Why My Mother, and Americans Like Her, Loved the Film

Dear Robert,

I have been puzzling over the last few days about my surprisingly positive reaction to the film. What compelled me to look beyond its anti-Semitism and gratuitous violence, to gravitate toward its story of an anguished mother and a tortured son? Perhaps it was my growing disquiet over the recent drift among American Protestants toward a Pollyanna Jesus—a Buddy Christ who greets us with a grin and a big thumbs up.

The last 100 years are almost certainly the most brutal in world history. The popularity in Europe of the Grünewald Crucifixion, which peaked between World War I and World War II, speaks to that brutality. So does Latin American liberation theology, which promises the poor of the world a redeemer who will fight and die for their cause (or, in the case of Jose Orozco’s powerful Jesus mural at Dartmouth College, wield an ax trying).

Until now, however, middle-class American Protestants have largely diverted their eyes from such brutality. Protestants have long preferred an empty cross to the Catholic’s crucifix, and the most successful megachurches in the United States have banished even that sanitized symbol from their spiffy sanctuaries. Though U.S. evangelicals have by no means rejected the theology of the atonement (which sees Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as a debt paid for the sins of the world), they have preferred to reflect on the meaning of the crucifixion rather than brood over the fact of it. Just as I averted my eyes from the repeated assaults on Jesus’ body in The Passion, they have turned away from the brutal realities of 20th-century mass death: the wars, the genocides, the bomb.

So part of me cheers, I must admit, when Gibson gives America’s warm and fuzzy Jesus the spiritual equivalent of the middle finger. I can’t help applauding Gibson’s sincerity, and I must admit that part of me envies his conviction. Apparently I am not alone. The boffo box-office numbers—$125 million and counting—indicate that this Hollywood homily is striking a nerve. And while I remain concerned that, once struck, that nerve could trigger anti-Jewish violence overseas, I don’t see that happening in the United States. What is happening here is that Americans are waking up to a side of the Christian story that they have long neglected.

My mother, as trustworthy a barometer of the American character as I know, saw the movie and liked it. Sitting in the theater was not a religious experience, she told me, adding that she will by no means defer to the Melomaniacs when it comes to understanding the Christian faith. But neither will she ever sit through a Good Friday service the same way.

I would never call my mother ordinary, and I will probably never think of her the same way after walking the Stations of the Cross with Maia Morgenstern, but I suspect that my mother’s reaction to the film is widely shared. Virtually every non-academic I know who has seen The Passion has liked it. None, it should be noted, has seen it as the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel; in fact, all have done with the film what Americans have long done with Jesus himself: reinvent it in their own image. But each seems grateful to Gibson not only for goading us into debating the meanings of the cross but also for compelling us to sit, however briefly, with the brute facts of human suffering.

Like you, I am loath to attribute motivations to a man I have never met, but even if there is a sadomasochistic streak in the star of Lethal Weapon, I don’t see that same streak in the Americans who are flocking to this film. I see instead people who have grown tired of the happy-face Jesus who has helped Americans feel good about themselves at least since Victorians gave up mourning clothes for flower funerals—people willing to recover some of the hard truths of religion, to grapple with time and eternity, to stare sin and evil in the face, if only for a couple of hours.

Don’t get me wrong; I still like the book better than the movie. Following Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I believe it is imperative to read the death of Jesus as part of the broader narrative of his life as an advocate of the poor, an artist in parables, a healer of the sick—something Gibson has refused to do. But with Gibson, Grünewald, and Orozco, I see the virtues too of meditating on the ugly and the grotesque, particularly in a culture (and an industry) so enamored of the beautiful.