Mel Gibson and the Demise Of Enlightened Skepticism

By Bernard Avishai

Published October 08, 2004, issue of October 08, 2004.
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Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was out on video last week, and I still haven’t seen it. I probably never will, and judging by the surge in its worldwide box office receipts, I may prove to be the only such soul on God’s good earth. This is not a boycott. It’s just that as a 10-year-old boy in Montreal — a pupil at Talmud Torah school, the neon cross on top of St. Joseph’s Oratory visible from my bedroom window — I spent many fitful nights trying to efface “Ben-Hur’s” Technicolor scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion from my dreamscape: the clotting blood, the spine-bending Oriental music, the thunder answering the noble death — the recurring thought, terrible in its double meaning: “He’s come for you.” I figure, even half a century later, that one ought not to trifle with a neurotic twinge. And living a good part of my life just now in the German Colony, of all places, a short ride from Calvary on a Jerusalem bus, I get to fantasize about pierced flesh pretty regularly.

Nevertheless, I’ve read dozens of responses to the film over the past few months — some unusually eloquent — and feel a little sore that something obvious has not been asked about Gibson’s (and, arguably, the Gospels’) passion play, something I would have expected people living in democratic societies to have asked rather insistently. It is not whether Jews are right to be affronted, or whether ancient Judean priests and mobs were responsible for Jesus’ unspeakable torture, or whether the Catholic Church has nevertheless exonerated “the Jews” (even if Gibson’s father won’t). The question is whether a community’s refusal to accept any man’s claim of divinity is to its credit. Even in retrospect, was it not right of a people — in this case, “the Jews” — to refuse as absolute any one person’s truth; right to reject miracles and manifest displays of devotion as proof that their refusal was wrong. What had Socrates been about if not this refusal? What, later, would the world of Midrash be about, or later still, the Enlightenment? What are democrats supposed to hold sacred: the good book, or the right to interpret good books?

I am not denying the allegorical power of the passion, or offended by Mr. Gibson’s wish to make a film that could help even a graduate of Talmud Torah receive Jesus’s message more sympathetically. I remember watching “The Green Pastures” on television around the time of “Ben-Hur,” in which a black “Lawd” weeps at witnessing Jesus dying. (My father had just moved out, and I thought it wonderful that a fatherly God could feel a son’s abandonment.) Indeed, who, after seeing Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal,” or Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” could doubt that the News could be Good, or that loving one’s neighbor has not gotten any easier? Nor am I speaking here (only) as a Jew. I went back and read Gibson’s much-quoted interview in the February 22 New York Times — the one in which he whispered: “It’s true that, as the Bible says, He came unto his own and his own received him not,” a sentence that so many Jews understandably resented. I like to think that the comma between “It’s true that” and “as the Bible says” would have put virtually all Americans off even before we finished the sentence. It almost certainly would have caught the attention of Voltaire, or John Stuart Mill, or Achad Ha’am or the Pythons, for that matter. But how many Americans even noticed it? Did it even catch the attention of most American Jews?

A friend of mine who survived the camps, the late-novelist Ilona Karmel, once remarked: “American Jews have scars but no wounds.” What she meant, I think, is that many of us have become fixed on an apocalyptic passion play of our own, which has tipped us into various excesses. The temptation has been to assume the moral prestige of 6 million innocents (whose humanity we can only dimly see through our needs), where the Nazis are “the Romans” and the Poles are “the Jews.” In the land of Israel, we even have our own messianists — knitted scull-caps, caravans overlooking Nablus, visits from Pat Robertson — who start sentences the way Gibson does when they explain their claims to the West Bank (“Its true that, as the Bible says…”). The Chabad sign next to my Jerusalem home reads: “Messiah the King says: Conquer the territories, slaughter the terrorists.” Needless to say, a great many Muslims speak in these terms. I like to think that so many passionate shows of sacrificial devotion would have made the Jesus of the Gospels think twice about the example he was inadvertently setting.

My point is, people privileged to live in democratic societies — gentiles and Jews alike — had better wonder why they are now so bashful defending enlightened skepticism. What is the speck in Gibson’s eye as compared with the log in ours, his audience, who seem so helpless to appreciate the doubt that engenders tolerance — who seem, on the contrary, so drawn to displays of stylized “bang-bang,” the reports of guns, the pounding of nails and the Manichaean certainties these imply? Perhaps I am stretching the point. Then again, perhaps not. More than 80% of Americans now want “Creationism” taught in the public schools along with Darwin’s evolution, as if that magical story of Genesis has the same scientific standing as a provisional theory, which invites evidence to falsify it. Gibson would no doubt be happy to film Genesis (especially Cain’s clubbing of Abel). If he did, would the problem be merely his affront to “the Evolutionists”?

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