by Michael Bowen

Both sides need to calm down. Commentators have lined up for and against Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ even without seeing it, usually in accordance with their opinions about Gibson's traditionalist Catholic beliefs -- and indeed of Christianity itself. The film doesn't grant us unfiltered access to actual historical events, but neither does it reduce the Crucifixion to violence without meaning. Now, after the film's release, scholars both conservative and liberal -- those inclined to regard the Gospels as historically accurate or as fundamentally metaphorical -- have an opportunity to weigh in with their interpretations.

Two Christian philosophers, both professors at schools in the Northwest, recently offered their opinions about Gibson's film: Forrest Baird, a Presbyterian, of Whitworth College and Marcus Borg, an Episcopalian, of Oregon State University. Local Jewish and traditionalist Catholic congregations did not return telephone calls and e-mails in connection with this story requesting comments.

While concerns over the film's alleged anti-Semitism remain, discussion of the film's violence intensified once viewers had actually witnessed its unremitting gore. About the film's violence, there has been inconsistency on both sides, with evangelicals swarming to a movie more violent than the slasher films they decry, while liberals have criticized Gibson's dwelling on graphic details even as they praise secular films for doing the same thing.

"This is where I get really angry at all the hand-wringing by some of the film's critics," says Whitworth's Baird. "These are the same folks who praise [Quentin] Tarantino's bloodbaths. And I didn't hear a lot of complaints about the violence in Schindler's List. That movie was brutal in its depiction and rightly so -- how could you possibly convey anything of the horror of the Holocaust if you 'Disney-fied' the movie? In the same way, The Passion of the Christ could not convey the horror of Roman flogging and crucifixion without violence."

Yet in a movie that's long on brutality and short on what Christ stood for, doesn't the narrow focus on just the last 12 hours of Christ's life de-contextualize his message?

"That was the point of the movie," Baird says. "I must admit I really loved the little flashbacks (which provided some context), and I admit I wish there had been more of them. But Christ's death and resurrection are the central points of our faith."

"It's not the bloodiness that bothers me," says Borg. "It's that the context of Christ's work within the Roman Empire -- and what that meant -- is left out."

When interviewed last weekend at St. John's Cathedral, Borg had not yet actually seen the film, though he says it "has been the subject of intense discussion among theologians for the past six months" and that he has "studied the script."

Borg drives a wedge -- a literal/metaphorical distinction -- between proponents and opponents of Gibson's film. "This movie is going to expose a fissure in the Christian community between those who regard a graphic presentation of how Christ was killed as a demonstration of the will of God and of the necessity of the Atonement, and those who see it as a depoliticization of the death of Jesus -- between those who interpret Scripture literally and those who understand it more metaphorically."

Borg notes that Gibson answered "of course" when TV's Diane Sawyer asked him if he took the Passion stories literally. But Borg regards them as "metaphorical narratives -- and to take metaphor as history can be quite destructive."

One form such alleged destructiveness allegedly takes is the anti-Semitism of Christian conservatives who are sometimes viewed as over-eager to blame Jews for Christ's death.

Baird disagrees. "I don't believe the movie is anti-Semitic," he says, "and of course people could take any version of the life of Christ and turn it anti-Semitic. All the same, the portrayal of Caiaphas could have been more nuanced and still been faithful to Scripture. I think [Caiaphas] was honestly concerned that Jesus' preaching might bring repercussions from the Romans, and I also think he was sincere in his belief that Jesus was talking blasphemy. In other words, we could have seen some of his motivation for being so single-minded. But the whole point of Christ's coming to earth was to die for the sins of humanity."

Undeniably, Gibson includes "good" Jews in the movie, including even some of the Jewish high priests, members of the Sanhedrin, who openly object to Jesus' arrest. He has even included symbolic details meant to divert guilt from Jews alone to all of humanity, as Baird notes: "As Gibson has repeatedly said -- and his insertion of his [own] hand pounding the [first] nail symbolizes -- we are all responsible for Christ's death. Anyone who blames the Jews is not only being anti-Semitic, they are themselves blaspheming Scripture."

Borg sees another kind of blasphemy in The Passion: "The movie is a betrayal of the passion of Jesus as great as that of Judas," he declares. "If you think that God required this debt [of the Atonement], that God required this experience of agony, in order that we might be free, that blasphemes the character of God.

"And it's not just the movie," Borg continues. "It's the long-standing belief that God requires Christ's death. If we consider it pre-ordained, then it makes God cruel. The movie over-glorifies the suffering, implying that because of our sins, Christ had to go through all that. It amounts to a kind of emotional and spiritual abuse. Evangelical Christians encourage 14- and 16-year-olds to see it that way, and it intensifies their guilt: 'The Son of God had to suffer because I am a bad person.' That's the way the death of Jesus has been understood for centuries."

Baird strongly disagrees, saying that Christian belief wasn't meant to be easy. "Many people object to this movie because it does not allow them to make Jesus into whatever they want," he says. "This movie puts forward the biblical Christ and says, 'There he is, there is what he did -- take it or leave it, this is the truth.' So much of our world today is like Pilate asking with a smirking grin, 'Oh, yeah? And what is truth?' And as Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me." But this is too 'narrow,' too 'literal,' too 'provincial' for many 'enlightened' people today."

Indeed, isn't Borg vulnerable to charges of relativism, of believing in whatever he wants? Hasn't he formulated "the Christ of my expectations" and championed an off-shoot of Christianity that doesn't demand much of its believers?

"My Jesus is more demanding than that of some of today's conventional Christians," Borg responds, hastening to add that "this is not an indictment of all evangelical Christians.

"Conservatives are always asking, 'Are you willing to believe that God was born of a virgin birth, that he died for your sins, that he was raised from the dead?'"

But such leaps of faith, according to Borg, aren't nearly as important as seeing to it that Christians jump off the couch and engage in activism for social justice: "I see Jesus' execution as the consequence of what he was doing. I don't see his execution as part of his own purpose or mission," he says. "Jesus invites us to act like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. These men were all martyrs -- none of them thought, 'My purpose or my vocation is to die.' But they all had an awareness that they could be killed. Jesus lived the last month of his life knowing that it was likely he would be killed -- his mentor, John the Baptizer, had been executed just a year before."

Baird acknowledges Christ's power as a model for social reformers but doesn't limit him to an earthly role alone. Gibson's film, says Baird, "showed [Jesus'] humanity in the suffering and in a couple of poignant flashbacks. The scene with him making a table and then playfully splashing his mother was wonderful, as was the scene with his falling down as a child and his 'mommy' coming to comfort him. This Jesus was a real person. And yet he was also fully God. Other movies, like The Last Temptation of Christ, captured his humanity, but not his divinity. Many others are so reverential that he is not really a man. I thought Gibson managed to capture both sides of the Incarnation."

Publication date: 03/04/04

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.