson’s right to make The Passion of the Christ and to show it wherever he can — he’s entitled to his religious beliefs. But as one who thinks that Christianity is only one myth among many — “Christianism,” my old colleague Michael Ventura liked to call it — I wonder whether Mel would do the same for me.