Rightwing Film Geek

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a theater …


Well, that’s not exactly what the New York Post did in its forum Monday on THE PASSION OF CHRIST (now only available here; scroll down to the post by “respaul” at 00:15, 22-11-03). There’s an academic professor of theology, standing in for the Protestant minister, though she has an Italian-sounding name. There’s also a Post reader and one of its film critics. Follow the links at the end of the main page for their reactions from each of the individuals. (Aside: one of the reasons I don’t like to read newspapers outside work is that I find myself looking at them with a professional’s eye — I can’t look at the second page of the spread on the hard copy of the paper without realizing that the dominant art, a still from THE PASSION OF CHRIST, has been flip-flopped.)


The intro material repeats the meme that Gibson has violated the Second Vatican Council’s denunciation of the deicide libel in Nostra Aetate, but it at least actually quotes what the Council said, which is revealing: “what happened in [Christ’s] Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” But in Rabbi Robert Levine’s hands, that statement becomes the claim that the movie “undermines the 1965 Vatican II declaration that Jews are not responsible for the death of Christ.” When you realize and have pondered on the difference between those two statements, you’ll have a sense of why I have so much scorn for the ADL and its ilk on this topic. In fact Nostra Aetate specifically does *not* say with the Rabbi says it does. Right before the part the Post quotes, it reads: “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ …” The mere fact that one portrays some Jews demanding Christ’s blood does not make a film contrary to Church teaching. As usual, what Vatican 2 actually *says* is the opposite of what some theologians discern its “spirit” to mean.

Rabbi Levine is fibbing, unless Gibson does something specific to endorse intergenerational, collective guilt (the fact it is generally considered an absurd idea today means that the presumed default from silence is that the film doesn’t endorse it) or to tie the Jews of 1st century Jerusalem to the Jews of today. And e.g., the fact that Christians who have seen the film said Gibson excluded Matthew 27:25: “His blood be upon us and our children,” suggests he doesn’t do that. The Rabbi doesn’t say to the contrary (in fact, I was generally dissatisfied with the Rabbi’s review in that it served up the same ADL talking points and he *could* have written it without having seen it). The problem, I suspect, is that Rabbi Levine seems to be looking at the film qua Jew, i.e. his primary interest in THE PASSION OF CHRIST is its representation of Jews. Maybe that how a Jew would view it, and so he’ll be offended by *any* reasonably faithful depiction of the Gospels. Nothing I can say to that.

castelli.jpgBut if we are gonna be making *predictions* about hate crimes, or ripping the scabs off, or inspiring violence against Jews, like the theologian Elizabeth Castelli does, then you just as clearly, for that purpose, have to privilege how actual Christians (or atheists/agnostics too I guess, but that’s really not what people have been talking about) see the film, what their reaction will be to THE PASSION OF CHRIST. Cuz *they’re* the ones that supposedly are gonna be motivated to go out and Jew-bash. For one thing, Jews have no more to say on the matter of Christian consumption than I do to their offense-taking. And for another Castelli can complain all she wants about ahistoricity, the latest scholarship and Mel’s ignoring “years of important work … between Jews and Christians on understanding the effect of the Passion narrative on their relationship.” (Can you hear the “don’t crap in my garden” tone there?) She can be as right as rain theologically, but unless Christians react in her predicted way, the whole dispute is academic, in the worst sense.

And the reaction of the one panel member, Joan Wilson, who was not a professional theologian or minister was instructive about what I think will be both the dominant reaction of the Christians who see the film (assuming, as I must, that it doesn’t anachronistically pander to contemporary Jewish stereotypes). I also think she represents the dominant view among Christians today — that portraying 1st century Jews as out for Jesus’ blood in no way implies guilt on the Jews of today, whatever might have been true in other times. As Wilson puts it: Caiaphas “was doing what he believed he had to do to protect his faith … a Catholic or a Protestant would have defended his religion too.” And again, unless the film plays down the Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth and all His early followers (which is nowhere to my knowledge charged and is contradicted by every Christian to my knowledge who has seen the film and spoken to that matter specifically), it is simply nuts to come away from an internecine dispute among two groups of Jews and blame “the Jews.” Or to put it bluntly, the rabbi and the theologian are going into the film, looking to take offense. And such people can always find what they’re looking for. Or to put it even more bluntly, the ADL and the rest have effectively poisoned the well against Gibson’s film.

lumenick.jpgI also predict that Lou Lumenick’s reaction on this matter, two handwringing paragraphs (“deeply troubling”) that make a concession before soberly siding with the ADL et al, will be the commonest one among daily newspaper critics. The alt-weeklies and the committed-left journals will … um … crucify the film and Gibson.

Since I slagged on the Rabbi, let me spend at least as much time on the priest, Father Mark Hallinan. If you can get past the phrase: “It doesn’t touch on the values that [Christ] represented and that continue to be a positive force in the world today,” without wanting to say “oh, come off it,” you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. “Values”? “Positive force”? This is the language of a Jesuit? (Don’t answer.)

fatherhallinan.jpgThe priest at least provided some specifics about the film, so I have to defer to him on those. But he got my blood boiling with this little crack: “Unsophisticated people viewing the film will see Jews as cold, heartless people.” How does a man with advanced theology degrees know how “unsophisticated” (what a Spongian term!!) people will react? Particularly since the least-sophisticated person on the panel did *not* come away from the film denouncing the Jews, citing the blood oath, subscribing to Al-Jazeera on her satellite or anysuch.

Then we get this complaint: “Hallinan also questioned the depiction, during the crucifixion, of Gestas, the bad thief, having his eyes plucked out by a crow after he questions Christ’s divinity. ‘It’s contrary to the Gospels,’ said Hallinan, adding ‘Jesus taught us not to persecute our enemies’.” Is there any oxygen in the House? One of the Gospels (Luke) starts with the story of the coming of John the Baptist and has a very similar story about his father Zachary and how he was struck dumb for doubting a divine messenger. The Gospels repeatedly have parables in the general character of “God is not mocked,” which is what happens here. Sure, the specific detail of the eye-gouging is not in the Bible, but there’s a rich and thoroughly orthodox Catholic tradition of embroidering around the Passion narrative and fleshing out details in works of art. Surely Father Hallinan has often led the Stations of the Cross, though several of *them* have no Biblical antecedent or only the vaguest … there’s no mention of Veronica (much less of the Lord’s face on the hankie) or of any specific number of falls. And who’s “persecuting our enemies”? As Father Hallinan tells the story, the one doing the persecuting is … a crow.


November 19, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment