Stewart M. Hoover writes from Colorado on last week’s already-legendary South Park episode, “The Passion of the Jew”. Stewart, a member of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, is a professor of journalism and mass communication at CU-Boulder. And, he likes South Park!
Maybe it’s because I’ve actually been to South Park, but when Eric, Stan, Kenny, and Kyle took me on a mystery tour of Mel’s Movie, I found myself drawn in. Sure, the overall arc of the episode is a familiar take on the meaning and putative impact of the film: its anti-Semitism, its violence, its appeal to the authoritarian personality (Cartman makes that trope come alive), its debt to the medieval passion tradition and the feverish dream life ofSister Emmerich, its tacit reception by evangelical Protestants and pious Catholics, and—of course—its commodification. It ends with a Simpsons-like moral, “…we should follow what Jesus taught, not how he got killed!” But, its eschatology also becomes scatology when Mel himself comes to South Park (as Mad Max in Braveheart face paint).
So the themes are there, but they are so engagingly layered and represented. When we see Kyle, Stan, and Kenny seeing the film, the soundtrack portrays the intense violence through scourging and screams that become comical in their excess. After seeing the film, Kyle dreams himself into collective guilt and self-hatred through a montage of classical images interwoven with scenes from the film where he himself is one of the rabble, and awakens screaming when a final image—a photograph of Alan Alda—shakes him into consciousness. Kyle’s self-awareness of his Judaism and the potential for the film to position Jews on the “wrong side” of a mass phenomenon sets the stage for a confrontation between the Jewish and Christian communities of South Park. Cartman first prays to an image of Mel (from Braveheart) and in his devotion (both to the film and to its anti-Semitism), starts a Mel Gibson/Passion fan club that devolves into a brownshirt rally. His followers are naive adults who are taken in by the touching idea that a young child—inspired by the film—is leading them.
Just beneath the surface of the debates about the film, in South Park and beyond, is the question of whether the film is (or “should” be) seen primarily on a manifest or latent level. Its manifest messages are perfectly innocent (it might be argued), realistically representing the Biblical account. But, as South Park argues, both supporters and critics of the film also hold implicit views of its latent implications. For the Christians who found conviction in the darkened theater, it can unleash a powerful wave of religious renewal. For the Jews and the town’s Catholic priest, it might as well unleash a powerful wave of anti-Semitism. For the entire history of popular film, audiences have willingly surrendered themselves to its mysteries while at the same time assuming a cinematic power to overwhelm the rational mind.
For Stan and Kenny, though, the issue is much less complex. They simply did not think it was a very good film. They travel to Mel’s Malibu estate to demand their eighteen dollars back. What they find there forcefully introduces a whole new level of latency into debate about the film. Gibson refuses to give them their money, strips to his shorts, and demands, in graphic, sexualized sado-masochistic terms, that they subject him to Christ-like scourging. This becomes parody of an intense order, delicious, delightful, and scandalous. Clearly scandalized would be—and are, eventually—the patrician, bourgeois, believers in the film back in South Park. The film is, after all, about Mel, it seems, and about the darker angels of his nature.
This theme then intersects in South Park with another more subtle critique about the film’s reception in the wider culture. That is the way it has become, for many, tacitly understood on a manifest level to be “…a good thing…” This is a very South Park kind of judgment, a commentary on the adult world’s tendency to drown itself in bromides. When Kyle goes to see the film, the clerk in the box office first tries to stop him because he is too young to see it. He then quickly adds, “…but because it is such an important film that accurately depicts the selfless acts of Jesus Christ, I’ll let you in the theater…” the eponymous voice of the countless church leaders who have chosen to overlook the film’s violence (and its implications) for its dose of salvific reality.
There is no doubt that The Passion of the Christ will become for many the iconic representation of the crucifixion (in the same way The Ten Commandmentsbecame the iconic image of the Exodus for earlier generations). It is clearly being looked at by millions as true, authentic, powerful, and meaningful. Many in Generations Y, Z, and beyond have seen and will see it in this way. I found South Park’s rendition of the film, its political economy and its reception, to be reassuring evidence that complex cultural debates about complex cultural artifacts are possible, even in the face of the combination of deference, received wisdom, diffidence, mindless denunciation, and unquestioning applause that has greeted the phenomenon of The Passion.
Stewart M. Hoover’s latest book is an edited volume, Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media.