There is a double standard when it comes to reviewing controversial depictions of the life of Jesus. In the view of the media elite, those portrayals that raise questions about the Christian Bible or Catholic doctrine are generally applauded as courageous works of genius, while those that reinforce Christian teachings or purport to portray a literal rendering of the Gospels are viewed as backwards or intolerant.
Witness the controversy over Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion of the Christ, released last week in theaters across the country. Much ink has already been spilled to condemn the film about Jesus’ final hours on earth. Frank Rich of the New York Times has written that the movie aims to “bait Jews” and “sow religious conflict;” James Carroll of the Boston Globe has referred to the movie as “obscene,” “a lie,” and “an icon of religious violence;” other media outlets have described the film as “ideologically driven” (Newsday), “deeply polarizing” (Entertainment Weekly), and “devious” as well as “probably anti-Semitic” (Palm Beach Post). A Newsweek cover story takes factual aim at the movie, and credits the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against the movie and its producer.
But the attempt to blacklist Passion began long before its release. Indeed, before even seeing the film or reading the final screenplay, opponents of Gibson’s religiously inspired film launched a preemptive strike, urging major Hollywood studios not to distribute the film and denouncing it in newspapers across the country.
Much of the hysteria surrounding the movie is based on Gibson’s graphic portrayal of the death of Jesus, which, critics fear, will lead to increased anti-Semitism and the revival of charges that Jews are Christ-killers. Owing to these fears, critics have gone to great lengths to label the movie as inaccurate. But, according to critics, it is not just false, it is false to the point of being delusional–one reviewer even referred to the movie as “the wacky perspective of a wacko Catholic” (S.C.’s State). These sentiments were later echoed by Andy Rooney, who also called Mel Gibson a “wacko.”
Whether the film is a faithful recreation of the Evangelists’ accounts, I cannot say. Indeed, I have not yet seen the film, and I certainly have no expertise on the Christian Bible or the history of the time period in which Jesus lived. As one who has followed the controversy surrounding this film, however, I can say that the blacklisting of this film has occurred for one reason and one reason only: because Mel Gibson is a religious and devoted Catholic who has attempted to use his craft for purposes of evangelization. And, as many religious people have already come to realize, public professions of faith are often scoffed at by the liberal elite.
To understand the double standard, one need only compare the attacks on Gibson with the virtual anointing of Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. For those who have been living under a rock for the past year, The Da Vinci Code is a Grisham-like thriller that portrays the Catholic Church (and, indeed, all of Christianity) as conspiring to conceal the “truth” about Jesus–that he was a mere mortal who, contrary to biblical accounts, married and fathered children. According to the book, early Christians understood this about Jesus and, as a way of honoring his alleged wife and co-prophet, incorporated practices of “goddess worship” into their religious rituals. In an effort to consolidate its own power and to prevent women from gaining social and political influence, the Church is alleged to have created the myth of Jesus Christ as divine and banned any practices honoring the female prophet. From that time forward, the Church has been so desperate to hide the “truth” about Jesus that it regularly resorts to murder, theft, and widescale repression–particularly of women–to prevent its revelation.
Brown’s book is, of course, fiction, but it purports to be historically and theologically based. To most believing Catholics (and, indeed, many other Christians), the theories espoused in Brown’s novel are nothing short of blasphemous. But, putting aside the theological and historical authenticity of the book, Brown’s portrayal of Catholic teachings and the Church as an institution reinforce the perverse stereotype of Catholicism as a bizarre cult. Those who know little about the Church or its teachings will come away from the novel with the impression that Catholic teachings in general, and the modern Church in particular, are inherently oppressive and misogynistic. Those already predisposed to distrust the Church will find that the book’s jibes at the Vatican are easily plugged into their pre-existing paradigm of the Church as corrupt and archaic.
Yet, despite the novel’s potential to foment anti-Catholic prejudice, the mainstream media has embraced The Da Vinci Code with glowing reviews that create the false impression that Brown’s work is factually based. Indeed, it has been described as “pure genius” (Nelson DeMille), a “masterpiece” (Library Journal), “fascinating history” (San Francisco Chronicle), “a spellbinding re-examination of 2,000 years of religious history” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), “a delightful display of erudition” (Boston Globe), “extremely smart” (Chicago Tribune). Time even dedicated a cover story to unearthing historical support for Brown’s views. ABC News broadcast an hour-long special based on the book that featured interviews with Dan Brown, without explaining that Brown is a novelist, not an historian.
Certainly the concerns of Catholic groups that widespread acceptance of The Da Vinci Code will increase anti-Catholic prejudice are as valid as those of the organized Jewish community who fear an anti-Semitic backlash as a result of The Passion of the Christ. But while critics of Gibson’s movie are given center stage in the mainstream media, critics of Brown’s novel are regarded as paranoid and given little credence.
Of course, neither The Passion of the Christ nor The Da Vinci Code should escape exacting criticism. The media should be careful, however, not to tip the scales in favor of one group’s concerns at the expense of another.
–Jennifer C. Braceras is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.