The week’s most lurid headlines hide an interesting question: Is a creator of religious art obligated to maintain the religion’s standards by his own behavior? Or, put it another way–should creating religious art (including film) also convert the artist?
Mel Gibson, an Oscar-winning director and one of the most bankable stars of his time, stands enshrouded in publicity of a loathsome sort. Associated Press has reported a police investigation into whether Gibson was involved in a domestic violence incident against his former girlfriend, with whom he has an infant daughter. Audio tapes have also emerged that allegedly captured Gibson spewing violent, racist, anti-Semitic tirades. The actor is also undergoing a divorce from his wife. It marks the second time in four years he has found himself the lead in an unhappy, damaging story.
Who can forget that Gibson, product and practitioner of a very traditionalist Roman Catholicism, stands only six years removed from making the most lucrative “Jesus movie” of all time? His “The Passion of the Christ” brutally re-imagined Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Many evangelical Protestants, among others, embraced the film, some seeing it as a proselytizing tool capable of winning new faithful. And Gibson, as marketer, surely benefited from a high-profile curiosity factor: Months before its opening, some American Catholics and Jewish organizations worried the film carried anti-Semitic overtones. (For the record, I disliked the film–strongly.) In the end, Gibson and his movie seemed to carry the day. Some critics wrote favorably; the American box office surpassed $300 million.
Sic transit gloria mundi. In 2006, a police officer pulled Gibson over on suspicion of drunken driving; the actor responded with what People magazine called “an anti-Semitic tirade.” (The cop happened to be Jewish.) Gibson shortly declared his words “despicable” and himself “deeply ashamed.”
Indiscretions and worse often color the lives of Hollywood celebrities. But how many become notorious after making a globally-distributed testimony to their religious faith? O.K., the latest material is mainly allegations. But as it’s presented in the news, the Gibson story eschews the typical conversion narrative, where the messy behavior comes first.
If you’re seeking more edifying fare, I’ve got a recommendation. It’s a book that tells a good story–actually, four of them, intertwining the biographies of 20th Century Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day (who is, granted, better known as an activist). Day and Merton led erratic lives prior to their baptisms. Later, they, like O’Connor and Percy, went on to produce remarkable works of literature. They are still read, still influential. The book, by the way, is titled, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie, published a few years back.
It’s a long way from Hollywood. And, at the moment, probably just as well for that.