IONA HINE writes: Critic or advocate, there is one matter on which we can agree: Mel Gibson's Passion was not made for comfortable viewing. Many British churches are already taking a lead from US counterparts – booking out the cinemas, perhaps in hope of packing pews come Easter morning. But such enthusiasm leaves me somewhat uncomfortable.
As the precursor of Easter Day, Good Friday is inevitably a dark affair. The violence of scourging and crucifixion is undeniable; what Gibson interprets on the silver-screen is simply the 21st-century expression of a passion play with added special effects. Yet that identification with the ghoulish medieval passion play is precisely what has worried many Jewish and Christian groups; the dramatic intensification of good and evil offers the perfect opportunity for antisemitism to rear its ugly head. Before unveiling the usual book recommendations I want to consider two questions:
- Why might a film that retells Christ’s last hours be antisemitic?
- Is there such a thing as Good Practice for Good Friday?
PORTRAITS OF THE PASSION:
"I don't normally bother to see a film when I've read the Book."
This is the opening gambit from one reviewer of the Passion à la Gibson. The remark upholds the commonly-held notion that any retelling of Christ’s final hours is not an act of authorship but a portrayal of ‘Gospel Truth’. But which gospel truth is it? A cursory reading of the four New Testament gospels quickly reveals a bare skeleton of shared material in the passion narratives. Take for example Christ’s trial:
While all four gospels agree that Jesus was accused by Jewish leaders, the detail is unclear: Does the high priest accuse Jesus (Matthew; Mark) or not (Luke; John)? Is Jesus ‘tried’ at night (Mark) or in the morning (Luke), by Herod (Luke), Annas (John) or Caiaphas? This diversity provides a salutary reminder that ‘Truth’ is not always immediately evident. Each attempt to tell of the Passion, whether as a gospel-writer or a film director, is necessarily an act of interpretation.
The most vociferous objections to Gibson’s film are based on his apparent disregard for both historical criticism, i.e. reading the gospels in the light of the available historical evidence, and the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Reading the gospels with an awareness of their original context(s) we can appreciate how various objectives affected each writer's approach to the central story. We may comprehend the struggle of faithful Jews trying to reconcile personal experience of Jesus as their Messiah, over against an emergent schism from mainstream Jewish praxis. Latterly, the trauma of this schism stimulated a virulent assault against aspects of first-century Judaism, an assault which subsequently became transformed, in the hands of a predominantly gentile church, into an attack upon all ‘the Jews’ - redefined (with the assistance of the fourth gospel) as an homogenous, external and hostile group.
Formulating a viable Christian identity over against more traditional Jewish neighbours was not the only extra-evangelical aim. Each gospel –like each evangelist- has a particular character, communicated with style, focus and emphasis. In Luke's gospel we can see how the desire to appease the formidable Roman authorities informs the testimony: Jesus' role as peace-maker is emphasised while a reluctant Pilate -the representative Roman- is acquitted of all wrong-doing.
Historians seeking out information from other sources assure us that Pilate was a cruel and tyrannical ruler. We also know that Jesus died by crucifixion, the most shameful of punishments firmly reserved for Roman use against non-Roman subjects. But Gibson –a traditionalist– has chosen to portray conflict between good and evil in terms of an upright Lucan Pilate versus an inflated malevolent Jewish mob.
So, the impassioned question is to what extent we may interpret the texts with impunity, whilst ignoring historical knowledge both of the original textual contexts, and of its consequences for past and present Jewish-Christian relations. The Church has spent the last fifty years revising official attitudes to Jews and Judaism, in the light –or darkness– of the Holocaust. If in interpreting we fail to take account of the history lessons now being learnt, we bear responsibility for the consequences.
Setting aside the question of antisemitism, what bothers me is the wholesale violence of this redemptive drama. From all reports it seems there is little time given to the Jesus who preached love for God and one's neighbour as the primary message. Of course, this is a difficult theme to comprehend when focusing on such a restricted section of the journey from Bethlehem to Emmaus. Nevertheless it worries me that people are 'experiencing' Christianity through this "relentless" and "brutal" drama.
CAN WE HAVE A HEALTHY PASSION?
Entering into the Passion or suffering of Christ is an ancient practice: Fasting, vigils and passion-plays have long featured in the annual commemoration of Jesus’ death. The secular world now marks this season with a return to pagan origins, a fluff of bunny rabbits and Cadbury's kosher Creme Eggs. So we may be grateful that Gibson is providing such a prominent reminder of the truth behind our festivities. Indeed, there is immense value in the very fact that Gibson’s oeuvre is getting us talking about it.
If we accept that it is possible to mis-represent the events of Christ’s Passion, then it is time to wake up to this potential in all our celebrations of the Christian story. Christ's Passion is central and essential, and as such deserves to be told properly. Gibson is far from the first to draw out anti-Jewish inference from the gospels, and we simply cannot afford to behave as ostriches pretending ignorance of the results of centuries of sanctified anti-Judaism.
FURTHER READING & GOOD PASSION PRACTICE
An accessible introduction to the basic issues of Passion presentation is available from the Christian Scholars Group and further information on this topic may be obtained from the Council of Christians and Jews. For a different perspective on Gibson's film see John McDade's review, in The Tablet (see above-right for all links).
The books listed below are recommended because of their careful treatment of the Passion. This is not because they 'pussy-foot' around or ignore Christ's suffering, but because they have a sensitive perception of the Christian message and God's love for us all as told in the journey from Bethlehem to Emmaus.