Thursday, July 31, 2003

Passions aplenty

Patrick Giles writes thoughtfully in response to my post about Mel Gibson:
I just followed a link from Eric Alterman's site to your story on Mel Gibson and THE PASSION. I don't have the original TIMES MAGAZINE story handy, but as I recall the woman quoted with Hutton Gibson in that story was not Mel Gibson's mother, but either Hutton's second wife or a companion. I believe the story states she is a Texan.

This is correct. The ABC News story that followed, which called her his mother (and whose language I matched in my own text), was incorrect.
I also believe Gibson has made it clear his views are not synonymous with his father's. (Although that they are similar in some ways is evident from Gibson's own statements.) (Are sons responsible for their father's opinions?)

Good God, I hope not, since I'd be in serious trouble on that one myself. However, Gibson has made clear (in that Playboy interview and elsewhere) that his father has been a major influence on his thinking, which rather alters the matter of his innocence.

Specifically, Gibson eschews his father's naked anti-Semitism. But he embraces most other aspects of his belief system. This is somewhat akin to the John Birch Society's disavowal of anti-Semitism while embracing anti-Semites' conspiracy theories; instead of a secret cabal of Jewish bankers running the world, you have a secret cabal of "international" bankers (who all just happen to be Jewish) running the world. It only makes one's conspiracism slightly less vicious.
It was interesting, when the TIMES story appeared, to see that brief, general surfacing of dismay over reactionary Catholic splinter groups -- this is an issue Catholics have been worrying about for years. Their groups -- Opus Dei is the most powerful, "the Catholic masons" as a nun who taught religion in my high school used to say (others called it "the Catholic mafia") -- have a real flair for drawing the disaffected to their side, and for gaining footholds in high places. Antonin Scalia is in Opus Dei; Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, is as well (according to published reports). I suspect a reason Robert Hanssen, the spy recently caught, managed to function undisturbed for so long is that he, too, was said to be in Opus Dei.

Anyway, there is quite a good book on this subject, called THE SMOKE OF SATAN, that is worth seeking out. If nothing else, reading about (or, even worse, meeting) the extremists in the Church gives you a newfound appreciation for the good things our current Pope has done. But that so conservative and totalitarian a Pope can be considered a flaming radical Satanist by Hutton Gibson and his fellows should tell you how frightening these people really are.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a pile-on in process about THE PASSION. Do you really think Gibson's film will get a fair shake when it does appear? Really? How? Devout Catholics are figures of derision in popular culture (in a way, say, conservative Jews aren't--but Muslims are), and this movie, which is (even if it turns out not to be anti-Semitic) going to hit some very fearful, sensitive notes in its audiences, will most likely be attacked and insulted and made fun of no matter how good or bad, incendiary or illuminating, it is. The triteness and near-hysteria of most media coverage on religious issues is mortifying; name-calling seems to be the goal. That every report on the film I've read has oozed sinisterness, for example, is ridiculous: would this be happening if Gibson were making a movie about Cesar Chavez, or Dorothy Day (to cite two other Catholic figures)?

Everything connected to the movie carries a taint. But (for example), what if Gibson is reluctant to show his film to Foxman and the ADL because he feels they have made up their minds about it already? If he showed it, for example, to other Jewish community leaders before he allowed the ADL to see it, would that be that the calculated scurrying of a Jew-hater, or a shrewd move by a man skilled in movie marketing, who knows the movie's going to be attacked by some in the public no matter what its qualities actually are? (LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, a sublime film, is routinely mentioned in press reports as "offensive" when almost nobody who actually saw the film -- I should add the few who managed to see the film when it was in theaters -- found it to be so.)

For all we know, this movie could be an attempt by a Catholic to come to terms with one of the biggest tragedies of Christianity (and world history): its separating from Judaism in the first century after Christ's death and resurrection (when it became clear the majority of Jews were not going to follow their brethren into becoming members of the Jesus movement), and its turning on Judaism for thousands of years, until Pope John XXIII finally made putting a stop to Jew-hating being an option in Catholic life a priority of the Second Vatican Council. (Interestingly, reports of that Council say that then-Cardinal Karol Wotylja -- now the current pontiff -- was
one of the most forceful and insistent speakers in the Cardinals' debate on the resolution.)

We simply don't know who did what in the execution of Jesus in the same way we know that John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln or Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. The Gospels are not historical reports; they were written at different times by different people for different audiences. As decades of word-of-mouth testimonies stemming from eyewitness accounts sped the new religion across the Roman empire, some stories were no doubt created, some true ones told in new ways, and others forgotten only by one or two sects. (The postwar discovery of the NagHammadi texts -- numerous alternative "gospels" filled with Jesus quotes and actions foreign to the four accepted gospels -- suggests how various accounts of Jesus were; that some of the scrolls found at NagHammadi werre used for kindling before their value was realized also demonstrates how much more has been lost.) People constantly fall into this trap, on both sides of the argument, of saying they "know" who was "responsible" for Christ's crucifixion (from Opus Dei members and such on one side to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who makes a fool of himself by doing the It-was-all-the-Romans'-fault line in his new book on the Vatican and the
Holocaust, on the other), when the point is not identifying who was responsible so we can be lousy to contemporary people we link to them but that this was an act of sacrifice that was the principal reason the guy was around in the first place. [Nobody ever attacks Christians for being "responsible" for Christ's death, even though His apostles and disciples deserted him when He was captured by the Romans and Judas, and the only people brave enough to stand by the guy until He was dead were a few of his women followers and (maybe) His mother and (an even bigger maybe) John.]

We still don't even know why Jesus was killed. Did that ransacking of the moneylenders in the Temple do it? (doubtful -- the Temple was a big, loud place); or was it simply that He drew an awful lot of crowds at a time when Jerusalem (a troublesome spot for the Romans at any time) was already packed with Jews in town for Passover, and He happened to enter in the manner (humbly, on a mule) and through the city entrance that the sacred scrolls had predicted the Messiah would take to enter and reclaim Jerusalem -- and this scared the temple priests and the Romans? Did the people who put Him to death want Jesus out of the way because they thought He was a troublesome political dissident, or a religious fanatic -- or maybe, really, who He said he was? (If you were running your town, how would YOU deal with a stranger who raised the dead, healed the sick, and made your neighbors not give a damn about you anymore?) At any rate, none of this should ever have had, and still shouldn't have, any impact on the people we live among today.

Whoever conspired to get Jesus arrested, convicted, not pardoned (despite custom), and crucified are long gone; to act out revenge fantasies and prejudices on people who share traits of suspects in the story (how come nobody beats up or denies equal opportunity to Romans?) is simply appalling, and inexcusable.

That this idea is starting, slowly, to sink in is becoming plain (at least in Christian societies); that we still have a long way to go before anti-Semitism is thoroughly discredited -- as is considering a person bigoted simply because he is a member of this or that religion -- is also, unfortunately, obvious. Progress in this area is fitful, and can come in unexpected ways. (My sister, who lives in North Carolina -- the only New Yorker in her little village -- says she was stunned at the locals' reaction to that first network TV telecast of SCHINDLER'S LIST some years ago: very few people had ever learned much about the Holocaust, and they were shaken to see people they had been taught to regard as all-powerful bankers and moguls and such living in poverty, rounded up like cattle and annihilated. A movie I could barely sit through without losing my temper had a powerful, salutary effect on other viewers.)

The urgent question is: how do we discuss all these issues, and cultural products related to them, without resorting to the same non-thinking, susperstition-and-prejudice bound language and actions of our forbears?

I am the last person to feel comfortable defending Gibson -- just for starters, the homophobia in BRAVEHEART and other films is disgraceful -- and some of the publicity shenanigans going on back-stairs on this film seem suspicious, but journalists and critics (and activists) should at least see the film and then offer only informed opinions based on the work at hand and not on the politics and (alleged) prejudices of its maker. Editors should take it as an opportunity to explore (rather than inflame) these still very powerful and pertinent issues. Judging by the coverage of this film so far, I suspect neither recourse will be appearing much when THE PASSION is finally released.

I think Patrick's caution about Gibson's film is well worth heeding. There's no point in criticizing a film we haven't seen yet. And I don't think my previous post did.

Obviously, there is at least a chance that the finished film will be a sincere appraisal of the crucifixion and will try to come to terms with Christianity's alienation from its Jewish origins. That would not, however, be a concern that Gibson himself has ever indicated an interest in. Rather, in interviews, he's talked about people and groups having to take "responsibility" for their actions.

Moreover, at least a few people have in fact obtained the shooting script, and their reports do not indicate that this is even remotely a subtext of The Passion. See, for instance, Paula Fredriksen's report in The New Republic from a scholar who in fact has reviewed the script, and is concerned that it may well promote an anti-Semitic worldview that condemns Jews spiritually for their role in the Crucifixion.

Again, this may not be the finished version. And it will be impossible to accurately assess the film until its release. Nonetheless, the indications prior to its release -- including particularly Gibson's semi-paranoiac defensiveness about its content -- are not encouraging.

Most of the time, debates over the religious content of films come down to a matter of personal belief anyway. And as I've said, Gibson obviously is entitled to his beliefs and his desire to make a film based on them.

However, what is clear is that the runup to the film's release is taking on increasingly political overtones, particularly considering Gibson's screening of the film for various right-wing heavyweights in the punditocracy.

Do I think The Passion will have a fair hearing? No -- but that cuts both ways. His supporters are just as unlikely to fairly consider the charges of anti-Semitism as are his critics to question them. Gibson himself has assured that it will become a political football, destined for a mosh pit in the culture wars.

I would love for a thoughtful assessment of Judaism's relationship to Christianity to proceed from Gibson's film. But when Robert Novak, Laura Ingraham and Katie O'Beirne are going to be weighing in, I despair of any likelihood of that.

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