Politics & Policy

Brutal Passion

Jesus on the big screen.

A few weeks ago, my wife took our seven-year-old son John Paul to the movie theater. When he saw a marquee announcing the movie The Gospel of John, he noticed that it was rated PG-13. “That can’t be,” he said with incredulity. “The Bible is not PG-13.” Michelle had to explain to him that the Bible was not only G, but that it was PG-13, as well as R. I would add that there are a few spots that are even NC-17.

The Good Book is filled with betrayal, greed, lust, murder, sex, and excruciating violence. As parents, we edit, censor, and sanitize to wisely respect age-appropriateness. Nevertheless, this interaction was a great opportunity to remember that our faith was born out of blood, sweat and tears–far more gritty than a Thomas Kinkade painting or a Precious Moments nativity scene. In our contemporary culture, however, our crosses are studded with diamonds instead of splinters.

Perhaps that is why my son may not be the only one who is surprised by the PG-13 rating. The Gospel of John is a $20 million movie that was produced by the American Bible Society as a verse-by-verse dramatic portrayal of the New Testament book. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and even garnered positive reviews from unlikely media outlets. “Though I approached The Gospel of John with some trepidation, I’ve now seen the film twice and consider it to be an extraordinary achievement,” wrote Scott Foundas in the avant-garde LA Weekly. “Extraordinary for the way it casts its oft-told events in such a fresh light that they do not seem so familiar at all.”

The film has successfully been able to avoid controversy, let alone being labeled as anti-Semitic, for two very good reasons. First of all, the executive producer, producer, and director are all Jewish. The second, and perhaps more important reason, is that the movie is never going to produce the kind of cultural fireworks that will have tongues wagging with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ–perhaps the most-debated (before being seen) film in the history of cinema.

It is impossible to be unaware of the media attention devoted to The Passion. Is the film anti-Semitic? Will it incite violence against Jews? Did Pope John Paul II say, “It is as it was”? Who speaks Aramaic anymore? Why in heaven’s name would Gibson pour $25 million of his own money to focus in on the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ? Why does it have to be so gruesomely violent?

Gibson and his movie have been under a flurry of ferocious attacks from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker. These broadsides have been fueled by the Anti-Defamation League and a handful of liberal Catholic and Protestant theologians.

“When violence breaks out,” Paula Fredriksen breathlessly declared in a hyperventilated article for The New Republic, “Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.” In the article “Mad Mel,” Fredriksen, a professor at Boston University, went on to dismiss the movie she had not seen as an “anti-historical, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic film about the crucifixion.” This judgment was based on the fact that she simply does not believe that the New Testament is reliable. End of story.

In their coverage of The Passion, the predictably contrarian website Salon.com turned to the Rev. Mark Stanger, one of the pastors at the trendy Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco. “100 percent Hollywood trash,” is how he described it. What was his advice to moviegoers? “I’d say don’t bother. I think it’s a big bore. I think a 5-year-old who has to get cancer surgery and radiation and chemotherapy suffers more than Jesus suffered; I think that a kid in the Gaza Strip who steps on a land mine and loses two limbs suffers more; I think a battered wife with no resources suffers more; I think people without medical care dying of AIDS in Africa suffer more than Jesus did that day. I mean, I don’t want to take away from that, but this preoccupation with the intensity of the suffering, I think, has no theological or spiritual value.”

Good grief, say whatever you want about The Passion, but calling it a bore is nothing more than fever-swamp ruminations.

STONE SILENCE

I saw the movie in the boardroom of Gibson’s Icon Productions last November with a handful of rock musicians and artists. For a group who makes their living with microphones and electric guitars, they were stone silent at the end of the film. We all were. This is definitely not a date movie; it is a think flick. You need a cup of herbal tea and a handful of those aromatherapy candles to chill out and process afterward.

Church folks should be warned, this is not your typical family-friendly “Christian” movie such as Chariots of Fire or The Ten Commandments. The Passion is the most brutal movie you will probably ever see. People will be sobbing in the theaters or running out to get sick in the lobby.

This is the Sunday-school flannel-board lesson for a generation that grew up on violent video games, skipped church, and stood in line to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1–a gratuitously bloody movie with no redemptive purpose. The Passion has an unmistakable gothic and art house feel, with touches of the ghoulish and grotesque. There is one unforgettable scene of Mary, the mother of Jesus, kissing her son’s bloody feet as he dangles from the cross. She then turns around and looks into the camera with his blood on her lips.

Is there too much gore and violence in The Passion? Probably. It made me turn my head. I just kept whispering, “Dear Jesus,” to myself throughout many of the scenes. It is the most sadistic and simultaneously holy thing I have seen.

This is not the kind of movie that you merely watch, it is one you experience. Think back to when you first saw the movie Roots on TV–seeing a white man whip a black man’s back. It wreaks havoc on your gut. All of the high-school history lessons about the Civil War changed in a dimension of your comprehension–moving from your head to your heart.

It is painful to watch as Jesus stumbles through the Via Dolorosa–the path of pain–on his way to Golgotha, as his beloved mother watches helplessly from the sidelines, flashing back in her memory to a time when she could still cradle her son in her arms. As Jesus is nailed to the cross, you know you will never view communion the same way again. The same could be said for the way you conceive of Mary (Maia Morgenstern) or Satan (Rosalinda Celentano–say goodbye to the red cape and pitchfork caricature).

JEWS, JESUS & MEL

As our group talked with Gibson after watching the movie, it was very clear that he was most vexed about the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against the movie. He spoke of venting his frustrations on his spiritual counselor, who simply would remind him that Jesus turned the other cheek. “I am good 8 out of 10 days,” he joked, referring to the cheek turning.

As to the movie, you could not help but watch it through the prism of the accusations. You looked at every character to see if he were unfairly called upon to portray an anti-Semitic stereotype or if a disproportionate amount of blame was laid upon one person or group. Ironically, Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary, is the Jewish daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Furthermore, the only appearance that Gibson makes in the movie is when his hands are seen driving the nails into Jesus on the cross–simultaneously driving home the point of his own culpability in the death of Christ.

“There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish about Mel Gibson’s film,” said Augustine Di Noia, a theologian at the Vatican. “What happens in the film is that each of the main characters contributes in some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas betrays him; the Sanhedrin accuses him; the disciples abandon him; the crowd mocks him; the Roman soldiers scourge, brutalize, and finally crucify him; and the devil, somehow, is behind the whole action.”

From my perspective, the film makes it clear that there were righteous and unrighteous Jewish and Roman leaders who played a part in the drama unfolded around the crucifixion of Jesus. It is fair to say that anyone leaving the movie theater with anti-Semitic fervor would have to be deranged and morally warped–or they didn’t watch it.

According to Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, Gibson would say, “Maia, tell me about your [Jewish] traditions. Is this O.K. to do?” Part of the frustration surrounding the accusations against the movie is that it was meant to be “very Semitic,” according to Caviezel. “Instead of having an Aryan, blue-eyed Jesus, [Gibson] wanted to have a very Semitic Jesus,” Caviezel told Newsweek. “Our faith is grounded in our Jewish tradition. We believe we’re from the House of David. We believe we’re from the House of Abraham, so we cannot hate our own. That crowd standing before Pontius Pilate screaming for the head of Christ in no way convicts an entire race for the death of Jesus Christ any more than the actions of Mussolini condemn all Italians, or the heinous actions of Stalin condemn all Russians. We’re all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins put him up there. Yours did. That’s what this story is about.”

Christian leaders might find it wise to defend The Passion as well as use this controversy in order to speak out clearly against the heinous and lingering sin of anti-Semitism. “Of course, even the most responsible, well-intentioned movie treatment of the last hours of Jesus will provoke concern in the Jewish community, because so many millions of Jews have suffered and died over the centuries due to Gospel-based charges that they are ‘Christ killers,’” writes Michael Medved, the popular movie reviewer and Orthodox Jew, in USA Today. “But the fact that persecutors and bigots have distorted teachings of the New Testament for their own cruel purposes doesn’t mean that those Gospel texts, sacred to all Christians, must be scrapped, revised or ignored in a serious work of cinema.”

The accusation of anti-Semitism has been an unjust albatross around Gibson’s neck. “To be certain, neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic,” he said in a statement published in Variety. “Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs; it is also contrary to the core message of my movie…[which is] meant to inspire, not offend. My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds. “If the intense scrutiny during my 25 years in public life revealed I had ever persecuted or discriminated against anyone based on race or creed, I would be all too willing to make amends. But there is no such record.”

“I have always believed in God,” Gibson told us. “From age 15 to 35, I was a hell raiser. In many ways, I still am,” he said jokingly. He then went on to tell us that he had “come to a difficult point in my life and meditating on Christ’s sufferings, on his passion, got me through it.” Christ’s passion became his obsession–and ultimately a healing balm.

“I’m not a preacher and I’m not a pastor. But I really feel my career was leading me to make this,” Gibson has said. “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize.”

That should not be a problem. I have been a Christian for 20 years and after seeing The Passion I wanted to sign up all over again.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.Org and a contributing author to Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons.

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