The Gospel according to Mel is not the New Testament I read

I came looking for Jesus, but only found Mel … and Mary. It’s doubtful that people will take out more than they brought into “The Passion of the Christ” movie — maybe even less. Let me explain.

My faith is Judaism, but I got my best education in the Old and New Testaments from world-class scholars at a Baptist university. Having admired the life and teachings of Jesus from that perspective, I was hoping to see him in the movie. In fact, I was hoping to find a film that could explain or demonstrate to my Jewish friends what and why Christians see so much in the Christ. No, I am not a “Jew for Jesus”; this is merely my faith in people and my enjoyment in people of faith.

Sadly, that biblical Jesus wasn’t there at all for me in Mel Gibson’s film. After a very brief glimpse of a tortured soul in the opening scenes, the rest of the film was about bodily torture. Jesus of Nazareth was never developed as a character by Gibson. His name is taken, his image is realized, a few of his lines are spoken, but his charisma and ethos are simply missing.

Mary comes through much better. For once I could not only identify with this mother-son drama, I could actually connect with the “Pieta” imagery. By the end of the crucifixion it seemed our whole viewing group (rabbis and priests alike) could connect with her story, her agony, her love. She’s about the best-developed character in the movie, followed by Pontius Pilate.

Pilate is played as Hamlet. This is definitely not the man of Roman history. His wife is one of the very few other characters for whom you can develop any sympathy, and I cannot recall her as a force in the actual Gospels.

How does this film portray Jews? As one-dimensional, brutish, unremittingly cruel, plotting, venal cutouts — from the children to the elders. (The movie leaves no doubt that the Jews insisted and virtually forced the reluctant Romans to do the actual deed, contrary to historical accuracy and to Nostra Aetate, the official Catholic doctrine.) If you cannot understand the anti-Semitic tones of this, you simply don’t understand what anti-Semitism is and always has been. The entire first half of the film, and much of the rest, savors this unsavory image.

It’s superceded only by the vilification of the Roman soldiers throughout the second half. They make most slasher films look like children’s stories — and this segment has a great deal in common with that horror genre. You walk out of the theater with the impression that everyone but seven characters in all of biblical Judea — Jews, Romans, gentiles, the whole lot of them — were savages. That any civilization could exist for more than a month at this pitch is a ridiculous characterization. If you’re looking for humanity in this film, look elsewhere.

I would agree with the critics, that the film shares so much with the horror/science-fiction movie style, but in fact it’s much more like the vision of Anne Catherine Emmerich, from whom Gibson admitted earlier that he took his inspiration. Clichés abound, right down to the score.

My priestly friend called it, “The Gospel According to Mel.” It bears only a structural resemblance to the New Testament Gospels. Yes the story and the characters are the same, as is the ending, and so are many of the lines. From there it takes off like a rocket into a personal nightmarish vision without real redeeming qualities. This is not the New Testament that I read. Your view may differ.

Will this film stir anti-Semitism? Not among sophisticated audiences here. Among those without a good biblical and historical background, it could arouse or fan the flames, especially elsewhere in the world. It certainly will revive the old view of Jews as the killers of Christ, though. Do we really need a new generation of children raised on this image before they can understand the historical and religious context of biblical events?

Will this film set back Christian-Jewish relations 50 years? Not any more than it has in the run-up to its release. The big differences are that many Jews are feeling the need to act highly defensively to counteract the potential harm, while many Christians are somewhat mystified (and occasionally miffed) at opposition to a film depicting their Lord and central religious image. The good news is that on the whole we’re speaking with each other more often and acting more supportive of one another in the face of the controversy.

Will this film inspire religious fervor? Not beyond what its release has already generated, from what I can see. I’m sorry to inform my evangelical friends that this is not likely to bring more converts to your churches, and its impact on your regular attendance may not be lasting either. If you already believed, you still will. If you are moved to ecstasy by the symbol of the cross, by the crucifixion, by the name of Jesus, then you may indeed be moved here. Is that because of the movie or based on what you already felt? I believe sincerely that Gibson could have done Christianity a far better favor had he dealt with Jesus’ life or death differently.

As a practicing and experienced family and child therapist, I can advise you not to bring young children to this movie. If you sincerely want to help them feel the Christian religion, skip the movie and read them the book — the Bible — and discuss it with them. That’s an experience suited to their development, and it’s a great way for families to bond.

I could not find the spark of the Divine anywhere in this film. What a pity! If you want to learn about religion, then seek it at your church, synagogue, mosque, temple, religious institution, college — not in this movie. Read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments if your interest is in Christianity or Judaism. Read books by true scholars of religion. Discuss what you’ve read and heard with friends of your own faith; then do the same with friends of other faiths or beliefs. You’ll learn a great deal more of direct value to your life that way.

Those are still some of the best ways I know, thank God!

Bart Charlow is executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice Silicon Valley Region. E-mail him at [email protected].