Return of the Passion story: Hey, it was a movie

gibson_passionRelax. I don’t think this wave of “Passion” coverage is going to be anywhere near the size of the last one. Just a few ripples.

Nevertheless, the upcoming release of the DVD of Mel Gibson’s bloody epic — gosh, it brings back memories to type those words again — seems to be inspiring some second looks at the issues raised during that media storm. There are few conclusions, but Roy Rivenburg of the Los Angeles Times recently rounded up some of the usual suspects for a much-needed post-Passion feature called “The Furor, the Fizzle.” The Dallas Morning News also did a short story on this topic.

And here’s the news. Very few people made professions of faith in Jesus at their local theaters. The nation’s synagogues appear to be surviving. Oh, and future evangelical churches may have crosses on top of their steeples as well as plasma screens in the front of their sanctuaries (make that “worship spaces”).

Out on the left coast, some Hollywood insiders think it may be a good thing to make a few more movies that sell tickets to millions of believers. And there may even be a few more highly artistic movies that are drenched in traditional Christian imagery — if Gibson uses some of his windfall to make them. And one more thing. Rivenburg noted that: “Actor Caviezel, who starred as Jesus, encountered another kind of audience reaction. … During a recent trip to Mexico, villagers asked him to perform miracles.”

However, some critics still believe that there may be trouble ahead — which means more press coverage. But did the film have any negative impact? The numbers appear to be mixed or vague or even pro-Gibson.

A poll taken after the film’s release indicated the movie had spurred an uptick in anti-Jewish attitudes. The Pew Trusts survey found that 26% of Americans believed Jews were responsible for Christ’s death, up from 19% in a 1997 ABC News poll.

However, an ADL poll done just before the movie’s debut reported the same numbers. And other post-movie surveys suggest a decrease in anti-Semitic beliefs.

But Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman is worried about the impact of that DVD.

“Ask me a year down the road,” Foxman says, noting that the movie will be out on DVD Aug. 31 and will be used by churches on youth retreats. “People who saw it in theaters saw the movie in an atmosphere of national debate and discussion” that diluted the film’s anti-Semitic impact, he says. With the DVD, that calming influence will be gone, he adds.

Meanwhile, conservative Christians who expected viewers to be slain in the spirit by spiritual magic bullets are also having to admit that some of their lofty evangelistic predictions may have been premature. But wait! Perhaps the DVD format is better for showing the film to lost friends in private and then quietly discussing it over a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws?

Then again, perhaps it is hard for one mass-media signal to change the lives of many people who keep getting baptized — daily, multiple times — in other forms of mass media. One of the top researchers in the Protestant world suggested that, hey, this was just one movie. Maybe it takes lots of movies to shape worldviews.

According to a nationwide poll released last week by the Barna Group, a Ventura firm that researches faith trends, less than one-tenth of 1% of those who saw the film accepted Jesus as their savior because of it.

“It is rare that a single media event will radically transform how someone thinks and reacts to the world,” poll director George Barna says. ” ‘The Passion’ was well-received and stopped many people long enough to cause them to rethink some of their basic assumptions about life. But within hours, those same individuals were exposed to competing messages that began to diminish the effect of what they had seen.”

As for me, I think the biggest story that could come out of the Passion is a business story — a massive growth of Gibson’s Icon company into a full-blown studio. It should be noted that Gibson has, after the blitz of PR work he did to sell the film, returned to silent mode.

When he breaks that silence, then there will be a story to cover. Perhaps even a big story. I am sure that his critics will agree.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Rich Tatum
  • Mary

    Stay tuned. Word is out that the film will be viewed in Israel in September and that Mel Gibson “hopes” to be there.

  • Ken

    I’m no expert in polling, but if you ask me “were Jews responsible for Christ’s death”, I would probably make a smart crack like Gibson’s comment to Diane Sawyer: “there weren’t any Norwegian’s there”. If you ask me “were THE Jews responsible”, I would probably say “no” and prattle on about the leaders and how Jesus was a Jew, as were His followers and mother. So the usefulness of the cited polls would be what, exactly? Might some savvy reporter help me with that?

    You know, a lot of people (myself included) think The Passion is sort of a Mirror of Erised, in which you see not what you most want, but what you most need. For myself, it brought on a mini-conversion of sorts, the eternal consequences of which will, I suppose, be revealed in eternity. For now, you won’t find me, or anyone I know, on the roster of folks who accepted Jesus after the movie. Yet it had an impact, which won’t make the newspapers or reviews. That’s understandable.

    Some reviewers (Ebert and Roeper come to mind) “got it”, I thought, but too many settled for the anti-semitic and/or evangelical angles, then addressed the film’s artistic, historical, biblical, and theological aspects through the screen of their angle.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “And there may even be a few more highly artistic movies that are drenched in traditional Christian imagery — if Gibson uses some of his windfall to make them.”

    Not too likely, it seems that “Passion” money is going into making a film about a certain famous Celtic pagan queen.

  • Joseph Marshall

    I’ll pass this on for what it’s worth, because it seems to me to be a nice snapshot of the real interaction of Christianity and America.

    I am a Buddhist of 25 years standing. I am also a registered Democrat. And, to make some needed money, I worked the polls at the last primary election as a Democratic election judge.

    For the entire morning my fellow poll workers (nice retired folks, as it happens, well acquainted with one another, and not one of the scapegrace unemployed baby boomers such as myself) had a lively discussion of how moving and how sacred “The Passion” was.

    Of course, when I put down the Buddhist book I’d been reading to pass the empty minutes and started to go to lunch, one of the good Christian (and Republican) poll workers happened to pick it up and immediately dropped it as if it were on fire.

    Nobody bothered to ask me anything about it, and the discussion of Mel Gibson’s magnum opus stopped rather abruptly, I thought.

    Later in the afternoon, the Republican head of our team had an entertaining, and quite audible, confab with one of the voters about how the gays and the Democrats were “going too far” in San Francisco and Massachusetts.

    This is, of course, a major and well-known legal no-no in a polling place, but since, as far as I could see, nobody’s vote was in any way affected, it seemed impolite to challenge it. I did, however, follow the discussion with avid interest, keeping my eyes on the participants all the while.

    This politeness seemed to pay off. I received, at the end of the day, very hearty and explicit wishes and hopes from my peers that I wouldn’t be economically constrained to return to poll working in November.

    Thinking about it later I was struck by how many Americans, usually, but not always, Christian and, more than occasionally, Republican, give one the impression that they regard the views they hold as the only ones possible for sane and moral people.

    From the vantage point of those of us with other views, it is a habit which is rather unflattering to the people the people who have it.

  • Ray Downen

    Terry Mattingly thinks and writes well. The publicity campaign for Gibson’s THE PASSION was well done. It caused me to go to a movie for the first time in 15 years. I’m a Christian. As a Christian, I couldn’t possibly vote for supporters of the Democrat political platforms of recent years. It appears that the objectives of the Democrat party match well with the objectives of the Communist party of the U.S.A. I suspect that many who watched Gibson’s PASSION movie were caused to think hard about life and about death. It’s hard to see how that would be bad for anyone. It’s not only Democrats, however, who wrongly imagine that God is so loving that He will accept all and save all, regardless of their opinions about the death of Jesus of Nazareth. God is not only loving, but also just. Sin will be punished. Only Jesus saves.