Along the Tracks

Monday, August 04, 2003

Rich gets “Passion”-ate

New York Times “culture” columnist Frank Rich attacks Mel Gibson, and to a lesser extent, his upcoming movie “The Passion,” in today’s newspaper with gleeful, slicing words, inflammatory accusations and conflation with any and all conservative stances and their proponents - in other words, typical Rich.

For instance, Gibson is maligned by connection to James Hirsen. How is he connected to this writer? By virtue of Hirsen being “one of Mr. Gibson’s most passionate defenders.” Gibson is tied to Hirsen’s past statements, which, according to Rich, represent anti-Semitic beliefs. I’m not familiar with Hirsen’s work as a whole, but the quotes Rich uses to “prove” his case seem pretty open to other interpretations which have nothing to do with Jewishness or anti-Semitism. Ann Coulter’s name is dropped to impugn Gibson as well - since her book was “published by the same imprint (Crown Forum)” as Hirsen’s!

Rich makes clever use of a Bill O’Reilly quote to make it appear Gibson went on the news commentator’s show to “defend the himself against ‘any Jewish people’ who might attack the film” - despite the fact that O’Reilly asked the question and made the reference to “Jewish” opposition, not Gibson. Rich also pulls a “Dowdism” - taking a quotes out of context and adding an ellipsis in the middle to make it appear someone meant something quite different than their actual words would suggest - and gives us this little number:

“Asked by Bill O’Reilly in January if his movie might upset ‘any Jewish people,’ Mr. Gibson responded: ‘It may. It’s not meant to. I think it’s meant to just tell the truth. . . . Anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.” (emphasis mine)

Rich’s cheat - that dreaded ellipsis - makes it appear Gibson’s “anybody” refers back to O’Reilly’s “Jewish people.” In fact, the full quote (need to scroll down the page about two-thirds of the way - couldn’t find it on the Fox site) makes it clear that “anybody” means everybody, as in every human being, Christians included. In Gibson’s words, filling in Rich’s ellipsis: “It may. It’s not meant to. I think it’s meant to just tell the truth. [begin ellipsis] I want to be as truthful as possible. But, when you look at the reasons behind why Christ came, why he was crucified, he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind, so that, really, [end ellipsis] anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.”

It most emphatically does NOT single out Jews, as Rich attempts to imply.

And of course, there are the references to Gibson’s father, who has indeed made anti-Semitic statements in the past - things Gibson has disavowed. A leaked or stolen script, depending on the person telling the story, was reviewed by a number of Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars whose criticisms are stretched by Rich into a “thumbs down” blasting of its anti-Semitic themes. From what I’ve read, the criticisms focus on the script’s historical accuracy, rather than its themes - a fair point, but not one which automatically proves an anti-Semitic agenda.

Rich’s own criticism boils down to a whining complaint that leftists and liberals - people like him - were not included in the rough-cut screenings which were recently held. He attempts to make this a conspiracy to keep Jews in the dark about the movie. I have no idea how many people have seen the film (from what I’ve read, a few dozen at most), but they have primarily been drawn from Christian churches and organizations (not likely to include a lot of Jews). The single exception was the invitation-only Washington screening, which included conservative writers, activists and officials. We are told by Rich, based on the word of an unnamed journalist, that there was only one “token Jew” there, Matt Drudge - whom Rich refers to sarcastically as “that renowned Talmudic scholar.” We are apparently to assume this unnamed journalist knows the faiths of all the other invitees at that screening.

Rich ultimately dismisses the movie as a certain “flop” in the U.S., but fears its assumed message of hate will resonate abroad “where anti-Semitism has metastasized since 9/11.” Of course, those strains of anti-Semitism come from two primary sources: Islamic fundamentalists, unlikely to seek out, let alone praise, a movie which focuses on Jesus’ passion (Christianity is considered equally blasphemous as Judaism in the Wahabbi worldview); and leftists who have carried anti-Zionist rhetoric far over the line into full-fledged anti-Semitism - in other words, people with whom Rich on most subjects would be in full agreement. I’d make the counter-claim: That the movie will be quite successful in a United States whose citizens remain the most religious in the Western world, and will flop where people hold a faith diametrically opposed to Jesus message, as well as where people are too culturally “advanced” to hold deep beliefs about anything at all.

On “The Passion” itself, I have not seen the movie nor read the illicit script. I can only base my viewpoint on what I have read and heard elsewhere. It sounds like it will be a quite traditionalist telling of the final 12 hours of Jesus life on earth, pre-resurrection. Whether or not it is anti-Semitic will have to be judged by viewing the final product - and if I find it is indeed anti-Semitic, I will be quick to post my own criticism.

Looking behind “The Passion”

The historically-based criticisms of “The Passion” sound valid - Gibson closely follows the passion narratives found in the Gospels, which were meant to be faith-builders, not historical documentation. This is not to impugn their historical value; rather, their value must be, in part, considered to be as much about the early Church, its focus and its struggles during the latter half of the 1st century CE.

If we look elsewhere in the New Testament, we find a faith struggling with its own Jewishness. The Synoptic (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Gospels’ references to “Pharisees” in a negative light - despite some specific examples of Pharisees aligning with and even helping Jesus, as well as Jesus’ own teachings, which are quite in line with much Pharisaic tradition to that time - indicates the gospel writers were attempting to sideline this faction - Pharisaic Christians - within the Christian community. The Sadducees (a primarily priestly party), the chief priests and the scribes are often treated polemically for their alliances of convenience and their greed, something also claimed by other works from the period. Jesus is also portrayed speaking against violent confrontation of the Roman authorities - the position held by Sicari and Zealots.

The one major group which is never directly spoken against (with the possible exception of the reference to foolishness by the “Sons of Light” in one of Jesus’ parables) is the Essenes. Quite a few researchers noticed this well before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, which most scholars still believe was a library of Essenic literature, if the details of the movement’s origin remain sketchy. The scrolls offer many insights into both general points of view and specific activities which, prior to the scrolls’ discovery, were previously associated only with the early church. Interestingly, the scrolls exude extreme hostility toward a group the writers call the “Flattery-Seekers,” identified by many scholars as Pharisees. This antagonism with Pharisees could well have continued into the early church community.

Other clues that the early Christian community had a strong Essenic background include: its own self-reference, “The Way,” which was also used by the Essenes who copied the Dead Sea scrolls; the system of communal living in the early Church, which parallels that of the Essenes; and perhaps Paul’s trip to “Damascus,” where the Bible relates his visitation by the risen Christ - one of the Essene formative documents refers to the sect withdrawing from a sinful Israel to “the land of Damascus.” Some theorists believe James, the early Jerusalem church leader referred to as the “brother of Jesus,” was himself an Essene, based on traditional descriptions of him, including his devotion to Torah, and on the epistle which bears his name and most likely originated from his circle of followers.

With all the above possibilities, not to mention the Greek-speaking, Diaspora Jews referred to as Hellenists who spread the Gospel far and wide during the middle and later 1st century, one can begin to see the complexities inside the early church community. Some felt the truth revealed by Jesus life and resurrection did not change the importance of the “works of the Law” - traditional definitions of being Jewish - and therefore all converts must also become Jewish proselytes. Some (James among them, if Acts and Paul accurately reflect his views) believed Jewish Christians remained members of the chosen people, a “priestly remnant” of God’s selection to bear his name until the Last Day, but Gentiles were now also invited into God’s grace through Jesus death and resurrection; becoming a Jew was an optional, further commitment to God’s greater plan. Some - Paul and his followers, who ultimately came to control the church - believed Jesus message of salvation superseded the Torah, and while there was nothing “wrong” with maintaining one’s Jewishness, it was now a secondary, cultural consideration which would have no bearing in the final disposition of one’s soul. Indeed, Rabbi Daniel Boyarin, in “A Radical Jew,” argues Paul felt so strongly about this issue that he wrote new believers should not become Jews, because this was a more difficult path to attaining salvation which could cause the believer to falter.

I’m not certain I completely agree with Boyarin’s interpretation, but he is certainly right that later church leaders pulled at this string until the entire connection between Christianity and Judaism unraveled, and the slander of Jews as “self-righteous” and “Christ-killers” was accepted. Even to this day, there are some Christian theologians who argue Paul was condemning the entire Jewish religion for its supposed belief in attaining salvation through one’s own actions - a straw man Martin Luther cleverly turned on the Catholic church, which was indeed “capitalizing,” through indulgences, on a claim of salvation based on “works,” i.e., physical actions rather than spiritual demeanor. However, by giving power and credence to the argument, Luther ignited an even more virulent anti-Semitism which poisoned Protestantism as much as it had Catholicism.

Ultimately, any theatrical portrayal of the passion is doomed to be controversial based on historical criticism, because the narrative cannot be empirically proven or even supported by outside sources. The areas where historical accuracy could be claimed include the sets, the clothing, the languages used (already a failing for “The Passion” - Aramaic was indeed the language of the common people in Israel, but the Romans portrayed using Latin would most likely have spoken the universal Greek), and some culturally specific actions and scenes. The timetable of events, the dialogue, the trial format for both the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s court, the process of preparing the convicted Jesus for execution, and even the details of crucifixion itself - these all fall more or less into the realm of informed speculation at best. Yet they comprise the very heart (and point) of any portrayal of Jesus final hours.

Much of the controversy over Gibson’s movie is based on his poorly-chosen, if sincerely believed, statement that the film will be accurate “historically.” If Mel had instead said it would be a “traditional” reading (which he has also said), I doubt the uproar would have been so great, and so filled with charges against his motives (rather than against his movie itself).

I should mention the obvious: The historical figure Jesus was a Jew. And if you are a Christian, you believe Jesus is the prophesied Messiah (Christ, translated from the Greek), who is, by definition, a Jew. The whole of Jesus teaching was focused on love, personal (not group) responsibility and unlimited forgiveness. Later polemics against Jews found in the Gospels and in the other New Testament writings had little to do with practicing, non-Christian Jews of the time, and absolutely nothing to do with Jewish people today. Instead, they were aimed at Christian circles with different ideas about how believers in Christ should most properly express their Jewishness.

Later anti-Semitic vitriol has at times seeped back into the New Testament itself by the process of translation, which is inevitably skewed by the translator’s worldview. I’ll give one small example: In John 15 (see footnote in verse 2 also), where Jesus talks about being the vine and followers being the branches, the full discussion includes a reference commonly translated as the dead branches being “pruned.” I was recently surprised, shocked even, to learn the original (and exceptionally difficult Johanine) Greek can just as accurately be translated as some of the branches being “cleaned” and kept on the tree - an interpretation which fits other teachings attributed to Jesus (the Good Shepherd seeking the lost, for example) quite well indeed. Animus toward Jews for centuries has been based on these verses, among many others; they may not even mean what the anti-Semites claim they mean.

Finally, getting back to “The Passion” itself, let me add this point: If Gibson is “traditionally” accurate, Jesus will state from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Even the dullest anti-Semitic “Christian” should realize that however he wishes to interpret the myriad references to Judaism inside the New Testament, this unambiguous pronouncement by Jesus himself is an absolution of responsibility for his death. And if one believes Christ forgives sins, then even the harshest, most poisonous interpretation of the New Testament claimed by “Christian” anti-Semites - that the blood of Jesus is on the hands of all Jews - is specifically rejected by Christ himself. The portrayal of this statement will be a primary criterion on which I will base my own judgment of the film.

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