I haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie yet, and I won’t review anything before I see it. Whether a review is the right format for commentary on a work like this is not obvious, however, since the debate about the movie is not about how well a director handled a theme or an actor realized a character but about the ethical validity, political effects, and public health implications of putting out a modern Obergammau Passion play. Anything can be done well or badly. Some bodice rippers handle the conventions of the genre with panache, others just don’t stir the juices of middle-aged ladies. There are well conducted bull fights and bad ones, well filmed fisting scenes in pornos and others that just don’t come off, more or less believable snuff movies. Apparently, to take the word of many people who have seen the movie, Gibson produced something that works on its own terms. The issue is precisely the terms.
One thing is clear. Gibson is hardly breaking new ground. Christians have been working themselves into a state of morbid excitement over the wounds of Christ for a couple of thousand years now. The pleasure the faithful draw from this spiritual self-abuse is one of the engines of the religion, just as the Shiites gain energy by flagellating themselves every year in memory of the martyred Ali. It would be an error, therefore, to accuse Gibson of perverting the meaning of the Gospels since he isn’t introducing any novelties. What’s wrong with the movie is also wrong with Christianity, though obviously there is a lot more to Christianity than a sadomasochistic obsession with the Cross.