Monday, August 11, 2003

Mel Gibson's Passion Play

Bill Cork recently lamented:
It's been 40 years since the Second Vatican Council, which (among other accomplishments) began a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations with "Nostra Aetate" . . . many books have been written and many official decrees and statements issued, documenting the slow path toward mutual understanding.

But today, I feel as if nothing has been accomplished. Most educated Catholics have not the slightest understanding of the issues that have been discussed and, we thought, resolved. We are back at square one.

I certainly feel the same way sometimes -- although I think it does depend on the parish and who you're talking to. I've met my share of Catholics entirely ignorant of Judaism and well-learned on this subject. When it comes to the Jews, there is a remarkable tendency to err in both directions, either perpetuating the "teaching of contempt" and collective guilt repudiated by Nostra Aetate, or leaning in the opposite direction, as those behind the document Reflections on Covenant & Mission who concluded that Jews are exampt from the Church's missionary mandate. 1

Bill's frustration is no doubt provoked by concern over Mel Gibson's Passion, about which there has been no end of blogging and journalistic commentary. Some of my fellow bloggers out there question whether this concern over Mel's play is warranted, especially in light of the positive reviews from the select few who have seen it. To understand where Bill and other critics are coming from, I think it may help to learn about the manner in which some theatrical depictions of Christ's passion and death -- commonly known as "passion plays" -- have, no pun intended, inflamed passions against the Jewish people over the course of history.

Since the advent of Vatican II, Christians and Jews have jointly undertaken a revision of questionable elements in these plays -- the most famous case being the Oberammergau. The history of this famous play (and criticisms thereof) are chronicled by James Shapiro in his book Oberammergau, The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play (Knopf, 2001), which you can probably find at your local library. Those who don't have time to do so might check out the "Recommended Changes in the Oberammergau Passion Play after 1984".

As a contemporary dramatization of the death of Christ, Gibson's film probably does not contain the troubling elements of his predecessors. (Most of us will never know -- and aren't qualified to comment on the film directly -- until we've seen it). The positive reviews I've read (like this one) lead me to believe that the Anti-Defamation League have little to fear regarding the content of the film.

Nevertheless, when those sensitive to antisemitism hear about the widespread release of a contemporary passion play, they really can't help but be concerned. 2 And rather than denounce the slightest criticism of Gibson's film as the product of "anti-religious bigotry", it would do well simply to read, listen, and acquire an understanding of those things about which such critics are concerned.

Finally, the Guidelines for the implementation of Nostra Aetate call for all Catholics to "acquire a better knowledge of . . . the religious tradition of Judaism, [and] strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience." To this end I couldn't recommend a better starting point than How Firm a Foundation: A Book of Jewish Wisdom for Christians & Jews, by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (Paraclete Press, 1997).

  1. I sought to address errors in both directions in a recent essay.
  2. I also think the fact that Gibson's identification as a traditionalist Catholic and consequent denunciation of Vatican II may have a part in provoking Jewish concern, since Vatican II's Nostra Aetate was a significant turning point in the reconciliation of Jews & Christians.

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