07 November 2004

Some Favorite Quotations



"... what souls are these that run through this black haze?"
And he to me: "These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.

They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves. The High Creator

scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
and Hell will not receive them since the wicked
might feel some glory over them."

— Dante, Inferno III,29-48, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.

"Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."" — T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)


Church & State

The sword and crook are one, and only evil
can follow from them when they are together;
for neither fears the other, being one.

— Dante, Purgatorio XVI,110-112, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.



You mortals do not walk a single way
in your philosophies, but let the thought
of being acclaimed as wise lead you astray.

Yet Heaven bears even this with less offense
than It must feel when It sees Holy Writ
neglected, or perverted of all sense.

You do not count what blood and agony
planted it in the world, nor Heaven's pleasure
in those who search it in humility.

Each man, to show off, strains at some absurd
invented truth; and it is these the preachers
make sermons of; and the Gospel is not heard.

— Dante, Paradiso XXIX,85-96, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.


The Big Picture

Oh grace abounding that had made me fit
to fix my eyes on the Eternal Light
until my vision was consumed in It!

I saw within Its depth how It conceives
all things in a single volume bound by Love,
of which the universe is the scattered leaves...

— Dante, Paradiso XXXIII,85-90, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.



Oh shame to men! Devil with Devil damn'd
Firm concord holds, men only disagree
Of creatures rational, though under hope
Of Heavenly Grace: and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
That day and night for his destruction wait.

— John Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 496-505, 1667

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is far worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. — John Stewart Mill


Faith & Reason

Without reason we would not know how to apply the insights of faith to the concrete issues of living. The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 20, 1955

The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 34, 1955

Religious thinking is in perpetual danger of giving primacy to concepts and dogmas and to forfeit the immediacy of insights, to forget that the known is but a reminder of God, that the dogma is a token of His will, the expression of the inexpressible at its minimum. Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 116, 1955

It is impossible for a man to begin to learn what he thinks he knows. — Epictetus

If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out. — Rabindranath Tagore


Faith & Humor

God is a comic, playing to an audience that's afraid to laugh." — Voltaire
Thanks to Rev. Janet Sunderland, August 2001 Newsletter, Church of Antioch, Kansas City

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me." - John Howard, past Olympian, ultracyclist, and Ironman Triathlon world champ


Inanimate Things

Inanimate objects are dead in relation to man; they are alive in relation to God. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 97, 1955


Ultimate Concern

Certainly God is more than "a name for that which concerns man ultimately." Only saints are ultimately concerned with God. What concerns most of us ultimately is our ego. The Biblical consciousness begins not with man's, but with God's concern. The supreme fact in the eyes of the prophets is the presence of God's concern for man and the absence of man's concern for God. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 127, 1955


The Body of Christ

If we despise our brother, our worship is unreal, and forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with our hearts full of contempt, and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and collectively, worshipping an idol.... Not just our own anger, but the fact that someone has been hurt, damaged, or disgraced by us, who "has a cause against us," erects a barrier between us and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our fellow men. Let us see whether we have tried to win popularity by falling in with the world's hatred, its contempt and its contumely. For if we do that, we are murderers. Let the fellowship of Christ so examine itself today, and ask whether, at the hour of prayer and worship, any accusing voices intervene and make its prayer vain. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 144-145, 1937.



It is our duty as human beings to proceed as though the limits of our capabilities do not exist. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
Thanks to Kay Goodnow

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. — Edmund Burke (1729-1797)


Studying without a Teacher

Too often we put saddlebags on Jesus and let the donkey run loose in the pasture. — Rumi, The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, trans., 256.
Thanks to Christopher Hoover.



A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sonnet, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. — Robert Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.



The way you train the high-flying administrators, the mandarins, can be summed up in one sentence. It is to train people to be at ease with their consciences when they take decisions about things they do not understand. — Alan Dickinson (quoted in Rhodes, Deadly Feasts)

Many companies are attracted by a fantasy version of empowerment and simultaneously repelled by the reality. How lovely to have energetic, dedicated workers who always seize the initiative (but only when 'appropriate'), who enjoy taking risks (but never risky ones), who volunteer their ideas (but only brilliant ones), who solve problems on their own (but make no mistakes), who aren't afraid to speak their minds (but never ruffle any feathers), who always give their very best to the company (but ask no unpleasant questions about what the company is giving them back). How nice it would be, in short, to empower workers without actually giving them any power. — Peter Kizilos



It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter 4, Section 6, "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear"

It's unwise to pay to much, but it's worse to pay to little. When you pay too much you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it si well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better. — John Ruskin 1819-1900

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them, or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. - T. S. Eliot

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote! - Benjamin Franklin



The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. — Philip K. Dick (1928- 1982)

It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is. — William Jefferson Clinton

When ideas fail, words come in very handy. — Goethe



In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. — George Orwell
Thanks to Jay Nelson, Church of Antioch, Albuquerque, who uses it as a an e-mail signature.

As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand. — Josh Billings



I went out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time, I will confess that I thought chiefly of the Philosophical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics. - H.G. Wells, in The Time Machine as quoted at the end of Al Garcia's publication list.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away". - Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"



It is astounding to realize that perhaps half of all human knowledge has been discovered or created in the past century. But then again, so has half the bullshit. — Mrs. Scooper, circa 1988

There is a kind of stupidity with which even the Gods struggle in vain. — Schiller



The demand for equality has two sources: one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. At the present moment it would be very unrealistic to overlook the importance of the latter.

There is in all men a tendency (only corrigible by good training from without and persistent moral effort from within) to resist the existence of what is stronger, subtler, or better than themselves. In uncorrected and brutal small men this hardens into an implacable and disinterested hatred for every kind of excellence…

Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careles. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who persue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors.

Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death. A truly democratic education - one which will preserve democracy - must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly "high-brow." — C. S. Lewis, "Democratic Education" (1944)

03 November 2004

That Old Time Religion

Review: Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world throught him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved the darkeness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. — John 3:16-21, KJV

The meaning in the message

Before we jump into a critique of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a decent respect for people who are other than Christian requires that we set the ground for the discussion by saying a few words about the film's premise.

From the New Testament writers, through St. Augustine to the present, Christian apologists (explainers) have used the narrative of Genesis 3 to establish the necessity for God to "beget" a Son who can bear God's Wrath against us for the Sin which we have inherited as a result of Adam and Eve (the first humans) having eaten a piece of fruit from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" that God had forbidden them. To the first Christian community, almost all of whom were Jews familiar with Genesis, this made sense. But judging from the declining membership in mainline churches, it doesn't make sense to many people today.

Rather than scoff at the doctrine — and scoff one can, starting with St. Augustine's argument that we inherit Adam's Sin through our fathers' semen — let's try to extract its meaning by letting go of Genesis and focussing on the Crucifixion itself. And though we will only extract mere words, we ask that they may point to the Living Truth whose silence answered Pilate when he asked, with haughty cynicism, "What is Truth?"

Let's start with the barest outline of the Christian narrative: God, the Creator of the Universe and everything in it, chose to become born as an ordinary person, like you and me, named Y'shua (whom we call Jesus) about 2000 years ago, as we reckon time, in Judea (a remnant of the ancient kindgom of Israel, which in Jesus' time had been annexed and occupied by the Roman Empire). At the same time, God remained God, separate from Jesus, so that Jesus could only connect with God through prayer, just like you and me. Ordinary people, like you and me (many of the Judeans and their religious-political leaders), had Jesus killed because his practices and his preaching threatened their existence in three ways:
  • Jesus' laxity of ritual observance undermined the purity of Judeans' system of beliefs and worship practices (the root of both modern Judaism and Christianity). Many writings in their Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament Scriptures) led them to believe that purity of Religion was necessary to retain God's favor, which they believed necessary to sustain them as a people, especially under the brutal heel of Roman occupation.
  • Jesus' thinly veiled sedition against the Roman occupation of Judea (His "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's: render unto God that which is God's," would seem to indicate that he thought Judeans owed their primary allegiance to something greater than Caesar) threatened to ignite a new round of violent persecution by the Romans. The Judeans had been exiled from their land once before — into Babylon — and they were afraid the Romans would exile them again. Indeed, the Romans coined the term Palestina (after the Philistines) in order to divorce the Judeans from their land by changing its name.
  • And finally, the Judean leaders were concerned that Jesus would turn the subjugated (and angry) populace against them for desecrating their Faith by collaborating with the Romans. Certainly he seemed to demand a kind of "inner purity" that he accused them of not practicing.
So, they did the prudent (and self-serving) thing. They handed this charismatic, but dangerous kook over to the Roman authorities, who routinely killed barbarians (non-Romans) by crucifixion, a method so horrific, that no one depicted Christ on the Cross until about A.D. 400, a century after the practice had been abolished and had passed from living memory.

As for the Romans — they thought it only proper to kill any overly religious Judean who might be taken to impugn the Divine Mandate of Caesar to rule Judea or any other part of the whole world. As for the Judean leaders and many of the Judeans themselves — their moral compromise was in vain: within forty years, the Romans massacred the Judeans and dispersed the survivors into the wider world. (Which set the stage for Jewish and Christian sensibility to shape the mores of Western Civilization to this day.)

But then, on the third day after his execution, people began seeing Jesus alive, and having conversations with him in which they walked with him, touched him, and ate food with him. Finally, after many days he appeared to be taken upward into heaven.
These events transformed the followers of Jesus. They had been humiliated, disillusioned, and terrorized by the brutal and comtemptuous execution of their leader. But after the Resurrection, they embraced death — both his and their own — and defiantly proclaimed his teachings, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection against all authorities, despite all ridicule, and despite all hazards. And they changed the world.

But first they had to explain the meaning of the events they had witnessed. Which means they had to interpret these events using words and images that would be understood by their audiences, both Judean and Greco-Roman.

Now all explanation is simile and metaphor. One can only explain the unfamiliar by likening it to something the novice already knows and understands. All human language is a series of symbols, which stand for things, or point to things, but are not the things themselves. One is not going to capture the infinite God in a finite string of words, even if that string is as long as the whole Bible. Nevertheless, they had to explain, and, between forty and ninety years after the events themselves, their explanations (which had become oral traditions of several tiny and persecuted minorities) were written down as the four Gospels familiar to us now. But even before the Gospels were written, the gifted, educated, and driven Apostle Paul, wrote letters that explained Christ in terms familiar to both the occupied and their oppressors.

Though it seems inoffensive to us now, the reaction of anyone who had seen a crucifixion to the Paul's declaration, "I knew only Christ, and him crucified," would be shock. They would think him to be an idiot. Yet many would listen for a while, in horrified fascination.

Jesus is indeed our Messiah, he would tell the Judeans, because he conquered the greatest enemies of all, Death and Evil. He came into this world precisely to submit himself to the worst they could do, and then to triumph over them, on our behalf. And now that he has triumphed, he will come back for every single one of us who will follow him and lead us to Eternal Life with God — not some dim semi-existence like the Judean Sheol, or the Greco-Roman Hades, but Eternal Bliss with the Father, the Son, and the angels.

The Judeans would understand Jesus in terms of the sacrifice of Abraham, and the lamb sacrificed at Passover, as being the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. For the point of all sacrifice is to give up something of value in order to make things right with God. Now God himself has provided the highest value, his Son, just as God provided a ram so that Abraham would not have to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God's Son, Jesus, is the stand-in for us all, for the debt we owe God, because, on our own, we are not right with God. The Judeans would understand this through the narrative of Genesis, in which Death and hardship entered the world, because the first humans, Adam and Eve, disobeyed the only commandment God had given them.

To the Romans, Jesus would be understandable as a tragic hero, who, like Hector in Homer's Iliad, carried out his honorable duty, though the path of honorable duty was doomed to a tragic and painful end. He would also be understandable as a truth-teller, who, like Socrates, chose to die rather than to appease respectable society by abandoning the truth. The Romans would understand that we are not right with God by observing the evil and corruption rampant in society. They were also familiar with Death and hardship entering the world through an act of disobedience — Pandora opening Epimetheus' box, against his order.

To either audience, the occupied or the oppressors, Paul and the Apostles would preach that the crucifixion of Jesus had been necessary, not for human purposes, but for God's purpose of redeeming humankind from Sin (actually hamartia which refers to a tragic flaw or a tragic mis-direction, in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written) and the consequence of Sin — Death.

We, on the other hand, now know that hardship and Death were in the world from the beginning of Life, long before there were humans. Further, we know that evolution is the response of Life to hardship and Death, and that humans are one of the expressions of that response. In other words, God used hardship and Death to make humans. In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)

We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.

That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise. It is a shock, a horror, and a scandal. And since we don't want to be confronted by the inference that we are that bad, we deny it, and attack (at least verbally) those who proclaim it.

Ecce Gibson

"The Passion of the Christ" opens with the camera moving at night between tree trunks toward the sweating, trembling figure of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. "Oh my God, this is really Catholic," I think as I brace myself for a two-hour ordeal. James Cazviel portrays spiritual distress so intense that it manifests itself in physical agony even before Judas and the Sanhedrin's private guards arrive. (Protestants discreetly emphasize the spiritual agony of the Passion, while Catholics emphasize the physical suffering. Points to the Catholics — we Protestants are often too prissy about embodiment. On the other hand, most lay Catholics I know have never really thought much about theology.)

We go on to see Jesus beaten and spat upon by the Sanhedrin's guards, and then beaten, whipped, flayed, kicked, and crowned with thorns by Pilate's Roman soldiers. We see him forced to carry his own cross, which he embraces. We in the audience are relieved that his torture is nearly over, but the worst is yet to come. Gibson forces us to look as each nail is driven into Christ's sacred hands and feet. Mother Mary watches, her hands clenched into the gravel on which she kneels. I look down at my own hands, clenching the arms of my seat.

Other commentators have deplored this graphic depiction of violence as excessive and offensive, unaware of what views they have been spared. We do not see Jesus naked, even though the Romans commonly humiliated their victims by exhibiting them without clothing. We do not see Jesus raped, even though Roman soldiers had license to further humiliate their captives by sexual abuse. (Perhaps Jesus was spared such treatment, as he was spared the breaking of his bones, but the Gospels and Catholic tradition are silent on this point.) Nor do we watch for six or eight hours as Jesus hangs from the cross, the motion of each involuntary gasp for breath causing such agony that he prays it to be his last.

Other commentators take issue with some of Gibson's portrayals, as do I. Pilate, for one, comes off far too sympathetically. Roman writings by his contemporaries describe Pilate as being so wantonly cruel that he was eventually recalled (fired) from his position as Prefect (Roman Governor) of Judea, because his brutal repression of the Judeans was itself causing too much resentment. I can't imagine that Pilate would have given a damn about yet one more charismatic, faith-healing preacher. Even Jesus' admission, "My Kingdom is not of this world," would have offended him. The only kings were those to whom Caesar and the Senate granted that title.

By the same token, Caiaphas (the chief Priest) comes off too unsympathetically, and the story suffers his loss as a potential figure for instruction. I have given my own more sympathetic interpretation above. In Gibson's rendition, however, Caiaphas has about as much regard for human life as the Taliban, and even threatens Pilate with stirring up a rebellion if Pilate does not crucify Jesus.

Caiaphas and his followers may have been the official priests of the Temple, but they had been installed and maintained by Rome as useful collaborators, and everyone knew it. Those with legimate claim to be priests — descendants of Aaron and members of the tribe of Levi — had been suppressed, and their line of descent had been obsured. In other words, Caiaphas and the Judean religious-legal body called the Sanhedrin were in no position to start a rebellion.

They were not even in a position to execute a man (although stoning the occasional adulteress seemed to be okay). The Roman occupation reserved that power for itself. That is to say, Jesus was executed on Pilate's order.

By contrast, I almost weep for Peter's anguish at realizing how he had betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him. I feel the same even for Judas, who in his mortal regret for having betrayed Jesus, commits suicide before he could see the Resurrection, and seek the Forgiveness that the Risen Christ would surely have granted him. Perhaps these shadings of emotion are merely my projections, derived from my prior meditations on the Crucifixion. Or perhaps they are reactions to the shadings of portrayal in the cinematic art of Gibson and his cast.

May we legitimately ask of Gibson that he slant the portrayals ever so slightly toward more modern sensibilities? After all, the Gospels themselves are slanted toward the sensibilities of a Greco-Roman audience (they were written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic) living in the latter part of the first century, A.D. The Gospel writers whitewash Pilate and tar Caiaphas, because you don't win converts and avoid persecution by implicating your audience's favorite governing structures in a crime against the God-Man for whom you seek to win their conversion. But you must implicate some group — religion back then was even more of a team sport than it is now — so why not some group who wasn't able to defend itself, like the Judeans? And besides, the Judeans were there, many of them must have called for, or at least assented to, the Crucifixion, and just as most of them had successfully resisted contamimation of their religion by the Romans, most of them also resisted contamination of their traditional religion by the Jesus movement, which must have engendered some animosity on the part of the early Christians, both Roman and Judean.

[OK. I could call them "Jews," but the Judeans were divided into about five religio-political factions, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Jesus movement. Of these, the Pharisees evolved through the crucibles of the occupation and the Diaspora, and their creative reaction to them — the Talmud — into modern Judaism. The Jesus movement was absorbed by Greco-Roman culture and became Christianity, which means that Christianity is, culturally speaking, an extremely Hellenized branch of Judaism. The other factions did not survive the Roman occupation. Besides, the Romans didn't call them Jews, either. They called them Judeans, which is translated into modern languages as "Jews."]

So, the Gospels are anti-Judean, or at least anti-the-Judean-factions-that-were-not-the-Jesus-movement. Thus written, they have lent themselves to later interpreters who were anti-Semitic, which contributed to anti-Semitism becoming one of the Sins of the Christian Church. Can we therefore ask that Gibson re-slant the story, so that the Judeans appear more sympathetic, and the Romans less so?
Within limits, Gibson already does it. It is clear in the film that many Judeans are in the Jesus movement. Several members of the Sanhedrin itself challenge the legitimacy of Caiaphas' midnight "trial" of Jesus, before they are ejected. But the limits are narrow.

The limits are set by mostly by the Gospel texts as we have received them, collected, selected, and preserved for us by the Roman Catholic Church. And with the exception of a few touches, Gibson stays within them. Jesus and his Mother Mary, for example have few speaking parts in the Passion narratives, and therefore, few speaking parts in the film. Rather than fully developed characters, they are cinematic icons. Jesus, is the innocent Lamb of God, who bears the Sins of the World. Mary is the Mother is the embodiment of comfort and strength, even as she herself bears the unbearable torment of witnessing her Son's slow and brutal execution. Other than Christ, she alone seems to understand what is happening and to accept its necessity.

The other limits on Gibson's film are set by the extra-biblical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the Passion. One of those extra-biblical traditions, perhaps one may serve to illuminate Gibson's motivation.

As Jesus collapses yet again while bearing his Cross toward Golgotha, a woman steps forward to wipe his bloody face with a cloth. In Catholic tradition, she is only named for what she posesses, Veronica, the True Image (of Christ). Again, I feel tears welling in my eyes. If only the tradition were true, and if only the Veronica had not been lost. I care not so much to look on an image of Christ, whether true or not, but something in me yearns to touch, even to kiss, something that had touched my Lord in kindness. I surprise myself that I am capable of such piety.

Piety is obviously Gibson's motivation for making this film. It is a thank-you card from Mel to his Redeemer, and to the Church that instructed him in the Faith. Mel gave it everything he had, and stayed as close as the film-maker's art would allow to the text and traditions as given. His piety permits no slanting or softening to meet the demands of modern sensibility. Nor is it needed. Rather, modern sensibility has for too long been trying to forget its roots in the ancient faith. It is modern sensibility that could stand to be less smug.

So, bottom line. Is "The Passion of the Christ" anti-Semitic? As writer-producer-director, he had complete creative control over this film. I was told that the hand he chose to show driving the nail into Christ's hand is his own. (And until you can come to an understanding that, spiritually speaking, the Blood of Christ is on your hands, too, you have yet to make a truly Christian confession.)
The Passion of the Christ (both the narratives in the Gospels, and Mel Gibson's film) is a shock, a horror, and a scandal, but it is also the beginning of the Good News. The completion is the moment of Resurrection, with which the film ends.

If you are Christian, I recommend that you see "The Passion of the Christ" for the opportunity to expose yourself to the emotional impact of what it is you say you believe. If you are other than Christian, this is an opportunity to find out what makes the Christians with whom you share this world tick. There is very little "background" in the movie, so you might want to read one or more of the Gospels first. But don't bring the kids. It's rated R for a reason.

Editor's Note: After 2006, it appears that if you get Mel Gibson drunk, let him drive, and then try to arrest him, he gets anti-Semitic Tourette's Syndrome. The film may not be overtly anti-Semitic, but we're not so sure about Mel.