Sunday, February 29, 2004

Perspectives from different faiths

Passion: Panel shares views on Mel Gibson film

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ opened on Ash Wednesday to large crowds and larger hype. It is difficult to imagine any other story brought to the screen that is already known by so many people.

Passion is a movie full of powerful images that ignites strong feelings among many who see it. Is it an accurate representation of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus? Is it an incitement or an excuse for anti-Semitism? Can a movie about such a subject bring people of different perspectives to a closer understanding of each other, or will it drive them apart?

The Enquirer Editorial Board invited a group of teachers, clergy and students from different faiths to see the movie and discuss their reactions and experiences with us. Here is our recounting of what they said.

Q. Why should this film be viewed as anything other than Mel Gibson's interpretation of an often-told story?

Jim Hanisian, archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio: For me the value of it is another swipe at the oft-told story. Its power is that it focuses not on an entire life, but on 12 hours, and for us a very significant 12 hours.

Steve Temmer, executive assistant of the Campus Crusade for Christ: The way I look at it is that he based it on Scripture. Yes Mel Gibson has his name on it as director/producer, but it is, in my mind . . . based on Scripture, so that separates it from a number of the other "Jesus" movies that are around.

Justin Kerber, second year rabbinical student, Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion: To say that this film is Scripture-based is problematic. What Gibson has done is gone through all four gospels and cherry picked different aspects of them and in so doing, he has made editorial generalizations.

Q. From the standpoint of Christianity, does it really matter who killed Jesus?

Kande Wilson, pastor of outreach, Vineyard Community Church: The honest answer is that we all killed Jesus if you believe that he came to fulfill the purpose that he said he came to fulfill. In that sense, I am just as guilty of sending him to the cross as the Roman soldiers who nailed him there and the society of the times that called for his crucifixion. It doesn't matter who made the first call to say, "I think this guy should be crucified." Not even Jesus tries to place blame on a particular person or group of people for the act that he willingly submitted himself to.

Temmer: I agree. How many times was there an out for Christ to get out? Pontius Pilate said "I find no fault in this man. Talk to me." Did I come away thinking it was the Jews' fault, or the Romans' fault, or the government's fault? I came away thinking that Christ came because God had a plan and the plan was that Christ was going to die for all of our sins.

Daniel Septimus, rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion: People are going to come in seeing two movies. One will be the Jewish perspective, looking for anti-Semitism, or things that put Jews in a non-favorable light. Then there is the non-Jewish perspective. They may be looking for other things, looking for the story of Jesus and Jesus' suffering.

There were definitely things I saw in the movie that would construe the Jews in a negative light. I do think someone could walk out of that movie and feel that the Jews were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus.

Hanisian: I've been preaching about the crucifixion for all of my 30 years as a priest. When I looked at Jesus in the movie, I think it was my faith that said, "Look at what God is doing for us, and not what is being done to God." But I have to honestly say that there are places where Gibson took liberties with the Scripture, particularly in having the chief priest lead the cry for crucifixion, which is not Scripture. That is the one that smacked me in the face. I would add a third category and that would be the people who are neither Jewish nor Christian, and I don't know what they would come away with.

Wilson: Speaking of folks who don't have a faith, one of the things we have asked people at the Vineyard to do is see it for themselves, but then take someone with them who doesn't have any particular faith. Don't offer any comments, but let them explore, what does this bring up for them. I have already had one person e-mail who said his friend's response was "Oh my goodness, could it really be true that we are all responsible for that kind of behavior?" She had the same kind of reaction that she had after watching a movie like Schindler's List or some other horrific portrayal of the basest level of what humans could do to each other.

Q. Was that the message of the movie, that there is some kind of collective guilt? Or that Jesus died for the sins of the many?

Wilson: I think the reaction was; "Look what people are capable of doing to one another."

Kerber: But the crucial point is, "Is that really true?" The scourging and the whole sequence of events as they are presented - A human being would have passed out and died from the scourging that was portrayed in this film.

Wilson: That was storytelling.

Q. Doesn't that bring us back to the first question? Isn't this just Gibson's story?

Wilson: This is the day and age we live in. If you want to release a movie and have people see it, it has to be done on a par with other movies we are used to.

Temmer: I have to remember that Jesus was both God and man, so I can't compare it to how I would react to it. But based on what we talk about as Scripture, it was very accurate.

Wilson: It's more accurate than anything we have had previously on this topic.

Hanisian: Every time that story is told, it is told differently. Every time it is told it has been told interpretively. I don't think the goal is to tell the story historically accurately. The reason we tell the story is to proclaim something about God. We all will use hyperbole. We all will use metaphors.

On one level, we could all become movie critics or we could all become historians and that's an interesting exercise. But the level that I was deeply moved was in moving my faith and the faithfulness of God to a deeper level. On some level if I pay attention to that all the people in the movie, the Romans and the chief priests and the pro-Jesus Jews and the anti-Jesus Jews, they all disappear. They are a part of the telling of the story. It was on that level that I wept as I was leaving.

Kerber: This gets back to what Dan (Septimus) was saying that two different people could see two different films. I walked out of that theater thinking; "My God, I could be in physical danger," because of the way the film portrays Second Temple Judaism.

Q. Is it good or bad that this film is prompting people to discus what Jesus' death meant, and how people of different beliefs treat each other and how they view this story?

Wilson: I think it's great that it's gotten people to discuss things that haven't been discussed in a long time. It is important for every Christian to know that our heritage is Jewish. There are traditions and observances that are held sacred by the Jewish tradition that I think have enormous value and meaning to Christians - 99.9 percent of whom have no clue what the similarities are. We differ on one major point, but we have far more similarities in terms of the richness of the past and how it can speak into your present faith.

Temmer: I think a lot of people don't have a really good grasp of what they believe. They have a very weak concept of what it really means to walk by faith. We unfortunately live in a very Biblically illiterate society. What is exciting for me is seeing the different faiths starting to interact more.

Hanisian: One of great American obsessions right now is confessing other people's sins. The caveat ought to go out from the pulpits in our churches is that the purpose of this film is to take a look inward.

Kerber: I think it is a very good thing for people of different faiths to be discussing this movie. But I felt a real sense of disappointment. I saw flashes in there of the movie about Jesus I wanted to see. There is this wonderful message in there somewhere amid all that scourging, and all that crucifixion, and all that torture, about love and forgiveness.

Art Dewey, professor of theology, Xavier University: Not only is it a bad film, but it's bad theology and it's historically inaccurate. Unfortunately it plays to the assumptions that many people have. They see things writ large which really only confirms prejudices that people already have. Pilate is a cliche of cliches. He wasn't like (the depiction in the movie), at least from what we can see from Jewish and Roman historians. Pilate's not a nice man. He crucified over 2,000 Jews without compunction. Why should he be so worried about this? The poor, sad Pilate. My God, that is such a cliche and it's just historically inaccurate and Christians have used that for centuries.

Wilson: How much is it the responsibility of the film to be completely historically accurate and how much is it the responsibility of the film to get people interested in talking about this historical event?

Dewey: Those are two good questions. The problem is this: Mel Gibson has said that he considers this film to be historically accurate. If he makes that claim, he has to fall by that claim. The problem is that people, particularly Americans, see film in realistic ways and they think that what's on the screen actually happened. Unfortunately, we don't take it critically and say this is Mel Gibson's version of the story.

If you are going to have something like this you need civil discourse that allows for a variety of opinions.

The discourse in this city is poor. It's poor across the land. But critical analysis of religion doesn't make much money.

Q. In talking to your congregations or students, how do you address some of these issues that Art is bringing up about looking at this movie without having the historical and critical background necessary to understand what really happened.

Hanisian: There are people who can help guide discussions from knowledge. I'm less concerned about the public discourse than I am about the communal discourse that is going on in congregations. I'm not as cynical as (Dewey) about the discourse that is going on. I think that good and faithful people can be impacted by this story in a way that changes their heart, and probably, if they paid any attention to the message of the Gospel could not in any way support anti-Semitic stuff. Although I agree that uncritically presented you could perpetuate that stuff.

Dewey: But what kind of God is represented in this movie?

Hanisian: I saw God in Christ in action taking my junk and dealing with it. So I saw a long-suffering God, a God who would suffer at all. I saw the same God who created those idiot Romans who did that horrible stuff to him. Is that not the societal question today? What kind of God - fill in whatever it is that is bothering you. What kind of God allows babies to die? What kind of God allows Saddam Hussein to live?

Dewey: A friend of mine saw the picture yesterday and she said one of the things that shocked her was that it made Jesus seem so special. There was no solidarity in suffering.

You tell the story to show that Jesus is one of us. This film does not do that. He doesn't die like other Jews.

Hanisian: Jews looking at this film ought to be afraid because it does perpetuate some bad stuff. That is historical.

Temmer: This film looks at a 12-hour span. Now if I wanted to take a 33-year span, from Christ's birth to his death, I would have a wider range of understanding of who God is. But the idea was to take the last 12 hours. From a Christian standpoint, Jesus was special. There was a Jesus of Nazareth that went through historical events that were documented. That's what Christianity is based upon. So are you saying that Jesus was not special?

Dewey: Not that way. Jesus' message was not about him. It was about the Kingdom of God.

Hanisian: For me it is irrelevant if it is historical or not. I find history remarkably boring in the face of faith. For me the courageous thing is to believe anything. Folks of faith have been historically courageous.

Dewey: We should have more films out there . . .

Wilson: So are you saying this film does more harm than it does good?

Dewey: I think if it spawns conversations like this, that is helpful. It is sad that conversations have to be accelerated or started because of something like this. It shows the drift of conversations - that we don't talk about things like this, period.

Q. We are living in a society that is often criticized for being incredibly secular: Where the high forms of entertainment are things like the final episode of Sex in the City, or My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, yet here is a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus that is suddenly the big entertainment issue of the moment and people are enthralled by the subject, by the movie. How do we account for that?

Hanisian: It's a mistake to say we are "a" society. It's a lot of little societies. How else do you get the president of the United States calling for an amendment to the Constitution that describes the theological sacrament of holy matrimony at the same time you have 10,000 people in San Francisco violating that legality? Different folks. My guess is that you will have some folks who watched the final episode of Sex in the City who will see this movie, but as a sampling they are just different parts of our culture.

Wilson: We keep going back to all these intellectual, historical issues, but on a basic human level, people want to know what greater meaning is there than My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, what greater meaning to life is there than what shoes Carrie picked out for the final scene of the final episode of Sex in the City. People at a very basic human level want to know, "what bigger thing am I a part of and does any of this matter?" I think individuals are crying out for meaning and I think that is part of the visceral reaction to even the concept that we would release this film. Individuals are hungry for more.

Q. Historically, passion plays have been used to incite or justify anti-Semitic behavior. How do we respond to those types of concerns about this film?

Dewey: The story in the film does what the Gospels do in the text, in the hands of people who are uncritically receiving it, it will perpetuate the virus of anti-Semitism.

Wilson: Do you believe that the basic Christian text encourages anti-Semitism?

Dewey: If uncritically understood, yes, yes I do.

Septimus: We need to sit down and talk about it and not be shy. I don't want to be the victim. I don't want my congregants to believe that we were the people who have been persecuted throughout history and that that is how we should identify with our Judaism. I will tell my congregants this weekend that we can't always be known as the victims, we have to know what our faith is as well.

Temmer: It allowed me to ask, "What do I believe? Where am I coming from?" I will be held accountable for the things that I say and the things that I do.

Hanisian: If we are going to lead, we have to set the boundaries. I can see where Jews would be very, very upset about some of the portrayals in this movie. Our role is to help people to look inward instead of pointing fingers.

Q. If you had to tell people to take only one thing away with them from this film, what would it be?

Hanisian: What is your relationship to God, a God who is willing to go through this for you? I want people to be the subject of their own reaction.

Temmer: I want to ask them what they are going to do. "What are you going to do to find out what you believe?"

Wilson: See the movie. See it through your own eyes and not someone else's. Take responsibility for your reaction to the film and look for the good in it.

Dewey: Look at it as a work of art first of all. But I would say as a work of art it fails. We have to become aware of the rhetoric of the film. It assumes a certain understanding of a violent God. This is the God that will desire scapegoats. Kerber: If you must see this picture, don't be fooled. This is the Gospel according to Mel.

Septimus: Go see the movie and hopefully we can bring forth a new era of dialogue between faiths.

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