Jul 17, 2010

The Faith of Mel Gibson

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Newsweek religion writer Gustav Niebuhr is wondering how to reconcile Mel Gibson's recorded outbursts of violent misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism with his religious fervor and devout Catholicism. To which I say, really? You have to ask?

The man belongs to a church that has for decades gaffed off the seriousness of physical and sexual abuse of children. Now that the Vatican has finally begun to focus its attention on the matter, it has simultaneously affirmed its longstanding position that women are second-class citizens. So we should be surprised that Mel Gibson was recorded saying his girlfriend deserved to be hit in the face while she was holding their infant daughter?

The Catholic Church also has a rather poor record when it comes to Jewish relations. Little things like the Inquisition and its ambivalent and anemic response to the Nazi Holocaust come to mind. Relations between the Vatican and Jews are notoriously strained which has required special outreach from both the current and previous pope. And some of Pope Benedict's recent moves like reviving the prayer to "remove the veil" from the hearts of Jews and convert them to Christianity have not gone over particularly well.

Then, of course, there are trifles like centuries of blaming the Jews for killing Jesus, although the Vatican was kind enough to grant Jews absolution for that heinous crime in 1965.

There can be little argument that Gibson is somewhat fixated on the Crucifixion itself. He even made a movie about it; a sort of Christian themed splatter film. Niebuhr even references the film and notes that it caused a stir.

Who can forget that Gibson, product and practitioner of a very traditionalist Roman Catholicism, stands only six years removed from making the most lucrative "Jesus movie" of all time? His "The Passion of the Christ" brutally re-imagined Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion. Many evangelical Protestants, among others, embraced the film, some seeing it as a proselytizing tool capable of winning new faithful. And Gibson, as marketer, surely benefited from a high-profile curiosity factor: Months before its opening, some American Catholics and Jewish organizations worried the film carried anti-Semitic overtones. (For the record, I disliked the film--strongly.) In the end, Gibson and his movie seemed to carry the day. Some critics wrote favorably; the American box office surpassed $300 million.

A scant two paragraphs later Niebuhr is still puzzled.

Indiscretions and worse often color the lives of Hollywood celebrities. But how many become notorious after making a globally-distributed testimony to their religious faith? O.K., the latest material is mainly allegations. But as it's presented in the news, the Gibson story eschews the typical conversion narrative, where the messy behavior comes first.

To this I can only say, back up and read what you just wrote. Many people had difficulty with the anti-Semitism in the movie itself. And many drew the obvious conclusion when Gibson threw his drunken, Jew-baiting, temper tantrum in the police station. His anti-Semitism isn't at odds with his faith-inspired art. It's of a piece with it.

Mel Gibson is a Catholic Traditionalist and his extreme views most likely echo those of his father, Hutton.

How influential is this Traditionalist movement, and what might it do with a multi-million-dollar war chest from Gibson? The publicity surrounding The Passion has fed all sorts rumours - particularly of an anti-semitic nature. Much of this has been provoked by the increasingly bizarre public comments of Gibson's 85-year-old father, Hutton. Gibson senior is a self-confessed anti-semite and Holocaust denier. In one recent radio interview, he claimed there were no Nazi extermination camps: "They [the Jews] simply got up and left! They were all over the Bronx and Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia, and Los Angeles."

He went on to claim: "They're after one world religion and one world government. That's why they've attacked the Catholic Church so strongly, to ultimately take control over it by their doctrine."

Gibson senior belongs to the extreme fringe of the Catholic Traditionalist movement which has gone so far as claiming that the Church in Rome has been taken over by a weird coalition of Jews and Freemasons acting for Satan. However such conspiracy theories are not representative of the Traditionalist movement as a whole.

It's break-away Traditionalists like Hutton Gibson that Pope Benedict hoped to appease by bringing back antiquated liturgy like the prayer for Jew's souls above.

But the Christ-killer meme isn't specific to Traditionalists or even to the Catholic Church. As Slate points out, it's actually Biblical.

There is a strong possibility that the Bible itself, in effect, distorted the history of the "Jewish" role. In other words, the argument from Mel Gibson and his defenders that his movie can't possibly be insensitive because it is based on the Bible ignores the probability that the New Testament itself may have offered inaccurate history.

This is, of course, a sensitive topic, too. For those who believe the Bible was not only inspired, but also fact-checked by God, the document is simply true. The debates of Bible scholars are just noise to them.

But the evidence is compelling that the New Testament either gave "the Jews" a bum rap or, at minimum, was written in a way that left it highly susceptible to misuse. If, as most scholars believe, Mark is the source for Matthew and Luke, the authors of those later Gospels sure seemed to add a lot of new, incriminating detail mysteriously missing from Mark, fueling the notion of Jews as Christ-killers.

Gibson's "messy behavior" isn't a regression from his "conversion." It's more likely an escalation of religion infused pathology that has been evident for some time. His religious views seem to be an organizing feature of his rage. In one of his tirades against girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, he specifically invokes her spiritual failings and those of his soon to be ex-wife.

"You have no fucking soul. And my soul is screaming because you don't have one to join mine!" he screams. "I left my wife because we had no spiritual common ground. You and I have none. Zero. You don't even f*cking try!"

Gibson's mega-hit "The Passion of the Christ" marked no Saul on the road to Damascus epiphany. It's gang-busters box-office does not signify redemption. Niebuhr seems to see only the best in religion and its ability to lift people out of their shadowy history. But religion itself has a dark side and the history of the Catholic Church is replete with shameful episodes -- not the least of which is ongoing and has been dominating the news. I'm sure his religious background is not the only reason for Gibson's fall from grace but it certainly hasn't been a deterrent.

Addendum: I am aware that Gibson's lawyers are claiming Grigorieva's tapes were edited. To paraphrase my husband, unless the missing bits make clear that he was running lines for an upcoming film role as a racist spousal abuser, I don't see how that changes anything. There is no conceivable context in which his verbal abuse and death threats are acceptable.

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