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Will film about Christ inspire belief or hatred?

How can you react to watching Mel Gibson's controversial film "The Passion of the Christ" will likely depend on your own religious background.
/ Source: The Union Leader

How can you react to watching Mel Gibson's controversial film "The Passion of the Christ" will likely depend on your own religious background.

Many devout Christians say the film provides a powerful opportunity to teach believers and non-believers alike about the central figure they worship as God's "only begotten Son." It was no accident that Gibson, a conservative Roman Catholic, planned the release of the film in which he has invested $30 million of his own money to coincide with Ash Wednesday.

But other Christians and Jews involved in interfaith efforts worry that the film's depiction of the final 12 hours of Christ's life will re-open old wounds from a less enlightened time, when many Christians blamed the Jews for the death of their savior.

David Lamarre-Vincent of the New Hampshire Council of Church last week said the concern is that "the vast majority of Christians and members of the general public take a giant step backward in time, prior to our discussions post-Holocaust, and we find ourselves unintentionally back in the '30s or '40s."

That concern led him to send out an e-mail last week to 700 New Hampshire churches, directing them to resources that can fill in the historical and religious context for members and others who see the film.

It's not only the depiction of the Jewish people that has drawn criticism. Other Christian leaders say the R-rated film focuses too much on violence and not enough on God's love and salvation that Christ himself came to proclaim to the world.

The controversy hasn't hurt ticket sales.

Filling NH theaters

Dozens of churches across New Hampshire have organized sold-out trips to view "The Passion" this week, the start of the Lenten season for Christians that culminates in the events represented in the film.

Keith Tolley is the pastor of Seacoast Community Church in Portsmouth, one of several area churches that rented a theater at the Fox Run Mall in Newington for tomorrow night for a private screening of "The Passion of the Christ," two days before its general release.

Tolley arranged the evening after he saw the film himself last month in Chicago. He said the experience was "very powerful," with images that have stayed with him ever since.

"The film brutally and graphically portrays what I think is a fairly accurate snapshot of what it must have been like for Jesus to have been beaten and humiliated and mocked and hung on a cross," Tolley said. "And so you see the human side of Jesus' suffering and how intense that must have been, and you don't get that as much when you do a cursory reading of the gospel accounts."

Culture of the time

But Lamarre-Vincent said filmgoers need to understand the historical and political landscape during the time of Christ, and when the gospels were written decades later. And he said they also have to consider 2,000 years of history since, and the role of Christianity in persecuting those of other faiths.

Lamarre-Vincent hopes Christian churches will sponsor discussion groups to address such issues with those who see the film.

Open for discussion

And that's exactly what the Londonderry Presbyterian Church plans Wednesday night. A group of church members will attend the 7 p.m. film, followed by a discussion at 9:30 p.m. at the church (located at the corner of Pillsbury and Mammoth roads). The discussion is open to the general public.

St. Michael Roman Catholic Church in Exeter has purchased 200 tickets for parishioners to see the film next Saturday. The parish plans a series of Sunday evening discussions about the film and the relevant scriptures over the next several weeks.

Anti-Semitic concern

Philip A. Cunningham is executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. He previously held a similar position at the former Notre Dame College in Manchester.

Cunningham said he has not seen "The Passion of the Christ," but he did read the original script, and has since spoken with people who have seen the movie as recently as two weeks ago. And what he read and heard has him deeply concerned.

One concern is the way Gibson chose scenes from the four gospels to string together his narrative. Another is his apparent use of non-Biblical materials, including the writings of the German nun, Anna Emmerich, which have been criticized as anti-Semitic.

Non-gospel sources

In the script Cunningham saw, there's a scene when Jesus is bound and thrown from a bridge by an angry mob. It's a scene out of Emmerich, not the gospels, he said.

Likewise, the film script he read included a scene of Christ being brutalized before the Jewish high priests, clad in prayer shawls, a scene set within the temple itself - which is found in no gospel, Cunningham said.

And he said a powerful image at the end of the film implies that God uses an earthquake to destroy part of the Jewish temple in retribution for Christ's scourging. "This is a vengeful God reacting to these events, and his anger is directed at Jews," he said.

Differing views

The Rev. Steven Murray is pastor of both St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Sandown and The Rockingham Church in Plaistow. He, too, was invited to the screening in Chicago last month, and said the film was "a very, very powerful presentation of the gospels."

"I think people are looking very, very hard to try to find some connection to anti-Semitism in the film, and having seen it, I did not see that at all."

He recalls the scene of men wearing prayer shawls; in his mind, those were simply period costumes. "To me it didn't strike me this is a powerful symbol of Judaism," he said.

Murray said he doesn't recall the bridge scene Cunningham described, and said the gory scourging scene appeared to take place in an outside courtyard that did not strike him as part of a temple.

That may mean some of the material that offended Cunningham has been edited prior to the film's official opening.

Gibson's comments

Gibson himself addressed many of the questions surrounding his film in a one-hour interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer last week. In his religion, he insisted, "To be anti-Semitic is a sin."

The truth, Gibson said, is that all of mankind is responsible for Christ's death, since he came to save all from their sins. And Gibson said it was his own hand that holds the nail pounded into Jesus' hand during the crucifixion scene.

"Fine, but then why does he choose to use the Bible and extra-biblical sources in ways that multiply the scenes of Jewish responsibility?" Cunningham asked. "He may sincerely believe we can't hold any group responsible, but then that's inconsistent with the choices he made in writing the screenplay."

Where's God's love?

What's missing from the movie, Cunningham said, is Jesus' teaching about who God the Father is.

"By choosing to focus only on the 12 hours . . . we don't hear of God's love for the Jewish people, we don't hear that the coming of God's kingdom is a time for celebration and for feasting. We don't hear the parables of Jesus announcing that justice is coming into the world and that wrongs will be corrected. We don't hear anything of what it means to live a Christian life today."

Cunningham said unlike the Gibson film, the gospel writers focus on the resurrection, not the suffering, of Jesus.

Reversing death

In the New Testament, he said, "God says that death is not the final fate of human beings, and the death of Jesus Christ is reversed by the resurrection, and so therefore Christians understand that resurrection is everyone's eventual destiny. It doesn't take graphic scourging and flaying alive to get that theological point."

Other religious leaders say filling in the blanks is not the filmmaker's job; it's theirs.

Said Tolley: "It's the responsibility of the believing community, the church, to be there to help fill in the details, to provide an opportunity for anyone who comes away from that to have a place to go to hear the truth about all these other things: Who he was, why he came and why he had to go through that."

Ad opportunity

Kevin Twombly, a pastor at Grace Capital Church in Concord, said his church has purchased advertising at the Concord cinema that will be showing "The Passion." A digital slide will be displayed prior to the film, and on screens in the lobby, urging people to "experience Christ's passion for you at Grace Capital Church," and listing the church Web site.

He believes "The Passion" will encourage many people to look for answers at local churches. "I think people will come in and say, 'I saw this movie and it sparked something in me.'"

"I think the movie itself is going to really show that the love that God has for us was for all of us, it wasn't for any one people or group. It wasn't for one specific race or creed."

Creating a thirst

Other pastors voiced similar expectations. "My hope is that it will stir in people some spiritual seeking, that they will walk away with some questions that they come looking for answers for, whether they go read the story themselves, or come to churches hoping to hear some response to this," said Murray.

And the Rev. Samuel Schreiner, pastor of Londonderry Presbyterian Church, said he hopes viewing the film will create "a thirst" for answers in some moviegoers.

"Why would such a good man suffer such a horrible death? And that will create, you hope, a curiosity for people to then get to the bottom of it. It may be that the presentation of the gruesome facts leads people to an investigation of the love and the salvation reasons."

Jewish concerns

It's not just the Christian community that is talking about the film.

Judy Wolff is the chair of the interfaith committee at the Greater Manchester Jewish Federation. She said within the Jewish community, "The conversation is everywhere."

Wolff has not seen the film, but as a Jewish woman who has worked for years in Jewish-Christian dialogue groups, she is alarmed by what she has read and heard about "The Passion of the Christ." And even though she is not really afraid that the film will spark violence against Jews here, she said her community is watchful.

"Our memory is really good of our history," she said. "So even though in our lifetime for American Jews, it's never happened, we know the possibilities, we have a sense of it. So we're just sitting and watching very carefully, let's put it that way.

"No one's asleep about this in the Jewish community," she said.

Who is responsible?

What scares her, she said, are the reports that scenes have been included that were not in the gospel accounts. Most people will not be able to discern which are based on the Bible and which are not, she said.

"You don't know Jesus being beaten up and thrown off a bridge by a bunch of Jews never happened. And that never happened," she said.

The N.H. Council of Churches' Lamarre-Vincent said if the film were to spark an anti-Semitic incident, such as a desecration of Jewish property, "It's the Christian community's responsibility to show up the next day with cans of paint and paint over it, and publicly say, "Not in our town.'

"That's what we've evolved to, where we've accepted it's our responsibility to make sure that it doesn't happen again," he said.

Positive potential

Wolff holds a master's degree in Christian theology, and also co-chairs the Jewish-Christian Interfaith Partnership and the fledgling Greater Manchester Interfaith Council. She prefers to look at the positive aspects coming out of the controversy over the film.

"For the first time in this passion play history, the Christian community is coming out and speaking out against it. And to me, this is a major turn-around in relationships, and is a result, I think, of Jewish-Christian dialogue."

Wolff said she is gratified that her Christian friends are speaking out about their concerns of how the film could be perceived. "When the Christians have entered the conversation, this is a very important moment for us as Jews, and a very important moment for us in the interfaith dialogue," she said.

Seeing the cross

Cunningham said for the conversation to move forward over the next several weeks, Christians and Jews need to understand how differently the film will be seen.

"Christians need to understand the terror that the cross can hold for Jews because it was the symbol of persecution for centuries. And Jews need to understand that the story of the death of Jesus is central to Christian self-understanding, even though it seems very foreign to Jewish sensibilities."

Meanwhile, Cunningham's greatest fear is not how Gibson's film will be received here in America.

"What's going to happen when this film is shown overseas, in countries that don't have a history of respecting religious diversity?" he asked. "They're going to have a field day with some of the images of this film."