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The Passion

February 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion of the Christ” opened in more than 2800 theatres nationwide today, timed to the Ash Wednesday religious observance. The film, in which characters speak Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles, depicts the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, from his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to his crucifixion. The violent beatings, torture, and suffering of Jesus are graphic and detailed. The film has been rated “R,” and has generated extraordinary prerelease controversy and publicity.

Mel Gibson, a superstar actor who’s appeared in numerous blockbuster films, directed, produced, co-wrote, and put some $25 million of his own money into “The Passion.” In the months before its general release, he showed the film in private screenings and to church congregations around the nation, winning praise from many religious leaders.

REV. DAN MARLER: This movie is going to generate this interest. It’s almost like I see this tsunami called interest in Jesus.

JEFFREY BROWN: The controversy over the film has centered on its historical accuracy, particularly its portrayal of Jews, the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, and the explosive question of who bears responsibility for the death of Jesus. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, went to a screening of the film uninvited.

ABE FOXMAN: I was very troubled. I was disturbed. I was pained.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to Foxman and a number of other critics who’ve spoken out, the film plays into a centuries-old tradition that includes medieval passion plays and writings, such as those of a controversial 19th century mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich, that blamed Jews for the crucifixion and led to their persecution.

ABE FOXMAN: It’s as if the Jews ruled, the Romans were only pawns in the Jewish hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a recent interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Gibson disavowed any anti-Semitism.

MEL GIBSON: For me, it goes against the tenets of my faith to be racist in any form. To be anti-Semitic is a sin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gibson has repeatedly said the film is based on the four gospels, and comes directly from his personal faith. He is a traditionalist Roman Catholic, part of an ultraconservative movement that rejects many of the 1960s Vatican II reforms in the Catholic Church. Gibson sees the Bible as literal truth.

MEL GIBSON: You either accept the whole thing or don’t accept it at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early reviews of “The Passion” have been mixed, with some critics decrying excessive violence and a lack of context, while others have praised the film’s power.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two scholars share their views of “The Passion” with us now. Robert Johnston is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He is author of the book Reel that’s r-e-e-l — Spirituality. Philip Cunningham teaches theology at Boston College and heads the Center for Christian Jewish Learning. He was among a group of scholars who raised concerns over an early script of “The Passion.”

And before we begin let me tell our audience that our two guests tonight had a chance to see the movie in pre-release screenings. Gentlemen, that’s exactly where would I like to start. First with you, Professor Johnston. What was your general reaction after seeing the film?

ROBERT JOHNSTON: I love film, I love theology, I love Jesus. And this movie brought three of my passions together. I was deeply moved as it allowed me to meditate on the extent of Christ’s suffering love for me. Tears involuntarily started down my cheek. I think the only other time in reference to a Jesus event that I can remember that was in graduate school when I heard Handel’s Messiah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Cunningham, your reaction?

PHIILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, my reaction was somewhat different. There were two things that struck me. First the graphic, brutal, unrelenting violence was deeply disturbing. I found it difficult to really do much thinking or meditating simply in the face of the visceral sort of torture that I witnessed. The second reaction was that the presence of demons that flit in and out, the presence of a satanic figure drifting amongst the various characters suggested to me that this atmosphere of a cosmic battle between the forces of darkness and believers or people of faith. And that also, I found disturbing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s walk through those issues. First the one you raised about the violence, because it is a very graphic film, and focuses so much on the intense suffering of Jesus. Let me ask you, Professor Johnston, did you find that to be a strength of the movie?

ROBERT JOHNSTON: It was also very troubling to me, but it was its strength. It’s the crux of the matter. I see it as a Catholic gift to many of us in the Protestant tradition who so easily move from Palm Sunday to Easter and just gloss over what happened on Good Friday. And that to be given the gift of focusing on the central moment in the Christian faith, when our savior died on the cross for our sins, I, it was deeply moving to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So Professor Cunningham, why did you find that intense focus to be such a drawback?

PHIILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, there were gratuitous scenes of violence that are not attested to in the New Testament in any of the Gospels, which are fairly sparse in how they describe these events in any case. But sometimes I think it’s almost a glorification of violence threatened to jeopardize the message of God’s forgiveness; for example, minutes after Jesus, as he is being crucified prays as in the Gospel of Luke, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” moments later, a raven flies down from the heavens and pecks out one of the eyes of one of the people crucified with Jesus who presumably is just as ignorant of things as his crucifiers. That suggests either that Jesus’ prayer to the Father is not very effective or God isn’t as forgiving as the Gospel message conveys to me. And again that element of a raven pecking out the eye of someone is not found in the New Testament.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the other issue you raise, Professor Cunningham, is the accuracy question, and of course much of the controversy there is focused on the portrayal of Jews. Can you flesh out what has bothered you there?

PHIILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, there are two dimensions to that as well. First of all, there are many scenes not found in the New Testament in which Jewish characters inflict violence on Jesus; for example, he is thrown off a bridge in chains as he is being brought before the high priest. There is also some severe violence there that the New Testament certainly doesn’t present at that juncture.

In addition, and more historically significant is the fact that Pontius Pilate is clearly subordinate in power to Caiphas, the high priest. If not subordinate, he is certainly intimidated by him. He tells his wife in a scene that also is not found in the Gospels, that he is afraid Caiphas will lead a revolt against Roman rule unless Pilate complies with Caiphas insistence on Jesus’ execution.

Now we know historically that Caiphas was effectively appointed high priest by Pilate and in fact was more fearful that the Romans would destroy the temple as it indicates in John Chapter 11 than he would have been in leading any revolt, which was not in his power to do. The power relationships between the two are almost totally reversed from what we know historically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Johnston, why don’t you respond to that? How did this portrayal of the Jews affect you and affect your view of the movie?

ROBERT JOHNSTON: Maybe there are two things that need to be said. One is that if we simply went with the sparse facts of four Gospels, we wouldn’t have a story, we wouldn’t have a movie. This is an interpretation of those four Gospels in which they’re combined and Gibson has tried to fill in the gaps. And that is both its strength and its weakness. I think we’ll debate for a long time whether it’s a little bit too much Braveheart theology, a little too gory. I had to look away. My wife looked away several times.

It also is the fact that Jesus was beaten to death and died on a cross. That’s a very bloody and gory event. As to the extra facts or the interpretation, I think that anyone who sees the movie will see that there are good Jews and bad Jews. There are good Romans and bad Romans. I thought that some of the Romans who beat Jesus up were somewhat over the top. That Gibson used his own hands to drive the spike into Jesus or that Gibson used his own voice to give the wail that Judas gave as he died suggests to me that Gibson was not trying to scapegoat. He was not trying to put that violence on one group of people or another group of persons.

I think he, in fact, understands the cross to be a very violent act. For me as a Protestant who seldom concentrates on the crucifix, we have an empty cross, it was the occasion for reflection and pondering and meditation. Why do I so easily run away from that aspect of the Christ story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Johnston, as someone whose expertise this is intersection of culture and religion, particularly movies and religion, this is a subject, the life of Jesus, that has been in our history, Western history for centuries. What is the role of a film like “The Passion” for our culture today?

ROBERT JOHNSTON: If the art form for people under 30 is the Cineplex, then we have to realize that film is an increasingly powerful medium. In the church, increasingly, clips of films are being shown. Study groups are being formed around movies. I think we realize that we need to bring the Christian story into dialogue with our stories and that film is a very powerful medium to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Professor Cunningham, if that is true and if it does have that much power, then the responsibility of the director in creating that film must be very powerful.

PHIILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, certainly. I mean I think there are several things that could be said here. I would agree with Professor Johnston that Mel Gibson should not be accused of malice toward Jews by the selections and choices that he made; however, they were choices that were not necessary choices. I think the reason for Gibson’s choices, besides drama is really because he’s very much driven by the vision of Ann Catherine Emmerich whom you mentioned earlier who also has demons urging on pain to be inflicted upon Jesus and who portrays Jews much more negatively than any Gospel, singularly or combined, than the new testament has.

ROBERT JOHNSTON: Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Go ahead.

ROBERT JOHNSTON: There are three classical interpretations of the cross in the last 2000 years in Christian theology. One of those emphasizes Christ’s love. One of those emphasizes that justice and judgment was rendered and that Christ took that judgment on our behalf and the third is that there was a cosmic battle and that the forces of good and evil, of Satan and God, fought, and this is not a new theology with Mel Gibson. It is both in scripture. It goes back to Irenaeus. It is part of the rich history of the church. And in our day and age in which spirituality is increasingly to the fore, when we recognize forces of both good and evil that are beyond us, an interpretation that allows for some mystery, that allows for some transcendent evil might be particularly useful for our day and age.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Professor Robert Johnston and Philip Cunningham, thank you very much for joining us.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Thank you very much.

ROBERT JOHNSTON: Thank you.