Robbie Low on Tinseltown theology, news, Jews and film reviews

About 20 years ago, when I was still in secular employment and in London, I saw a poster on the underground railway for a film on the life of Mohammed. It was an epic story of derring-do, divine inspiration and military triumph and I put a marker in my diary to go and see it the following week. By then, to my astonishment, it had been withdrawn. Threats had been made to cinemas and distributors because no images were allowed in Islam and certainly not of ‘the Prophet’ himself. In those happier, more innocent times when Mohammedanism was regarded as a declining religion hanging on in backward parts of the world, it caused scarcely a ripple in the national consciousness. A second thought would have reassured the complacent Western mind that, in a media-obsessed culture, any ‘product’ that resisted the replication of its image would never sell We are all older and wiser now, but that long forgotten incident returned to my mind in recent weeks as the row over Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, has continued to fester on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christs many

Christians, over the years, have had to put up with any number of cinematic images of Jesus Christ without once, as far as I’m aware, threatening the well-being of the local Odeon usherettes. We have had Jesus the closet homosexual, Jesus the psychiatric case, Jesus the hippy, Jesus the clown, Jesus the sexual fantasist, Jesus the blue-eyed blonde-haired invertebrate, and so on and so on. The more extravagant distortions have been subject to letters of protest in the newspapers but, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have, as a consequence, been altered or removed from public performance. The meek may inherit the earth but they have no say in the movie business. My letter complaining about one portrayal of Christ dreaming of having sexual intercourse with Mary Magdalen while enduring the excruciating pain of crucifixion did not, apparently, ‘appreciate the creativity and artistic skill of the director’ concerned. True. And I could add that, after 20 or years of living close to the world of ‘the media’, I am prepared to concede that, so jaded are many of their appetites, some form of sado-masochism may well be a prerequisite of their bedroom entertainment but I do not see why they have to project their own depravity onto Jesus or, for that matter, onto me. Be that as it may, all those rows are as nothing compared to the stinker that is rumbling around ‘The Passion’ or, put more simply, ‘Jesus – the Gospel’.

Tinseltown turkey

The background to the making of the film is instructive. Mel Gibson, the Australian Hollywood superstar, is a devout Catholic. (Catholics are, you will have noticed, either devout or lapsed. There is no middle ground option.). He has noticed that, of all the interpretations of Christ, there is no simple faithful record of the central part in man’s history in the most widely disseminated medium of the age – film. His position in the industry and his faith make him uniquely placed to attempt such a record both as a work of devotion and education and inevitably, the Gospel being the Gospel, evangelism. Given Gibson’s reliable ‘bankability’, he is surprised to find there are no takers. Later on anti-Semites suggest that this is because Hollywood is ‘Jew town’. While it is true that being Jewish has seldom been a handicap in the entertainment industry, there are more obvious reasons why Gibson drew a blank. The industry looks for an angle, a spin, a twist, something that will give boring old religion some box office pzazz. There was a genuine feeling that a docu-life of Jesus simply wouldn’t put bums on seats. Add to this Gibson’s insistence that it should be in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles and you begin to see the problem. You do not need to be Jewish to recognize a ‘turkey’ when you see one. So Gibson decided to go it alone and plumbed thirty million of his own money into the project no-one would touch. Released on Ash Wednesday in the United States it repaid Gibson three times over in its first ten days. The response has been overwhelming and any number of movie houses, Gentile and Jewish, will be kicking themselves for their lack of foresight. Those who may be kicking themselves hardest are the protesters who have, almost single-handedly, kept ‘Jesus’ in the headlines and made this a ‘must see’ movie and vindicated Gibson’s courageous judgment.

As Christians we should be least surprised of all to discover, yet again, that the real Gospel is a scandal and a source of offence. I am pretty sure I remember someone predicting that somewhere. But it is important that we pay attention to the sources of that criticism and take them as an opportunity of useful encounter.

Much has been made of the degree of violence portrayed in ‘The Passion’. The camera does not flinch for a moment from the reality of the brutality, torture and suffering inflicted on Jesus and it is difficult viewing for all but the emotionally disabled. It is, for those of us who have lived in a century of exemplary cruelties, an insight into the lot of the political prisoner. Most of the complainants about violence have been secular. It would not be unfair therefore to challenge them on the ‘acceptable’ level of violence on film and television and to wonder, not unkindly, if they have ever felt moved to similar protest by the regular diet of gratuitous violence that is served up by the box in the corner of nearly every sitting room. To be repelled by violence and cruelty is, after all, good. It should be a natural reaction of the human conscience rather than an occasional luxury.

On a deeper level the terrible realism of the film strikes at the heart of some of the great heresies. The Docetists who believe that Jesus was not truly incarnate but a phantom body who only seemed to suffer. Sects like the Basilidans who believed that Jesus was substituted at the last moment. Unimportant in themselves, they had clearly discernible influence on the subsequent teaching of Mohammed and his followers in denying the reality of Christ’s crucifixion (mosques frequently sell a book entitled ‘Crucifiction’). The film unflinchingly tells the story of the cost of our redemption, of the unspeakable price of love that is God in Man.

Detours of death

It will offend those who have amended the gospel to suit their own philosophical and religious persuasions. But the film also, one hopes, will offend Christians in the best possible way. The late Lenny Bruce, an outrageous Jewish American comedian, once remarked on the fashion for wearing crosses as jewellery. If people wanted to get some idea of the reality, he quipped, they should try wearing a small model of the electric chair around their necks! We are talking capital punishment here. Too much modern Christian devotion has taken a detour around Calvary, nervous of sin, death, judgment and Hell, and opted for a ‘fluffy’ Jesus whose primary concern seems to be whether we are nice to people and buy ‘Fair Trade’ coffee. If you think I’m being unfair compare your church attendances on Good Friday with those at Easter and Christmas. Gibson takes us on the Via Dolorosa and we are invited to pray at every station. As an exercise in awakening our sluggish sensibilities to the centrality of the Cross it is hard to gainsay it.

Such protests about violence, however, have been all but drowned out by the reaction of some leaders of the Jewish community. ‘The Passion’ alarmed them because of the danger of reawakening the old ‘blood libel’ and giving comfort to anti-Semites at a time when anti-Semitism is waxing again. Having ministered for 15 years in the parish with a strong and growing Orthodox Jewish community and enjoyed a close and warm friendship with the Rabbi and his people, I was not entirely surprised to learn of this nervousness in the wider international Jewish community. History has taught God’s people that it is better to be forewarned and forearmed than wait on the assumption of other people’s benevolence. Our places of worship do not have rolling iron barred crash proof security gates and a rota of young fit male worshippers on guard duty but then we have never needed them. To parishioners who ventured the thought that Jewish neighbours were being a bit paranoid I would simply reply that they were, in my view, being realistic. Christians who are ‘disappointed’ by Jewish reaction should not be too disheartened. First of all, they need to understand where Jews are coming from and to take on board their history and their reasonable concerns. Second, they must appreciate that in community life, rabbinical discourse and family table talk there is an expectation that you will put your case as fairly and as passionately as you can and expect to get a serious and considered reply, often with equal passion. These are people whose ancestors, our Scriptural readings reminds us, were not shy of forthright dialogue with the Almighty never mind each other or you. So, for Christians, ‘The Passion’ is a good time to remind ourselves of what we believe about God’s chosen people and it affords an excellent opportunity for dispelling some of the suspicions that continue to hinder our friendship and our dialogue with ‘our elder brothers’ in the faith as Pope John Paul II called them. In order to do this we cannot avoid history but we must not be shackled by it either.

The last crusade

An example: a few years ago there was a sudden fashion for apologizing for events in history. A well-meaning free church clergyman in my area offered to lead deputations to the local mosques apologizing for the Crusades. I suggested he might like to include the Orthodox churches and synagogues en route. Right on cue a Rabbi friend of mine wrote and booked him for just such an apology to be given at his synagogue. My Jewish friend then phoned me and asked me if I would be coming to offer my apologies too. I declined the opportunity for three reasons.

1. Our communities had made terrific strides in friendship and solidarity and had come to hold one another in affection and trust. I wanted to be judged on how we behaved now not on the behaviour of my ancestors in a wholly different culture. Only personal responsibility, I believed, would save us from making the same mistakes.

2. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that such a gesture would aggravate rather than improve community and race relations. One-sided exercises like this can lead to smugness and triumphalism on one side and deepening resentment on the other. (It seemed unlikely, for example, that Muslims would be queuing up to apologize for the invasion of Spain, the siege of Vienna or the sack of Byzantium.)

3. I would put money on the result of acknowledging ancestral guilt being the resurgence of the ‘blood libel’. In other words, we apologize for the Crusades, when are you going to apologize for killing Jesus?

The event was dropped. The Pope, I know, took a different view and maybe, from an international and institutional view, he was right. But what is clear above all, in the row over ‘The Passion’ is the fear of the revival of the idea of ancestral guilt. It was, after all, with this unreasonable and unscriptural excuse that the Jews were regularly, throughout the history of the diaspora, hounded out of communities and across continents. In explaining the meaning of ‘The Passion’ to Jewish neighbours and to non believers alike, the Christian is given a unique opportunity to witness to and explain his faith. Remember that in talking to most Jews they know very little about Christianity outside the charming mummery of the school Nativity play. Most know only that to convert would be seen as a betrayal of their people, their history and their faith.

It is true that some Jews do not come well out of the Passion story. The High Priest and the politically orchestrated dawn lynch mob spring to mind. But these are real people and not archetypes or caricatures of the Jewish race. We would be astonished if all subsequent citizens of England were to be forever regarded as a frozen moment in history – say the anarchists on the poll tax riots or some of our worst overseas football ‘fan’ exploits. The mob in Jerusalem doesn’t even represent normal decent Jerusalem, never mind the rest of Israel. But they do represent what happens in our nature when we reject the love of God. Even the governing body, the Sanhedrin, is not unanimous and is bounced into illegal and precipitate action by false intelligence, all very modern. The High Priest is a conniving and shrewd political operator. He operates nepotism and cronyism in a way with which all observers of realpolitik are completely familiar. His decision that it is better for one man to die for the whole nation is inadvertent Christian prophecy but it is also the decision that leaders often have to weigh and act on. It is no stranger than a decision to go to war now and lose 1,000 men rather than lose 50,000 by delaying the decision. It is the burden of power and human sinfulness. With the High Priest family’s long experience of the cost in human lives of revolt against Rome his was, politically, the sound and humane decision. (When the subsequent AD 66–70 rebellion collapsed it was on the back of half a million Jewish dead, so many Jewish slaves that ‘the price dropped to less than that of a horse’, the ruin of the Holy City and the longest exile in the history of man. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin may have missed the divine moment but, humanly speaking, it is not hard to see why.

Reasonable wickedness

In a similar vein I once preached a sermon that purported to be King Herod’s justification for the Massacre of the Innocents – stable state, secure dynasty, avoidance of the horror of civil war etc etc etc . (Besides, how a society that state sponsors the death of 180,000 unborn children per annum can have any quarrel with Herod defeats me.) The laity understood my point, but I did receive a torrent of abuse from offended clergymen afterwards. All I was trying to do was to point out that these truly awful sins of omission and commission are simply my fear, my cowardice, my pride, my lack of trust in God’s Providence, my Scriptural disobedience, my preferring to worship my own limited human reason rather than God, writ large in the pages of history. I suffer from the same symptoms as these men that I call wicked and who seek the life of Christ. His blood is indeed upon me and my children but it is also the blood of the Passover Lamb that saves us from the Angel of Death.

At the crux of this matter, the heart of the Cross, the question hangs in the air. Who killed Jesus Christ? Was it the Romans? Technically they carried out the sentence. Was it the Jews? The contemporary Jewish authorities played a significant part. Mel Gibson answers this central question simply with his only appearance in the film. It is his hand that holds the nail that pierces the hand of blessing. His answer is that of a good Catholic, a good Christian. ‘It is my sins that put Christ on the cross.’ When I start blaming the Jews or filling my confession with the sins of my neighbours, I have drifted out of the way of Christ and into the paths of the old enemy.

Jews are particularly sensitive to Gibson because he is a Catholic and much historical resentment remains against the Roman Church. (Gibson’s father has not helped matters by his outbursts. Gibson senior regards Vatican II as a work of the devil and John Paul II, or ‘Karol the Koran kisser’ as he dubs him, as a deeply suspect liberal. Mercifully we are not responsible for our fathers!) But here again there is an opportunity for dialogue. The present Pope picked up on the great Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, on inter faith relations and in his visit to the Wailing Wall and the Roman Synagogue and regularizing relations with Israel, plotted a course of solidarity and friendship that cannot be undone. Jews need to feel confident that, when their soldiers are commissioned on the memorial heights of Masada and pledge, ‘Never again’, that the Christian Church makes that promise with them. ‘The Passion’ debate may be just such a time for our local churches to have that conversation and make that pledge.

Like St Paul we will wrestle with the destiny of the Jewish people and God’s Providence for them until he comes again. But it will always be in love and gratitude and hope as well as perplexity and, at times, frustration. But if we know Romans 11 it can never be less than a dialogue of committed friends and long-lost brothers and sisters.

Jews are right to be anxious. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. It hides behind the political respectability of anti-Zionism. It disports itself under the crude banners of Islamic fundamentalism. It is fermenting in the old hunting grounds of nationalism and socialism and recrudescent paganism. Its sneer chills the intellectual salons of Europe, gatherings of this generation’s Amalekites who regret the passing of the blood-drenched totalitarian experiments.

‘The Passion’ will give the Church enormous evangelistic opportunity among the lapsed and those who have never heard the Gospel before. It may also provide a real chance of profound dialogue with our Jewish neighbours. Against a backdrop of an unhappy history they have the right to know what this generation’s followers of the most famous Jew in history really believe about his people. Together, within the divine Providence, we have much to learn about our origins and our ends and that we are, as they say, ‘family’.

Robbie Low lives in Cornwall.