Cruxnews.com By Michael S. Rose
Christ's passion has always been controversial, and the latest dramatization is being criticized for its faithful adherence to the Gospels.
A filmmaker’s greatest temporal hope is that his work will generate publicity, that his latest effort will create a buzz that spreads far and wide. Good or bad publicity—some say it really doesn’t matter.
Mel Gibson ought to be happy.
His newest film The Passion has probably received more publicity than several of Hollywood’s latest blockbusters combined. The man and his film have become focal points of contention across the nation, spawning incipient editorials from Boston to Los Angeles and back. In a low-blow special, The New York Times even attacked Gibson’s ailing octogenarian father who lives more than 4,000 miles away and has nothing whatsoever to do with his son’s latest production.
The corker: The Passion isn’t due out in theaters for another eight months. In fact, it hasn’t been viewed by anyone outside of the production team. For that reason alone, The Passion is being assaulted in an unprecedented way: a preemptive war has been launched by those who want to either re-write the Good Book or scatter its ashes at sea.
Of course, The Passion started with an advantage.
The $25 million production from Gibson’s Icon studios chronicles the twelve hours leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. The passion of Christ has always been controversial, and the latest dramatization of the greatest story ever told is being criticized not for its infidelity to the Gospel, but rather for its faithful adherence to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In other words, Gibson’s ten-year labor of love stands accused of following the Gospel accounts of the passion too closely!
Actor-producer-director Mel Gibson, a staunchly tradition-minded Catholic, is no Nikos Kazantzakis. The renowned Greek novelist’s version of the passion, The Last Temptation of Christ, was used as the basis for a silver screen palimpsest of the same name in 1988. Directed by Martin Scorcese, that effort portrayed an effete Christ unknown to the four evangelists. Likewise, the film adhered to the most progressive of modern exegetical fads. An example: Mary Magdalene, when she wasn’t prostituting herself amongst the heathens (with hickeys and all to prove the point), functioned as a kind of “girlfriend” to Jesus, their relationship replete with sexual undertones in Scorcese’s flick.
Accordingly, The Last Temptation of Christ was critically acclaimed as a broad-minded cinematic portrayal of Christ’s life, passion and death, precisely because of its overtly manifest infidelity to the Gospel. There was no wailing from the Anti-Defamation League here; no gnashing of teeth from liberal Catholic scholars and progressive religious pundits. In fact, the orthodox Christians who voiced objections to the film were piously lectured to be “tolerant” of Scorcese’s artistic bastardization of the Gospel.
The row over Gibson’s passion involves a string of media attacks stemming from a wholly negative 18-page critique put together by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and an ad-hoc scholars’ group that advises a subcommittee of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ bureaucracy. (Last year that same subcommittee inveighed against Catholics seeking to convert Jews to Christianity.)
It is instructive to note that the hysterically impetuous report itself, said to be “confidential,” was based on obsolete and pirated material. An early, working version of the screenplay—later revised—was stolen by someone the ad-hoc group playfully refers to as “our Deep Throat.” Again, none of the critics viewed the actual film; they based their critique on outdated material that was criminally acquired.
The allegedly “confidential” report issued by the self-important ad-hoc group was leaked to the press—rather enthusiastically it seems. The critics likewise seemed rather enthusiastic about making themselves available for comment, belying their wanton desire to go public.
The report found fault with everything from the size of the cross (too big) used for the crucifixion scene (too realistic) to the languages spoken throughout the film (too confusing). The crux of the critique however was the fear that “a graphic movie presentation of the crucifixion could reawaken the very anti-Semitic attitudes that [they] have devoted [their] careers to combating.” Stopping shy of calling Mel Gibson a Nazi, they expressed the fear that Gibson’s Jews will be portrayed as wicked money-grubbers who take delight in Jesus’ suffering and death.
For the ADL’s part, the vigilant Jewish watchdog is driving home its concern that the film may well be “replete with objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism” by demanding that it be invited to preview The Passion before its release. The ADL admittedly makes its demand with the intention of bullying Gibson’s production team to reduce the work to an anemic passion that conforms to its version of history and theology.
Both Jewish and Christian contingents of the ad-hoc battalion and their media sycophants are particularly distressed that Gibson fails to pay homage to their pet exegetical theory, the one that dismisses the Gospel as an effort of anti-Semitic fourth century Christians seeking to shift the blame for Christ’s death from Pontius Pilate to the Jews.
In an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, ex-priest and former Catholic James Carroll, who has made a career out of beating war drums against orthodox Christianity, distills that concern: “Even a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of Jew hatred.”
Carroll presents the case against Gibson and his Passion more forthrightly than most: according to his line of thinking, the four Gospels are anti-Semitic, and orthodox Christians who presumably take the Gospels seriously are filthy Jew haters—Gibson included.
While the flurry of gossip columns and editorials were still littering the nation’s dailies, the U.S. bishops’ bureaucracy came under fire for its affiliation with the incontinent critique. Gibson even hinted to an Australian newspaper that he was threatening a lawsuit against the good shepherds who seem eternally hostage to the deceitful artifice of their swollen bureaucracy. Shortly thereafter, Mark E. Chopko, attorney for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered a passionate mea culpa to Gibson and gave his well-publicized assurance that the bishops’ bureaucratic brigade will hold off on being party to any further critique until the film is released, a courtesy accorded to nearly all other films.
In an article that appeared in the pages of Variety, Mel Gibson responded to his critics this way:
“The Passion is a film 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 (or none) who have varying familiarity with this story. For those concerned about the content of this film, know that it conforms to the narratives of Christ’s passion and death found in the four Gospels of the New Testament. This is a movie about faith, hope, love and forgiveness—something sorely needed in these turbulent times.”
Gibson insists his passion is a faithful portrayal—and that’s admirable, but for his detractors that is precisely the problem. It seems intolerable to them that one of Hollywood’s most influential personalities has made it clear that his retelling of the passion promises to be faithful to Scripture. In the end, their quibble is not so much with the film or its producer as it is with the New Testament and (the real) Christ Himself. Mel Gibson’s critics are only sorry that nothing they can do or say at this point will likely dissuade him from following through with his ambitious and faithful project. Their preemptive war was a dud.
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