Will Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ help save Christianity?

I am not among the handful of people who have seen Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, on general release at the end of March. Until I do, I cannot express an opinion about its cinematic aesthetics or historical authenticity. I am, however, a practising Roman Catholic. For me, the repudiation of anti-Semitism in all forms is not merely an issue of the utmost moral and theological significance, but integral to my understanding of what it is to be a Christian. The issues raised by the film are impossible to ignore.

Christianity in the West is undeniably in crisis. Christians who are ashamed of the historical basis of their faith will not pass it on to the next generation – if, with our pathological failure to reproduce, there is a younger generation. For Christians, The Passion is at once a challenge to re-examine the most problematic aspects of their faith, and an opportunity to share its most sublime mystery with others. Its purpose is avowedly evangelical.

Like the medieval passion plays from which it ultimately derives, like Bach’s St Matthew Passion, like the Crucifixions and Pietàs, the Stabat Maters and Lamentations that haunt the Western imagination, The Passion is intended to arouse all the most powerful human emotions: not only pity, but indignation; not only awe, but remorse. The blood, sweat and tears on screen, depicted with all the merciless realism that modern cinema can bring to bear, are likely to evoke turmoil in the audience, too.

For Jews, there’s the rub. A thousand years of discrimination and persecution – culminating in the attempt, here in the European heartland of Christendom, to annihilate the entire Jewish race – have left a legacy of mistrust that cannot be allayed by even the best efforts of the Second Vatican Council and the greatest Pope of modern times. Only time can heal these wounds. It was understandable, even inevitable, that Jewish voices would be raised against an attempt to dramatise the very passages of the Gospels which, however distorted, inspired the deicidal imagery of the Jews as the murderers of Christ.

Yet the most severe criticism of Gibson has come from liberal, ecumenical Christians. Gibson belongs to a small sect, the Old Catholics, who left the Church more than a century ago over the issue of papal infallibility and have been out of communion with other Catholics ever since. Hence Gibson is not bound by the constantly evolving Catholic doctrine on Judaism and the Holocaust.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops feels obliged to issue a restatement of modern pastoral teachings to coincide with the film’s release. The American Catholic establishment, still reeling from the drubbing it received from the media over so-called paedophile priests, regards Gibson as an embarrassment.

Gibson vehemently denies anti-Semitism, and has made cuts in response to criticism. He has insisted, however, on adhering to the traditional interpretation of Pilate as a man troubled by moral scruples. Despite the fact that the dialogue is in Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew, with English subtitles, Gibson has embroidered the Gospel narrative for dramatic effect, putting words into the priests’ mouths.

Quite apart from historical accuracy (in first century Palestine, most Romans would have spoken not Latin but Greek), the almost exclusive focus on the last 12 hours before Jesus’s death mean that the viewer has no political or religious context in which to place his horrific fate.

What transformed The Passion from being seen as an eccentric star’s hobbyhorse was last December’s story, emanating from the Vatican, that Pope John Paul II had been shown a rough cut and had endorsed it with the words: “It is as it was.” This gnomic utterance, though denied by officials, instantly polarised opinion.

Conservative Catholics now felt obliged to support the film as part of their attempt to turn the tide against secularism; equally, liberal Catholics distanced themselves from it. With the prestige of the Church at stake, all the secular forces hostile to Catholicism became engaged. Less predictably, evangelical Protestants, such as Billy Graham, weighed in on the film’s side. The hidden chasm that divides America more deeply than politics, class or race – that between Christian and secular society – has been luridly illuminated by this controversy.

I have no idea whether I shall “enjoy” The Passion. The sacrificial death of the Son of God is hard enough to come to terms with in the abstract; to be confronted with a simulacrum of its physical reality is bound to be an ordeal. Horrific images of the Crucifixion such as Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece must have had a comparable impact on less jaded sensibilities than ours. Christians used to try to emulate Jesus’s suffering by spiritual exercises, fasting and mortification of the flesh. It is folly to expect Hollywood to do all that for us.

Whether The Passion proves to be worthy of its subject or merely kitsch on stilts, it has provoked a debate about the texts that form its substratum. Are the Gospels anti-Semitic? This charge was levelled recently by the Jewish historian Daniel Goldhagen, who demanded that the Church should either excise the offending passages or at least append corrective footnotes to every Bible.

Other Jewish writers have adopted less confrontational approaches. In his new book The Authentic Gospel of Jesus Geza Vermes, the great Oxford biblical scholar, prefers to deconstruct the Gospels to arrive at the historical Jesus, whom he sees as a great Jewish teacher and prophet. Sidney Brichto has even gone so far as to retranslate the Gospels, along with the rest of the New Testament: the first rabbi to do so.

Another great rabbi once told me that all religions have their difficult texts; the answer, he said, was not to censor them, but to wrestle with them, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel. If The Passion succeeds in encouraging Christians to read the Gospels, wrestle with them, and ultimately attain a deeper insight into their faith, then Mel Gibson’s crusade will not have been a wasted effort.

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