For a decade now, the Easter season makes me think of two things: Mel Gibson and a stranger at my front door.
In 2004, less than two years after I'd converted to Catholicism, Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ came out on Ash Wednesday, to equal parts acclaim and disdain. As beautiful as it is cynically manipulative, as faithful as it is divisive, The Passion of the Christ was one of those rare movies—and there haven't been too many since—that held sway over public discourse for weeks. On one hand, there was the fundamentalist Christian (both Protestant and Catholic) embrace of the film and its focus on Christ's suffering and crucifixion—people started buying miniature spikes and wearing them as necklace charms as a display of their devotion. On the other was the movie's anti-Semitism and archaic take on Catholicism, not to mention Gibson's defensiveness in interviews when asked about the film's portrayal of Jews. (Both Gibson and his father practice so-called "Catholic traditionalism," which rejects Vatican II and looks back fondly on the more reactionary outcomes of the Council of Trent.)
A friend and I saw the movie the day it came out, to try to get a sense of what all the fuss was about. At the time, I was still feeling the pull of my newfound Catholic faith, as well, and was hoping the movie might have the same effect on me as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ had many years before. I admit that parts of The Passion of the Christ moved me, too, but in the end, it felt like the movie encouraged more divisiveness than connection, and I believe that was part of Gibson's intent.
Coincidentally or not, a few weeks after the movie's release, I witnessed the first and only anti-gay demonstration I've ever seen in Beaver Dam, the small Wisconsin town (population roughly 16,000) where I live. Driving home from work on a sun-drenched spring day, I saw a handful of young adults with signs bearing anti-gay slogans at one of our main intersections. It was awful stuff—not quite Westboro Baptist-level vulgarity, but vile enough that my blood boiled as I thought of young gay and lesbian teens walking home from school only to face signs telling them that they were less than fully human, that they were sinners in the eyes of the Christian god. (It's worth noting, of course, that there's nothing inherently homophobic about Christianity, contrary to what fundamentalists argue.)
As soon as I got home, I scoured the house for posterboard and a Sharpie, determined to go downtown and stage a one-man counterprotest. Coming up short on supplies (and, to be honest courage), I opted instead to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper expressing solidarity with LGBT citizens of Beaver Dam and outrage at the bigotry I'd seen on the corner of Spring and Main. A few nights after it was published, I was home with my teenage son when there was a knock on the door. My son answered and called for me; on the front porch was a middle-aged woman I'd never met before, in the driveway a car running with, presumably, her husband sitting inside. She told me she'd read my letter, and that she was praying for me. She handed me a gift card to the local movie theater and implored me to see The Passion of the Christ.
I was too taken aback to say much of anything, but I accepted the card, said "thanks," and shut the door. I could sense that she wasn't looking for a discussion anyway. I called my wife and told her about the exchange; she was just thankful that the person at the door had been peaceful and reminded me that we live in a small town, she works in a public field, and our address and phone number were listed. When I'd written a letter to the same newspaper a year earlier to express my disgust and despair over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I'd gotten a few phone calls (two supporting, one not), but it never occurred to me that someone might read a letter to the editor and go to the writer's house.
In the years since, I've given my visitor the benefit of the doubt. She felt so passionately about her beliefs that she felt compelled to try to change the mind and heart of someone whom she saw as sinful, I told myself. She was acting out of a spirit of love and faith, I reasoned. At least she didn't write something hateful on my front door.
But I think I've been too kind in my assessment of her motives. What made her assume I wasn't Christian? What made her so sure I hadn't seen The Passion of the Christ? What gave her the right to decide that I needed saving? The charitable assessment is that she just wanted me to "find god," whatever that means. The flip side, of course, is that she believed I hadn't found god, and that I was hellbound because I'd dared assert that gays and lesbians are people. I forgive her, but what she did wasn't that much different from what those people did with their signs on the street corner.
Like a lot of people, I wrestle with issues of faith and spirituality on almost a daily basis. I've learned from Christ and from Buddha, from the Bible and the Koran. I meditate, and I still go to Catholic mass sometimes. I've read the "new atheists," and find Hitchens and Dawkins, despite their rhetorical flair, to be as narrow-minded in their ways as religious fundamentalists are in theirs. I'm not about to disparage or dismiss the faithful in any religion—unless they're using their religion to disparage and dismiss others, like those protesters on the corner or the woman at my front door.
Ultimately, Christianity is like many other religions: Part fact, mostly fiction—the result of human beings' attempts to grapple with the great unknown and the spiritual power that resides not out there but within us all. Crucifixion, resurrection, and saviors are all metaphors for the struggles and miracles that manifest within our hearts and in the connections we have with others. God? God resides in each of us, and in the world we inhabit, all that we can see and cannot see. I still find much of Christian mythology, ceremony, and iconography incredibly powerful and moving, but I see and feel the spirit as much in so-called secular literature, art, and music as I do in any psalm or prayer.
In a collection of essays called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon quotes a letter his aunt wrote to her brother, Kiese's uncle: "You taught me that love without acceptance and understanding isn't love." She was writing about love on an interpersonal level, but the same applies to love on the communal and spiritual level.
Movies like The Passion of the Christ have at their foundation the belief that there is only one path to salvation, and they condemn those who don't follow it. I believe there are many paths, that salvation comes from within ourselves and from each other, and that in loving ourselves and each other is how and where we find God. The metaphors of religion and myth are powerful and useful, maybe even necessary.
For me, though, there's no single answer, just a never-ending quest that leads me down many roads. This Easter, I'm finding my way (as I have every Easter since I've been a child) with the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar, because it tells a human story about God. But I'm also listening to the lion.