What are we to make of l’affaire Gibson now that his film has turned out to be a huge box-office success? Those who, like me, were deeply moved by The Passion of the Christ and judged it to be not anti-Semitic have no reason to gloat. The cultural clashes over the film opened wounds we thought had healed, and they exposed currents of hostility toward Christianity that one would have hoped had disappeared. The freewheeling commentary in the general media, with a few notable exceptions, was pitched at too low a level to call this a teaching moment. But it certainly was a moment to listen and learn–and, at times, to laugh.
Last summer, it should be recalled, Gibson’s project was on very shaky legs. He had not as yet found a distributor for a film in which he had invested twenty-five million dollars of his own money. After reading a “received” copy of the script, a self-selected group of six scholars, most of them veterans of Jewish-Christian dialogue, complained of un-Biblical and anti-Semitic stereotypes. One of the group, Paula Fredriksen of Boston University, wrote a long and fearful essay, “Mad Mel,” in the New Republic, predicting that “violence” would break out upon the film?s release. Immediately, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, orchestrated a campaign to label the film anti-Semitic. That really got Mel mad, and he responded by showing nearly finished versions of the movie to selected audiences, most of which consisted of politically conservative pundits and evangelical Christians. None of them seemed to find the film anti-Semitic–but then few of them were Jews. To columnists such as Frank Rich of the New York Times, Gibson’s screening strategy was part of a “political-cultural” war pitting Jews against Christians, including the Bush White House and the whole conservative wing of the chattering classes.