Nailing Down a Film’s Legacy


By Peter Manseau

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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Around this time last year, on the brink of Easter, the humble nail came into its own as a religious symbol. Tiny silver pendants in the shape of railroad spikes were among the many marketing tie-ins produced in connection with Mel Gibson’s cinematic phenomenon, “The Passion of the Christ.” Amid the dueling choruses of consternation and delight that greeted the film, I remember being struck that, for all Gibson’s failings as a scriptural exegete and first-century historian, the distillation of one of the central stories of Western civilization into a genuinely new and truly iconic totem — the “Jesus Nail,” as it has been called — was a small masterpiece in its own right. The simplicity of the symbol made it all the more evocative. For some believers, this ready-made relic was an illustration that Jesus Christ had selflessly died for their sins. For many nonbelievers, meanwhile, the sight of men, women and children with flesh-piercing nails dangling from their necks suggested something far more menacing.

Given that such a mundane object could come to mean so much, it is no surprise to find it as a graphic motif in “After ‘The Passion’ Is Gone: American Religious Consequences,” a collection of essays on Gibson’s film and the controversy that sprang up around it. A drawing of the notorious nail appears on the title page and at the start of every chapter, as well as at the head of the table of contents, the acknowledgements, the index, the bibliography and the notes on the book’s contributors. Just a quick glance through the work’s pages gives an appropriate impression: This is a volume with nails on the brain.

Edited by Michael Berenbaum and J. Shawn Landres (both professors at the University of Judaism), the book brings together Jewish and Christian scholars with an eye toward taking advantage of what the editors regard as the “teaching moment” created by the film. As they write in their introduction, “‘The Passion of the Christ’ has exposed the basic ignorance even of seemingly informed men and women regarding the Gospels.” In response to this ignorance, they helpfully set about gathering informed voices to provide the various contexts — theological, historical, cultural — necessary to answer the questions raised by the movie, and to understand the fervor it inspired.

The results are surprisingly broad. In a score of chapters reflecting on the same three hours of film, we are introduced to issues that range from competing notions of Jewish law in Second Temple Judaism to the penitential practices of medieval Irish monks to the creeping “protestantization” of Mormonism today. In a colorfully titled essay by Susannah Heschel (daughter of the great Abraham Joshua Heschel, chair of Jewish studies at Dartmouth), we learn of the “theological bulimia” suffered by Christianity, which, Heschel says, is forever trying to expel Jewish elements ingested at its inception. Elsewhere in the book, we’re reminded of such odd bits of history as the fact that the Vatican’s favorite Jesus movie was made by an atheist homosexual communist (Pier Paolo Pasolini); that prominent players in American evangelicalism have been striving for a kind of spiritual manliness, a “muscular” Christianity, for at least the past 100 years and that, tragically, it was the playful tale told on Purim that led Brooklyn-born doctor Baruch Goldstein to murder 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994. Apparently he had read the story of Esther as a divine call for vengeance — as more than a few have done with the story of Jesus in the 20 centuries since his death.

The point of all this data, much of which seems only tangentially related, is to show the endless connections, precedents and implications that can and should be explored within any worthwhile discussion of the role of religion in the world. Yet to see so much useful background information assembled in “After ‘The Passion’ Is Gone” is to be reminded how rare such worthwhile discussions are. If Gibson’s movie did indeed create a “teaching moment,” it did so precisely because so many people care so much and talk so loudly about a subject they so little understand.

The book’s contributors are painfully aware of this. In fact, though the stated intention of “After the Passion” is educational, at times it seems it is foremost a work born of frustration. “We were surprised and appalled,” the editors write, “by the lack of sophistication with which those Christians and Jews who were speaking publicly at the time [of the film’s release] had resolved themselves into opposing camps.”

What most appalled these scholars, it seems, is the way the popular media consistently simplifies matters they have devoted careers to researching and explaining in all their complexity. In an essay advocating criticism of the film on artistic rather than historical or religious grounds, Robert Faggen, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, mocks the treatment that Newsweek and “Dateline NBC” gave to questions such as, “Who killed Jesus?” and “Who really killed Jesus?” Perhaps speaking for religious studies scholars everywhere, Faggen fumes, “Sending Stone Phillips to Jerusalem will not give us any better understanding of the ‘Passion’ story than having Stone Phillips sit in a room with several copies of the Bible before him.”

That sort of frustration is the book’s one common note. Other than that, there is not much shared opinion on either the movie’s content or its dangers. Even allowing for the shades of gray inevitable to such discussions, the hair-splitting attempts at clarity on the question of the film’s alleged antisemitism can be a bit much to take. One scholar states without hesitation that the film is not antisemitic. Another says it is, but only as much as the Gospels are themselves. Actually, no, another counters; it’s not antisemitism Gibson is guilty of, but anti-Judaism. Not quite right, another says. Laying down the trump card of academic doubletalk, Claremont McKenna biblical scholar Gary Gilbert explains that “The Passion of the Christ” “is not antisemitic; rather it is antisemitic.”

Of course, it’s not entirely fair to separate any of these appraisals from the arguments that support them. (Gilbert’s case, though strangely stated, is actually convincing.) Yet the variety and nuance of such responses to what for many was the all-important question concerning the film do provide a glimpse at the sort of book this is. If you’re looking for a simple answer, or for the consensus opinion of the experts, you won’t find it here.

All of which makes the image that repeatedly punctuates these essays something of an ironic icon. Though the assembled scholars do provide useful details on the nuts and bolts of the crucifixion and on the contexts in which occurred, and though differences of interpretation of those contexts abound, they would agree that answering the questions raised by “The Passion of the Christ” is not nearly as simple as finding out who pounded the nails.

Peter Manseau is co-author of “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible” (Free Press, 2004).


After ‘The Passion’ Is Gone: American Religious Consequences

Edited by J. Shawn Landres and Michael Berenbaum

AltaMira Press, 368 pages, $24.95.

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