The Backlash Passion

A Messianic Meller for Our Time

When you do embed the New Testament in its time, you discover that the earliest books, composed about a generation after the Crucifixion, portray Jesus as beloved by the Jewish masses but reviled by their priests. It's only in the later Gospels, written by men who knew what the Romans had done to the Second Temple, and could do to them, that Pilate takes on an almost benign air and the Jews are affiliated with Satan. These late books are the primary source of Gibson's rendition, which reflects the traditional—and now repudiated—teaching of the Catholic Church.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has yet to weigh in on this film, but they certainly haven't allowed their parishes to be part of the hype. This is a fundamentalist megillah, and it's revealing that Gibson's rejectionist brand of Catholicism meshes so well with a reactionary Protestant agenda. Those who fear that this film will fuel anti-Semitism as it makes its way around the world are right to be alarmed. Despite his promises to the contrary, the curse upon the Jews that appears in Matthew is still in Gibson's Passion, cried out by the mob condemning Jesus but not translated in the subtitles. No one will understand these words as they are spoken in Aramaic, but what will happen when the film reaches other countries and new subtitles are made? And what about the relentless depiction of bloodthirsty Jewish priests and mobs manipulating a weak-willed Pilate? It is naive at best to deny that these images will resonate with what many Muslims think about Jews and what many Christians still feel deep in their hearts. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 25 percent of respondents think the Jews killed Jesus.

There are signs of this bias among some champions of this film, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who told CNN that Jews were upset because they don't share the Christian teaching of the Gospel, as faithfully rendered by this film. William Donohue of the Catholic League (which is unaffiliated with the Church) has called the ADL's Abe Foxman "an Orwellian genius" and attacked "Catholic and Jewish elites" for "instructing Mel how to portray Jews" while ignoring the blasphemous works that pour out of Hollywood. No doubt some fundamentalists view this film as an act of revenge on Jew-financed sacrileges like The Last Temptation of Christ. Still, many ministers will deliver sermons on anti-Semitism in the coming weeks. Doesn't that settle the issue? On the contrary, it begs the question.

There's a reason why Gibson's film shows some Jews helping Jesus while others torment him. Though he offers this as proof that he's not a bigot, it perfectly reflects the Manichaean view of Jews that many fundamentalists hold. There are good ones who act in a way that hastens salvation and bad ones who are agents of the devil. Either way, Jews have a preternatural power. They can abet the Rapture (especially by moving to Israel) or subvert God's plan. Those demonically clever secular Jews are still out there running Hellywood and the Mephistopholean media. To quote Gibson, both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times are "anti-Christian" papers. Many fundamentalists would agree. To these folks, Frank Rich is Satan's spawn (but that's another R-rated feature).

"Remember, it's only a movie," the great sage Liz Smith advises. If she's right, The Passion of the Christwill be equably absorbed by a culture in which one rush is as meaningful as another. But images and metaphors are powerful precisely because they reach below the level of logic. This may be the first major work of modern right-wing popular art, more potent than, say, Dirty Harry because it's much more primal. It resonates not just with pre-modern Christianity but with the current moment.

This is an election year in which religion is front and center. It remains to be seen whether George Bush will be asked to comment on Gibson's opus—or what he would say (thank God for the Jews of Florida). But certainly the Republicans are doing everything they can to identify the Democrats as the party of nonbelievers. They can't come out and call themselves the party of God. That's where the militant message of this film kicks in. It ends not with a heavenly ascension but with an image of Jesus striding forth to the beating of drums. This vision is about to meet an inflamed and paranoid time.

You have to wonder: What bloody beast slouches toward the cineplex to be born?

Author's note: I'm proud to count myself among the heretics barred from screenings of this film. In the spirit of the Gospel, my epistle is based on reliable sources.
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