The furor, the fizzle

Times Staff Writer

The predictions came fast, furious and occasionally farfetched. Critics warned that Mel Gibson’s blood-drenched epic “The Passion of the Christ” would lead to firebombed synagogues and other anti-Jewish violence. Gibson supporters raved about the film, forecasting a “spiritual tsunami” of mass conversions to Christianity and divine healings in theaters.

The only thing both sides seemed to agree on was that the movie possessed an astonishing power to alter lives and beliefs. Yet, five months after the film’s debut, the prophecies have yet to materialize.

That doesn’t mean the movie left no changes in its wake. While the media focused mainly on the most dramatic predictions, the film’s real impact went largely unnoticed. According to historians and other observers, “The Passion’s” legacy could subtly reshape Christian worship habits for years.

Gibson’s success -- $609 million in worldwide box-office receipts -- has also jump-started the prospects for more religious-themed entertainment, which could further influence the culture.


And, in an offbeat note, the film inspired a handful of criminal confessions and a case of anti-Roman violence.

When “The Passion” opened on Ash Wednesday, it became such a phenomenon that even an ex-president had trouble finding seats. Jimmy Carter recently recalled how he and his wife attended a weekday show, expecting light crowds, “but the Secret Service had to use their influence just to get us two seats together.”

The media onslaught began with a March 2003 New York Times magazine article that explored the theories of Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, including his doubts that 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. Jewish and Catholic scholars quickly connected the dots to “The Passion,” saying the film could blame Jews for the Crucifixion.

From there, the debate snowballed into a wild crossfire over artistic freedom, biblical inerrancy and pilfered scripts.

“People came out swinging when the film was still in production,” says Gibson publicist Alan Nierob, who declined an offer from UCLA to teach a 10-week class about the movie.

The most controversial prognostications involved the film’s alleged anti-Semitism.

“By the time the first nail is hammered into the cross, viewers in Germany will be passing around knife sharpeners in the theater,” Israeli radio host Rabbi Tovia Singer declared. “Israel may have to absorb a massive flight of European Jewry.”

Most other critics weren’t as over-the-top, but they still predicted mayhem, especially in Europe and the Middle East.

The L.A. Weekly likened Gibson’s movie to “a gasoline-soaked rag tossed on the already roaring flames of anti-Semitism.” And Paula Fredriksen, a Boston University professor who was one of the film’s earliest foes, said: “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”

So far, however, “nothing has happened,” says J. Shawn Landres, a University of Judaism professor who co-edited an upcoming book on the movie’s impact, “After the Passion Is Gone.”

Fredriksen remains unapologetic, saying Gibson supporters have “redefined anti-Semitic violence” to exclude anything less than “dead bodies strewn everywhere.” As Fredriksen sees it, even “hostile atmospheres” qualify as violence.

In the U.S., there have been “50 to 100" reports of Jewish youths being labeled Christ-killers by classmates since the movie debuted, says Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League and one of the leading critics of the film.

“Is it in scary proportions? No, but it’s a lot more than before,” he says, noting pre-movie levels stood at just “a couple” of reported incidents per year.

Does this mean the movie is turning previously unbiased kids into bigots? Or are the youngsters simply echoing the media debate over the film? The answer is unclear.

In Nebraska, Rabbi Debbie Stiel says she knows of half a dozen Jewish teens who have been asked by friends or acquaintances, “Why did the Jews kill Jesus?” Being linked to an event 2,000 years ago was “unnerving” to the students, Stiel says.

Outside the schoolyard, anti-Semitic fallout from “The Passion” is hard to verify.

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.

Nevertheless, “Passion” skeptics insist it’s too early to tell whether predictions of anti-Semitism are wrong. “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.

Then again, Foxman issued a similar warning about the lack of debate in Europe and Argentina, where the film eventually played without incident.

Changing times

In some ways, the most surprising factor in the film’s success is evangelical Christians.

A century ago, the movie might have offended them too. In the 1880s, Passion plays were outlawed in San Francisco and New York because Protestants believed visual portrayals of Christ were idolatrous.

Even in the mid-1900s, Protestant disdain for religious imagery ran so deep that churches in the South often topped their steeples with weathervanes instead of crosses, says R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

The aversion to devotional art goes back to the Reformation, when Protestants jettisoned Catholicism’s statues, crucifixes and Stations of the Cross artwork.

But modern evangelicals “crave visualization,” says USC professor Richard Wightman Fox, author of “Jesus in America.” When Gibson’s marketing team began screening the movie to them, it filled a void. Many evangelicals also felt the film would mesmerize unbelievers.

The Christian Booksellers Assn. floated talk of a nationwide religious revival. Others touted “The Passion” as “the best evangelism tool in 2,000 years.” One televangelist for cable’s Trinity Broadcast Network predicted the Holy Spirit would move through theaters, healing people of physical ailments.

The idea of cinematic conversions to faith isn’t preposterous. James Merritt, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, told MSNBC he accepted Christ while watching “King of Kings” in 1962. And “Jesus,” a 1979 docudrama based on the Gospel of Luke, has reportedly inspired 197 million conversions (out of 5.2 billion viewers worldwide), according to Campus Crusade for Christ, a ministry that uses the film to evangelize.

But Christians sensed something different about “The Passion.” Something supernatural. Part of it was the eerie reports filtering back from the movie set in Italy, says Colleen McDannell, a religion historian at the University of Utah.

When actor James Caviezel was struck by lightning during filming, “his entire body glowed and two balls of fire appeared on either side of him, as if it were a scene of the Transfiguration,” according to New Oxford Review magazine. Other stories mentioned healings on the set.

“The movie itself became a sacred event,” McDannell says. (And not just among Protestants. Pieces of the cross used in the film have begun circulating among Catholics, a Hollywood version of the relics linked to Jesus’ real cross.)

So evangelicals geared up for what bestselling author and Orange County pastor Rick Warren called a “spiritual tsunami.” Churches ordered blocks of theater tickets and gave them to prospective converts. They sponsored seminars and sermons. Publishers cranked out millions of books and tracts.

Did the effort pay off? It depends on whom you ask.

Harvest Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational mega-church in Riverside, tallied 1,000 conversions to Christianity during a six-week sermon series on the movie. That’s four times the normal rate, pastor Greg Laurie says. And Warren’s Saddleback Church posted big spurts in conversions and attendance.

But in St. Louis, where Campus Crusade held screenings for 1,300 college students, fewer than 10 people were “saved.”

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.”

Jody Hanford, a campus minister for four Southern California colleges, agrees: “Is it changing anyone’s life? I personally haven’t seen that.” But the movie has given evangelists a foot in the door when approaching non-Christians, he notes.

“The hype and the controversy around the movie -- more than the movie itself -- provided one of the best outreach opportunities of recent years because it provoked interest and discussion,” says Tony Arnold, a spokesman for Campus Crusade. “It has gotten people thinking about Jesus -- who he is and what he stood for.”

Indeed, complicated theological concepts like the atonement were suddenly being debated in a Time magazine cover story and on TV news shows.

Hollywood catches on

More God talk could be on the way. The Walt Disney Co. plans to release a movie of Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” on Christmas 2005. And Gibson’s Icon Productions is moving forward with a biblical film based on the story of Maccabees.

As GQ magazine notes, Hollywood is finally catching up to what the TV industry (via “Joan of Arcadia” and “Touched by an Angel”), book industry (the “Left Behind” series) and music industry (Amy Grant, Mindy Smith, P.O.D.) have already figured out: Faith-based entertainment sells.

“The era in which Christians cowered at the edges of pop culture seems to be abruptly over,” says Stephen Prothero, author of “American Jesus” and chair of the religion department at Boston University. “Gibson’s movie will give us more Christianity in pop culture and that will affect the culture at large.”

For that reason, some evangelicals haven’t written off predictions of a “spiritual tsunami.”

“It’s a work in progress,” says Lance Witt, a pastor at Saddleback Church. The movie spurred “a lot of spiritual conversations and the results can take awhile to percolate.”

Pollster Barna says previous research suggests the DVD will help that process. Watching a movie at home with family or friends is more conducive to spiritual reflection and conversation, he says.

For now, “The Passion’s” main impact seems to be on people who already were Christians. According to Barna’s poll, about 20% of viewers said the movie deepened their faith or inspired new behaviors (praying more often, treating others differently, joining church-related activities).

The movie is Christianity’s version of “Saving Private Ryan,” says Jody Eldred, a freelance ABC News cameraman who recently produced a documentary called “Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion.” In the same way that Steven Spielberg’s gory World War II epic showed “the tremendous price that was paid for our freedoms,” Gibson’s film brought Jesus’ sacrifice to life, Eldred says: “I will never look at the cross the same.”

Alas, not everyone got the message. In April, “The Passion” was reportedly the most-pirated film on the Internet.

Meanwhile, scholars have jumped in with a dizzying array of academic papers and theories about the movie and its aftermath. One deconstructed the film as a metaphor for the war on terrorism; another analyzed possible effects on the presidential race.

At least two books of scholarly essays on the film are in the pipeline: Landres’ “After the Passion Is Gone,” which he co-edited with Michael Berenbaum, and “Re-Viewing the Passion,” edited by S. Brent Plate of Texas Christian University.

Elsewhere, “The Passion” might be reshaping Protestant attitudes toward Jesus and worship, historians say.

The Mr. Rogers-type Jesus that has dominated popular thinking for several decades is being pushed aside by Gibson’s “macho, suffering servant” image, says Boston University’s Prothero. “It’s a more Catholic, medieval way of viewing Jesus.” And it’s the image many Christians will now picture when they close their eyes to pray, he says.

Protestants traditionally were “too scared of Catholicism” to borrow any Crucifixion art from it, historian McDannell says. But Gibson, using the “neutral ground of the movie house,” has “un-Catholicized” the beaten image of Jesus.

“I think conservative Protestants were desperate for this,” she adds. Although Americans might appear happy and affluent, “everyone is stressed out or getting divorced or they just found out their kid is gay or their pastor is sleeping with the secretary.” Being able to focus on a sorrowful, suffering Jesus is a comforting reminder that pain can be “endured and overcome.”

Extreme responses

Finally, there are the more unusual effects of the movie, such as people confessing to crimes or hounding the film’s actors. The list of conscience-stricken viewers includes a Texan who told authorities he killed his pregnant girlfriend and made it look like a suicide (he has since pleaded innocent), an Arizona burglar and a Norwegian neo-Nazi who took the rap for two unsolved bombings.

The movie also incited at least one case of “anti-Roman” violence. Italian actor Dario D’Ambrosi, who played one of the Roman soldiers who brutalized Jesus, told the New York Times that people have cursed and spit at him on the street. Moreover, his daughters have been harassed in school and a priest insulted him, he said.

Actor Caviezel, who starred as Jesus, encountered another kind of audience reaction, according to news reports. During a recent trip to Mexico, villagers asked him to perform miracles.

Back in Los Angeles, Gibson publicist Nierob dismisses all the theories about the movie’s sociocultural impact. Reeling off the latest box-office statistics, he suggests a much simpler outcome: “The only aftereffects I know of are financial.”

Times wire services contributed to this report.