The Magazine

Popcorn and Passion

From the March 8, 2004 issue: In which two moviegoers conduct their own interfaith dialogue.

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By MATT LABASH
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AT LAST WEEK'S OPENING OF Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," I never expected actually to see Jesus. Yet there he was, carnival-barking on the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk outside the Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C. He stood out in his long brown hair and tunic. "Blessed are the merciful--go vegetarian!" he cried. But something wasn't right. It might have been the disciple carrying the "For Christ's sake, go veg" sign. Or maybe it was the mouth-hole on his beard riding up over his nose that gave him away as a PETA impostor. "Are you having trouble there?" I asked, motioning to his beard-wig. "I am," he said, "but not as much trouble as the animals."

One could hardly fault Fake Jesus for exploiting "The Passion"--he's merely the latest in a long line. Observing their 11th Commandment--Thou Shalt Not Waste a Marketing Tie-in--Christian merchandisers have cranked out everything from Bibles with the cinematic Jesus, James Caviezel, on the cover, to pewter nail pendants. The going joke among secular editorialists is what's next, Jesus action figures? But seasoned evangelicals like me know that those are old news. You can already get them at jesuschristsuperstore.net, including one that comes with "Ninja-Messiah throwing nails" and a "killer-cross" pump-action shotgun.

Across the interfaith aisle, Jewish groups have been shameless in their own way. For the better part of a year, everyone from the Anti-Defamation League to the Simon Wiesenthal Center has cast anti-Semitic aspersions on Gibson. Exercised over Gibson's depiction of the Jewish high priests in his mostly faithful rendering of the four gospels, most of them have done so before seeing the film. In both the gospels and Gibson's depiction, the priests are the catalysts behind Jesus' crucifixion, even though the ambivalent and wormy Roman procurator Pontius Pilate actually puts Him to death. Gibson's critics claim that the Jews will again be blamed for deicide, which has historically led to violence. The ADL's Abe Foxman has said, hyperbolically, that Gibson's telling of Christianity's central narrative is a "setback to more than 40 years of Jewish-Christian relations."

Gibson has responded that these critics don't have a problem with his film, so much as with the book it was adapted from. The narrative necessarily implicates Jews and Romans, since there weren't many Norwegians around at the time. But plenty of Jews come off well--Jesus and Mary for instance. Gibson has also infused his film with secondary sympathetic Jewish portraits, by turning into minor heroes characters such as Simon of Cyrene, who was enlisted to help Jesus carry the cross, but who didn't rate a speaking part in the gospels. And thoughtful Christians have pointed out that it is heresy to assign blame for who crucified Christ, since we all did, which was the entire point of His willing, redemptive sacrifice. (Gibson drives this home by depicting his own hand pounding the spikes into Jesus'.)

But there are other important concerns in the Avalon Theatre on opening night, such as what to eat? Attending what is perhaps the most violent non-snuff film ever made, it seems inappropriate to down a greasy tub of popcorn while watching our Lord and Savior get tortured for two hours. (When I voiced this concern, a colleague slipped me a "Bible Bar," which contains "the seven foods of Deuteronomy," such as figs and pomegranates.) When I buy a Diet Coke, the concessions girl tells me business is way down for the aforementioned reason. But it doesn't bother Norm Linsky, happily munching popcorn in the lobby. "A movie without popcorn is not a movie," Linsky says, unapologetically.

I shake Linsky's hand, and introduce myself. "I'm a journalist," I say. "I'm a Jew," he responds, mentioning that he's also executive director of a cardiologists' association. We take our seats together, and fall into an easy rapport. Linsky seems to be enjoying the sound and fury. Outside, in line, he tells me, he conversed with a "group of church ladies" with Ash-Wednesday smudges on their foreheads, who were talking about PETA Jesus. He told them it made him want a cheeseburger. "Yeah, with mushrooms," they said. They didn't know he was Jewish ("don't ask, don't tell," he says), but they were saying "very kind, lovely things" like, "We don't blame the Jews." We talk about how the theater had received a phone threat--purportedly from an angry Jewish guy who was outraged that the theater's Jewish manager chose to show "The Passion." In the back of the theater, two cops are present, perhaps to make sure the Jews and Christians don't turn into the Jets and Sharks, what with all the talk of anti-Semitic overtones, or perhaps just to guard against the phone bully. "Don't worry," offers Norm, in the event of a Jewish uprising. "You're with me. You'll be okay."