Now that The Passion of the Christ is playing in the theaters, we can reflect a moment on how it played in the culture prior to its Ash Wednesday release.
Most obviously, it provoked another dust-up in the culture wars. From the Left came warnings of anti-Semitism, warnings apparently borne out when director Mel Gibson’s father asserted that the Holocaust was “mostly fiction.” The real fiction, retorted some critics, lay with the original four gospels, to which Gibson was naïvely faithful. Conservative Protestants tried to take the Jews out of it and put realism in. “We all put Jesus up on that cross,” some previewers explained; the film’s splattered gore shows “how it actually happened.”
The claim of realism is unnerving in light of Gibson’s previous work, particularly the hash he made of the American Revolution in The Patriot (2000). And his own confession that he had to make The Passion or commit suicide bespeaks a different compulsion than documentary zeal. The argument-from-realism tells more about the evangelicals to whom the pre-release was assiduously marketed. After all, the same clientele had been quick to picket the previous death-of-Jesus blockbuster, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Temptation’s worst offense seems to have been its sexualizing of Jesus, and sex has always been more troubling for American evangelicals than violence. Two hours of Jesus being lashed within an inch of his life? No problem. Ten minutes of a dying Jesus fantasizing about Mary Magdalene? Or–closer in American viewers’ real time–a split second of Janet Jackson’s exposed breast? Big problem.
The Passion’s marketing campaign turns out to have exposed one of evangelical culture’s own fantasies. Given the alignments of the culture war, it was natural for the traditionalist Catholic Gibson to promote the movie among conservative Protestants, but did he fathom where that alliance might lead? To the Daytona 500, where an advertisement for The Passion adorned the hood of Bobby Labonte’s #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet. The sponsor and team owner wear their faith on their sleeves, so the promo came as no surprise. Nor did Labonte’s rationale: “It’s a chance to get the word out. Someone who has been curious about Jesus and has never been saved sees the race and says, “Hmmm, I’d like to see what that’s about.'”
Labonte’s idyll faces long odds, at least if those viewing the race are like those running it. The NASCAR pits are as thick with born-again Christians as are the locker-rooms of America’s other gladiators in the National Football League. Still, there’s a chance that someone in the crowd has not yet dealt with the Jesus thing, and that a Sunday afternoon watching gasoline missiles roar around the track at the very margin of death might just be the place for true conversion. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth. Still, one wonders about the message being conveyed, and the price being paid, when the Crucified Christ is out there bumping and banging with Viagra and Valvoline in the fourth turn. OK, not the Crucified Christ but an image of the Crucified Christ. More exactly, the logo of an image from a movie of the Crucified Christ.
A better option might lie with Jesus himself. In Mark’s Gospel, Rowan Williams observes (Christ on Trial, Eerdmans, 2000), Jesus maintains a stark silence throughout his trial. The nightmare environment of this world offers no language in which he can be correctly understood, can avoid being turned into another pawn in the prevailing contests of power. Only at the last moment, Williams continues, does Jesus utter a spare word, the true word of power, God’s ancient name: “I am.” With that, Jesus puts us on trial, commands everybody–spectators, believers, accusers, and spin-doctors all–to be silent. Perhaps a worthy discipline for Lent.