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Critics of Film Reveal Passions 

by James Hitchcock
March 1, 2004

The controversy over Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" involves significant religious conflicts, and the dispute over whether the film is anti-Semitic may not be the most important of those.

The claim of anti-Semitism has been repeated by gentiles who regard any strong manifestation of religion as dangerous. Little noticed by many religious believers, there are now influential people in our society (journalists, for example) who simply think that traditional religion should be discouraged. Gibson's film is by far the most effective popular expression of Christianity in many years, and it is largely for that reason that it is attacked.

For some of its critics there is an unrecognized pun here -- linking the word "passion" with religion immediately sets off their alarm bells. One negative critic assures his readers that "Jesus was a pretty cool dude" and goes on to say that "most scholars" think he was a political revolutionary, a claim which would surprise most of the scholars I know of.

In typical fashion, these secularists cannot decide which of two contradictory charges should be used to discredit Gibson -- that he is a dangerous fanatic or that he is cynically out to make money. He has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of publicity for the film, as though he is the one who started the controversy. (If Gibson is dismissed as cynical, then he ceases to be dangerous and those who admire his film are gullible yokels. Hollywood, as we all know, only makes films for serious moral reasons.)

The accusation that Gibson is actually sadistic in his portrayal of the passion is itself a prime example of cynical hypocrisy, coming as it does from people who celebrate every shocking new violation of people's sensibilities as an "artistic breakthrough". (The effort to force Gibson to modify his film, if not to withdraw completely, is the most blatant attempt at "prior censorship" of the media in years.)

When all is said and done, some of the critics are less bothered by the film itself than by the Gospel accounts on which it is based. Gibson is not accused of seriously distorting those accounts but of taking them too seriously. This leads directly into the other controversy which lies barely beneath the surface -- the continuing tension between orthodox and liberal Christians.

Thus the president of a Catholic college is quite explicit about his own agenda -- the Gospels themselves contain "regrettable" passages which should be expunged, and "... many interpreters of the Gospel mistook the story for history ...". (Yes, indeed, we plead guilty.) A minister discounts the importance of the crucifixion of Jesus and urges people to concentrate instead on those who have suffered for political causes. ("Jesus did not die for the sins of humankind.")

A woman who is "studying to be a spiritual advisor" regrets that the film concentrates on "the aspect of Christ's life most questioned by modern theologians and religious scholars." (Even the most skeptical scholars think that the crucifixion of Jesus, alluded to in ancient texts other than the Bible, did occur.) Another woman, who is a candidate for ordination, thinks there can be no satisfactory film about Jesus because it is not clear who He even was.

The film could have been less violent. But those who condemn it for that reason miss the point. Christianity teaches that Jesus died for the sins of the human race and that sin is a terrible thing, the ultimate horror. Jesus need not have suffered so brutally in order to redeem us, but He chose to do so, and the Evangelists thought it necessary to record that suffering. Our culture is prone to seeing sin as merely a question of "mistakes", which makes the passion incomprehensible.

The minister quoted above no doubt thinks of himself as a very tolerant person, but he demands that everyone share his theology and those who do not are bigots. For such people the stakes are indeed high. If the Gospel accounts are not credible, if Jesus did not die for our sins, then historic Christianity is simply a terrible error and people today are free to reshape it in any way they see fit. "The Passion" is, finally, a reminder of the impossibility of that task.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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