Flannery O'Connor wrote: in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar believed that beauty...will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters [truth and goodness] without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. To the Hopi is attributed the saying that the one who tells the stories will rule the world. Finally, Dostoevsky is famous for declaring, or having one of his characters declare—the one everyone else in the book called “the Idiot”—that beauty will save the world.
There are plenty of countervailing opinions to be had—Auden's equally famous poetry makes nothing happen leaps to mind; but in spite of some fifty-odd years of discouraging experience to the contrary, I hold with the novelist, the theologian, the Hopi, and the Idiot: the Arts, especially the storytelling arts, are more formative for a civilization than anything save Religion, to which they have traditionally been grafted; more formative even than Politics and Economics, those often dismal and usurpacious preoccupations which some would have us believe the source and summit of social existence.
Will Antisemitism prove to be La-La-Land's only unforgivable sin?
So when I pray for the larger world outside the confines of my comfortable hobbit hole, I invariably say a few first for writers and artists, musicians and above all filmmakers, the primo storytellers of our time. Right now I'm praying for Mel Gibson.
A lifelong interest in both storytelling and the the Holocaust (and therefore Antisemitism) has spurred me, these last three years, to follow closely the curious and often outrageous developments in The Passion of the Christ controversy, of which last summer's “Mad Mel” incident is surely but an installment, probably not the last. With that in mind, it may be understood why, after reading almost every piece published on The Passion since January 2004, and writing about it myself in this and other venues, there's one thing that's absolutely clear to me: what we're all fussing about is not ultimately whether Mel Columcille Gibson is an Antisemite; it's whether anyone who believes, like Mel, that Jesus the Messiah was killed in the manner described in the Gospels can be anything other than an Antisemite.
The opinions which some leading formers of public opinion expressed on the subject did not encourage me in 2004, and that Mel himself has again, in 2006, given these folks ammunition—the rhetorical equivalent of a dirty bomb on a silver platter—is both frustrating and infuriating.
I remember well the moment in late July when I first turned on the kitchen TV and learned that Gibson, in the process of being arrested on a California highway for DUI at 80 mph, had let fly with a shocking stream of Antisemitic nonsense that might have been vomited wholesale from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The first words to emerge from my own mouth on hearing this news are unprintable. The second were something to the effect of, “Mel, Mel, how could you do this to us...?”
By “us” I suppose I meant not only those of us who regarded Passion as one of the greatest religious films of all time (for my money second only to Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc), but who had also taken some active part, large or small, in the controversy—Jews and Christians, believers and skeptics, who had published articles or spoken in public forums defending Passion from charges of Antisemitism. (I had done both.) I also meant the entire community of Christian writers and artists, musicians and filmmakers, who struggle on a daily basis with colleagues who, if they like and respect you, think you an astonishing exception to the notion, commonly acknowledged among many “cultural creatives,” that Christians are a hypocritical herd of bigoted philistines, prevented from foisting Theocracy on their unsuspecting neighbors only by means of a vigilant news media and an activist Judiciary.
As a result, though Jews no doubt felt the insults on a far more personal level, I doubt many of them ached for an apology more than I did.
Crimes, Misdemeanors and Unforgivable Sins
Mel did apologize, promptly and twice, the second time with what sounded (to me) like a great deal of humiliating self-honesty; but the apologies had little impact on some of the old Heads-I-win-Tales-you-lose commentators from the first installment of the Passion controversy—the critics, bloggers and heads of semi-political nonprofits who declared with contemptuous confidence in February 2004 that Mel's ultra-violent movie in three dead languages was sure to bomb; then, when it didn't, declared in late March that Mel had contrived the whole controversy himself as a “no press is bad press” ploy to garner box office; then, in April, when millions of Christians left the theaters and didn't go out to burn synagogues, as had been darkly predicted... finally shut the hell up for two blissful years, thanks be to God.
You don't need to be a saint to produce great art, even great religious art.
—Until the brilliant but apparently grudge-carrying film director, possessing as he does the eye of Caravaggio and the tongue of a Chicago butcher, staggered into his Lexus that July night, bless him, with an open bottle of tequila in one fist and a chip on his shoulder the size of Manhattan.
Jewish Defense League chairman Abe Foxman, who led the anti-Passion charge in 2004, wasted no time to comment:
"Mel Gibson's [first] apology is unremorseful and insufficient. It's not a proper apology because it does not go to the essence of his bigotry and his Antisemitism. His tirade finally reveals his true self and shows that his protestations during the debate over his film The Passion of the Christ, that he is such a tolerant, loving person, were a sham. It may well be that the bigotry has been passed from the father to the son. It is unfortunate that it took an excess of booze and an encounter with a traffic cop to reveal what was really in his heart and mind. We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this Antisemite."
Militant secularist and War-on-Terrorism booster Christopher Hitchens, notorious among Catholics for having trashed Mother Teresa in Vanity Fair magazine between glossy ads for mink coats and diamond necklaces, had this to say in Slate: “He [Mel Gibson] is sick to his empty core with Jew-hatred.” (I didn't know Hitchens, like Padre Pio, could read souls. Can the stigmata fail to follow? Let processions come hither!)
Joan Rivers, fashion maven and moral theologian to the Stars, thought Gibson should just “f...ing die.” (As opinions fly about whether Mel will ever again be welcome at the Oscars, is anyone seriously questioning, I just have to ask, her red-carpet credentials?)
Also from Hollywood, normally so forgiving of its Bad Boys when the crimes under surveillance are sexual or pharmaceutical, came this from super-agent Ari Emanual:
"Now we know the truth. And no amount of publicist-approved contrition can paper it over. People in the entertainment community, whether Jew or gentile, need to demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him, even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line."
Was this much moral indignation exhibited when director Roman Polanski fled the U.S. to escape charges of drugging a teenaged girl in order to have sex with her? It didn't prevent his going on to make critically acclaimed films, and even garnering an Oscar for The Pianist. So what, I wondered, might the reaction in Hollywood have been if, instead of spouting Jew-hatred in his inebriated state, Gibson had kept his mouth shut and run down an innocent bystander? Fortunately, there were calmer voices to be heard, but the question remains: will Antisemitism prove to be La-La-Land's only unforgivable sin?
Caravaggio fled Rome under a death sentence. In exile, he remained the most admired painter of this time.
Apologia pro vita sua
Mine, of course, is a Christian perspective and it wasn't Christians that Gibson insulted. Being the objects of his pathetic little diatribe, Jews will have to find their own way around the matter; but it seems to me that a few things should be considered in the process before anyone decides Gibson is beneath their contempt.
First, let's assume that somewhere deep down, Mel Gibson is, as it would appear, struggling with bitterness and anger towards Jews, perhaps because of the Passion fracas, perhaps for other reasons known only to him and God. The point is, he's struggling. If his drunken words reveal inner demons, his sober apologies reveal that he knows right from wrong, and that harboring hatred is wrong.
Which brings me to what seems a fairly obvious point, which I haven't heard mentioned thus far: Gibson is quoted many times as saying that he believes Antisemitism to be a sin. Until it was learned that he was making a movie that was sticking to the Passion story as told in the Gospels, no one, as far as I am aware, had ever accused Gibson, who'd worked closely with and among Jews in Hollywood for close to thirty years, of having ever exhibited any animus towards them. As one who has kept a fascinated eye on the history of Antisemitism for something like thirty years myself, it has always seemed to me that real Antisemites do not need to get hammered to spew their venom, nor are they horrified when others refer to them as “Antisemites,” as Gibson clearly was. Indeed, rather than apologize for making what Gibson himself described as “vile” and “despicable” statements about Jews, an Antisemite will spend as many hours as a listener will give him, in perfect sobriety, unpacking all the “facts” at his disposal as to why a belief in Jewish villainy is the only reasonable interpretation to be put upon a close observation of the course of human events.
No. Where I sit, a man who knows that it is a sin to blame all the wars in the world on the “f---ing Jews,” and yet succumbs to the temptation to rant thusly whilst three sheets (and a mainsail) to the wind, is not necessarily a secret racist, but is certainly a very public sinner.
Moreover, it strikes me as peculiar that the more our permissive society eschews dogma and abandons the very concept of sin, the more it invents (often with Hollywood serving as Inquisitor-in-Chief) new heresies and unforgivable sins. And here is a paradox: after blowing several hours on the Internet recently, I found a fair amount of support among Antisemites and wannabe Aryans for Gibson's drunken words. No question, for these people the Jews are responsible for all the wars of the world. Or if not them—I'm serious now—the “Jewsuits” (Jesuits) who control, like puppeteers, the leaders of the Zionist Occupational Government. But what these folks won't forgive Mel for (besides filming a Jewish Jesus pitted against an “Aryan” Satan) was apologizing to Jews, something no self-respecting Antisemite would ever do. One such blogger even caricatured the director as “Mel Gibstein.” Poor man can't win.
In vino veritas?
Much has been made of the old Roman adage, in vino veritas—the notion that whatever decent things a man might say or do when sober, his true feelings were revealed under the influence, to be judged accordingly.
I've known a couple of Jekyll-and-Hyde drunks in my life, so I question the accuracy of this in vino veritas business, at least with a certain type of alcoholic. Does booze, especially for an alcoholic, bring out one's “true” feelings and opinions; who one really is? Or does it bring out, especially in an alcoholic, one’s worst and deepest temptations? Either way, before any of us Puritans, religious or secular, demands that our latest Hester Prynne wear the big red “A”, let us each take a moment to call to mind, if we dare, the worst things we've ever said—those foul and loathsome words, let fly in under the influency of rum or rage, which no one save our lawyers or confessors—or spouses—knows about; and which we ourselves do not believe thirty seconds afterwards. I don't know about you, Gentle Reader, but I could probably come up with a moment or two to match Mad Mel's meltdown. (Let him who cannot, consult his physician immediately for signs of creeping Alzheimer's.)
Gibson is creating cinematic artistry glorifying family life, courage, small-is-beautiful resistance to imperialism, and, oh yeah, Jesus Christ.
Having dredged up these old beauties, let us then consider the justice of having these episodes recorded by a cameraphone, or quoted in a police blotter, and broadcast by way of YouTube or CNN to several billion people around the world. As Mel put it to Diane Sawyer, it would be “public humiliation on a global scale.” Where I sit, that's worth at least a year or two off Purgatory.
Dr. Bowdler redivivus
Tribalism and xenophobia have been the bane of every human society since the Fall. It is an apparently universal temptation whenever some “Other” is present in a group, and Jews as “Others” have been, by reason of their unprecedented survival, an often despised minority presence in the western world for thousands of years. Indeed, Antisemitism has been so common, and the philosophy/theology to combat it so slow in developing, that one would be hard put until this century to find many, even among the great thinkers and artists of their day, who weren't Antisemites by any current definition of the word.
A newfound sensitivity to racial, religious, class, and gender prejudices has been on the whole a healthy development in recent decades; one that can, properly applied, help free society of a lot of nonsense, and form consciences to better fulfill Jesus' commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But in their anxiety to expunge the various Nasty-isms from our culture, a few ideologues have gone so far as to suggest that we cease to teach Huckleberry Finn, Oliver Twist or To Kill a Mockingbird in schools, or perform Wagner or Merchant of Venice, lest somebody somewhere be offended. Siding with Indiana Jones' dad, who advised the goose-stepping morons in Last Crusade that they should read books instead of burning them, I would argue that Bowdlerizing the Nasty-isms from art and literature would be a process which, once begun would have no end: Out the window would go huge chunks of the Western Canon, from Celine to Chaucer, to Chesterton, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Eliot, Gogol, Hemingway, Lawrence, Marlowe, Twain, Waugh, Wilde and even Woolf, who was married to a Jew, but couldn't resist the occasional jab in print.
And using the Mel Mess as our guide, should we go beyond offending works of art and start boycotting the inoffensive works of offending artists? If so, I doubt Mel's icky little “sugar tits” can compare to the misogynist abuse endured by Picasso's women, or Hemingway's, or Byron's. Two (or was it three?) of angelic Shelley's women committed suicide, so shall I declare that his masterpiece Ozymandias can have nothing to say to me?
Mind you, I am not in the least troubled by moviegoers, Jewish or otherwise, who simply cannot stand Mel Gibson and who cannot bring themselves to see another of his movies. (I confess I can't abide Wagner.) Actions have consequences, and Mel's are reaping some appropriate ambivalence, to put it mildly. Moreover, though by all accounts the man is warm, generous, funny, and very easy to like on the personal level, he's as clumsy as Curly Joe when it comes to answering hard questions; get him in front of a camera with any interviewer who is not Raymond Arroyo and he is likely to come across as hyper-defensive, testy, and evasive. Maybe his agent and publicist should propose he find some expert to coach him on a really really gracious way to say “none of your business”; or better yet, take a five-year vow of public silence.
As for me, as long as Gibson isn't making movies about the Zionist Occupational Government or the Antichrist Church of Newrome, I will be in his audience. The first weekend. This isn't some Leni Riefenstahl we're talking about here. This man isn't making pathbreaking films of cinematic artistry glorifying the Nuremberg rallies and the Thousand Year Reich; this man is making pathbreaking films of cinematic artistry glorifying family life, courage, small-is-beautiful resistance to imperialism, and, oh yeah, Jesus Christ. So I maintain my fondness for Braveheart, my passion for The Passion of the Christ, and my head-shaking astonishment at the inventiveness of Mel's latest—that superbly under-the-radar critique of the Culture of Death disguised in the shape of a roaring, knock-your-socks-off jungle adventure, Apocalypto.
Because art is so important to a culture, and film art arguably the most influential of our time, in my heart of hearts I hope for something better than stalemate in the case of Mad Mel: a reconciliation of some sort that will prevent the development of a part trois in the Passion controversy. Like it or not, and I don't, Mel's drunken outburst is now a part of the history of The Passion of the Christ. But it does nothing if not provide Christians, including the movie's director, the opportunity of a “learning moment.”
There was a prior opportunity for this in 2004, when a few pro-Passion Churchmen and columnists (Cardinal George, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Michael Medved, among others) pointed out that while Passion was not an Antisemitic movie, Christians would be wise to consider recent Jewish history and how it is that Jews as a people have learned to be fearful over the centuries of Passion plays as fuel for Jew-hatred. Suggestions for measures to heal the breach at the time included asking Icon Productions to put a disclaimer on the film, or insert study guides in the Passion DVD, then in preparation.
Real antisemites won't forgive Mel “Gibstein” for apologizing to Jews. Poor man can't win.
I wrote at the time:
"Abraham Foxman...also made a request that some caveat about attributing guilt to all Jews be attached to the end of Passion, but Mel Gibson has thus far refused. 'That assumes there’s something wrong with my film,' Gibson said to Diane Sawyer.
I don’t see anything wrong with his movie, either. And given the “guilty till proved innocent” atmosphere of the pre-release controversy, spear-headed by Mr. Foxman, it is natural, I suppose, to return bad with not so good, and to refuse to give the slightest impression that he has bowed to pressure. I would argue however, one Christian to another, that in making this film, Gibson took on himself a work of religion—a vocation more like that of an iconographer than a moviemaker. Such privileged and perilous tasks require grace through and through, not just in the finished product. With that in mind, I hope at least that Icon Productions will go out of its way to include educational material in the DVD, which will be sold all over the world, including in countries in the Middle East that are rife with Antisemitism imported directly from Nazi sources—material that deals with the problematic history of Passion plays and of Jews being blamed as a whole for the actions of a few."
It's still not too late. In fact, perhaps the time was never better for a new special edition DVD of The Passion of the Christ.
A final comment: If history teaches us anything, it's that you don't need to be a saint to produce great art, even great religious art. Fra Angelico has few companions in the “artist and saint” category. But when so much is in dispute on a cultural level, it would be really nice, for a change, if more Christian artists were good artists, and more good artists were Christian, and acted like it.
As for Mel, from the first few moments of Passion, his cinematic vision has reminded me over and over again of the Renaissance master Caravaggio, not only in his use of man-in-the-street faces to people his epic scenes, shot in violent, hyper-realistic chiaroscuro, but also in his contradictory, eruptive temperament.
Mel Gibson, let us remember, was known by his schoolmates as “Mad Mel” long before his big break as Mad Max; and he got his big break as Mad Max because he showed up at the audition, the morning after a nasty Sydney bar brawl, looking like...Mad Max after a nasty Sydney bar brawl. In the Rome of Caravaggio, who painted altarpieces by day and got arrested by night for verbally abusing policemen—is there anything new under the sun?— the street brawling was done with daggers and swords. One such pointed dispute led to a man's death, and Caravaggio fled Rome under a death sentence. In exile, he remained the most admired painter of this time, and his work acquired a new humility and flavor of penitence...but he died destitute on his way back to Rome in 1610.
So far, Apocalypto box office looks very good, and exile appears nowhere on the horizon, even in Puritan Hollywood. But I'm still praying for Mel anyway. A lot.