Mel Gibson's Bible: Religion, Popular Culture, and the Passion of the Christ/Religion and Cyberspace/The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Mel Gibson's Bible: Religion, Popular Culture, and the Passion of the Christ/Religion and Cyberspace/The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Mel Gibson's Bible: Religion, Popular Culture, and The Passion of the Christ Timothy K. Beal and Tod Linafelt, Editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Afterlives of the Bible Series.

Religion and Cyberspace Morten T. Højsgaard and Margit Warburg, Editors. New York: Routledge, 2005.

The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture Kelton Cobb. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Each of these books contributes significantly to the study of religion's place in the cultural matrix of the United States and beyond. Mel Gibson's Bible brings diverse disciplines and personal perspectives to a single film that now appears to be the world's most commercially successful religious blockbuster. Religion and Cyberspace targets a more diffuse cultural phenomenon-the steady, evolutionary convergences of religious life mediated by the Internet; it reflects multidisciplinary/multinational approaches that are predominantly philosophical and sociological. And finally, the single-authored Blackwell Guide offers an ambitious critical synthesis of at least sixty years of thinking about popular cultural expressions of theological viewpoints. Together this group of books suggests a maturing in the depth and versatility of religion-focused scholarship. Left far behind is the end-of-religion optimism that accompanied the demythologizing, God-is-dead movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Mel Gibson's Bible presents twenty one pieces, eighteen of them new for this volume's publication. Catholic, Jewish, and assorted Protestant viewpoints are represented in three thematic sections: (1) "The Passion as Interpretation," focused on how the Bible and other historical sources are construed in the film; (2) "Ethical and Theological Responses;" and (3) "Passion, Media, Audience," focused on how audience sensibilities or preexisting dramatic models shaped the content of the experience.

The exegeses are tours de force that will surprise and delight readers by taking them so far below the surface of Gibson's torturous realism. For college students especially, the essays will succinctly and gracefully demonstrate how informed cinematic and historical interpretations can affect a viewer's experience. Jack Miles, whose linguistic training allowed him to hear the Latin and the Aramaic dialogue, observes that Jesus speaks perfect "church Latin" to the Roman Pontius Pilate, who answers him in Aramaic. John Dominic Crossan examines the contextual elasticity of the New Testament's Greek words for "crowd" and suggests a lack of textual justification for the film's portrayal of numerous and highly vocal Jewish opponents of Jesus. Susana Heschel argues that the film shows a pro-Roman, American-identified imperial agenda, in which Pilate and Claudia (pegged as George and Laura Bush) emerge as more sympathetically treated characters than any of the Jewish religious figures, who come off as repulsive swishes. Richard Rubenstein provides important biographical background on Mel Gibson and his father Hutton Gibson, a crusading, well-known ultraconservative Catholic who reportedly locked Mel in a room at a time when the young man seriously explored a personal conversion to Judaism. Jane Schaberg, a Mary Magdalene scholar, argues that the film conflates "the woman of many sins" in the Bible with the Mary presented as a female leader of great understanding among the followers of Jesus-the way in which she is presented in Jesus of Montreal (1989) and several of the noncanonical gospels. Margaret Miles is among several in observing that the film is emphatic in focusing on the Passion of Christ as sacrificial atonement-as opposed to finding salvation through Christ in adherence to his teachings about care for others. Jose Marquez shows how the conventions of the action genre film have provided the template for Jesus as master of physical suffering who finally exacts revenge rather than teacher of pacifism. Not all the treatments in this volume are negative toward the film.

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