A year ago, Mel Gibson's much anticipated, highly feared and loudly lauded film "The Passion of the Christ" debuted nationwide. And while the film was predicted to usher in everything from a massive Christian revival to an epidemic of anti-Semitism, only one forecast has come entirely true--Mel Gibson and his company, Icon Productions, made a fortune, taking in $370 million for a movie that cost only $30 million to make.
"My prediction was that it would die in the box office after a week," said the Rev. Richard Blake, a professor of film at Boston College who unfavorably reviewed the film for America magazine. "But it became a crusade in the culture wars."
That crusade continues as pundits, scholars and pastors look back at the predictions they and others made to see if Gibson's "Passion" lived up to their own.
By far, the most serious charge laid against "The Passion" was the belief of many people that it was anti-Semitic. Before the film was released, both Jews and Christians who had either seen the film in secret previews or read a leaked copy of the script felt that Gibson placed the blame for Jesus' murder at the feet of the Jews--a charge they had long ago been cleared of by history and by the Catholic church.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was a prominent voice in charging that the film would lead to anti-Semitism. As early as August 2003, Foxman wrote, "The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus. We are deeply concerned that the film ...could fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate."
The ADL also commissioned a poll in December 2003 that found one in four Americans believed the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus (an ABC/Primetime poll conducted about the same time found the number as less than 1 in 10).
So, has the movie led to more widespread, more ingrained anti-Semitism? "We still don't know," Foxman says. "We have not gone out to test attitudes. It is a little too early in terms of how it may have impacted attitudes towards Jews."
But that doesn't mean the film is cleared where anti-Semitism is concerned. In fact, some say there is more to be concerned about now that it will be available for home viewing by anyone, especially children and teenagers, who may not have the background and experience necessary to understand the film's presentation of Jews in context.
Peter A. Petitt, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg University and author the center's viewer's guide to the film, says it is too early to tell if the film fostered deeper anti-Semitism. But he is more concerned about the DVD than he was about the film. "When the film opened there was such a large public outcry and concern about it that very few people went to the film without being aware there were different things at issue," he said. But home viewers, especially children and teenagers, "have no clue about the controversy, about what it does or does not portray accurately. They will see it uninterpreted, without context and that is where I am afraid it will foster anti-Jewish attitudes in a new generation."
But there has been a bright side to the dark forecasts of the anti-Semitism the film would spark. In some places, the film has led to deeper channels of communication, cooperation and compassion among Jews and Christians. In Houston, reaction to a private screening in August 2003 brought Jews and Christians together to discuss the film. Those meetings, originally sponsored by the Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee, continue today. And when on Ash Wednesday--the same day the movie was released--a Denver church posted a sign reading "The Jews Killed Jesus," Jewish groups were joined in their calls for its immediate removal by the National Association of Evangelicals.
Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the NAE, said when the movie debuted, he appeared on several television news programs with Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to debate charges that the film is anti-Semitic. Today, the two men have joined forces to speak out against civil rights violations and anti-Semitism.
"Now we are friends," Haggard said. "Authentically. We communicate regularly together and we would never have met if Rabbi Heir wasn't convinced that Mel Gibson's movie was anti-Semitic and if I wasn't convinced that evangelicals were strong supporters of the Jewish people and of Israel."
But what about the streams of new Christians that were supposed to flood churches after they saw the film? Pastors who saw the film before its release in special private showings touted the film as the greatest evangelistic tool they and their congregations would ever know.
"I don't think that has happened," Haggard said. "I think it lessened hostility against Christians and it strengthened those that were already leaning towards the faith. So that wherever people were, it just moved them a little bit towards sympathy or faith in Christ but there was no flood of people into churches."
According to a Barna poll conducted last May, only one in every six viewers who had seen the film said it had affected their religious beliefs in any way. Eighteen percent said some aspect of their religious behavior had been changed, with most reporting that they prayed more. Only eight percent said they attended church services more often because of seeing the film.
At Bridge Community Church in Decatur, Indiana, there has been no flood, but there has been a trickle. After Rev. Mo Hodge saw a screening of the film for pastors, he planned a number of outreach events, including asking members to take friends to the film. Last summer, Hodge baptized 48 people, some of whom he say came to the church after seeing the movie. "In terms of outreach, without a doubt it was one of the best tools we've had here," he said.
When the film first appeared, Dr. Robert M. Franklin, a professor of social ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote that he thought it would have great resonance within the African-American community because it depicted a darker-skinned Jesus who is brutalized in a way that resembled the beatings of black slaves.
"There was an appreciation for introducing a larger American audience to the Jesus that blacks have known and loved for centuries," Franklin said. "That finally the exalted Christ has been brought back to earth as a vulnerable, broken, wounded healer."
But whether it brought more African-Americans into church "is hard to say," he continued. "I haven't heard there has been significant attraction among the unchurched population and I know that was on the agenda for many. But I have not seen that in the African-American community."
That does not surprise S. Brent Plate, editor of "Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson's Film and Its Critics" (Palgrave & Macmillan, 2004). When the movie first appeared, he doubted it would lead to America's Third Great Awakening--a massive religious revival--and doubts the DVD and VHS had any more success.
"It has helped get certain people into church, but a Great Awakening goes beyond getting people into pews," Plate said. "It is about discipleship. It goes beyond saying `I am a Christian' to living their life the way Christ did."
On that, he says, "the verdict is still out."
And it's even money on betting that the DVD and VHS, priced at just under 30 pieces of silver--uh, dollars--will make Gibson richer. Distributor Twentieth Century Fox's marketing campaign targeted church groups, some of which have been buying copies of the film in bulk. They can also order special slipcovers that can be printed with a church's name and a two-line message. Fox reports sales are 20 percent ahead of projections.
At least one group, "Students Have Passion," encouraged college students to share the movie with friends by asking them to post free "mini-posters," available from Fox, around campus to advertise the DVD/VHS release of the film.
Such success can mean only one thing, says Richard Walsh, author of "Reading the Gospels in the Dark: Portrayals of Jesus in Film" (Trinity Press International, 2003)--there will be plenty more religious movies to come.
"I would be surprised if it did not. Hollywood is about making money and Gibson proved that you can make money with a religious film and no one believed that for many years."