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The Culture Wars of Christ: What the Success of Passion of the Christ Can Tell Us

James Caviezel and director Mel Gibson on the set of Newmarket’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) Photo © Newmarket Film Group.

Mel Gibson suffers from crucifixation, which would be fine if he were just another masochist calling 900 numbers when his wife was out of town. But he’s not—he’s an Oscar-winning millionaire who’s bypassed them Hollywood liberals entirely by bankrolling his blood-soaked, banged-up version of the Christ story himself.

What’s significant about his venture isn’t that he managed to make The Passion of the Christ, nor is it the film itself; it’s that his testimonial, released on Ash Wednesday, was met with enormous financial, if not critical, success. As Gibson himself would surely state, his action hero Christ appeals to Middle America in a way that most films, aside from those involving aliens, natural disasters or Tom Cruise, have not.

By all accounts, the historical Jesus was a socialist, a feminist, and a tremendous healer, regardless of what you believe transpired after he was crucified. And for those who do believe that Jesus was resurrected, the story offers a tremendous allegory about the power of faith and of redemption. That Gibson, a pre-Vatican 2 reconstructed 19th century Catholic, focuses so thoroughly on the degree and extent of the pain inflicted upon Christ—and by whom—rather than on his teachings or redemption, profanes the Jesus myth, which offers so much relief and healing to so many.

The fact cannot be ignored, though, that The Passion of the Christ strikes a very, very deep chord in much of our culture. Not since the O.J. Simpson trial has a cultural event revealed such a schism within these so-called United States. Back when Simpson was delivered a not-guilty verdict, the divide between black and white America became overt rather than covert; most whites, progressive and conservative alike, were aghast that who they considered to be a murderer had been set free, while blacks were mostly relieved that one less black body would be hung out to dry in the public eye. Although the divide is very different, this time what lives in that gap looms just as large. Viewed through the lens of the Jesus story, the dichotomy is redemption versus pain—where we as a culture dwell right now, obsessed with the negatives of the myth, the finger-pointing, the assignment of blame, and the torture.

The film’s success points to a tremendous spiritual thirst in a culture of mediocrity mostly embellished with hatred. A culture so numbed and anesthetized for the most part that such abject sensationalism is required to elicit any unsuperficial reaction. You can argue that such spiritual longings recall the serf’s beliefs on the
feudal manor that there must be something better in the next life. But there’s nothing wrong with spiritual thirst in and of itself. The problem is how far away we as a society are from quenching it.

The recent Austrian movie Jesus, You Know, hitting the festival circuit right now, represents that thirst quite aptly. The confessions of terrible sorrow, envy, and desperation to Jesus (and a film crew) by ordinary individuals are contrasted with scenes from their daily lives: a couple who separately confess their doubts and fears about their relationship play ping-pong together dully and hunch over videogames, for example. Though the film is far too long, it carves at how the dullness of modern life speaks not at all to the terrible needs that rage within all of us for understanding. A quiet desperation unabated by the distractions that separate and segment us, preventing true, meaningful connections.

Say what we will, but simply scorning such spiritual thirst as if it’s the domain of “those people” is not enough. “Those people” are a lot of people. And the same people who have made Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ a terrific financial success will reelect George W. Bush, plain and simple, even if some of us don’t admit it to ourselves. Their needs are not being met. As Paul Krugman recently pointed out in a sage article for the New York Review of Books, the Bush camp never shies from punching up the biblical language in his addresses about the Middle East or even the economy. November is a political eternity away, but people are voting right now with each “In God We Trust”-ed dollar plunked down for a Passion ticket.

If, as the theologian Matthew Fox has written, grace equals social justice plus spirituality, then that grace is absent not only from Mel Gibson’s film (both toward the Jews and Jesus himself), but from our culture. Gibson is just like all the other hateful men who’ve been successful—he’s the right guy at the right weak moment. Hitler would’ve been just another crazy failed artist fuming in a bar had Germany not been in such a compromised position economically and internationally. Obviously Gibson isn’t Hitler, but his success suggests that we are poised for such hatred to prevail. Or, to be more direct, that it is, in fact, prevailing. We need to find spiritual comfort without physical and political bludgeonings, and—for a nation of watchers, this is especially important—we need our filmmakers to help us do so.


Lisa Rosman


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2004

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