Saturday, December 18, 2004

2004: The Year of 'The Passion'

2004: The Year of 'The Passion'

Will it be the Jews' fault if "The Passion of the Christ," ignored by the Golden Globes this week, comes up empty in the Oscar nominations next month? Why, of course.

"Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, explained in a colloquy on the subject recently convened by Pat Buchanan on MSNBC. "It's not a secret, O.K.?" Mr. Donohue continued. "And I'm not afraid to say it. That's why they hate this movie. It's about Jesus Christ, and it's about truth." After the show's token (and conservative) Jewish panelist, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, pointed out that "Michael Moore is certainly not a Jew" and that Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas are not "Jewish names," Mr. Donohue responded: "I like Harvey Weinstein. How's that? Harvey Weinstein is my friend."

How's that? Not quite good enough. Surely Mr. Donohue knows that decorum in these situations requires that he cite a Jew as one of his "best friends," not merely a friend. For shame.

As we close the books on 2004, and not a moment too soon, it's clear that, as far as the culture goes, this year belonged to Mel Gibson's mammoth hit. Its prurient and interminable wallow in the Crucifixion, to the point where Jesus' actual teachings become mere passing footnotes to the sumptuously depicted mutilation of his flesh, is as representative of our time as "Godspell" was of terminal-stage hippiedom 30 years ago. The Gibson conflation of religion with violence reflects the universal order of the day -- whether the verbal fisticuffs of the culture war within America, as exemplified by Mr. Donohue's rant on national television or, far more lethally, the savagery of the actual war that radical Islam brought to our doorstep on 9/11.

"The Passion" is a one-size-fits-all touchstone, it seems. It didn't just excite and anger a lot of moviegoers in our own country but also broke box-office records abroad, including in the Middle East. Most Arab governments censor films that depict prophets (Jesus included), even banning recent benign Hollywood products like the Jim Carrey vehicle "Bruce Almighty" and the animated musical "Prince of Egypt." But an exception was made for Mr. Gibson's blood fest nearly everywhere. It was seen in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Among the satisfied customers last spring was Yasser Arafat, who called the film "moving and historical" -- a thumb's up that has not, to my knowledge, yet surfaced in the film's low-key Oscar campaign.

Arafat's animus was clear enough; an aide said at the time that he likened Jesus' suffering, as depicted in "The Passion," to that of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel. Our domestic culture war over religion is not so easily explained.

You'd think peace might reign in a nation where there is so much unanimity of faith. In Newsweek's "Birth of Jesus" holiday cover article -- not to be confused with Time's competing "Secrets of the Nativity" cover -- a poll found that 84 percent of American adults call themselves Christian, 82 percent see Jesus as the son of God, and 79 percent believe in the Virgin Birth. Though by a far slimmer margin, the presidential election reinstalled a chief executive who ostentatiously invokes a Christian Almighty. As for "The Passion of the Christ," it achieved the monetary landslide of a $370 million domestic gross (second only to the cartoon saviors Shrek and Spider-Man).

Yet if you watch the news and listen to certain politicians, especially since Election Day, you'll hear an ever-growing drumbeat that Christianity is under siege in America. Like Mr. Gibson, the international movie star who portrayed himself as a powerless martyr to a shadowy anti-Christian conspiracy in the run-up to the release of "The Passion," his fellow travelers on the right detect a sinister plot -- of secularists, "secular Jews" and "elites" -- out to destroy the religion followed by more than four out of every five Americans.

In the latest and most bizarre twist on this theme, even Christmas is now said to be a target of the anti-Christian mob. "Are we going to abolish the word Christmas?" asked Newt Gingrich, warning that "it absolutely can happen here." Among those courageously leading the fight to save the holiday from its enemies is Bill O'Reilly, who has taken to calling the Anti-Defamation League "an extremist group" and put the threat this way: "Remember, more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest -- and has to be dealt with."

If more than 90 percent of American households celebrate Christmas, you have to wonder why the guy is whining. The only evidence of what Pat Buchanan has called Christmas-season "hate crimes against Christianity" consists of a few ridiculous and isolated incidents, like the banishment of a religious float from a parade in Denver and of religious songs from a high school band concert in New Jersey. (In scale, this is nothing compared with the refusal of the world's largest retailer, WalMart, to stock George Carlin's new best seller, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?," whose cover depicts its author at the Last Supper.) Yet the hysteria is being pumped up daily by Fox News, newspapers like The New York Post and The Washington Times, and Web sites like Mr. O'Reilly and Jerry Falwell have gone so far as to name Michael Bloomberg an anti-Christmas conspirator because the mayor referred to the Christmas tree as a "holiday tree" in the lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.

What is this about? How can those in this country's overwhelming religious majority maintain that they are victims in a fiery battle with forces of darkness? It is certainly not about actual victimization. Christmas is as pervasive as it has ever been in America, where it wasn't even declared a federal holiday until after the Civil War. What's really going on here is yet another example of a post-Election-Day winner-takes-all power grab by the "moral values" brigade. As Mr. Gibson shrewdly contrived his own crucifixion all the way to the bank, trumping up nonexistent threats to his movie to hype it, so the creation of imagined enemies and exaggerated threats to Christianity by "moral values" mongers of the right has its own secular purpose. The idea is to intimidate and marginalize anyone who objects to their efforts to impose the most conservative of Christian dogma on public policy. If you're against their views, you don't have a differing opinion -- you're anti-Christian (even if you are a Christian).

The power of this minority within the Christian majority comes from its exaggerated claims on the Bush election victory. It is enhanced further by a news culture, especially on television, that gives the Mel Gibson wing of Christianity more say than other Christian voices and that usually ignores minority religions altogether. This is not just a Fox phenomenon. Something is off when NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week," mainstream TV shows both, invite religious leaders to discuss "values" in the aftermath of the election and limit that discussion to all-male panels composed exclusively of either evangelical ministers or politicians with pseudo-spiritual credentials. Does Mr. Falwell, who after 9/11 blamed Al Qaeda's attack partly on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians," speak for any sizable group of American Christians? Does the Rev. Al Sharpton, booked on TV as a "balance" to Mr. Falwell, do so either? Mr. Sharpton doesn't even have a congregation; like Mr. Falwell, he is a politician first, a religious leader second (or maybe fourth or fifth).

Gary Bauer and James Dobson are also secular political figures, not religious leaders, yet they are more frequently called upon to play them on television than actual clergy are. "It's theological correctness," says the Rev. Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister who directs a national interfaith group, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, and is one of the rare progressive religious voices to get any TV time. She detects an overall "understanding" in the media that religion "is one voice -- fundamentalist." That understanding may have little to do with the beliefs of television news producers -- or even the beliefs of fundamentalists themselves -- and more to do with the raw, secular political power that the press has attributed to "values" crusaders since the election. "There is the belief that the conservative view won, and the media are more interested in winners," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Even more important than inflated notions of the fundamentalists' power may be their entertainment value. As Ms. Kissling points out, the 50 million Americans who belong to progressive religious organizations are rarely represented on television because "progressive religious leaders are so tolerant that they don't make good TV." The Rev. Bob Chase of the United Church of Christ agrees: "We're not exciting guests." His church's recent ad trumpeting its inclusion of gay couples was rejected by the same networks that routinely give a forum to the far more dramatic anti-gay views of Mr. Falwell. Ms. Kissling laments that contemporary progressive Christians lack an intellectual star to rival Reinhold Niebuhr or William Sloane Coffin, but adds that today "Jesus Christ would have a tough time getting covered by TV if he didn't get arrested."

This paradigm is everywhere in our news culture. When Jon Stewart went on CNN's "Crossfire" to demand that its hosts stop "hurting America" by turning news and political debate into a form of pro wrestling, it may have sounded a bit hyperbolic. "Crossfire" is an aging show that few watch. But his broader point holds up: it's all crossfire now. In the electronic news sphere where most Americans live much of the time, anyone who refuses to engage in combat is quickly sent packing as a bore.

Toss the issue of religion into that 24/7 wrestling match, as into any conflict in human history, and the incendiary possibilities are limitless. When even phenomena as innocuous as Oscar nominations or the lighting of a Christmas tree can be inflated into divisive religious warfare, it's only a matter of time before someone uncovers an anti-Christian plot in "White Christmas." It avoids any mention of religion and it was, as William Donohue might be the first to point out, written by a secular Jew.

From The New York Times, December 16, 2004


Editor's note:

It should also be pointed out that the most famous Christmas songs were written by Jews, so perhaps these non-compassionate right wing nuts who clearly do not follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, should start preaching that everyone must immediately stop singing almost every popular Christmas song, and make the radio stations stop playing them and the performers in theaters and on Television stop performing them and recording them and selling millions of Christmas CDs and DVDs. That would eliminate almost all the Christmas songs, eliminate almost all of the Christmas shows, eliminate all the Christmas shopping commercials.

Hey! Wait a minute. Christmas is, after all, synonymous with stores doing everything they can to remove your hard-earned money from your wallet! Eliminating all the Christmas commercials, overplayed Christmas songs, and such might actually stop all the hype. Then Christmas will stop being an in-your-face commecialized event, and once again be the religious and personal day it is supposed to be for Christians. What a concept!