Mel Gibson s The Passion of the Christ reflects the actor s personal point of view and should not be taken as gospel, said four Toledo clergymen who went to the movie s opening yesterday.
Rabbi Sam Weinstein, the Rev. Jim Bacik, the Rev. Marc Miller, and the Rev. Todd Hostetler offered differing opinions on the movie s strengths and flaws, but all agreed that The Passion is providing clergy with a rare “teachable moment.”
“This is a cultural phenomenon. The controversy has been unbelievable,” said Father Bacik, pastor of Toledo s Corpus Christi University Parish. “Everybody s talking about it, and we want to capitalize on that.”
The $30 million movie was being shown on four screens yesterday at the Showcase Maumee theaters, and most of the shows were sold out. Several church groups have rented entire screenings and many ministers plan to tie their sermons into the movie over the next several weeks leading up to Easter Sunday.
Much of the controversy over The Passion revolves around claims that it is anti-Semitic, portraying Jewish leaders as bloodthirsty scoundrels who demand that Roman rulers execute Jesus.
Rabbi Weinstein of the Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania said the movie made him “uncomfortable” with its simplified approach to complex issues, particularly the relationship between the Roman rulers who controlled Jerusalem and the city s diverse Jewish population.
“Certainly it highlighted the role of Caiphas the high priest, and it exaggerated his authority,” the rabbi said.
In The Passion, Caiphas and the Jews relentlessly call for Jesus to be crucified, while Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, is shown as a calm, sensible man who wants to set Jesus free.
“Pilate was brutal,” Rabbi Weinstein said. “He ordered literally thousands and thousands of crucifixions. But he s portrayed as a sympathetic figure.”
There is nothing in Jewish law or history to suggest that Jews would call for a crucifixion or that a Jewish leader could pressure a Roman governor into executing a prisoner, Rabbi Weinstein said.
He stopped short of calling the movie “anti-Semitic,” saying such an allegation “is difficult to judge.”
All four clergymen agreed that The Passion was extremely violent but differed on whether it was necessary or appropriate.
“It s pretty graphic. I was clenched up the whole time,” said Mr. Hostetler, station manager of YES-FM (89.3), a Toledo Christian radio station, and an associate pastor of New Hope Christian Center in Lima. “But that s the way it was. It s a movie, and we can graphically see the suffering and the pain Jesus went through.”
Father Bacik, a Catholic theologian, said Mr. Gibson put too much emphasis on Jesus physical suffering and not enough on his resurrection.
“The whole New Testament is written in the light of the resurrection, and I don t think you know that from this film,” Father Bacik said.
He said the violent scenes of Jesus being cruelly beaten, whipped, and crucified were so excessive that they ultimately were counterproductive.
“I am so sensitive to viewing torture scenes,” Father Bacik said. “After walking through Dachau [a Nazi prison camp], I can t watch any Holocaust movies. There was so much suffering in The Passion, it s overdone.... I don t really identify with his suffering, I just turn it off at some point. It just doesn t work.”
The Rev. Marc Miller of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said the movie made him ponder how Jesus willingly gave his life.
“The Bible says he had all the resources of heaven at his command. He could have called down legions of angels, but he bound his own will. He was a proactive peacemaker,” said Mr. Miller, assistant to the bishop of the ELCA s Northwest Ohio Synod.
He also said it “could have been a lot worse” if Mr. Gibson had not listened to critics and edited out the most controversial line from Matthew 27:25, when the Jews shout: “Let his blood be on us and on our children.”
Mr. Miller said that while the movie s timeline is limited to Jesus final 12 hours, Mr. Gibson s use of flashbacks gives viewers a more complete picture of Christ.
“While he is carrying his cross, they flash back to when he says, Love one another. And when he is on the cross, they show him teaching at the Last Supper,” Mr. Miller said.
Father Bacik said scenes of Jesus and his mother, Mary, were the most touching.
“That s what made me teary-eyed, the expression of humanity - a mother s loss of her son,” he said.
Father Bacik said a major flaw was the movie s failure to explain that the Jews wanted Jesus crucified because his radical teachings posed a threat to the established religious hierarchy. “My question is why he got there, what brought it to that point?” Father Bacik said. “It doesn t explain the death of Jesus.”
In his teachings, he said, he will emphasize that “not all Jewish people are the cause for the death of Jesus.”
Rabbi Weinstein fears that some people s views of history are shaped by Hollywood. “Some people believe that Oliver Stone s movie on JFK is the authoritative version of Kennedy s assassination,” he said. “Mel Gibson had an opportunity to educate us about the religious life of that era. Instead he educated us about the religious life of Mel Gibson.”
Mr. Hostetler said that while the movie takes some artistic liberties, he found it to be a powerful viewing experience.
“It was not so much the case of being historically accurate, but of being personal, putting myself into it,” he said.
“Jesus did what he came to do. Now it s up to me to do my own work,” Mr. Hostetler said. “He said there were two commandments: Love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and the second one is love your neighbor as yourself.”