- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

Hollywood is all about bedfellows, some stranger than others, but Mel Gibson is some matchmaker.

The most eagerly awaited movie in years opens tomorrow in thousands of theaters across the country, and this is passion Hollywood understands. Mel Gibson, who is rich, is soon going to be a lot richer. He has successfully matched movies with evangelical Christians.

Hollywood, where everyone worships the gift for making money, is trying now to understand Mel Gibson’s obsession with his faith. He professes to have been led by God to make his movie as an expression of his faith, a celebration of gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to atone for the sins of man.

Faith, any faith, is Greek to Hollywood, and when Mr. Gibson set out to spend his own money, upward of $25 million of it, to make his movie, the moguls, the directors, the stars and assorted glitterati shook their heads and agreed how sad it was. Gibson was finished: “He’ll never lunch again in this town.” Everyone agrees that Mel Gibson knows acting, producing and directing, but he demonstrates with “The Passion of the Christ” that he knows something about marketing, too.

When he took his movie to the evangelicals three months ago, in the face of rising criticism of certain Jewish advocacy groups anxious that the film would encourage a fresh wave of Jew-baiting, he was taking a risk. Evangelical Christians, having suffered the insults of Hollywood for decades, were not promising prospects to entice to any movie, and particularly not a movie about Jesus Christ, whose very name evangelical Christians speak with reverence and awe bordering on fear. Faith of any kind is sneered at by Hollywood, and moviemakers had discovered that offending believing Christians was not only permissible, but profitable.

Only yesterday evangelical pastors discouraged their congregations from going to the movies at all. Even the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, benign as they may be today, were said to inflame the lusts that St. Paul warned Christians against. (And it was true: Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver, standing in her lacy slip and modeling a hat for Walter Pidgeon in the privacy of the Miniver marital chamber, or Ruth Roman, thrusting a shapely leg skyward and slowly peeling off a wet stocking before a roaring fire, certainly inflamed the libido of a certain Sunday-school boy once well-known to me.)

But the Christ of Gibson’s “Passion” exhibits neither leer nor sneer, and tells the greatest story ever told with the care of the Bible scholar, the tribute of the pious and the homage of the devout. His very faithfulness to the Scriptures, the story of how Jesus died at the hands of brutal Roman soldiers manipulated by corrupt Jewish priests, is what worries some Jews, who fear the revival of the salacious slander that blames “the Jews” for the Crucifixion.

Jewish anxiety is understandable, but misplaced in the present day. The evangelicals have become the best friends the Jews have in contemporary American society, and the yahoos who indulge the old stereotypes are a small and declining number. Some rabbis who have been paying attention worry more about hurting the feelings of evangelicals than about whether the movie will revive anti-Semitism.

“Christians,” says Rabbi Daniel Lapin, whose Toward Tradition is a popular Internet Web site, “are hurt that Jewish groups are presuming to teach them what Christian Scripture ‘really means.’ This is what [a rabbi I debated on Fox television] said: ‘We have a responsibility as Jews, as thinking Jews, as people of theology, to respond to our Christian brothers and to engage them, be it Protestants, be it Catholics, and say, look, this is not your history, this is not your theology, this does not represent what you believe in.’ He happens to be a respected rabbi, and a good one, but he too has bought into the preposterous proposition that Jews will re-educate Christians about Christian theology and history.”

The hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians who have bought out theaters coast-to-coast for the Ash Wednesday screenings of “The Passion” surely pose no threat to Jews or anyone else. To these Christians, the unlikely movie theater will become for a few hours a place of worship of the God as revealed in the life, death and Resurrection of a Jewish carpenter who died for all men. Mel Gibson’s movie is not a miracle, but it certainly is an unexpected phenomenon for our times.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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