CHRIST REALLY DOES HAVE A WAY OF TURNING things upside down. Crowds of Christians pour into an R-rated movie, while cultural liberals-who usually say violent entertainment is harmless and art is supposed to be shocking-are warning about too much violence and a movie's baleful effects. An "art house film" in a foreign language with a controversial topic, a cutting-edge style, and an in-your-face aesthetic-a film that could not even find a major studio distributor-has turned into a smash hit.
The Passion of the Christ earned more in one day than any other religious-themed movie in history has made total. It had a bigger opening box office than any movie ever outside of the summer and holiday seasons. "Playing on 4,643 screens at 3,006 theaters, the $30 million production took in a whopping $26,556,573" on opening day, reported Box Office Mojo, a Hollywood trade site, "ironically prompting most in the industry to use the Lord's name in vain out of sheer amazement."
And yet, Hollywood, going against its own business interests, is reportedly set to blacklist Mel Gibson. The New York Times reports that the powers that be in the movie industry-those defenders of artistic freedom who bewail the blacklisting of Hollywood's communists decades ago-are going to punish Mr. Gibson for making this movie.
The Times' Sharon Waxman cites a number of powerful industry leaders who have vowed to have nothing to do with Mr. Gibson. She quotes one head of a studio who would not allow his name to be used: "It doesn't matter what I say. It'll matter what I do. I will do something. I won't hire him. I won't support anything he's part of."
The article shows that part of the hostility is sheer aversion to religion. A bigger factor is the conviction of many Jews, among them some of Hollywood's biggest players, that the film is anti-Semitic. The controversy has made clear that just as some who call themselves Christians have blamed all Jews, including those who were not alive at the time, and Judaism itself for killing Jesus, there are some Jews who blame all Christians, including those who were not alive at the time, and Christianity itself for the Holocaust.
Both sides should realize that if all Jews really were personally responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, then every Christian should love every Jew, since without Christ's death, God's wrath would have fallen on each of us instead.
But as the controversy grew, worries about anti-Semitism became only one of the complaints against such an explicit rendering of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection. Newsweek came out with a cover story attacking the Bible itself. The Dallas Morning News trotted out liberal theologians who denied that Christ's death was sacrificial and an atonement for sin. Said a New Testament scholar from Berkeley, "It makes God sound bloodthirsty."
As for the reaction among Christians, many evangelicals considered The Passion of the Christ too Catholic. But if the movie is more Catholic than evangelicals are used to, it is also more evangelical than Catholics are used to. Mel Gibson went on TV to tell about his fall into sin and how, at the pinnacle of his external success, he fell into despair and was near suicide. Then he picked up a Bible and read about how Jesus died for him, which turned his life around.
That is an "evangelical" testimony, not that common among Catholics, especially traditionalist Catholics like Mr. Gibson. For evangelicals, the center of their devotion is the Scriptures, something traditionalist Catholics tended to keep away from the laity, but here Mr. Gibson-defending the truth of the Bible before his inquisitors-follows the text of Scripture in a literal, highly realistic way. And the subtitles proclaim the gospel all the way through-how Christ is bearing our sins and suffering in our place (which means all of the horrors we watch Him endure should have been happening to us).
American Christianity had become superficial, happy-clappy, offering formulas for earthly success rather than the promise of eternal life and a call to radical discipleship. Our evangelism had become reduced to "ask Jesus into your heart," without sometimes even mentioning who Jesus is and what He paid for our salvation. This movie, for all its faults and limitations, has reminded Christians of the magnitude of the cross.
And, in an uncanny way, we are seeing the truth of Scripture demonstrated once again: "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).