What are we to make of l'affaire Gibson now that his film has turned out to be a huge box-office success? Those who, like me, were deeply moved by The Passion of the Christ and judged it to be not anti-Semitic have no reason to gloat. The cultural clashes over the film opened wounds we thought had healed, and they exposed currents of hostility toward Christianity that one would have hoped had disappeared. The freewheeling commentary in the general media, with a few notable exceptions, was pitched at too low a level to call this a teaching moment. But it certainly was a moment to listen and learn--and, at times, to laugh.
Last summer, it should be recalled, Gibson's project was on very shaky legs. He had not as yet found a distributor for a film in which he had invested twenty-five million dollars of his own money. After reading a "received" copy of the script, a self-selected group of six scholars, most of them veterans of Jewish-Christian dialogue, complained of un-Biblical and anti-Semitic stereotypes. One of the group, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, wrote a long and fearful essay, "Mad Mel," in the New Republic, predicting that "violence" would break out upon the film's release. Immediately, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, orchestrated a campaign to label the film anti-Semitic. That really got Mel mad, and he responded by showing nearly finished versions of the movie to selected audiences, most of which consisted of politically conservative pundits and evangelical Christians. None of them seemed to find the film anti-Semitic--but then few of them were Jews. To columnists such as Frank Rich of the New York Times, Gibson's screening strategy was part of a "political-cultural war" pitting Jews against Christians, including the Bush White House and the whole conservative wing of the chattering classes.
Thus began an opera bouffe that eventually involved a huge cast, including, on the pro-Gibson side, the pope (apparently) and Billy Graham and his son Franklin (certainly), and featuring Gibson-denouncing appearances by Andrew Greeley and Elaine Pagels, among many others. It also featured Foxman and his competitor in Jewish defense, Rabbi Marvin Heir, director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles, surreptitiously slipping into prerelease screenings. Gibson's publicity people countered their reports with stories of miracles and conversion experiences on Gibson's set in Italy. The Catholic League came to Gibson's defense, while a Jewish website, Messiah Truth, called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate Gibson for hate crimes. As prophylactics against a possible outbreak of anti-Semitism, the Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches published guidelines for watching the film. Appealing to higher authority, Foxman flew to Rome to ask the Vatican to tell all bishops that Gibson's movie is not "the gospel truth."
Hollywood, predictably, backed away from Gibson, thinking him toxic. But once he found a distributor the effort to render the film financially dead on arrival turned into a boon. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, scrutinized the film for signs of "creeping excessive Catholicism" and found none, thus clearing a path to the theater door for ten million Southern Baptists. Other...