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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."

Norm, who loves Gibson's "Mad Max" movies, though "I suspect this will be different," religiously attends synagogue, and tells me his son was scandalized that he would come to see this movie. But Norm was tired of talk-show gasbags telling him what he should think. He came here like he occasionally goes to Christian churches on safari, not to have meaningful religious experiences outside his own faith tradition, but "just to know."

We watch "The Passion" together, as Jesus gets slapped and beaten and scourged until his body is transformed from solid to liquid, with loose bunches of skin hanging as if from a reptile trying to molt. We watch His mother, of Hail Mary/lawn statue fame, become a flesh-and-blood mother, unable to help her helpless boy, who's being tortured, as she's tortured herself by the knowledge that He's not helpless at all, that His death is by choice. Norm Linsky and I sit there in the dark, our senses overwhelmed at the sheer viciousness and brutality, and watch Jesus die for our sins. Or, as Norm would probably prefer, we watch Jesus die for my sins.

When the lights come up, I'm pretty much speechless. Norm isn't. "Whoa! Mel did a good job, glad I saw it for myself." The depiction of the Jewish priests, he says, is "no big deal"--even though he thinks they looked like they were from "a bad dinner-theater production of the 'Merchant of Venice'" (the Romans came off as Nazi caricatures from a World War II movie, he adds). Norm whispers that he has a prediction: "There's not gonna be any rioting in the streets tonight. Get a life, people, it's just a movie. And a good one." Norm's glad he came, he says, because this has people "talking about some core issues about belief." It has him talking "to the church ladies out in line," and "a fine reporter from a fine magazine, as opposed to me going to a mindless movie where people are blowing stuff up for the hell of it."

Norm's right, sort of. We stick around for a theater-sponsored interfaith panel discussion between clergy. It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: A Lutheran, a Catholic, two Baptists, and a rabbi walk into a movie theater. . . . The panel is moderated by Rev. Clark Lobenstine, a Presbyterian minister from the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, who specializes in endeavors like "interfaith dialoguing" and "fostering mutual understanding." Lobenstine is ideal for the job. He is timid and inoffensive and wears his sensitivity credentials proudly, as evidenced by his canvas, public-television-pledge-drive tote bag (he's a presidential club member).

He intones that in 25 years of dialogues, this is the most difficult thing he's done, which would seem odd, since Christ's crucifixion, historically speaking, is a cow that's been out of the stable for a good 2,000 years. The rabbi, feeling slightly outnumbered at one point, offers that the New Testament gives his ilk "the willies," but the rest of the panel takes care not to throw theological elbows or, for the most part, discuss Jesus very much at all (the Baptists, being Baptists, try to sneak in a few J-bombs and salvation themes, but without much vigor).

If the clergy seem to prefer their religion toothless, the audience bares its fangs. While I'd hoped people would discuss the implications of what Christ's death on the cross meant or didn't mean to them, most just want to elbow Him aside and climb up on the cross themselves. One grievance group after another airs its concerns. A Lutheran minister thinks the Romans got shafted in the picture, and an elderly woman who worked with concentration camp survivors reads from her speech decrying the film as anti-Semitic, one she'd obviously written before she'd even seen it. A female Disciple of Christ minister in a zebra-skin kufi wanted to know why there weren't more faiths represented on the panel to drive home the "message of the multicultural church, praise God!" and why Simon of Cyrene wasn't portrayed by an African. Sitting there listening, I was unsure if we'd just watched "The Passion" or "Rashomon."

The only real interfaith dialogue I hear all night occurs between me and Norm Linsky. We clearly communicate an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless, which brings us to mutual understanding (Lobenstine would be proud). Norm understands that I believe that Messiah-wise, he is waiting for a train that has already left the station. And that when the Messiah comes round again, it's not going to be to conduct nerf-bat interfaith dialogues. I understand that Norm believes that I believe in Santa Claus, albeit, one with nail-prints in His hands.

"We will always disagree," I say. "Agreed," he agrees. There is no enmity in this dawning. Just an understanding of sorts, to be agreeable in our disagreement, without apology that what we profess as mattering most to us, actually should. And Norm understands, I think, that despite his rejection of that which I find most sacred, I will love him anyway, or at least like him a lot since we just met, because the God I hold sacred commanded me to, and because it's easy in Norm's case, since he offered me popcorn, even though I was all set with my Bible Bar.

On the way out, I play the part of the dutiful evangelical anyway, and ask Norm if, after watching the movie, he has any desire to switch teams. He smiles, and claps me on the shoulder while handing me a card. "I think I'm sticking with the senior circuit," he says, nodding at the curtained screen, "but I have new respect for the junior circuit."

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.