The Passion's Passionate Despisers
Kenneth L. Woodward
First Things 144 (June/July 2004): 8-11
In the main this article is an interesting retrospective on the passionate reactions to The Passion of the Christ in the media and it touches on several of the issues I have written about in my The Passion, Pornography and Polemic and which I develop at greater length in my forthcoming piece "The Power of The Passion of the Christ: Reactions and Overreactions to Gibson's Artistic Vision". There is one particularly interesting set of remarks here on the question of the different viewers' differing reactions to the film:
The day the film opened, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie was in the audience in a sold-out theater in Times Square watching The Passion of the Christ unfold. Yoffie was deeply offended by what he saw as Jewish stereotypes. “The Jews in this film are evildoers,” he later wrote to his colleagues on Reform Judaism’s website. But he also noticed the woman next to him sobbing throughout the film, and gradually came to the conclusion that such Christians are responding out of deep belief and “really do not understand the charge of anti-Semitism and what Jews are talking about.”I think that there are ways of adding to, nuancing and balancing the helpful reminder of reader-response here and these involve avoiding the temptation to view the film against the grain, to temper one's inevitable concerns about charges of anti-Semitism and excessive violence by paying careful attention to film itself, to attempt to avoid the lapse into polemic and overreaction. This is developed in more detail in my forthcoming article, but let me give one example that is fresh on my mind after having watched the Emma Awards on BBC2 on Sunday night. Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays Mary in the film, collected The Passion of the Christ's award for best picture, and gave a delightful speech, explaining that it was her son's twentieth birthday that day and that her family had only allowed her to go to the awards on the condition that she came back with something. She was then quite overcome also to win best actress. But I was reminded again that Morgenstern is a Jew whose grandfather died in the holocaust and whose father was a holocaust surviver. This casting choice for the most sympathetic character in the film deserves serious attention and cannot be lightly brushed aside (some reviewers) or ignored (the majority).
Yoffie’s modest exercise in what literary types call “reader-response theory” is a useful way to survey the reactions of the nation’s celebrity pundits. In Vanity Fair, everybody’s favorite urban atheist, Christopher Hitchens, called Gibson a fascist and the movie an “exercise in lurid masochism.” In the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier let loose with another of his contemptuous screeds against Christianity in general, medieval Catholicism more generically, and Gibson’s “wretched hero” in particular. “A sacred snuff film” was his most inelegant shot. From the other side of the political aisle, columnists William Safire (New York Times) and Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post) found the movie sadistic as well as anti-Semitic. Indeed, “sadist,” “masochistic,” “pornographic,” and their variants were the most common adjectives in the lava-laden commentaries published in the Boston Globe, USAToday, and Slate.