In an unusual confluence of religion and popular culture, a film on the death of Jesus produced and directed by a Hollywood superstar is causing an uproar — a full half year before its planned release.
The controversy centers on "The Passion," a film by actor and director Mel Gibson that will reportedly depict, in graphic detail, the brutality of Jesus' death on the cross and may, some feel, inflame anti-Semitism because of potentially prejudicial depictions of Jews.
"Reportedly" is key, as only a few have actually seen the rough cut of the film. Some of those who have seen it, including groups of evangelical Christians, have called it a powerful and realistic depiction of the Passion narrative.
Gibson, a "traditionalist" Roman Catholic who is spending $25 million of his own money to underwrite production costs, has defended the film against charges that it is anti-Semitic but has acknowledged in interviews that the film may prove controversial. He is known for his role in such blockbuster movies as "Braveheart," "The Year of Living Dangerously" and "Lethal Weapon."
Among those defending the film is Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Having seen an early cut of the film in a private screening with the director recently, Haggard called "The Passion" a "beautiful, wonderful account of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ."
However, a prominent Jewish leader, Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, attended another private screening of the film and said it "unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus."
If released in its present form, the film could "fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate," Foxman said in a statement.
Foxman's comments echo those of a nine-member ad hoc group of Christians and Jewish religious scholars who read a working script of the film earlier this year and raised concerns that "The Passion" might inflame anti-Jewish sentiment, particularly in the Middle East and Europe.
"It could be lethal outside of North America," said Mary Boys, a Catholic who teaches at UCC-related Union Theological Seminary in New York City and was a member of the scholars' group.
Stressing that she and others have not yet seen the film, Boys added, "We're not saying Mel Gibson is anti- Semitic or that the film is anti-Semitic. But the script raised serious concerns," she said, echoing Foxman's worries about the depictions of an "enraged mob."
But Boys said she hoped some good might come of the controversy brewing over the film and that it might nudge churchgoers to deepen their study of biblical texts.
"People don't want texts to be complex, but they are," she said, noting that the defense of the film as adhering to the Gospel ignores the fact that the depiction of Jesus' death in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John all vary in specifics, tone and emphases.
Through his press representative, Gibson has indicated he has listened to critics and has made some changes in the film. The Academy Award-winning director and actor said he hopes to release "The Passion" in time for next year's Lenten season.
Reproduced with permission from Ecumenical News International.
A trailer for "The Passion" can be viewed at www.passion-movie.com.