Passion gets thumbs down for bad theology, history

What a difference a Dei makes.

A panel discussion of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” held at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center on Monday, March 15, brought into sharp relief how differently the film is seen by “experts” as opposed to average Christian moviegoers.

Though the event was open to all, the audience was mostly Catholic. Panelists included the Rev. Dominic De Lay, a Catholic priest; the Rev. Kate Flexner, an Episcopal priest; Anti-Defamation League regional director Jonathan Bernstein, and Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro.

All four panelists were in general agreement: Gibson got both his history and his theology wrong in “The Passion,” and all gave the film a big thumbs down.

“I wanted the film to open a deeper connection to the Passion,” said De Lay. “But I wasn’t moved. The film has tendencies toward the anti-human. Jews were made to look physically ugly and evil. “

Added Flexner, “The film gave a stereotyped portrayal of Jews. Gibson was morally careless..”

The Jews on the panel expressed similar sentiments. “We’re very concerned about some messages in the film that could spark anti-Semitism,” said Bernstein. “What will it do in South America and Europe, where there is more of a history of scapegoating Jews for the death of Jesus?”

Said Manhoff, “For the next 50 years, this will be the image people have of the Passion.” He compared it the 1956 screen epic “The Ten Commandments,” which decades later still provides the most indelible image of Moses on Mt. Sinai: an apoplectic Charlton Heston wearing a fake beard and a muumuu.

Of Gibson’s movie, he added: “It’s not as it was” — echoing the words supposedly uttered by Pope John Paul II after seeing “The Passion.”

Most audience members seemed to have loved the movie and some challenged the opinions of the panel.

When Manhoff mentioned that Gibson carries with him a piece of the habit worn by Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (the nun whose anti-Jewish visions figured into “The Passion”), a woman in the audience countered that Emmerich is in line for beatification. She added that it is common to possess relics of such venerated figures.

The same woman testily corrected Manhoff when he erred in citing a passage from Scripture. After she further challenged him about the scriptural origins of the Satan figure in the film, Manhoff, a New Testament scholar, snapped back “Of course I know it’s from Genesis!”

Among the most cogent remarks of the night, Manhoff said that everyone sees Gibson’s film through his or her own frame of reference. Jews, he said, would never see the film as do Christians.

Surprisingly, the ADL’s Bernstein recommended that Jews see “The Passion of the Christ,” noting, “The film is out there. We need to address it. People are seeing it and we have to have dialogue.”

Following the discussion, organizers and attendees were pleased. Said Mariette Fourmeaux, a Catholic from San Francisco, “I liked what the rabbi said about the frame through which we see the film. I enjoyed the movie and thought the anti-Semitism discussion diverts the point of it. Who is the bad guy? Not the Jews. I hope people see the movie.”

Leya Babchin of San Jose was one of the few Jews in the audience. “I found the discussion useful and beneficial,” she said. “I agree with the rabbi that Mel Gibson did not do a good job making sure there was no anti-Semitism in the movie.”

Tony Vallecillo, a Catholic from San Francisco, believed the evening went well. Interestingly, he happened to be one of the few Christians in the audience who did not like the movie.

“It was a meditation in pure brutality,” he said.

Related story:

Panel probes ‘Passion’ — Interfaith dialogue aids understanding

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.