Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller, contributing to her magazine’s “20/10” list of top 10 cultural moments of the past decade, revisited the “furor surrounding...[the] alleged anti-Semitism” of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, and concluded “the film is, in fact, anti-Semitic.” Miller also accused Gibson of making “Jesus in his own image.”
The 2004 film was number eight on Newsweek’s list of cultural moments, and the religion editor began her synopsis by rehashing another of the critics’ main charges about the movie- its apparent glorification of violence: “Mel Gibson’s pious gorefest The Passion of the Christ may not be remembered for all the controversy it courted upon its release, or for its surprise opening-weekend take of $83 million—and perhaps not even for its director’s widely mocked decision to have his actors speak only Latin and Aramaic.” Widely-mocked? How did she come to that conclusion? More than a few outlets, including the notoriously liberal NPR, noted how the movie revived interest in Aramaic, the language spoken by the Jews in the 1st century AD.
With those lines of criticism of the way, Miller moved on to the criticism which she bought the most- its supposed anti-Semitism: “Nor will The Passion be chiefly remembered for the furor surrounding its alleged anti-Semitism. (The film is, in fact, anti-Semitic. Those most thirsty for Jesus’s blood are the Jews whose brown teeth and matted hair disallow any individuality. Meanwhile, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate—who, according to history, did sentence Jesus to death—is as soulful and ambivalent as Hamlet.).”
Did the Newsweek editor forget that, other than Pilate’s wife, it was Jewish characters who did the most to try to alleviate the sufferings of Jesus? It was Veronica, who couldn’t have been mistaken for a Roman, who wiped the bloodied face of the condemned Messiah and tried to offer him a drink. It was the Jewish Simon of Cyrene who, after his initial lack of sympathy, lashed out at the Romans after Jesus fell to the ground. Miller also neglected that the ones who reveled the most in Jesus’s sufferings in the film were the Roman soldiers who scourged him and crowned him with thorns, not the Jewish religious leaders who arrested him and accused him.
The editor made a bizarre conclusion about what, in her view, is actually significant about the film later in the column:
What the film will be remembered for is the thing it did best—or most imaginatively. It rendered the Christian Lord as a man. Anybody with a Christian education knows, of course, that Jesus was God born flesh: in Gibson’s version the emphasis is on the flesh. His Jesus is no bland saint; he has the emotions of a man. He is fearful and arrogant, loving and cold. His masculine physicality overpowers us, even as he is beaten, thrashed, pummeled, and finally crucified. (In happier days back in Galilee, his biceps bulge out of his canvas frock.) No long-haired hero has ever been less effeminate—except, perhaps, Gibson himself as the eponymous Braveheart. It is as if Gibson, having spent his Roman Catholic boyhood regarding sugar-sweet post-Reformation images of his Lord, finally lost his patience. He made Jesus in his own image: he painted it in blood.
Of course, any artist, whether their medium is stone, canvas, or celluloid, is going to be influenced by how they see their subject. But it is interesting, to say the least, that Miller, a religion editor, would see Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus as somehow out of the ordinary. If she merely consulted the four Gospels, she would find the Galilean carpenter weeping, angry, and merciful. He certainly is no “bland saint” in the Scriptures. In fact, one of the main theological arguments in the early centuries of Christianity was over the question of Christ’s humanity- if he was actually flesh and blood, or just appeared to be that way. That is why the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, declared that “our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; [was] like us in all respects except for sin.”
Newsweek ranked Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin, the beginning of American Idol, and the death of Michael Jackson ahead of The Passion of the Christ in its list of top 10 cultural moments in the past decade. That ought to tell you where their priorities lie.