But, by far, my favorite story in this line was "The Jesus War," a brilliant piece Peter J. Boyer wrote for The New Yorker. The article offered a revealing look at Mel Gibson's faith and his "Passion of the Christ," and because Beliefnet feels that Gibson is still the most influential Christian in Hollywood -- "despite everything: a drunken-driving arrest, an anti-Semitic outburst, movies brimming with graphic violence" -- I thought it would be worth revisiting this article. Here is a choice section that avoids the months-long brouhaha that helped "The Passion" gross more than $600 million worldwide.
When Gibson was in Rome shooting the film, he told an Italian interviewer that he had felt moved by God's spirit to undertake the project. I asked him what he'd meant by that. How did he know that God wanted him to make “The Passion”?The rest of Beliefnet's Power Dozen can be found here. It includes Denzel, Tyler Perry, Martin Sheen, Philip Anschutz and ... Martha Williamson (?).
“There are signals,” he said. “You get signals. Signs. ‘Signal graces,’ they're called. It's like traffic lights. It's as clear as a traffic light. Bing! I mean, it just grabs you and you know you have to listen to that and you have to follow it. Like last night, you know?”
He reminded me of an incident that had occurred the night before, as we were driving to Anaheim. Gibson was behind the wheel of his silver Lexus, negotiating the nightmarish traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway, when a car pulled in front of him and immediately hit the brakes. Gibson had seemed ready to unleash some invective, when he stopped and stared at the offending car's license plate. “Look! Look at what it says!” The car's license-plate holder bore the inscription “Psalm 91.” Gibson said that on that very morning, after he'd been vexed by the Los Angeles Times column, one of his associates had urged him to read the ninety-first Psalm, and that he'd been moved to tears by it. (“A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. . . . For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”)
“It was weird,” Gibson said. “Those are signals, alright?” .
He then told me about something that had happened when he was building his church. He had wanted to fill the place with antique candlesticks and such, and he'd had a hard time finding them. He was in Philadelphia shooting a picture, and someone told him about a man who had a storehouse of old church items. Gibson called the man, and asked if he was willing to sell any of the stuff. The man, considering his celebrity customer, was reluctant. “Not if you're gonna put it in a disco, or fornicate on it,” he said. Gibson talked to him for a while, and convinced him of the purity of his intent. They did business, and just before Gibson left the man pulled something out, and offered it to Gibson as a gift. It was a small, faded piece of cloth. “What is it?” he asked. The man told him that he had a special devotion to a nineteenth-century Augustinian nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, and that the cloth was a piece of her habit.
As it happened, Emmerich had special meaning to Gibson as well. Emmerich was an impoverished Westphalian farm girl who had visions at an early age. She was so pious that when she joined a convent, at the age of twenty-eight, she was considered odd even there. Eventually, she began to experience ecstasies and develop stigmata. Her experiences attracted Church inquiries, state suspicions, and popular curiosity, and ultimately the attention of the poet Clemens Brentano, one of the founders of the German Romantic movement. Brentano made his way to Emmerich, who was ailing, and who told him that she had been awaiting 'his arrival. He wrote down her visions, including detailed narratives from Christ's Passion, and published them after her death, in 1824, in a book called “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Six weeks after she died, Emmerich’s body was disinterred, and was said to show no decay. In Catholic theology, ecstasies are considered a rare gift from God, and Emmerich is proceeding toward beatification.
When Gibson returned to his faith, he acquired, from a nunnery that had closed down, a library of hundreds of books, many of them quite old. He says that when he was researching “The Passion” one evening he reached up for a book, and Brentano's volume tumbled out of the shelf into his hands. He sat down to read it, and was flabbergasted by the vivid imagery of Emmerich's visions. “Amazing images,” he said. “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of.” The one image that is most noticeable in “The Passion” is a scene after Jesus' scourging, when a grief-stricken Mary gets down on her knees to mop up his blood.
I reminded Gibson, who carries the Emmerich relic in his pocket, that some of his critics have pointed out that Emmerich's depiction of Jews is inflammatory, thereby imputing anti-Semitism to Gibson's film. “Why are they calling her a Nazi?” Gibson asked. “Because modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church. And it's a lie. And it's revisionism. And they've been working on that one for a while.”
We talked of the nature of Gibson's faith, and I asked him about an aspect of Vatican II which has not been much discussed in the debate over his film. One of the council's most significant acts was its Decree on Ecumenism, which declared that all Christians, even those outside the Catholic Church, “have the right to be called Christian; the children of the Catholic Church accept them as brothers.” This effectively overturned the Catholic notion that the only true course to salvation was through the Catholic Church.
I told Gibson that I am a Protestant, and asked whether his pre-Vatican II world view disqualified me from eternal salvation. He paused. “There is no salvation for those outside the Church,” he said. “I believe it.” He explained, “Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She's a much better person than I am. Honestly. She's, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it's just not fair if she doesn't make it, she's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”
With that, Gibson excused himself, and headed toward the galley of the plane, where an attendant had laid out supper. I glanced up at the video monitor at the front of the cabin, showing our progress on the journey to Washington. We were forty-five thousand feet over the high plains of Colorado, heading toward Kansas, according to the monitor, which displayed the name of the town shimmering faintly below us. It was a place called Last Chance.