I thought Hollywood was supposed to be a place that celebrates a bold artistic vision. A film that challenges the staid, calculated studio system is usually admired. But boldness and independence are not winning Mel Gibson many admirers in the usual critical corners. He is making and privately financing a movie about the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
Cultural movers and shakers like "spiritual" films -- but only to the extent that they either mock orthodox faith or celebrate unorthodox faiths. In 1988, "The Last Temptation of Christ," which among other things depicted Judas as a victim and Jesus as having lecherous thoughts about Mary Magdalene, was the toast of the town among critics. They loved Terrence McNally's play "Corpus Christi," which presented Jesus as a gay man. The list of lesser movies and plays and TV shows mocking Christianity -- especially Catholicism -- is long, and usually so bad as to be pathetic, but all have a critic somewhere who acclaimed each for its "boldness."
I haven't been able to see Gibson's film yet, but that doesn't inhibit defending Gibson against malicious, irresponsible criticism from people who also have not seen the film.
In an op-ed headlined "Mel Gibson's Martyrdom Complex," New York Times associate editor Frank Rich furthered his paper's tainted reputation by claiming Gibson's film will incite anti-Semitism. Rich asked: "Why worry now? The star himself has invited us to. Asked by Bill O'Reilly in January if his movie might upset 'any Jewish people,' Mr. Gibson responded: 'It may. It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth ... Anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.'"
This sounds pretty damning, except that it was very dishonest editing of the O'Reilly interview. Here's the full Gibson answer: "It may. It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But you know, when you look at the reasons behind why Christ came, why he was crucified, he died for all mankind. He suffered for all mankind. So that really, anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part, or look at their own culpability."
Translation: Jesus Christ died because of, and for, mankind .
Rich hasn't seen the movie or even read the script. He relied on a group of Jewish and Catholic scholars who also haven't seen the movie and were relying on an outdated script. He acknowledged this script might bear little resemblance to the film, but that wasn't about to stop him. "Either way, however, damage has been done: Jews have already been libeled by Mr. Gibson's politicized rollout of his film."
Rich accused Gibson of Jew-baiting: "His game from the start has been to foment the old-as-Hollywood canard that the 'entertainment elite' (which just happens to be Jewish) is gunning for his Christian movie. But based on what? According to databank searches, not a single person, Jewish or otherwise, had criticized 'The Passion' when Mr. Gibson went on Bill O'Reilly's show on Jan. 14 to defend himself against 'any Jewish people' who might attack the film."
Rich left the impression that Gibson came on Fox solely to address the Jewish question, even though the entire issue was raised by O'Reilly. Rich repeated his charge: "Nor had anyone yet publicly criticized 'The Passion' or Mr. Gibson by March 7, when The Wall Street Journal ran the interview in which the star again defended himself against Jewish critics who didn't yet exist."
Again Rich was misleading his readers. The Journal piece, written by Raymond Arroyo, news director of the Catholic cable channel EWTN, suggested future criticism, not past: "Focusing on the trial and death of Christ will inevitably cause some controversy." Gibson said: "Looking at Christ's crucifixion, I look first at my own culpability in that." Again, Gibson wasn't attacking a phantom of Jewish criticism. He was acknowledging the potential controversy to a journalist, and stressing the good news that Jesus died for all mankind.
Rich concluded: "But the real question here is why Mr. Gibson and his minions would go out of their way to bait Jews and sow religious conflict, especially at this fragile historical moment." Gibson has done nothing of the sort. Rich is the one sowing some wretched seeds here, suggesting it is controversial to proclaim the story of Jesus, that preaching the Christian gospel in a public square should be avoided as too divisive or troublesome.
Gibson believes something different. For him, the time is right to reawaken a spiritually deadened culture to the inspiring story of Jesus as Lord -- not as some doubt-riddled horny carpenter, or some oh-so-hip gay swinger -- and to remind us all of the unbelievable suffering He endured to give an everlasting gift to the world.