There are apparently a reasonable number of people who are waiting to hear what I think of The Passion of the Christ, because I keep getting peppered about it. I do intend to see it soon, but I’m waiting for the church groups to thin about a bit, which I under is as unreasonable an expectation as waiting to see Titanic until all the teenage girls have cleared out, but even so. Having not seen the film yet, I can’t comment about how the film does its job, but I do have a couple of observations to make in the meantime.
The first is that the fact that Hollywood has been surprised at how massively successful the film is shows that despite assuming they are the tastemakers, in a number of ways Hollywooders are indeed truly disconnected from the masses. No, this is not a “liberal elite” rant, since by and large my values are closer to an agent in LA than to the guy flying a NASCAR flag off his front porch a mile down the road from me. But maybe living here in the sticks and doing a lot of my shopping at Wal-Mart gives me an insight the guy terrified of Target doesn’t have.
Which is: This thing was never not going to be a hit. There are a lot of Christians. There are a lot of Mel Gibson fans. Do the math. But even more than that, realize that evangelicals are basically starving for mainstream recognition. Evangelicals don’t like it when one of the flock leaves to move toward the mainstream, but when the process works the other way, watch out. Mel Gibson is a huge star, openly religious in a manly “speak that mass in Latin” way, and he made it clear from the onset he was pitching the work to the hardcore evangelicals. Even if it this film had been a pile of trash the evangelicals would have flocked to it (so long as it was a sincere profession of faith).
Now it might have been that some people in Hollywood sensed that it might be a big hit, but then decided it was simply not politically correct to say so. Well, of course we know how the heartland feels about politically correct. So, yeah, I expected the film to be pretty big. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to be $125 million on the first weekend big, but I don’t think anyone expected that — probably even the evangelicals — so I don’t feel all that put out.
Regarding the anti-semitism charge against the film: Again, haven’t seen the film, so I can’t say. But I will say that the evangelical masses picked up Mel’s talking point about the subject with alacrity, which was: The Jews didn’t kill Jesus. We all did, as sinners, because he came to die for our sins. Now, the real question is: Do the evangelicals actually believe this line? My opinion: Yeah, mostly. Yes, you have a few extreme nutbags on the fringe of evangelicism who still think the Jews are behind every evil in the world, but as the 20th century has amply shown, some people are just looking for an excuse — any excuse — to hate the Jews, and if it wasn’t because they killed Jesus it would be because they run the banks or are corrupting the racial purity of the Vaterland or they’re just simply breathing the same oxygen as the rest of us.
(Some people suggest Jews are a little too twitchy about anti-Semitism, most then, most people didn’t have an entire continent murderously expunged of their co-religionists within the last 70 years, so I guess most people should shut the Hell up about that and allow that perhaps Jews have earned the right to be a little sensitive.)
Having said that, most American evangelicals are not anti-semites because being an anti-semite is simply not nice, and most American evangelicals are nice people, even if their doctrine is annoyingly strident at times. I suppose if you were to press an evangelical he or she might allow that most Jews (as well as atheists, agnostics, Muslims and most everyone from Mongolia to Paupa New Guinea) are probably going to Hell for not accepting Christ, but they’d also think you were being kind of mean for hounding them about that topic — and more to the point I think most of them wouldn’t see why that means you’d think they’d wish Jews and others ill.
Also to the point, and this is something I harp on because I think it’s important for non-evangelicals to realize, it’s important to remember that just because evangelicals are stridently faithful doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Many if not most of them are aware that in Jesus’ time there were different Jewish sects with different agendas. They’re also pretty aware the Jesus himself was Jewish as were his disciples. I think many evangelicals are reasonably offended by a blanket charge of anti-Semitism because it suggests that they are unlearned or incapable of understanding the political complexities both of Jesus’ time and of ours.
So, I don’t think this film — in the US at least — will incite anyone to hate the Jews except for those who don’t need much incitement to do so. And I would imagine those people will be quickly shouted down by evangelicals who are on message about who it is who killed Jesus (i.e., all us sinners), and who can’t abide being openly rude to other people.
(Yes, I know — what about them being openly rude to gays and lesbians recently? I don’t see most evangelicals being personally rude to gays and lesbians even if they oppose their right to be married, and I think if you plopped down a married gay couple in front of your average evangelical, while the encounter might be awkward, I would think it would be rather difficult for your average evangelical to wish the pair ill — again, it’s that nice thing. This is one of the reasons, of course, that San Francisco started marrying off gays and lesbians — it’s easy to be mean to homosexuals abstractly, but rather more difficult when they’re right in front of you with their wedding bands.)
Now, I reserve the right to change my mind about any of this after I’ve actually seen the film — you’ll note I’ve studiously avoided discussing the content of the film in any way. When I have, of course, I’ll update.