Mel and His Critics
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opens in theaters on Ash Wednesday (February 25). It is too early to tell whether Gibson has achieved his aim of creating an artistically compelling account of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life that is also faithful to the Gospels, although those who have previewed the film are nearly universal in their praise. It is also too early to tell whether Gibson’s film will find the audience he desires or will, instead, be savaged by a chorus of politically correct critics. Regardless of how well The Passion does at the box office or with critics, however, Gibson has already achieved a great deal, and his film deserves the support of all those who care about Western art and its chief inspiration, the Gospels.
Gibson’s film has been controversial because it is rooted squarely in the Gospels. Unlike his critics, Gibson accepts the Gospels as they are and does not believe that they require any external justification, a view undoubtedly in accord with both traditional Christianity and the view of most Christians today. Gibson told Peter Boyer of the New Yorker that he experienced great despair in his 30’s, “And I just hit my knees. And I had to use the Passion of Christ . . . to heal my wounds. And I’ve just been meditating on it for twelve years.”
If any of Gibson’s critics have ever meditated on Christ’s Passion as anything other than a source of antisemitism, they have given no evidence of it in their criticism of Gibson. Indeed, Boston University academic Paula Fredriksen is an unbeliever who feels “anti-Semitism has been integral to Christianity.” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman told the New Yorker that “the Gospels, if taken literally, can be very damaging,” and he told Jewish Week that “The ‘truth’ [Gibson] is talking about has been used for 2000 years to buttress anti-Semitism and to give a rationale for persecuting Jews.” The other academics who have been busy attacking Gibson, although Christians, are on record as blaming the New Testament for antisemitism, favoring the censoring of New Testament passages used in worship, and repudiating the belief that salvation is available only through Jesus Christ.
The scholars’ allies in the media have been even more outspoken in their views. Canadian Donald Akinson attacked both Gibson’s movie and another film, The Gospel of John, in the Globe and Mail, writing that “to film a literal version of the Gospel of John is like filming a faithful version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Shmuley Boteach, writing in the Jerusalem Post, dismisses the passages in Matthew where the crowd accepts responsibility for Jesus’ death as “cheap forgeries” and contends that there was a “deliberate effort on the part of New Testament editors to slander the Jews.”
The scholars’ attacks on Gibson have been driven, in part, by an academic arrogance bordering on gnosticism, a belief that no layman or churchman outside of their coterie could possibly understand the Gospels. Fredriksen dismissed Gibson in the New Yorker because “He doesn’t even have a Ph.D on his staff.” Sr. Mary Boys told the Albany Times-Union that Gibson “wouldn’t know a scholar if he ran into one.” Sister Boys has elsewhere opined that Scripture is like poetry—beyond the understanding of most people—and that “we are inviting people to a reading that seems to contradict the apparent meaning of the text . . . ”
Mel Gibson is not the only object of the academics’ scorn. John Pawlikow-ski confirmed for Jewish Week that Pope John Paul II had both watched Gibson’s movie and praised its historical accuracy by stating “It is as it was.” However, Pawlikowski also told Jewish Week that “I remain . . . very skeptical as to whether the ailing Pope was fully briefed about the concerns we and others have expressed.” Pawlikowski noted that he and the other scholars “seriously question the way in which this papal screening was handled by some of [the Pope’s] advisors.” The scholars made similar comments when Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, the prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy, praised Gibson’s film and when Avery Cardinal Dulles disagreed with their desire to jettison core Christian teachings about salvation through Jesus Christ. Apparently, no one can understand anything about the Gospels unless they have been “fully briefed” about the scholars’ own—admittedly counterintuitive—readings of Sacred Scripture.
To Gibson’s credit, he has largely outmaneuvered his critics and provided an object lesson in how to win a battle in the Culture War, by staking out his position and refusing to back down. He has largely ignored the critics’ calls for “sensitivity” and “dialogue,” cultivating instead conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox who share his belief in the Gospels, as well as conservative Jews who appreciate Gibson’s sincerity and see in the Gospels something other than antisemitism. While the same small, unmerry band of academics and ecclesiastical apparatchiks continue to assail him, the increasing number of his supporters now includes many prominent evangelical Protestants, including Billy Graham, and, in addition to the Pope, such leading Catholics as Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, Archbishop Chaput of Denver, and Fr. Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and former theologian to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Needless to say, all of those praising Gibson’s film affirm that it is not antisemitic. In addition, as Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos noted, “Mel Gibson not only closely follows the narrative of the Gospels, giving the viewer a new appreciation for these Biblical passages, but his artistic choices also make the film faithful to the meaning of the Gospels, as understood by the Church.” By contrast, as Fr. DiNoia pointed out, “It is regrettable that people who had not seen the film, but only reviewed early versions of the script, gave rise to the charge that [the film] is anti-Semitic.”
Gibson has actually accomplished something the critics claim to be interested in—advancing ecumenism. Sister Boys has claimed that The Passion is “dividing evangelicals and Catholics,” when, in fact, it has done just the opposite, as evangelical Christians have warmly embraced a film directed by a Catholic, starring another devout Catholic, and placing a strong emphasis on Mary and the Eucharist.
In addition to demonstrating how the Culture War can be won, Gibson has also reminded us why it is worth fighting. Of necessity, much cultural commentary by conservatives and traditionalists has focused on what is wrong, as the popular culture over the last few decades has continued to expand the frontiers of degeneracy. In order to win the Culture War, however, we have to do more than point out the manifest defects in current movies, music, and fiction. We also must support artists committed to producing art that builds on our Western heritage rather than trashing it. Gibson is attempting to do just that.
Gibson’s aims, however, are even higher. He has spoken repeatedly of his religious motives in making this movie, and those who have seen it have described a film with the capacity to change hearts. Respected Vatican reporter John Allen, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, confirmed the Pope’s praise for The Passion. In the same piece, Allen quoted a Vatican official who said “that while Gibson may be a bit idiosyncratic theologically, his ‘heart is in the right place. There will be conversions because of this film.’” The straightforward faith expressed by Gibson and his allies is far more likely to attract new Christians than the belief, expressed by at least some of Gibson’s critics, that the principal legacy of Christianity is hatred and the principal task of today’s Christian is apology.
This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.