Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (TPOTC), which was released in theaters this week, is, according to most accounts, two hours and several minutes of bloody Bible stories with subtitles and an unknown cast. Yet, one need not see it to sense that the spectacle offers a snapshot of today’s culture.
From holy war to holy matrimony, religion is at the center of the debate of ideas. Though the attention on TPOTC is fueled primarily by Gibson’s celebrity — not by an interest in examining faith — and Gibson has obliged faster than a drunk finds Jesus, the frenzy is real.
Gibson has shrewdly cashed in and that’s his right. Actors have always used celebrity to promote their principles. Redford’s environmentalism Cruise’s Scientology animal-loving starlets (Bardot, Hedren, Novak) what’s the point of fame if you can’t use it to apply your ideals?
In Gibson’s case, that means spreading religion in its fundamental sense. The Passion of the Christ’s theme is that suffering, not joy, is man’s proper fate.
A Mel Gibson movie about pain as man’s highest purpose is practically redundant; pain is at the core of the bloody Braveheart, the gruesome The Patriot, the tortured Mad Max and nearly every picture Gibson has made. His movies — Ransom, Conspiracy, Lethal Weapon show that torment is his stock in trade.
Mel Gibson has created, distributed and sold the movie he wanted to make and that is not an easy achievement anywhere, whether on Wall Street or on Sunset Boulevard. Gibson ought to take pride — one of those seven deadly sins — in his entertaining, thought-provoking movies.
Gibson’s Jesus Christ has America’s attention. By his own admission, TPOTC presents the essence of religion. It’s the Bible told in literal images, imbued with no romanticization of earthly goals as in Lilies of the Field, no sense of jubilation as in Sister Act, no sense of the sublime as in The Song of Bernadette. It’s religion offered for what it is — abject misery here on earth — with no hint of the larger than life scope of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. TPOTC promises vengeful Jews, a weeping whore and the most vile execution on the grounds of self-sacrifice; in short, unrefined religion.
Surely, Mel Gibson is not alone in seeking fundamental religion as man’s guiding philosophy. The world is dominated by those who choose to share Gibson’s faith-based passion. Western civilization is threatened by devout believers who proclaim that God is great! and use planes, computers and skyscrapers to attack the secular civilization that made planes, computers, skyscrapers and movies — possible.
Whether the besieged culture is ready to renounce reason, yield to faith and submit to suffering does not depend upon Mel Gibson’s fundamentally religious movie. But its box office success, especially for those of us who are infidels, may offer an ominous sneak preview.
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