It may be too soon to predict anything about next year’s Oscars — we just finished this year’s. But I feel safe guessing that Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” won’t do as well as Peter Jackson’s “The Return of the King.” In fact, while Jackson has gone from a foreign curiosity to an award-winning, A-list director in the space of three years, early evidence suggests that Gibson’s film has made him plenty of enemies in Hollywood. The New York Times quoted three studio heads to the effect that Gibson would never work for them again.
That Times story suggested that the film itself raised less enmity than Gibson’s adversarial mode of defending it. He has certainly given his critics ammunition enough: when he refuses to disavow his father’s Holocaust denial, decent people ought to cringe. If we leave Gibson’s interpretive comments aside, however, the film shows some surprising similarities to Jackson’s. (Disclaimer: this piece relies on exhaustive published reports of “The Passion’s” content. I have no stomach for realistic movie bloodshed.) Both were much discussed well before they premiered and parlayed that coverage into profits. Both rely more on storytelling than star power: neither Elijah Wood nor Jim Caviezel is a guaranteed draw, even after their films’ commercial success. Both their stories are unremittingly violent, although their modes are different. And, perhaps oddest of all, both of these deeply Catholic works have been rapturously received by American evangelicals.
While Peter Jackson is of no particular faith, his reverent approach to Tolkien’s text preserves much of its obliquely, but pervasively, Catholic ethos. A figure like Gollum, fallen by the corruption of his desires but open to redemption up to the very end, definitely reflects a Christian understanding of human evil, but not a very Protestant one — too much free will. Tolkien’s letters to Catholic fans constantly make a case for his moral universe’s Catholic orthodoxy. Likewise, as observers like Kenneth L. Woodward have noted, Gibson’s depiction of an embodied, painfully suffering Christ falls more in line with parts of Catholic art than with America’s evangelicals, theological children of the Iconoclasts. Nevertheless, the evangelical media have proudly claimed these works as their own. Jackson’s films provoked a flood of positive Tolkien coverage within the subculture; Gibson’s, a frenzy.
One of Gibson’s early showings to evangelical audiences was at Willow Creek Community Church, the enormous campus of a place not far from my own home outside Chicago. As a setting for a Catholic film’s premiere, it could hardly be more surprising. Its utilitarian, corporate visual character has nothing in common with, say, Florence’s art-encrusted Santa Maria Novella. The major emblem of its worship is the acoustic guitar hooked into a giant sound system; Ulster’s fire-breathing Catholic-baiter Ian Paisley will walk to Rome on his knees before Gibson’s beloved Latin Mass, or any other ancient Christian liturgy, is heard within Willow Creek’s walls.
Moreover, Gibson’s conservative politics would not make him an easy guest at Willow Creek. That may sound surprising, but Willow Creek’s politics are not as simple as most outside observers assume. As a mostly-white, suburban, evangelical church, it certainly has its fair share of Republicans, but senior pastor Bill Hybels served as one of Bill Clinton’s spiritual counselors after the impeachment and caused a subcultural firestorm in late 2000 by inviting Clinton to speak at a Willow Creek leadership conference. As that relationship suggests, there are also Willow Creek Democrats who make their presence known, so Gibson’s chumminess with Bill O’Reilly does not guarantee him a warm reception there.
So why did Willow Creek and the moderate, media-savvy evangelical population it represents love “The Passion” so much? I suspect it’s largely for the same reasons that they loved Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings,” only more so. Tolkien’s story had good guys overcoming obstacles and bad guys getting theirs, with specifically Christian frameworks defining the good and bad guys. Gibson’s take on “The Passion” story amplifies all of those elements: the Christianness (it’s not just a Christ figure up there, it’s the man himself), the goodness of the good, the badness of the bad and the visceral shock of the obstacles. His choices of what elements from Biblical and Catholic tradition to include in his account — and of what to exaggerate or invent from whole cloth — all sound designed to produce exactly that effect. Mainstream movie critics have been sharply divided on the film overall, but most agree that whatever its faults, “The Passion” tells a powerfully single-minded story.
And that, I think, is what most evangelicals want. They want effective storytelling that respects their truth-claims. Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks has gone on the record with his fury at Gibson, but Katzenberg’s own Moses cartoon “The Prince of Egypt” is often cited in evangelical circles as a model for good Christian filmmaking — precisely because it tells the Exodus story straight up, with a minimum of “Hollywood” invention. Whatever you think of “The Passion,” don’t assume the worst of its evangelical fans. Most of them are just glad, like Tolkien’s celebrating legions, to see their favorite book on-screen.
Christopher Ashley is a junior in Silliman College.