By now, we’ve settled into an old familiar routine. Non-religious, specifically non-Christian, critics rail against Mel Gibson’s self-financed The Passion of the Christ and accuse it of anti-Semitism. The New Yorker reviewer called it “a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony,” which will give warrant to the old saw that “it was the ancient Jews who were principally responsible for killing Jesus.” For good measure, he concluded: “another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need.”
Gibson & Co. forgo the visceral reaction (“what d’you mean ‘we’ paleface?”) for a rational one, but the facts do not count as an absolute defense when the charge is racial animus. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League isn’t going to care that the line in which some members of the rabble accept collective responsibility for the death of Jesus of Nazareth (the passages in the synoptic Gospels which draw charges of blatant anti-Semitism) was removed from the subtitles, or that Gibson publicly disavows Jew hatred, or that this is a work of art, for God’s sake. Gibson practices a schismatic “pre-Vatican II Catholicism,” and he’s made a movie about the death of Christ, so it must be anti-Semitic, QED.
But while the experts battle it out for grievance brownie points and fret endlessly about the vulgar “literalism” of this passion play, us poor unenlightened religious types have been busy buying out screenings in record numbers. Local, mostly Protestant congregations have purchased so many tickets that this independently distributed film will open on at least 2,800 screens (the number could baloon further — 4,000 prints have been made to help satisfy demand). Many fundamentalist children and teens are about to see their first R-rated movie, and they’re bringing friends.
Protestants and Catholics make no bones about the fact that they plan to use The Passion as a tool for proselytizing. Tracts, of course, are flying off the presses. As of Tuesday, the booklet A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About The Passion of the Christ, published by the Catholic Ascension Press, had sold over 200,000 copies in two weeks. Mark Shea, one of the authors, informed me that this makes it “the fastest-selling Catholic book in history.” (Asked about the Bible, he made a distinction between “fastest-selling” and “best-selling.”)
The anti-Semitism canard is easily dispatched. Audiences of Zionist evangelical theatergoers aren’t going to walk out of The Passion shaken and decide to embark on pogroms, or demand that Jews be placed out beyond the pale, or shout “Christkillers!” when they see the Orthodox with their skullcaps. It’s been almost comical reading numerous accounts of the controversy by secular journalists, who are at great pains to explain to readers that when the Bible says that “the Jews” killed Jesus, it doesn’t mean, y’know, all the Jews. At which most churchgoing Christians will smile and nod, because they’re too polite to roll their eyes or openly mock the nice men and women who, apparently, haven’t ever seen a “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” bumper sticker.
In truth, The Passion shows the divide between this country’s elites and commoners more starkly than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. There is a real demographic difference between those who form the U.S.’s cognitive elite and everybody else. The elites, including journalists, tend overwhelmingly to be secular — non-churchgoers with little previous experience with organized religion. The rabble, on the other hand, consistently score at the top or near the top in every index of religious observance. In matters religious, the two literally do not speak the same language. If most journalists didn’t focus on the anti-Semitism angle, they wouldn’t know what else to say.
Which is a shame because they appear to be missing out on a genuine cultural phenomenon. Shea describes the excitement and the furor surrounding The Passion‘s release as a “rather remarkable moment in American culture” — this critic’s nomination for understatement of the year.