It’s nearly impossible to study every article, editorial, and broadcast commentary of the film The Passion of the Christ, but I have not failed for lack of trying. Thoughts seem to encompass the range and amplitude of emotion, and some of it isn’t even about anti-Semitism.
On the morning of Ash Wednesday, I was greeted with a "review" on my doorstep of The Passion of the Christ by the Houston Chronicle’s Eric Harrison. To be fair to the balance of film critics, his reaction seems exceptional in its immoderation, but perhaps it’s a good case study. He begins with an ad hominem attack dripping with psychoanalytical condescension:
We’ve known for some time that Mel Gibson has a martyr’s complex. In film after film, he’s subjected himself — or, rather, his characters — to gruesome tortures that stretched past the point of entertainment. He threw himself into these pummelings, disembowelings and symbolic crucifixions with such fervor we saw a deep-seated need we dared not question. It felt private, embarrassing to watch.
Let us pray that making The Passion of the Christ helped him work through those issues. …
James Caviezel portrays Jesus here, but Gibson has played the martyr during the long countdown to the movie’s release.
These words are self-refuting — this is obviously someone with an axe to grind. He continues with the usual allusions to anti-Semitism:
A traditionalist Catholic who rejects church reforms of the past four decades, Gibson has had ample opportunity to assuage Jewish fears about the film. Instead, while acknowledging the Holocaust, he said, for example, "Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps."
The selectively chosen words were extracted from an interview with Peggy Noonan, but they don’t sound quite so dismissive in context:
I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened.
War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century 20 million people died in the Soviet Union.
It is hardly a crime to recognize that many millions of people of multiple races under various wicked men — all of them government officials — died horrible deaths. But to the blithering press, that’s the same thing as Holocaust denial.
Mel Gibson has repeatedly affirmed the fact that millions of Jews perished under the Nazi regime, but others have been far more unscrupulous, trying to implicate Gibson through his aged father, to whom his proper loyalty has been heartrending. (But this is nothing new. Nightline’s Ted Koppel trying the same thing with Pat Buchanan’s father comes to mind.)
Then this riotous statement by Harrison:
He also kept his movie away from reviewers for as long as he could. It now appears he may have recognized that it would disappoint anyone viewing it through anything but a narrow, religious prism.
Apparently Gibson was able to play the "martyr during the long countdown to the movie’s release," while at the same time keeping "his movie away from reviewers for as long as he could."
For a solid year the scathing attack on Gibson has been relentless — never mind that the accusers had not yet seen the film or script. That is, until an early release of the confidential script was stolen from him. This incomplete pirated script was then distorted by all the usual suspects. Even unsolicited ecclesiastical "intellectuals" audaciously proposed changes that Gibson might make to his work.
But what doesn’t Harrison like? The unparalleled genius of the Farrelly brothers earned a "C" with Stuck on You. What earns even less? The famously moronic Dumb and Dumberer earned a "C —." A little research reveals that out of the 474 films that Harrison has reviewed during his stint with the Chronicle, he actually found films worse than Dumb and Dumberer: twenty-nine received the miserable grade of "D," but a mere two received the prize of "F" (way back in Feb 2001, films I’ve never heard of).
And what grade reflected the artistic merit of The Passion of the Christ, based purely on Harrison’s objective critique?
What makes people behave this way?
Some Hollywood executives have weighed in as well, threatening never to work with Gibson again:
Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, the principals of DreamWorks, have privately expressed anger over the film, said an executive close to the two men. The chairmen of two other major studios said they would avoid working with Mr. Gibson because of The Passion of the Christ and the star’s remarks surrounding its release. Neither of the chairmen would speak for attribution, but as one explained: "It doesn’t matter what I say. It’ll matter what I do. I will do something. I won’t hire him. I won’t support anything he’s part of. Personally that’s all I can do."
In a land where religious beliefs of diverse races are practiced with freedom, from atheism to the most conspicuous and reverent orthodoxy, what are some folks so afraid of?
The Other Cheek
After seeing the film on opening day, I was even more mystified.
But I realized my perception of reaction to the film would not radically change since the reaction was almost entirely based upon preconceived notions to it. The negative reactions were largely in the form of persecution, and the positive reactions were largely in the form of apologetics.
The balance of reaction wasn’t a reaction to the film, it was a reaction to the Christian religion. And the brilliant and moving film made me think less about the reaction, but about the reaction to the reaction, and most certainly that of myself.
First, are Christians exactly persecuted in this nation? Surely, persecution can be identified in degrees, but at what point do we sound ridiculous?
The apostle Paul recounts that the prophets of old
… were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Might we insult our Hebrew and Christian ancestors by complaining that The Passion of the Christ, a multi-million dollar film documenting the last hours of Our Beloved Savior by one of the most successful voices in American film was distributed without the slightest hindrance to thousands of theaters to be viewed by millions of the faithful and future converted?
And what if we are persecuted?
If there is any power in the film, it is the power of forgiveness and transcendent love, epitomized by the words therein:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?
In the film, Caiaphas is present at the crucifixion, and is included in Christ’s forgiveness: "Forgive them Father, for they know not what to do."
Are these words likely to incite violence? It seems impossible.
But the undiluted Truth is too beautiful to bear, a fearful light so bright as to be blinding. As Pilate struggles in the film, do we even know truth when we hear it, and see it?
If He were here now, even knowing what we know, would we recognize Him? Even the very elect, would they defend Him?
If it is often difficult for even the faithful to conceive the incomprehensible, what of those outside the faith? Must not the beliefs of the faithful seem bizarre? I can certainly remember when I thought so!
Malcolm Muggeridge once marveled at that most prominent symbol of Christian faith. He imagined an ancient meeting with an ad exec, upon which the Christian client begins, "You see, we have this cross …"
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the reaction of some when crucifixion nails are marketed with the release of the film!
Some have suggested that the Passion will only be received by a Christian audience, especially since the Passion is revealed without context. This isn’t exactly true, as there are several flashbacks to the most powerful words of scripture, but aside from that: are conversions intellectually conceived? Have not many known less, but believed more?
Surely faith enhances intellect, but it is not of itself intellectual. The miracle of conversion is the catalyst of faith, and the beginning of wisdom.
Note to Self: Stop Whining
In one of the most moving scenes in the Passion, Satan tempts Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, that the burden of sacrifice for the sins of all for all time is too great, and that no one can accomplish it, ever.
Wishful thinking, and the devil’s days are numbered — it is accomplished — and ours is the easy part.
What do I take from the film? I’m certain I could use a lot of work on my patience, and think less about defending turf, and more about being an ambassador for Christ.
Brian Dunaway [send him mail] is a chemical engineer and a native Texan.