“I can’t wait to see Mel Gibson’s, the Passion,” the home-schooling wife and mother says two seconds after we’re introduced. Her husband, a born-again minister with a flock in Napier nods quietly. I ask her why.
“Because,” she lowers her voice, “it’s the truth.”
“Really?” I know my inflection is rising.
“Oh yes, it shows clearly who was responsible for Jesus’ death.”
Usually people either like or dislike a particular film. But this one is different. For believers in the literal interpretation of the bible, the movie version of the last hours of Jesus' life represents something far more than actors acting and it’s certainly not two hours of escapism, instead this film represents validation for their beliefs and nothing short of the word of God.
But aren’t they missing something here? This is not a rent in the fabric of time, a documentary or even a docudrama. It’s a movie, a version of historical events, true only in the sense that Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film, Platoon, is true.
Speaking in the New Yorker recently, early Christian historian and author of The Gnostic Gospels and The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels explains when Christians read the Gospels as historical acts, they will say what Mel Gibson says: that this is the truth, this is our faith. But the film ignores the spin the gospel writers were pressured to put on their works.
Putting it into context she explains how the gospel writers were oppressed Jews trying to sell a new religion. The gospels, she says, were not intended as history but as preaching, as religious propaganda to win followers for the teachings of Christ.
Pagels also calls into question Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate as benign and says it’s a narrative device to make the Jews appear more malignant. She says the film is full of the preposterous dialectic of bad Jews and good Romans. And she points out that when the Temple police arrest Jesus, Mary Magdalene turns to the Romans as if they were the policemen on the block, benign protectors of the public order. “But the very idea of a Jewish woman turning to Roman soldiers for help is ridiculous.”
And while New York Times arts editor Frank Rich describes the film as Jew baiting, in an interview in Readers Digest, Gibson, a member of a Catholic extremist group carefully skirted the issue of the Holocaust by folding it into the general fog and loss of the WWII. Of course the son is not responsible for his father’s sins, but Gibson has made no move to distance himself from Gibson senior's vicious Holocaust denial.
Certainly in places like Denver, Colorado, the subtle anti-Semitic message of this film is getting through with The Lovingway United Pentecostal Church posting a huge marquee reading "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus.”
But if there is message besides anti-Semitism in this film it is that violence and brutality are part of human nature. Rich calls the film a jamboree of bloody beefcake … constructed like a porn movie, replete with slo-mo climaxes and pounding music for the money shots.” While writer Christopher Hitchens called it a homoerotic "exercise in lurid sadomasochism" for those who "like seeing handsome young men stripped and flayed alive over a long period of time."
So when a born-again type uses this film to tell you about God’s love, it might be useful to remember that this love comes with ravens to peck out your eyes if you blaspheme, extreme torture, blood and gore and a hoard of baying, big nosed Jews (in contrast to the Jewish Jesus’ petit white bread one.)
This movie with its utter glorification of the agonies humans can inflict on each other reveals the bloodlust that lurks in the heart of man. It is this that fuels our inhumanity to each other and that’s why this film is such a big hit. And it is this that allows us to ignore the reality of the pogroms that have decimated Jews for centuries, fueled the Crusades and the Holocaust, the genocide of numerous ethnic groups from Armenians and Gypsies to Native Americans. And it is this bloodlust that allows us to ignore the 10,000 Iraqi’s killed since the invasion of their country, and the demonizing of present day Muslims.
And who killed Jesus? According to my neighbor we all did. “Not just the Jews,” she says and sighs deeply as if she has been divested of a great weight, this burden of truth. The Passion; a story of love, of one mans sacrifice? Or an anti-Semitic gore fest to temporarily sate the monster in each of us?
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/. © 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn