Saturday, January 31, 2004

Passion for The Passion

Mel Gibson, evidently, is dreading the worst when his film about Christ's crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ, is released later next month. He probably should -- and for good reason.

According to Charisma News [registration required], Gibson thinks the early dustup raised by Jewish leaders (as well as religious scholars) over the film's allegedly anti-Semitic content was just a harbinger of the criticism that awaits him when the movie goes national, on Feb. 25:
"I anticipate the worst is yet to come," Gibson told more than 5,000 pastors and Christian leaders representing more than 80 denominations and 43 countries last Wednesday during the Global Pastors Network conference. "I hope I'm wrong; I hope I'm wrong," added Gibson, a conservative Catholic, Agence France-Presse reported.

Using "stealth tactics" to view the invitation-only screening of the film at the conference held in the Orlando, Fla., area, national Jewish leaders blasted the movie as anti-Semitic, The Orlando Sentinel reported.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the group's interfaith consultant, bought tickets to the conference in their own names, but both men registered for the conference as representatives of "The Church of Truth," in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I am sorry we had to engage in stealth tactics, but only because he [Gibson] forced us to," Foxman said.

Oh, those sneaky Jews.

Of course, this version elides the content of Foxman's criticism as reported by The Sentinel, to wit:
"At every single opportunity, Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion."

Indeed, another rabbi who attended a showing under somewhat more straightforward circumstances had this to say:
Rabbi Aaron Rubinger of Congregation Ohev Shalom said The Passion of The Christ was "cinematically very powerful," but it had the potential to become an "ecumenical suicide bomb."

The rabbi, who accurately identified his affiliation and rewrote his confidentiality agreement to permit him to comment on the film, doesn't advocate a boycott or campaign against the film by Jews, he said. Nor does he think Gibson meant to inflame anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, he said, "some people will come away from this film with very powerfully negative feelings about Jews."

Gibson started out by previewing the film to a bevy of conservative pundits who all testified afterward that it was powerful, and hey, they didn't see anything anti-Semitic about it. These included Peggy Noonan, Cal Thomas and Kate O'Beirne, who are now, predictably, taking to the airwaves to defend the film.

His next step was to recruit a broad array of conservative evangelical Christians from around the country. As Laura Sheehan reported at BeliefNet:
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the controversy, Gibson's savvy outreach to Christian groups has borne fruit. His production company, Icon, has selectively pre-screened the movie to sympathetic audiences and is providing Christian ministries with promotional material to fuel a grassroots movement in support of "The Passion." Through websites, e-mail, tracts, and even lapel pins, Protestant and Catholic outlets are galvanizing church leaders, youth groups, and individuals to promote the film.

"Are you looking for materials your church can use to publicize showings of The Passion?" asks the website, billed as a "database offering multi-lingual, multi-format Christian resources to share your faith in Christ as it relates to the Mel Gibson movie." A site sponsored by Teen Mania calls the movie a "one-of-a-kind opportunity" and offers multimedia products for church youth groups; their DVD set helps youth workers lead "a four-week curriculum leading up to the movie, a guide to the outreach itself, and a two-week post-outreach curriculum."

But the dubious nature of Gibson's enterprise became apparent in these very showings. Attendees were required to sign a confidentiality agreement that forbids those who attended from criticizing the film -- though if you wanted to praise it, you were free to do so.

Noted theologian John Dominic Crossan attended, and was appalled by the nature of the agreement itself:
In any case, it was not the fact but the content of the confidentiality agreement that surprised me. On one hand, it enjoined me "to hold confidential my exposure, knowledge and opinions of the film." On the other hand it affirmed that, "pastors and church leaders are free to speak out in support of the movie and your opinions resulting from today's experience and exposure to this project and its producer."

I understand that legalese to mean that negative opinions are forbidden but positive ones are solicited. It is one thing to say that nobody can give any information about the movie or even express any opinion about it; but to allow support while denying criticism is something between cover-up and censorship. And its power is that of fear -- the fear of ordinary and unprotected persons like myself that they might be sued for giving their opinion, even insofar as that could be done without discussing the movie itself.

Sure enough, the advance notices from fans of the film have been effusive, to put it kindly. Typical was the review from The Elijah Net, a significant defender of Gibson, headlined "I Was Simply Transfixed." Another Elijah Net correspondent, Holly McClure, interviewed Gibson and reported back:
"I spent the day with Mel last Thursday -- Steve, I told him about the Elijah list and how you've been praying for him. . . He smiled and said, "wow" and we talked about it some more. He shared how he has been battling spiritual realms -- dark and light -- good and evil -- he said it's been very apparent in editing this movie... lots of stuff happening.

"I reminded him how many of your readers pray for him -- he said, 'Well, it's working.'"

Indeed, defenders of the film are carrying the "dark and light" theme of the debate -- Jewish and scholarly critics, evidently, being "the dark" -- as the major component of their argument. William Donohue, president of the ultra-conservative Catholic League, released a statement accusing the film's critics of "playing dirty":
Then there are the smear merchants who attack Mel?s father. In an interview that appeared last March in the New York Times Magazine, Hutton Gibson questioned the figure of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, something many Jewish scholars have done. He did not deny the Holocaust, though it has often been reported that way.

Oh, really? Well, here's what Hutton Gibson said in that interview:
He moved on to the Holocaust, dismissing historical accounts that six million Jews were exterminated. ''Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body,'' he said. ''It takes one liter of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, six million?''

Across the table, Joye suddenly looked up from her plate. She was dressed in a stylish outfit for church, wearing a leather patchwork blazer and a felt beret in place of the traditional headdress. She had kept quiet most of the day, so it was a surprise when she cheerfully piped in. ''There weren't even that many Jews in all of Europe,'' she said.

''Anyway, there were more after the war than before,'' Hutton added.

The entire catastrophe was manufactured, said Hutton, as part of an arrangement between Hitler and ''financiers'' to move Jews out of Germany. Hitler ''had this deal where he was supposed to make it rough on them so they would all get out and migrate to Israel because they needed people there to fight the Arabs,'' he said.

It's also worth observing, of course, that Hutton Gibson speaks at Holocaust denial conferences and has continuing significant associations with such anti-Semites as Frederick Toben of the Adelaide Institute.

Donohue continues:
But why do the comments of a man who is in his mid-80s, and who has nothing to do with the film, matter so much? Unless, of course, the name of the game is to brand both Mel and his father as bigots. Even as recently as January 23, we were questioned by a producer at CBS about Mel?s father. We were asked whether he is a Holocaust denier; what his reaction to the film is; and whether he is a member of the Catholic League.

Hutton Gibson, clearly, is in fact an avid Holocaust denier and, indeed, an extremist Catholic as well. It's difficult to say, of course, to what extent Mel shares his father's views. But it's worth noting that Mel has specifically cited his father's beliefs in the past (see the excerpts from the Playboy interview here).

And it seems apparent that Hutton Gibson's views of the Holocaust have indeed been picked up by his son. Tbogg observes that Mel Gibson essentially reiterated this position in an interview with Peggy Noonan, evasively answering the questions about Holocaust denial:
"I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union."

It's important, of course, to understand that this is exactly the storyline pushed by Holocaust deniers, namely, that yes, there were many Jews killed in Europe during World War II, but they were only a small part of the total who died in the war, and the "6 million" number is grossly exaggerated. Not only is this exactly what Hutton Gibson told the New York Times, you can find the exact same views at such Holocaust-denial organs as the Barnes Review, the Institute for Historical Review, and the Adelaide Institute.

Moreover, in the same interview, Gibson makes clear that his beliefs accord fully with his father's:
"My dad taught me my faith, and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life."

So it should be clear that not only does Mel Gibson hold troubling views about Jews and the Holocaust, he also is the kind of Catholic extremist who continues to believe (as does his father) that the Jews, in killing Jesus, were guilty of deicide. This was, after all, the pre-Vatican II Catholic position -- and Gibson has made abundantly clear that, like his father, he not only rejects "revisionist" scholars, he rejects the Vatican II reforms.

Gibson has claimed he is not anti-Semitic by arguing thus:
"Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic. Nor do I hate anyone, certainly not the Jews. They are my friends and associates, both in my work and my social life. Anti-semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie."

But anti-Semitism comprises not merely hatred of Jews -- it is also constituted of a willingness to believe the ancient "blood libel" and deicide charges. Holocaust denial is also a significant component.

And, as word emerges from people who actually have seen The Passion, it is abundantly clear that these elements not only remain in the film, they are a significant aspect of its core themes.

James Shapiro recently put this in perspective in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times titled "There's Never Been a 'Passion' for the Truth: Depictions of the Crucifixion always have taken liberties."

Shapiro describes the history of Passion plays and their emphasis on Jewish deicide:
The script now had to follow Mark and Matthew, in which the chief Jewish priests mock Jesus, rather than Luke and John, in which they don't. But then it had to veer back to Luke and John for Pilate to insist that Jesus had committed no crime, something Mark and Matthew never claim. A line that only appears in Matthew -- the famous blood curse, where the Jews, in accepting responsibility for the death of Jesus, cry out, "His blood upon us and upon our children" -- became the centerpiece of 19th century interpretations.

But even when edited selectively, the Gospels didn't go quite far enough in providing a relentless and incriminating story of Jewish perfidy. So 19th century directors turned to ideas offered by the likes of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), whose ecstatic visions offered damning and dramatically satisfying details nowhere mentioned in Scripture, such as the notion that the Jewish high priests passed out bribes and that the cross was built in the Temple. (Emmerich's influence on Gibson was at first acknowledged, then hastily denied.)

The new story line dominated stage and screen Passions (one of the earliest films ever made was of this Passion) right up to, and even after, the Holocaust. It was an interpretation that Adolf Hitler singled out for praise when he attended a performance in Oberammergau, Germany, where Passion plays have been performed continuously since the 1600s. He applauded the way the Oberammergau Pilate stood out "like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."

Then, in 1965, came Vatican II, which rewrote the Catholic Church's position on how the Passion narrative could be told. No longer could the Jews be considered Christ killers, collectively and in perpetuity. Still, change was slow. It was only in 2000, for example, that Oberammergau eliminated the blood curse from its script and showed some Jews defending Jesus. Even so, its 19th century-inflected story line remains disturbing for Jewish spectators.

In interviews, Gibson has said that he wanted the blood curse in his film, that "it happened, it was said." The scene was shot and then cut, perhaps less because of how Jews would respond than because it so flagrantly defied Church doctrine. After the papal viewing, however, in a screening this week in Florida, the words from Matthew were back in place.

Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is set to open in more than 2000 theaters nationwide Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday. Whatever version makes the final cut, one thing is sure: It won't be the gospel truth.

This view is corroborated by Cintra Wilson's Salon interview with the Rev. Mark Stanger, an Episcopalian pastor who attended one of the early screenings. As Stanger puts it:
Mel Gibson in his remarks after the film took a potshot at contemporary biblical scholarship -- he called scholars "revisionists" who think the gospel writers had agendas. They absolutely did have agendas. It's hard to know if [the film is] historically accurate, because Gospel writers were not trying to do an eyewitness report -- they were producing theological, practical documents of faith to answer questions that were appearing in their communities a half-generation and a generation after the death of Jesus. So it was as if the gospel writers themselves were movie makers. They were trying to interpret things in a way that their people could understand it. They're works of art, theological works, not eyewitness reports. But even a CNN eyewitness report has an agenda.

Stanger confirms that the film contains not only anti-Semitic but anti-Muslim elements. But most significant is what Stanger reports about the overall content of the film, which is that it focuses almost exclusively on the crucifixion as the central event, and most significant aspect of, the mission of Christ. It is nearly devoid of any sense of his teachings, and particularly of the love that was the central feature of those teachings. As Stanger puts it:
? Jesus' crucifixion was made too singular. This was an ordinary event. Jesus was one of dozens of insurrectionists that the local Roman occupiers would have crucified, but [Gibson] tried to make his suffering especially agonizing and horrible. That was the other subtext -- I thought there was an unspoken assumption that somehow, for Jesus' death to have meaning to believers, it had to be more horrible than any other kind of suffering and death. The film doesn't really say that, but that's the idea, and that's why it has an "R" rating -- for the violence. The protracted scourging.

? There was no reason for this [violence], spiritually or theologically. Do you remember in the movie "Gladiator" that short shot where he comes home to find his wife and family crucified, and there was also a report that she had been sexually assaulted beforehand? It was brutal and ugly and horrible, and you didn't need 20 minutes of blood flow to get the message across. I thought "The Passion" was really perverse and really depraved. There's a lot of criticism against the film that it gives a bad picture of Jews -- I think it gives a worse picture of Christians. Holding this up as somehow emblematic of something central to our belief -- this preoccupation with both sin and blood sacrifice -- is just absolutely primitive.

Mel Gibson should be concerned about the reaction to his film, because it is clear that it is not simply a piece of art -- it is, like The Birth of the Nation, a piece of hateful propaganda posing as art. It is a piece of poison that very well could contaminate the social well of interfaith relations for generations to come, particularly if mainstream Christians decide to pick it up, defend it and actively promote it, as it is clear they are doing so far.

Its awfulness, then, may not be merely cinematic, but of downright biblical proportions.

[Note: I will review The Passion of the Christ after it is released Feb. 25.]

UPDATE: The Catholic League's William Donohue has issued a fresh press release noting that demand for advance tickets for the film is "overwhelming", and concludes with an almost threatening jibe at the film's "ignoble" critics: "We won't forget them."

UPDATE II: This, for those interested, is the latest on Gibson's attempt to get the Pope to endorse his film, or, as Frank Rich put it, "roping him (the pope) into a publicity campaign to sell a movie." I wonder what Mel will try to do to Rich's nonexistent dog now. Draw and quarter him, no doubt.

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