Gibson's Passion forced to find sanctuary
"ECCE homo." The words of Pontius Pilate - "Behold the man" - with which he exhibited Jesus, scourged and crowned with thorns, to the hostile crowd have inspired many devout works of art down the centuries. Yet only now has the cinema, the popular art form of our time, the challenge of portraying what Christians acknowledge to be the defining moment of human history, with the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.
Since it is not due for release in this country until March 26, it would not be possible to offer a conventional critique of this production - the actors’ performances, quality of direction, photography and all the other elements by which a film is normally assessed. The need to suspend judgment on such technicalities, however, should not inhibit believers from taking a stand on the issues with which the enemies of the faith are assailing Gibson and - by extension - the entire Christian canon.
The first point of controversy that must be addressed is the distraction - for that is what it is - of the claim that the film is anti-Semitic. There could be no better way of dismissing this canard than by invoking responsible Jewish opinion, as voiced by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, an American organisation that exists to build bridges between Jewish and Christian communities. Rabbi Lapin has excoriated the activists persecuting Gibson with a robustness that few Gentiles would have dared to exhibit.
Two weeks ago, Lapin predicted that the film "will become famous as the most serious and substantive Biblical movie ever made" and that "the faith of millions of Christians will become more fervent as Passion uplifts and inspires them". Pity no Catholic bishop has gone on record in equally enthusiastic vein. Lapin went on to denounce "Jewish organisations insisting that belief in the New Testament is de facto evidence of anti-Semitism". With heroic objectivity, he also condemned the offence given to Christians because "Jewish groups are presuming to teach them what Christian scripture ‘really means’".
The rabbi’s remarks follow upon an even more devastating broadside he delivered five months ago, on the same theme, when he insisted that protests against Gibson’s film "lack moral legitimacy". He cited the exhibition of blasphemous art shown in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum, when Arnold Lehman was director, including a Madonna smeared with elephant dung. He also pointed out, with a directness that no Christian could contemplate, that Martin Scorsese’s blasphemous film The Last Temptation of Christ was distributed by Universal Pictures, run by Lew Wasserman, and posed the question "why Mel Gibson is not entitled to the same artistic freedom we accorded Lew Wasserman?"
Rabbi Lapin’s moral integrity and plain speaking have done more for Christian-Jewish relations than a thousand futile ecumenical symposia and weasel-worded scriptural trade-offs brokered by pressure groups and Vatican appeaseniks. It seems reasonable to hope that he speaks for a majority of his co-religionists, rather than the strident protesters. That said, the most vitriolic enemies of the film and its message are not Jews: they are drawn from the forces of militant secularism and the Fifth Column within the Catholic Church.
For, make no mistake, this is an intensely Catholic film. Mel Gibson is a traditional Catholic who rejects the humbug and chaos of the Second Vatican Catastrophe - as do an increasing number of the disillusioned survivors stumbling around in the ruins of the once-mighty Roman Catholic Church. The faithful translation on to film of the scriptural narrative of Christ’s passion and resurrection would, 50 years ago, have presented Catholics with an image that was totally familiar. Bishop Joseph Devine, bishop of Motherwell, is one of the few in Britain to have seen the film and has described it as "stunningly successful... a profoundly religious film."
Yet, today, the Easter People, the dancers in sanctuaries, those who claim They Are Church and all the assorted Lollards and Fifth Monarchy Men who have converted Catholicism into a crankfest regard the Passion with as much alienation as any atheist.
Religion should be nice. It should have no doctrines, since that would create division. There are no moral absolutes, no objective truths. In an ideal world, you should not be able to put a cigarette-paper between a Catholic and a Buddhist. Since we are all going to Heaven, regardless of our conduct on earth, what is the point of all this violence on Calvary? Of course, we need some ritual and collective spirituality: so, let’s go and hang some cuddly toys on the railings of Kensington Palace. What we need is a one-size-fits-all, syncretic religion, centred on the United Nations; an ethical code that does not restrict us from the perpetual gratification of all appetites.
You will find little dissent from those propositions among the smirking, blue-rinse nuns of the post-Conciliar Church, or their ecumaniac male counterparts. To them, the crack of the centurion’s whip and the thud of the hammer on nails are distant, alien sounds - a disturbing echo of Holy Week long ago, of Gregorian plainsong, of ferias in Seville. In a word - ecumenically unhelpful; best washed away by a few more cups of tea at Scottish Churches House.
The militantly secular world is also keenly alert to the challenge of the Passion. In responding to Gibson’s initiative, no double-standard is too blatant, no inversion of truth too shameless. Critics are queuing up to denounce "pornographic violence" (the now favourite weasel phrase) in the literal portrayal of the crucifixion.
These are the self-same people who acclaimed every sadistic and pornographic obscenity with which Hollywood has poisoned the world over the past three decades, who vigorously denounced "censorship" and promoted the "pushing of boundaries". Now, suddenly, they are alarmed about pornographic violence.
Yet, amid all the sound and fury, the most contemptible phenomenon is the trahison des clercs. The Catholic Church will not embrace this film, despite the Pope’s verdict on it ("It is as it was!"), because it expresses a faith it now finds embarrassing. The Passion was made with as much religious dedication as the crafting of an Orthodox icon. The Tridentine Mass was celebrated on the set every morning and there was at least one conversion to Catholicism during the making of the film. Small wonder that modernist Roman theologians are galled by the fact that Tradition has produced the most triumphant artistic articulation of faith and that evangelical Protestants are flocking to experience it.
The Mass, as the bloodless continuation of the sacrifice of Calvary, was the perfect complement to this artistic tribute to God. At the elevation of the host, the Catholic believer knows - although he can scarcely comprehend the fact - that he is as close to Christ as were Our Lady and St John at the foot of the cross. That is the cosmic drama of redemption that is re-enacted on the altar: "Behold the man".
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