Zealots have a friend in Hollywood

Megan Angelo

In just the past few months, a drunk Britney Spears popped the question in Vegas, a naked Paris Hilton popped up on computer screens everywhere and a desperate Janet Jackson popped out of her costume at the Superbowl. These days, celebrities’ spotlight-catching antics are so frequent and similar that they have become mundane. Nothing can shock us anymore.

But Mel Gibson has repossessed the power to make the public take pause. What’s putting him back in the news is at the opposite end of the spectrum from sexual exploitations or violent outbursts. The eye at the center of the storm surrounding Gibson is religion.

His directorial project, “The Passion of the Christ,” hits theaters on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25) and documents the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus. Lacking the eerie qualities of “Stigmata” or the dark comedy of “Dogma,” “Passion” is strictly a religious story. Of course, Gibson still throws in a mild dose of sex appeal and a heavy measure of violence to make us feel more comfortable with the movie – an unadulterated spiritual narrative would surely make for awkward audiences and disappointing box office figures.

The film’s content has been the source of its early controversy. Though it has only been viewed by members of the press and some religious leaders, the film has already generated uproar about its implication of the Jewish race in Jesus’ death.

Ultimately, “Passion” will have diverse effects on diverse audiences, as many films do. In that respect, “Passion” is no different than any other deliberately provocative work of art.

It is, however, notable because of the many people that are anticipating its release as eagerly as they would the coming of its title character. Oddly enough, the crowd of enthusiasts consists more of Christian evangelicals than Gibson’s religious peers, Roman Catholics. This aspect of the film – its unnervingly fanatic following – will become more contentious than its potentially offensive script.

The signs are in the unprecedented clamor of preparation in which evangelicals all over the country are involved.

Tickets are being preordered in bulk, church members are wearing pins and carrying pamphlets to advertise the film and thousands of youth groups all over the country have requested promotional CD-ROMs that include images of a nine inch nail – the stake used to attach Jesus to the cross.

And it’s not just clever marketing strategies that are getting publicity for “Passion.” Fans are taking it upon themselves to encourage their non-Christian friends to see the movie in hopes of converting them.

Proponents are doing their best to assure parents that the movie’s extreme violence should not deter them from keeping their children home from the R-rated film. It is important, these people say, that the children understand how Jesus suffered.

Finally, we have found something to alarm us as much as sex and violence used to. Are we justified in feeling uneasy? Yes.

Yes, because these evangelicals are acting in ignorant haste – if the film holds even the possibility of insulting Jews, no one should be rushing to endorse it.

Yes, because people are foolishly trusting this movie to enhance their very souls, failing to remember that financial gain is the primary objective of every film.

Yes, because zealots are as dangerous in this country as they are in any other.

And yes, because Mel Gibson seems to have lost his mind. Using his movie star status to give voice to his platform, Gibson has publicly stated that everyone outside the Roman Catholic Church is bound for hell. When asked in another recent interview if he believed the Holocaust had actually occurred, Gibson acknowledged the existence of concentration camps but generally underscored the magnitude of the tragedy.

Yet it seems that he is making more friends than enemies. His new disciples, at least, are louder than his adversaries. These fervent evangelicals seem undeterred by Gibson’s appalling show of prejudice as they count down to the debut of “Passion.”

Admittedly, Gibson is no less entitled to freedom of speech than someone whose opinions would never be picked up by the press. But the fact that so many are listening and emulating indicates the serious grip that ultraconservatives have on modern society. Religion is a sensitive matter, and neither Mel Gibson nor a pushy Christian neighbor should have the power to influence anyone’s personal choices.

Perhaps when it is viewed without presuppositions, “Passion” will prove to be a worthy cultural sensation.

But for anyone who has had the official movie miniposter shoved at them by an aggressive acquaintance, the film has already been reduced to propaganda. And propaganda is one thing we should never learn to tolerate. When people are pushing too hard to influence our values, it is our reflex and our responsibility to push back.

Information for this article was taken from The New York Times Online and www.msnbc.com.