Thursday, June 26, 2003

Misc. Notes about Mel Gibson's 'The Passion'

  • Bill Cork believes that the media has not accurately represented the nature of the criticisms made by the ADL and a panel of major participants in the Jewish-Christian dialogue expressing concerns about the portrayal of Jews in Mel Gibson's The Passion (due 1994), as well as the general reaction of some bloggers to any statement of concern expressed by the Anti-Defamation League in general.

    I personally agree with Bill's assessment, since knee-jerk reactions to the ADF are characteristic of radical traditionalists like Sungenis, Vennari and company. While some critics (and defenders) of Gibson's film are prone to rhetorical excess, Jews do have a right to be concerned -- after all, we're not the ones on the receiving end of anti-semitism and negative characterizations in Passion Plays.

    Concerning Mel Gibson's film, caution and concern seems to be in order here: as Mr. Cork notes, Mel Gibson claims to have based it not only on the gospel accounts but on the diaries of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) as collected in the book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, about which Mr. Cork is concerned, since it since it contains extra-biblical elements not validated by the gospel account. As the panel argues, certain passages from this book, if rendered in the film, may "have the effect of increasing the guilt of Jewish characters for Jesus' sufferings."

  • Validating Bill's concern about the need for restraint, Barbara Nicolosi had the opportunity to attend a private screening of the film with Mel Gibson and posted a favorable review, in the midst of which she proclaims that "Having seen the film now, I can only marvel that the attacks are pretty much demonic. Hopefully, the devil will end up spitefully biting his own tail on this one."

    Nicolosi's statement provoked an immediate and predictable reaction from an outraged Jewish reader, who protested:

    "Demonic? Protests against a resurgence of a libel that has sparked generations of progroms is "demonic" and "the work of the devil"? Well, i guess that's one way to avoid having to confront real oppression and real pain of real people - but of course, to your version of the Church, Jews aren't real people are they? Our pain at being libeled yet again is "demonic." I wonder if you believe we have "horns" . . ."

    . . . and so on, making for quite a passionate exchange. You can read the flurry of responses via the comment box.

  • In a sense, the dispute over Gibson's film illustrates a major issue of debate in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. On one side, there are those like James Carroll (author of Constantine's Sword) who contend that "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".

    If you adopt Mr. Carroll's position (which is reflected by a number of Gibson's critics), then there is no option but to condemn Mel Gibson's film because -- even if he succeeds in faithfully portraying the gospels -- it cannot be anything but anti-semitic, since the Christian scriptures themselves are anti-semitic.

    Like most reasonable folk, I disagree with Carroll. I agree that the gospel accounts does contain unfavorable portrayals of Jews, bearing the mark of the contentious times in which they were composed. However, the 'teaching of contempt' (i.e., the dispersion of the Jews as a sign of God's punishment, the degenarate state of Judaism at the time of Jesus, and most importantly, the charge of collective guilt) is *one interpretation among many* of the Gospels -- and an interpretation formally repudiated by the Church at Vatican II.

    Some critics infer from Mel Gibson's religious identification with "traditional Catholicism" that he must be an anti-semite. This is, of course, a false equasion -- 'traditionalist' being a loose term for a very diverse group of people, those subscribing to the "teaching of contempt" being among the radical fringe.

    It would be wrong to infer from the fact that Mel Gibson is a 'traditionalist' that he believes in the collective guilt of the Jews, or that it is the intent of his film to revive such a teaching. When he was questioned about the prospect of his film being offensive to Jews, he responded:

    "It may . . . It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But when you look at the reasons why Christ came, why He was crucified -- He died for all mankind and He suffered for all mankind. So that, really, anyone who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability."

    I have my other disagreements with Mel Gibson's opinions about Vatican II and the Holy Father, but his belief that Jesus "died because of the sins of all" reflects the teaching of the Church, both in the Catechism of Trent in the sixteenth century and reaffirmed by Nostra Aetate in Vatican II -- and what every Catholic ought to believe.

  • As for Mel Gibson's film itself, while I can understand the concern of Jewish and Christian critics, I'm going to reserve my own judgement until I've actually seen it. "Wait and see" is a lesson I've learned in the past about potentially scandalous religious films, having expressed my own righteous indignation over the 'Last Temptation of Christ', and which post-viewing I actually thought to be a decent and spiritually-moving, if theologically incorrect, film (Judas' Brooklyn accent notwithstanding).

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