Sunday school may have taught them the words of the Gospels, but for millions of children, Hollywood provided the pictures. They were pretty pictures: stained glass in motion, from the First Church of De Mille. Handsome men their beards neatly curled and trimmed, their robes immaculate trod on tiptoe through a Judea as verdant and manicured as Forest Lawn. They may have represented Israelites of two millenniums past, but they often looked Nordic; God must have had blue eyes. And they spoke the King's English: King James', with an assist from any screenwriter willing to gussy up his fustian. In these prim tones, the heart's revolution that Jesus preached became an Oxford don's lecture, and his ghastly, redemptive death a tableau painted on velvet.
Mel Gibson's first achievement in "The Passion of the Christ" is to strip the biblical epic of its encrusted sanctimony and show biz. It takes hard men to work this Holy Land, men who labor under the twin burdens of poverty and the oppression of Roman occupation. Their clothes are dirt-dry and sweat-drenched. By jolting the viewer to reconsider Hollywood's calcified stereotypes of the New Testament, Gibson wants to restore the immediacy of that time, the stern wonder of that land, the thrilling threat of meeting the Messiah on the mean streets of Jerusalem.
Any Jesus film with violence is bound to roil some people. But the film's carnage is emetic, not exploitative. The crowning with thorns, the scourging at the pillar, the agonized trudge up Calvary show what Jesus suffered and why; and James Caviezel's spiky, ferocious, nearly heroic performance is a perfect servant to the role. This is not a movie for all believers or for all moviegoers. But it is, nonetheless, a believer's movie. Gibson believes in the power of Jesus' message. He believes in the power of cinema to rethink traditions, to make Jesus live in a skeptical age. And those willing to accompany Gibson on his dangerous ride through the Gospels may believe he has created his masterpiece.
I didn't write this review last week about "The Passion of the Christ." I wrote it in 1988 about Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," changing only the names and the movie title. In manner and method, the two films have much in common. In theology and box office, they're worlds apart. "Last Temptation": liberal, condemned by conservative Catholics. "Passion": conservative, condemned by liberals, agnostics and many Jews. "Last Temptation": boycotted by religious groups, defended by the major studio that released it, earned $8 million in its entire run. "Passion": boycotted by major studios (little Newmarket released it), defended by the faithful, earned $23 million on its first day.
Just between the few of us, I'm written out on the Gibson movie. I did a review in the magazine ("The Goriest Story Ever Told"), which was maybe the only mixed review the film got. And I wrote about some of the attacks on Gibson and his "Passion" ("Holy Hypocrisies") on this web site. In the day since that was posted, I've received more than 150 e-mails, the vast majority of them with subject headings like "Thank you," "Well put," "Bravo," Kudos," "Amen, brother," "Loved the article!" and "wow." Most of the notes cheered me for pointing out what reader David Tuggy called "the deep intolerance of the professionally tolerant." And while any old leftie is naturally squeamish about being praised by cultural conservatives for attacking those usually on his own side, I am surprised by and grateful for the e-mail, and take this opportunity (in lieu of individual replies) to thank you who wrote in.
And now, allow me to baffle or anger my new flock by getting to today's subject: a simple, informative survey of a dozen or so film biographies of Jesus, noting particularly how their depiction of the Messiah's conviction and death compared with Mel Gibson's. The alleged Messiah is once again hot (in the more attractive sense of that word), and readers may be helped by these scattershot notes on other examples of the genre. All of the films, including "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter," are available on video and/or DVD from amazon.com. Let's get to it.
FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS , 1912
Here is the first major film on the Jesus story, and probably the earliest feature-length film 1hr.12min. in its restored version made in America. Directed by Sidney Olcott (who made 18 other shorter films that year) and written by its Mary Magdalene, Gene Gauntier, the picture was shot in Palestine and Egypt. One charming shot shows Mary and Joseph sitting in front of the Sphinx. Virtually every shot is a static scene, a tableau, illustrating the intertitles.
Like Gibson, but 92 years before him, Olcott uses a blue filter for the Holy Thursday night scenes in Gethsemane. The Passion section, which consumes the last 14 minutes, has no more juice than the rest of the film. Back then, of course, directors didn't have access to the fake-blood squibs and other effects of today's gore artists. (The blood Mel used was fake, wasn't it?) Remember, too, that in 1912 film was in its infancy; that D.W. Griffith and others were still creating the medium's visual vocabulary and sentence structure; and that, for most Christians and lots of non-Christian moviegoers, "From the Manger to the Cross" was not simply a novelty. It was, in cinematic and possible religious terms, a revelation.
THE KING OF KINGS, 1927
Cecil B. De Mille, a preacher's son but with some Jewish ancestry, had scored a titanic hit with "The Ten Commandments" in 1923 to its time, the top-grossing film after "The Birth of a Nation." Four years later, the extravagant auteur went from Old to New Testament. Another hit, thanks to De Mille's showmanship and expert marketing, and a color sequence for Easter Sunday, with Jesus surrounded by enough doves for a John Woo movie. "The King of Kings" played around the world for decades after it was released, until the proselytizing efforts of the Church of the Nazarene managed to put the 1979 film "Jesus" (with Brian Deacon as the Christ) in towns and villages all over the world. Except for the Bible, it is probably the most visible tool of missionary propaganda.
In the book "Spectacular! The Story of Epic Films," the elegant historian Carlos Clarens (using the pseudonym John Cary) gave a fair evaluation of "King of Kings": "De Mille's version of Christ was a fundamentalist one: H.B. Warner was indeed 'a sweet Jesus, meek and mild,' and this time sheer reverence held De Mille in check. There were a couple of zebras drawing Magdalene's chariot, and the earthquake that follows the crucifixion was as stunning as the Red Sea parting, although virtually thrown away.... De Mille's sincerity was on a par with his stern ruling that, during production, the actors portraying the Christ and the apostles refrain from drinking, gambling, cussing, night-clubbing and even having intercourse with their wives."
In the 1hr.52min. edition distributed by Kino International, 48 mins. are devoted to the Passion and Resurrection. As Clarens notes, the De Mille signatures of gigantic sets (a 30-ft. eagle statue in Pilate's chambers) and special effects (in the earthquake a man grabs at a rock that breaks off and carries him to a crashing death) take a back seat to the hallowed story and processional pace. H.B. Warner's Jesus is in the gaunt El Greco mode; the scenes are essentially brisk illustrations of the Gospels. Nearly all the dialogue and narrative intertitles are from the Gospels. The exceptions: a few that mitigate supposed Jewish guilt for Jesus' death. Magdalene: "The High Priest speaketh not for the people." And a Pharisee, at the end: "Lord God Jehovah, visit not Thy wrath on Thy people Israel I alone am guilty."
KING OF KINGS, 1961
Samuel Bronston reinvented the epic for the '60s. Actually, he exploited the popularity of other people's late-'50s Biblical spectacles ("The Ten Commandments," "Ben Hur") to acquire financing for grand frescos of national heroes ("El Cid") and collapsing monarchies ("The Fall of the Roman Empire") in smart, stately films from screenwriter Philip Yordan and ace auteurs Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann. Ray's "King of Kings" has Jeffrey Hunter, who was gorgeous and effusively manly in "The Searchers" a few years before, as a Jesus with star quality to spare which the original must also have had. In orange hair and what looks like portable Nativity-color underlighting, Hunter is such an erotic slab of beefcake, he turns every Messianic agony into an ecstasy.
The film, though, has a strange, stately calm, an antidramatic tone that the melodramatic music tries to vivify. The Passion scenes (about 40 mins. of the 2hr.40min. film) lack wallop, especially in comparison to the hammer-on-nail-through-flesh-into wood impact of the Gibson film. The raising of Jesus' cross, a big moment in any Gospel film, is shown from above a God- or pigeon's-eye view of the crucifixion. Count on the pictorials to keep you awake; watching the movie is like having someone thumb, slooooowly, through a book of religious art history. The film's last shot, after Pentecost, shows the fishermen leaving their nets in a string on the beach, and the long thin shadow of Christ bisecting it, to form the final image of the cross that symbolizes Jesus' sacrifice for humanity.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, 1964
Gibson has snorted his derision over the two earlier Jesus films that have earned the most sustained critical acclaim. Asked a year ago by TIME correspondent Jeff Israeli for an analysis Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Il Vangelo secundo Matteo," (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) he faked a big yawn. Of Martin's Scorsese's "Last Temptation," he said, "You've got Harvey Keitel as Judas saying" and here Gibson shifted into a Brooklyn accent "Hey, you ovah dere." Maybe his was just dissing his strongest competition. He knew that these films were closest to his, in setting, rigor, power and bloodshed.
Seen when it opened, the Pasolini film was a tonic shock: a low-budget black-and-white pastoral Christian film, worlds removed from the elephantine variety of Hollywood's Biblical epics, made by an atheist Marxist homosexual. "The Gospel" seemed stranger in light of Pasolini's later work, which grew more sensational, culminating in the 1977 "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom," which transposed de Sade to the Nazi era.
Pasolini said he responded to the literary brilliance and narrative propulsion of the Matthew gospel. He made the film, in part, to show that the greatest story ever told was, among other things, a great story. His dark-haired, dark-eyed, unibrowed Jesus (played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Basque Jew who, like the other performers, was not a professional actor) spits out the parables and prophesies with a brisk ferocity, like a union organizer with a spiel to finish before the end of the lunch break. He is testy with his inquisitors and abrupt with his Apostles. He's a man-God in a hurry to fulfill his mission. Sooner dead, sooner resurrected.
Thus, in the 28-minute Passion segment of "Il Vangelo," does Jesus stride to his death, across the same countryside (Matera, in Puglia, near the heel of the Italian boot) where Gibson shot much of his film. And the mob rushes after him. One screams: "His blood be on our children!" This is the phrase, implicitly condemning Jews for the murder of Christ, that Gibson said he removed from his film. (Turned out, he removed only the subtitle for the Aramaic translation of the curse.) We leave for another day the debate over whether a film is anti-Jewish if it repeats a line swathed in 18 to 20 centuries of Gospel tradition. Anyway, in the Pasolini film, with Italians chasing Italians, the curse seems one not of race or religion but of clan. Besides, Pasolini, a poet before he was a filmmaker, would be unlikely to excise a controversial line from a text he felt bound to honor.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, 1965
Not! George Stevens' 3hr.20min. effort his is the longest Jesus film to play theatrically (I think), and monumentally, genteelly, stupefyingly reverent. It watches most off the action from a subservient distance, as if Jesus were too magisterial to approach within 100 paces. On the soundtrack, the heavenly choir trills away earnestly. The Passion segment (44 mins.) couldn't be less so. Connoisseurs of intentional camp treasure "TGSET" as the movie where John Wayne, as a Roman centurion, glowers and says, "Truly this was the Son of God." Pilgrim.
Max von Sydow, alighting from the Ingmar Bergman films, certainly brings height and hauteur to the role and if you're going for the Renaissance masters' vision of Jesus as a European, he might as well be Nordic. (Though, as I was reminded by TIME.com's Tony Karon, my guru in all things political, Jesus was a Semite; if he was tall, lank, bearded and dressed in flowing robes, as von Sydow is, the person he would have resembled most would be...Osama bin Laden.) The actor's iconographic superiority gives this Jesus the big frosty balls to tell his followers, "Do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children. For a day will come when people will say, 'Blessed are the barren...' " Was Jesus sanctifying gay marriage here?
This Hassidic hippie show, by John-Michael Tebelak and composer Steven Schwartz, spawned the Top 20 charter "Day by Day" ("Oh Lord, three things I pray: To see Thee more clearly, To love Thee more dearly, To follow Thee more nearly, day by day"). Director David Greene set the 1973 movie on Manhattan's city streets and the climax in a city playground. The other night on "The Daily Show," Rob Corddry accurately described the "Godspell" Christ figure as "a '70s pop rainbow suspendery kind of Jesus." Brown-eyed, frizzy-haired Victor Garber, who 30 years later has a career on Broadway ("Art") and TV ("Alias"), stresses Jesus' gentility in sensitive-clown makeup: teardrop eyeliner and a sweet heart on his forehead. The rest of the young cast follows suit, miming up a storm, sipping imaginary sacramental wine from invisible chalices. Drinks for the Last Supper are served in paper cups. Was Jim Jones watching?
Since this Jesus is a creature of woozy gentility, the Passion takes only about 10 mins. Jesus is propped up on the sort of round platform suitable for an elephant's foot and crucified against a chain-link fence. "Oh, God, I'm dying," Jesus intones, and the Apostles chime in, "Oh, God, you're dying." "Oh, God, I'm dead." "Oh, God, you're dead." (Oh god, poor God, Judas hung you in the playground and you're feeling so odd.)
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, 1973
The West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice arrived on screen a few months after "Godspell." The first rock opera transferred to the stage, it was calcified in the made-in-Israel film version by Norman Jewison who, if you're wondering, is not Jewish. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus (Ted Neely) faces off against a black Judas (Carl Anderson). The show had two hit songs, the anthem "Superstar" and the ballad "I Don't Know How to Love Him," but its theatricality got lost out there in the desert.
The Passion here consumes about 45 minutes. Jesus undergoes a torrent of taunting from Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas and the mob. "We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth, We have no law to put a man to death," the high priest beseeches Pilate. And the crowd hollers, "We need him crucified, It's all you have to do." Pilate accedes, singing to Jesus: "Don't let me stop your great self-destruction, Die if you want to, you misguided martyr." (Does that rhyme in Aramaic?) Except for Gibson's "Passion," this is the Jesus film that goes heaviest on the torture. In the scourging at the pillar, Pilate counts out the 39 lashes as if he's an auctioneer at an SM club. Jewison gets into the act, showing the raising of Jesus' cross on Golgotha in an overlapping quartet of shots from different angles, extending the action as Jackie Chan would later do with his more lavish stunts. Other than that, it's a brief crucifixion.
GOSPEL ROAD, 1973
A big year for Jesus musicals, 1973 also saw the emergence in the Bible belt of a family production: "Gospel Road," produced in Israel by June and Johnny Cash. The Man in Black, who had recently embraced Christ, ambles through the Holy Land while quoting Scripture and telling a story of Jesus' life and sacrifice. As Cash intones the words, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased," it's easy to imagine that God just must have a Southern accent. The pauper-budgeted simplicity and naivete of "Gospel Road" its irrefutable good intentions overwhelm the weirdness of a movie in which the director (blue-eyed, blond-haired Robert Elfstrom) plays Jesus and the star's wife is Mary Magdalene.
Cash, who also wrote the script with Larry Murray, gives his record and stage-show fans a treat: eight fine Christian songs, written by himself, John Denver, Larry Gatlin, Kris Kristofferson, Joe South and other top country singer-composers. But he also lays out the plot to discredit Jesus: "He's to be followed and spied on by the Scribes and Pharisees throughout His ministry." As Gibson's film does, Cash's puts the blame on a corrupt segment of the religious hierarchy. And in the last 20 minutes, "Gospel Road" gets around to the Passion. Jesus is lashed, kicked and spat on a few clumsy times, then totes his cross up a deserted city street. He dies in close-up, and the camera pulls back to reveal a modern American city (L.A.? Nashville?) a strange but potent payoff, indicating that the Savior died not only for the sins committed up to His time but for the ones we are still committing.
JESUS OF NAZARETH, 1977
What "It's a Wonderful Life" is to Christmas, and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to Independence Day, this Franco Zeffirelli miniseries (6hr.26min. in the DVD version, of which the Passion section takes about an hour) is to Easter: definitive TV entertainment for a holiday, or holy day. Lusciously pictorial, elaborating on the Gospel narrative while tightroping above controversy, the film is the fullest standard text from which more extravagant versions like Pasolini's and Gibson's are encouraged to meander freely.
The script by Anthony Burgess and top Italian filmwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico ("Open City," "The Bicycle Thief," "Big Deal on Madonna Street," "The Leopard") makes clear the legal grounds for killing Jesus. Under Mosaic law, blasphemy ("I'm Yahweh") is a capital crime; under Roman law, calling yourself King of the Jews is treason. The writers' touch is especially careful and coherent in the trial scene. The Sanhedrin is no lynch mob; they are a group of elders searching for common ground, trying to understand a young rebel who gives them no quarter. ("I beg you, bring peace to our gathering tonight.") The rabbis here are burdened with too much religious lore, or have too little imagination, to accept that the ragged fellow is God. In a way, they don't condemn him; he condemns them. Nobody's blood gets on anybody's children.
In Robert Powell, Zeffirelli found the Jesus of a million dining-room icons: agate-blue eyes, cheeks that didn't need to be sucked in for that dishy aesthetic look, a strength to match the facial sensitivity. For a while Powell had the lock on brainy charisma; he played Gustav Mahler, Henry Higgins, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Victor Frankenstein. After months on the Zeffirelli film, Powell said, "I hope Jesus Christ will be the last in my line of sensitive young men for quite a while."
Zeffirelli stuffed his cast with stars of varying aptness: Laurence Olivier rolling his eyes as Nicodemus, Rod Steiger spuming as Pilate, Ernest Borgnine in the John Wayne role. Olivia Hussey, less than a decade after Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet," is Jesus' mother (another movie where the actors playing the son is older, here by seven years, than the actress playing his mother). Anne Bancroft is Magdalene the casting director must have mixed up the two Marys.
The scourging lasts only eight or nine lashes, but they snap and sting; the soldiers wind up for their work like Olympic discus throwers. At Jesus' death there's no earthquake, only rain. Zeffirelli suggests that the response to a Savior's death would be the tears of angel, not the rumblings of subterranean spirits.
MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN, 1979
What's changed in the quarter-century since I first saw this movie? Possibly my sense of humor. I didn't find "Life of Brian," at least the 30 min. Passion section, much fun this time. The sextet devoted way too much ribaldry to speech impediments and Jesus' termagant mum, and the filmmaking craft, which I'd remembered as spiffy, now looked slack. Only the strong central metaphor remains: of a fellow who is mistaken for Christ and crucified. "The Last Temptation of Christ" has a similar theme: a man slowly discovers he is God or may be.
"Brian" gets smarter at the crucifixion, when 139 people are to be crossed up, and this perpendicular Golgotha gang displays all manner of traditional English class snobbery, transported to Palestine. "Under the terms of the Roman occupation, we're entitled to be buried in a purely Jewish area," sniffs one man, whose wife (crucified next to him), says me too. Eric Idle has a few good bits as various incorrigibly sunny prisoners. "See," he tells Graham Chapman's Brian as their crosses are planted, "not so bad when you're up." Idle tops this with the immortal music-hall cheerer-upper, "The Bright Side of Life," which has since become a rally song for English footballers. Words to live and die by:
a piece of shit
When you look at it.
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
You'll see it's all a show.
Keep 'em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you
And always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the right side of life.
THE DAY CHRIST DIED, 1980
Judas gets his props in this TV movie written by Oscar-winning Edward Anhalt ("Becket") and "Greatest Story Ever Told" survivor James Lee Barrett, and directed by James Cellan Jones, specialist in Masterpiece Theatre-style minis ("The Forsyte Saga," "The Golden Bowl," "Jennie," "Oxbridge Blues," "Fortunes of War") and series ("Rumpole of the Old Bailey"). Barrie Houghton hasn't a winsome face, but his Judas is given every opportunity to seem plausible, contorted, remorseful, pleading with the religious elite to exculpate his crime of betrayal.
Like Gibson's "Passion," this one covers the last hours of Jesus' life, and alludes to earlier events by flashbacks. In the Gibson films they are visual, here verbal: in long testimony during the trial, witnesses describe some of Jesus' miracles, sermons, claims to royalty or divinity. Happily fashioning a cat's cradle from the tangle of religious and secular politics, the movie pins most of the blame on the Romans, whose second in command tells his soldiers, "Be sure that it is technically the Jews who make the arrest, and that he is brought to the house of the high priest." That's Caiaphas, played by Colin Blakely (who a decade earlier was Jesus in Dennis Potter's TV play "Son of Man," accused by some BBC viewers of blasphemy).
Chris Sarandon conquers a strange hair day (it's curly and pouffed out, as if by Mr. George of Galilee) to show a supernal, coiled sexiness. Thirteen lashes at the pillar. As the first nail hits his wrist, Jesus writhes in anguish and the film slows to a freeze frame. In the version shown on Fox Movie Channel, the movie ends abruptly, with a last conspiratorial chat between Herod and Caiaphas. "The Day Christ Died" is thus closer to a "Who Killed J.C.?"
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, 1988
In Morocco, on a pinchpenny budget of $6 million, Scorsese recreated a Palestine of sere deserts and balding meadows. He found actors whose faces, most of them, boast Semitic heritage; whose voices hold the raspy, urgent cadences of Brooklyn, Appalachia and other frontier outposts of working-class America. (Only Satan and the Romans speak with British accents.)
Scorsese's style is impatient, intimate, conspiratorial, the camera scurrying ever closer to the heart of the matter X-rays of souls in stress. His films are also, thematically, the same film. In "Mean Streets" and "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy" and "The Color of Money," "Goodfellas" and "Gangs of New York," he has made his own kind of buddy movie. Two men are bound by love or hate; one must betray the other and thereby help certify his mission.
In the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and Paul Schrader's script, Scorsese has found a story vibrant with melodrama and metaphor. This Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is not God born as man. He is a man who discovers or invents his own divinity. And he is both tormented and excited by the revelation. This Judas (Harvey Keitel) is a strong, loving activist. He wants to overthrow the Roman occupiers, while Jesus wants freedom for the soul. To fulfill his covenant, Judas must betray not Jesus but his own ideal of revolution. He must hand the man he most loves over to the Romans.
Any Jesus film with sex and violence is bound to roil the faithful. For Scorsese, though, these elements are bold colors on the canvas, images of the life Jesus must renounce and redeem. The sex scene (in which Barbara Hershey's Mary Magdalene entertains some customers) exposes a strong woman's degradation more than it does her flesh.
JESUS CHRIST, VAMPIRE HUNTER, 2001
After an orgy of solemnity, after ten or so films where I could mouth half the dialogue because it came straight from the Gospels and the earlier Jesus movies, I needed a good laugh. But I got hardly a giggle from "JCVH," the first kungfu-lesbian-horror-Mexican-wrestling musical comedy. (Could there be a second?) The premise, from screenwriter Ian Driscoll, is piquant: Jesus H. Christ joins forces with a priest to rid Ottawa of a vampire coven. He's an activist Savior ("If I'm not back in five minutes, call the Pope") who kicks beaucoup d'ass. He's closer to a standard Mel Gibson hero than to the hero of the new Mel Gibson movie. But the comedy is slack, the song lyrics feeble, the pace torpid. Note to cultists: A movie may be incompetently acted and amateurishly shot. That doesn't mean you have to like it.
SOUTH PARK, 1997-2003
Strange that Trey Parker and Matt Stone's wonderfully irreverent animated sitcom on Comedy Central should be the one place on entertainment TV to find pointed, pertinent theological debate. Is, though. In the quiet Colorado mountain town of South Park, four nine-year-old boys delve into eschatology nearly as much as scatology. Jesus Christ is a palpable presence in South Park not surprising, since he lives there and hosts a cable access talk show ("Jesus and Pals"). A good and mild man in a mad and wild world, Jesus has fought a championship boxing match with Satan (episode 108), attempted to calm Millennium jitters at a Las Vegas concert with Rod Stewart (episode 316), and battled evil cult-magician David Blaine with the help of his Super Best Friends Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Krishna, Lao Tse and the Mormons' Joseph Smith.
Like Gibson's Messiah, Parker and Stone's Jesus has Father issues. In the millennium episode (314), young Stan Marsh asks Jesus, "Why does God hate me?" and the Savior mutters, "Huh? He doesn't hate you, he hates me. He's gonna let me be crucified again." Jesus is also not always comfortable with his job. At the end of the episode, when a booing crowd comes to its senses, the elementary school chef says, "Jesus, we're sorry. Can you ever forgive us?" He puts his halo back on and replies, "Aw heck. Do I have a choice?" (All dialogue for these episodes is available on the invaluable fansite, the South Park Scriptorium.)
In this town, it seems, everyone is Catholic. The boys often take Christ's name in vain, but the sweetest kid in South Park, Butters, is also the most devout. When he says Jesus, it's not a swear word but a desperate prayer: "Uhoh, great Jesus, son of Mary, wife of Joseph, what are we gonna do, huh? Huhoh, sweet Joseph, husband of Mary but not father of sweet Jesus!" Butters' mom was right when (after she tried to kill him), she said, "You're the best son in the whole world."
The one Jewish kid is Kyle Broflofski, whose presence allows "South Park" to address the Jewish question that has dogged Gibson. In a great episode (410), Kyle's three friends Stan, Kenny and Cartman are prepared for their first Holy Communion and scared crapless that they'll go to hell if they don't confess all their sins. Kyle, equally, panicked, wants to confess too. But the very conservative priest, Father Maxi, informs Kyle solemnly that he and his hapless kind are condemned to wade forever in the wretched lake of fire. His colleague, the more liberal Sister Anne, is shocked: "I think that as long as Jewish people are good, they will get into heaven." The priest is incensed: "Sister, the Jews crucified our Savior. I mean, if you don't go to hell for crucifying the Savior, then what the hell do you go to hell for?!"
Know that Maxi is quickly punished for his doctrinal heresy. He's found fornicating in the confessional, and the shocked children start their own church. Indeed, they often flirt with religious cults, other sects ("All About the Mormons," episode 712) and Christian rock. In "Christian Rock Hard" (episode 709), Cartman forms a trio called Faith + 1 that zooms to the top of the Christian charts with such romantic ballads as "I Wasn't Born Again Yesterday" and "Three Times My Savior." The record executives are troubled by the intensity of Cartman's lyrics: "It appears you are actually... in love with Christ." Cartman shrugs: "Well, what's the difference? You love Christ, you're in love with Christ I mean, what the heck is this?" What it is, is a profession of faith more lurid than Gibson could have dreamed, as in the uptempo spiritual, "Body of Christ," with these sensuous lyrics:
The Body of Christ! Sleek
swimmer's body, all muscled up and toned!
The Body of Christ! O, Lord Almighty, I wish I could call it my own!...
Lord Almighty oooooooooo, I've never been so enticed!
Oh I wish I could have the body of Christ!
True believers can take their choice: the bloody body of Christ, courtesy of Mel Gibson and James Caviezel, or the muscle-beach Jesus of those theological scamps at "South Park."
I'm thinking, I'm thinking.