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January 25, 2004 - Follow-Up on Mel Gibson and the Pope

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This is getting downright confusing. 

The Pope said what?  The Anti-Defamation League said what? 

In a previous issue of Just Above Sunset, I posted a discussion of Mel Gibson's new film The Passion.  You can find that at September 21, 2003 Reviews, typos and all, under the title of Collective guilt as a theological concept, and Hollywood marketing tool: Mel Gibson and the ADL. 

A brief review:


The buzz out here, and in the entertainment pages in general, has been about Mel Gibson's new film The Passion, and it won't be released for another seven months.  The film chronicles the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus.  Gibson plans on Easter as the release date for the movie, but not everyone is okay with this film.  After screening an early version of the film with Mel Gibson, the Anti-Defamation League's national headquarters began to voice concern. 

The ADL, whose mission is to "stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all people alike," argues that the film is theologically and historically irresponsible in regards to the crucifixion. 

Many conservative Christians who have attended private screenings of The Passion have called it "the most powerful depiction" they have seen of Jesus' final hours.  But the ADL has argued for months that the portrayal of Jews in the events leading to the crucifixion will promote anti-Semitism. 

And of course Bill O'Reilly has had Gibson on his Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" to counter Jewish criticism of the film.  The "conservative Christian right" is rallying around Gibson. 

Frank Rich, the media critic for the New York Times is ticked off about the film.  And that provides and opportunity for the right to fulminate about the evil, liberal, Jewish New York press of course.  You know, those guys who hate us harmless Christians and like Hilary Clinton. 

...  Gibson says Rich's comments made him quite angry, or as Gibson put it - "I want his intestines on a stick...  I want to kill his dog."

The film isn't even out yet and the "whining" Jews and "self-righteous Christian" folks on the right are going at it.


And this a few days ago from Reuters.  Perhaps the Anti-Defamation League had a point, given information now available to the press. 

See Gibson film heavy on blood, Satan
Broward Liston, Reuters, Thursday, January 22, 2004


ORLANDO, Fla.  (Reuters) - In Mel Gibson's new movie about Jesus Christ, Satan assumes a physical form and stands with Jewish leaders after they condemn Christ, whose beating at the hands of Roman soldiers, barely mentioned in the Bible, becomes a bloody, sadistic centerpiece of the film. 

If "The Passion of the Christ," about Jesus' last hours, has not attracted enough controversy already, there will likely be plenty of ammunition for its detractors once the movie is more widely seen. 

Late Wednesday, a rough cut of the film got what may have been its widest screening yet, before 4,500 evangelical Christian pastors attending a conference in Orlando, and a few reporters who also managed to get in. 

Gibson has weathered a storm of criticism so far, particularly from Jewish groups worried the film will incite anti-Semitism because of the depiction of Jews' role in Christ's death. 

So far, the two-hour motion picture has been shown only to audiences hand-picked by Gibson and his production company.  The film will open Feb.  25 - Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar - on 2,000 screens in the United States.  Pastors seeing the film had to sign a form agreeing not to say anything negative about it. 


So what's the problem? 

... among elements likely to attract attention when the film reaches wider audiences is Gibson's decision to have Satan personified by a pale, human figure that appears periodically.  The Satan figure appears alongside Jewish authorities but not by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who actually sentences Jesus to death. 

At Jesus' trial portrayed in the film, the Jewish high priest not only strikes him but spits on him. 

Well, Gibson and his father do belong to a break-away group of Catholics who think many a previous Pope got it all wrong.  The Jews do bear a collective guilt for the death of Jesus that can never be forgiven. 

Perhaps so.  What do I know? 

But Gibsons production company has screened the film for the current Pope.  They said he approved it.  He loved it.  Now different Vatican sources say no, he didn't. 

Everyone is lining up one way or the other.  Peggy Noonan, Reagan's former speechwriter, is on the air on various shows saying the Pope really did endorse the film and that the Vatican spokesmen are just evil, foolishly trying to placate the Jewish community. 

You may catch a bit about this on the air here and there. 

What to make of it all? 

I know we're supposed to be very, very afraid, because the evil, swarthy Muslim fanatics are trying to destroy our western civilization.  That's the real war.  Got it. 

But now is the Christian right, led by Mel Gibson, telling us Jews are evil because they murdered sweet Jesus? 

But wait!  That makes no sense!

The Christian right is always telling us Israel is wonderful because Israel stands up to those awful Palestinians.  And that the people of Israel are all, anyway, incipient Christians who will soon accept Jesus.  That will wash their sin away?  That will expiate their collective guilt in murdering Jesus? 

This is getting downright confusing. 

These are all people of deep faith and conviction.  Who is being truthful here? 


Tim Rutten, writing in the Chicago Tribune, puts it this way: 

A good Hollywood publicity campaign does not stumble over technicalities - like the truth.

Still, it takes a particular sort of chutzpah to put a phony quote in the mouth of Pope John Paul II.  But according to the pontiff's longtime secretary and confidant, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, that is precisely what filmmaker Mel Gibson and his company have done as part of the run-up to next month's Ash Wednesday release of "The Passion of the Christ."

That film has been a continuing source of controversy, since Gibson adheres to a "traditionalist" sect that has broken with the Catholic Church over the reforms adopted since the Second Vatican Council, including abandonment of the Latin Mass and a complete rejection of any collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ, which is the foundation of Christian anti-Semitism.

The Web site promoting Gibson's film, which is his personal re-creation of the arrest and execution of Jesus, proudly displays a pair of articles - one by a Reuters correspondent, the other by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan - in which the pope is said to have watched a tape of the film with Dziwisz, then commented: "It is as it was."


Both Reuters and Noonan were informed of the purported comment by Gibson's producer, Steve McEveety, who along with the film's assistant director, Jan Michelini, met with Dziwisz shortly after he and the pope watched the film.  It was during the course of that meeting, they allege, that the archbishop conveyed the pontiff's uncharacteristically Delphic remark.  Whatever one thinks of John Paul II, he never has had any trouble making himself clear, and it might have occurred to somebody, somewhere along the line, that "It is as it was" sounds a bit like a screenwriter doing additional dialogue for an Eastern Yoda.


... Dziwisz summoned a correspondent for the Catholic News Service, an arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and denied he told McEveety and Michelini that John Paul II ever said such a thing.  "That is not true," the archbishop said.  "I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration.  I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment but gave no declaration to anyone.  He does not make judgments on art of this kind."

Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Gibson, said Monday that there "was no reason to believe" Archbishop Dziwisz's denial.


What's going on?

"The promoters of this film tried to pull a fast one and got caught," said Father Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame.

As George Carlin said in Napalm & Silly Putty - "If this is the best God can do, I'm not impressed."