The Real Antichrist: Christian Hypocrisy

In The Passion of the Christ, Jesus himself draws a line in the sand, and although we don’t hear him speak the words, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” we see the effect of those words visually reenacted. With all the unfiltered judgmentalism that occurs online (of which I am as guilty as anyone else), that’s a good principle to keep in mind anytime one ventures into the blogosphere or starts engaging in trial by Twitter.

It’s especially relevant to keep in mind when talking about public figures, who, by definition, don’t have the same comfy cloak of anonymity over their private lives that we the assembled Internet voices peddling our hot takes do. Here’s a neat thought experiment: what if there were cameras trained on your life at all times, like in The Truman Show, but you were too drunk to realize? Would any skeletons come dancing out of the closet, then, while people were watching?

I don’t know what’s in Mel Gibson’s heart, and truthfully, I’m less interested in him than I am his art as a product of him. In past interviews, he’s claimed to be bipolar and alcoholic, and if that’s really true, then I wonder if his publicly documented bad behavior would be half as shocking to a clinical psychologist as it was to those of us who follow the news and occasionally pay attention to the personal lives of celebrities.

Having said that, Gibson’s apology tour (“All the necessary mea culpas have been made copious times”); Robert Downey, Jr.’s 2011 plea for forgiveness on behalf of his old friend; and the 2016-2017 awards success of Hacksaw Ridge made it look like Hollywood had come around, over about a five-year stretch, to forgiving the director. That, of course, was before the Weinstein effect came into play in late 2017.

The immediate reception to The Passion of the Christ was split right down the middle. The film opened with a 54% Tomatometer rating, which has since slipped to 49%. Maybe part of the reason for that slippage is some abhorrent, decidedly unchristian behavior that came to light in the year’s following the film’s theatrical run.

In 2006, Gibson’s drunk driving incident thickened the cloud of antisemitism accusations hanging over The Passion of the Christ. 2010 only made matters worse when audio of him leaked using racial epithets to verbally abuse his girlfriend.

Laundry-listing these incidents is not an attempt to drag the same sordid sins out into the light again and re-litigate Gibson’s case in the kangaroo court of public opinion. It’s just to give context for why many moviegoers might still have a bad association with his name and the movie title The Passion of the Christ. The man who played Mad Max made Jesus part of his brand and when your whole belief system is founded on the idea that you’re an ambassador of Christ, it raises the bar for the standard by which you will be judged. Like it or not, the court of public opinion doesn’t obey the same legal standard of “innocent until proven guilty” (nor should it, some say).

Last year, on the day after Christmas, I had an article post here on /Film about two Holocaust films, Schindler’s List and Shoah. The director of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, who passed away last year, was fundamentally opposed to any sort Holocaust reenactments, believing them to be exploitative. Having written at length now about two deeply Jewish films and two deeply Catholic films (again, here’s the link to The Last Temptation of Christ feature), there’s a part of me that comes away feeling like any sort of biblical reenactments on celluloid are, likewise, just liable to fall prey to the same inherent corruption as the imperfect human vessels bringing them to life.

It seems weird, or perhaps all too appropriate, to quote this novel, but there’s a line in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that says, “The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.” Christians regard the New Testament as divinely inspired; the problem comes when people start to regard their own interpretations of it as the Word of God. As we’ve seen with The Passion of the Christ, or Gospel According to Mel, you have all these little impurities — I think of them as “Satanic verses” — that start creeping into the text, obscuring its original intent, muddying its meaning.

A funny thing happened as I was rewatching The Passion of the Christ for its 15th anniversary. As I sat there pondering the demon baby during the courtyard whipping, I found myself wondering whether it would be a stretch to see that inverted Jesus figure as a vision of Christianity to come. What if that baby represents, not some outward villain, but the bad side of the religion itself?

To put it into movie terms, that baby might be everything from the Inquisition period, parodied by Mel Brooks in History of the World, Part I, to the more modern era of highly publicized child sex abuse cases, time-capsuled in part by Spotlight, the 2015 Oscar winner for Best Picture. If you think about everything outside those two bookends and in-between — all the fake, glad-handing televangelism and garden-variety hypocrisy of other eras (including, but not limited to, the President Lex Luthor era) — it comes out looking like Christians are their own worst enemies. The web of their actions and complacent non-actions doesn’t just run counter-productive to their message; it’s entirely at cross-purposes with their message sometimes.

Movies, like religion, hinge on a suspension of disbelief. At the end of the day, what we’re left with in The Passion of the Christ is another film whose legacy has been tarnished by a high-profile name stuck to it. There are getting to be a lot of those, but the cultural narrative surrounding this movie, in particular, really exemplifies that quote: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

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