When I was very young, 7 or 8 years old, I mistakenly thought that the Baptist church across the street from my family's Catholic church was a Jewish temple, populated by men who wore black robes and got the real story about God all mixed up. This seemed to make perfect sense, given the black and white, good and bad world of both Catholicism and American TV in the '70s. Catholicism, after all, was the one true faith -- we repeated this out loud every Sunday as a congregation -- and in the Bible, the Jews were the ones who didn't believe that Jesus was anybody special; they were the ones who pressured Pontius Pilate to put him to death.
Forget that the Southern town I grew up in was populated by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and Unitarians, not to mention atheists and agnostics. Forget that the teachers at my Catholic school made it very clear that Jesus was a Jew, and that modern-day Jews had as much to do with the persecution of Jesus as I, as an American, had to do with burning heretics at the stake, slaughtering Indians and owning slaves. Forget that my parents were fairly liberal, that I had attended a Jewish nursery school and loved it, that we sang "Morning Has Broken" at Mass on Sundays. Jews were clearly different, so I assigned them the equal and opposite, slightly sinister role (partially under the influence of the '70s occult soap opera "The Edge of Night") and could find no good reason for their oddly stubborn refusal to recognize Jesus as the son of God, since he obviously had a glowing halo over his head and tirelessly worked miracles for years to prove it.
Sometimes, no matter how much care rational, compassionate adults take to try to teach open-minded views, kids are smart enough to recognize and latch onto the strains of intolerance in their faith and in their culture, and those prejudices come to make up an inextricable part of the fabric of our understanding of each other. Thus, last night when Diane Sawyer referred to Mel Gibson's upcoming "The Passion of the Christ" as "the film that set off an explosion of debate, controversy and feeling in America," it was tough to understand how such a spark has been lit now when, for centuries, the Bible has included the same tales of wrath and vengeance, intolerance and warring sects, and smites upon this or that land.
"It's not about pointing the fingers, it's not about playing the blame game," Gibson explained during the first few moments of the interview. Yet, his film is based on the Bible, and the Bible is filled with finger pointing and blaming. No matter how much forgiveness Jesus himself preached, there are countless examples of where his predecessors and followers took their perceived privileges and ran with them.
Gibson's mannerisms during his interview with Sawyer don't exactly help to dispel this notion of him as a propagandist with a pulpit. His eyes dart back and forth nervously, his tone shifts rapidly from humility to condescension to anger, and he talks in clipped sentences, pausing to grin smugly or widen his eyes to pound home his point.
Still, many of the points he makes are reasonable enough. He repeatedly denies any anti-Semitic feelings or intentions, he clearly feels nervous about expressing his faith but feels passionate enough about his beliefs that he seems to feel that he has no other choice. Soon, Sawyer confronts Gibson about the reaction from the Jewish community.
Sawyer: Their fear is that in a world in which horrible things have been done to the Jewish population, that simply looking at these events will once again incite people toward if not violence then animosity, prejudice, vindictiveness.
Gibson: I don't think so ... if you go by that rationale, any story where one group of persons do something to another group of persons ... You shouldn't put any of that on film.
It's true that artists who are passionate about what they wish to express will end up evoking that strong perspective in their work. Why should Gibson be singled out for criticism for interpreting a dramatic story that, for better or for worse, is an immutable part of our culture?
Still, aside from the fact that Gibson treats the Bible as historical fact, even though it's clearly written by many different, subjective sources and in wildly different voices and tones, aside from the statements Gibson's father allegedly made about the Holocaust to a reporter from the New York Times Magazine, aside from seemingly unfounded allegations that Gibson and his distributor are hand-selecting theaters nationwide based on the population's predisposition toward the film's premise, what makes people suspicious toward Gibson is that he seems to see this as his mission. That a religious zealot could emerge from the skin of one of our favorite hard-partying celebrities scrambles our perception of the role entertainment and entertainers play in forming our culture. Of course, foreign cultures have grappled with Hollywood's cultural influence for years, while we've remained blissfully unaware of its pull. Now, something about the fact that Gibson could win money, power and influence through the star machine, and then wield that considerable wealth in the service of his religion messes with our notion of Hollywood as a place ruled by the dollar, but never by faith.
Of course, Gibson's implication that he has a mandate to spread the good word isn't helping matters much.
Sawyer: You said, "The Holy Ghost was working through me."
Gibson: I've received a lot of ridicule for that statement. I think that the Holy Ghost is real. I believe that he's looking favorably on this film and he wanted to help.
Proclaiming himself "somewhere between Howard Stern and Saint Francis of Assisi on the scale of morality," Gibson also seems creepily preoccupied with evil, both apparently in the focus of his film and in his current situation.
Sawyer: You said at one point, "The big dark force didn't want us to make this film."
Sawyer: What was the force?
Gibson: What was the force? It's the thing you can't see. I'm a believer, by the way. So if you believe, you believe that there are big realms of good and evil, and they're slugging it out.
He's talking about Disney and Comcast, right? Later, he seems to imply that paranoia is a perfectly reasonable response to modern times. "It's only logical to assume that conspiracies are everywhere because that's what people do, they conspire," he says. "If you can't get the message, get the man. So, I think that's what we're engaged in, here, we're engaged in character assassination."
Later, sounding even less reasonable, Gibson proclaims of certain journalists who have probed into Gibson's Traditionalist Catholic family faith, "Their whole agenda here is to drive a wedge between me and my father."
Of course, the most natural response to someone who sees conspiracies everywhere is to wonder what they themselves have got up their sleeves. And instead of playing the peace-loving Christian, Gibson is swatting at critics, real and imagined. Of New York Times writer Frank Rich, Gibson admits to having said, "I wanted to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog." Throw such statements into the mix with his fervent beliefs, the apparent notion that he has a mandate, the violent images in his film, his unsettling demeanor, and his suspicions that there's a conspiracy against him and his father, and you've got more than a little cause for squeamishness. Naturally, the thousands of Christians pictured weeping after seeing his film add to the unsettled feeling among those who see "The Passion of the Christ" as an unnecessary provocation during an already unstable time.
But the verdict won't come until Gibson's film hits the theaters, at which point all of this confusion and controversy will most likely translate directly into extraordinary ticket sales. Whether or not Gibson himself is sainted or despised or both, his message is indistinguishable from the prejudices, rage and persecution that are woven into our psyches and into the cloth of our Judeo-Christian culture. What's most dangerous about such prejudices and resentments is the frequency with which we assign them to some external source instead of acknowledging them in ourselves. While our targets shift with our fickle whims, we prefer to pretend that we alone are the enlightened ones who accept all people and all faiths, self-trickery that is as absurd and as precious as the matching egocentric assumptions of those who suppose themselves to be born into the one true faith, who imagine the rest of the world wearing black robes and worshipping false gods in some forsaken shrine, across the street or across the sea.