You have to hand it to Mel Gibson. Whether his decision to screen The Passion of the Christ in advance for only a hand-picked cadre of sympathetic reviewers (mostly evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and sympathetic rabbis) was motivated by fear, money or faith, it was an excellent marketing tool. His canny strategy all but guaranteed that the mainstream media, whose interest was already piqued by charges of anti-Semitism, would be whipped into an even greater frenzy by being shut out of the in-crowd.
Mr. Gibson’s bizarre comments over the past few months raise the question of whether he was being shrewd, foolish or simply unguarded. (My guess is some combination of the second and third.) In case you’re wondering about his view of non-Catholics, you can reflect on his observation in The New Yorker that, nice as she is, his wife is probably not getting into heaven, since she’s Episcopalian. If you doubt his openness to Jewish worries about the movie, you can think about his comment that if he included in his film the infamous blood libel quote from the Gospel of Matthew, They’d [the Jews] come kill me. And if you wonder whether his attraction to Jesus goes beyond just a morbid fascination with the crucifixion and includes an interest in, say, Jesus’ message of forgiveness, you can ponder Mr. Gibson’s comments about one of his detractors: I want his intestines on a stick. So much for turning the other cheek.
But in these matters, it’s always good to remember St. Ignatius Loyola’s dictum, in the Spiritual Exercises, that every good Christian should be more eager to place a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. If Mr. Gibson says he did not intend to make an anti-Semitic film and desired only to make a compelling film that would draw moviegoers to the story of Jesus, it is better to believe him.
The finished product, however, is another story. I found the film in some places moving, in many places anti-Semitic and in most places simply repellent. (Richard A. Blake, S.J., will offer a full review in next week’s America.)
After seeing the movie a few days before it opened, it dawned on me that Mr. Gibson had made two serious errors in judgment over the past several months. First, in the public discussion surrounding the film, he has consistently overlooked the fact that, though the story of the Passion is true, it also needs to be treated carefully. After centuries of persecution, Jewish leaders have legitimate worries; and Christians who raise questions about accuracy are not simply watering down the Gospels, as he has charged.
How much better it would have been for the director to give his critics the benefit of the doubtsomething he asked them to do for him. And how much more would it have shown Mr. Gibson to be a true Christianeager to learn and even critique himself and thereby deepen his appreciation of the impact of the story he hoped to tell. For a good evangelizer not only believes in the Gospel but also knows how to present it. Sadly, a film that could have been an obvious way to invite non-Christians into the life of Christ was instead turned into a cudgel with which to beat those who disagree with its viewpoint.
Finally, with a reported $25-million budget, Mr. Gibson would have done far better to film The Life, not simply The Passion. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection are far more meaningful, and understandable, when set alongside the story of his ministry. It was the life of Christ that gave meaning to his death, and the resurrection that ultimately ratified his ministry.
By the end of the movie, I was left depressed, not only in response to the film’s graphic portrayal of the death of Christ, but over two lost opportunitiesfirst, for real dialogue, and second, for a chance to reflect not just on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, but on the years before he made his long climb up the hill at Calvary.