Biblical scholar criticizes 'Passion'

Noted theologian to visit Lawrence for workshops

One bloody thumb down.

If New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan were film reviewer Roger Ebert, that's probably the review he'd give Mel Gibson's controversial movie "The Passion of the Christ."

"There's not much more that I can say other than this is the most savage movie I have ever seen. I've never seen anything like this. It is two hours of unrelenting brutality," said Crossan, who saw "The Passion" Wednesday at a theater near the Orlando, Fla., suburb where he lives.

"That has actually raised for me the issue of whether it's actually pornographic to watch this for two hours."

Lawrence spiritual leaders disagreed, saying the movie offered a vivid and accurate depiction of the death of Christ, and that it shouldn't be easy to view.

Crossan brings something of an expert's eye to Gibson's film -- not that of a cinematic expert, but a theological one.

Gibson's theology

Professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, Crossan has written 20 books in the past 30 years on the historical Jesus, four of which have become national religious bestsellers.

Crossan will visit Lawrence on April 18-19 as the 2004 Theologian in Residence, in which capacity he will speak at several events and lead workshops open to the community on the theme "The Historical Jesus and American Christianity."


Passion of The Christ **


Mel Gibson's controversial effort about Christ's final days and crucifixion plays like a blend of a political-theology lesson and a snuff film. While the filmmaker obviously invests a lot of conviction into recreating the authenticity of the era, his spiritual message is obscured by an unrelenting torrent of bloodshed.

Find showtimes

The annual program is sponsored by a consortium of campus ministries at Kansas University, Lawrence congregations, KU's religious studies department and the philosophy departments of Baker and Washburn universities.

As disturbing as he found the violence in "The Passion," Crossan said he was more shocked by the vivid display of director Gibson's personal theology and the Christian thought upon which it draws: displaced punishment, the idea Jesus had to accept divine judgment due all the world for its sin.

"Vicarious atonement, when it's laid out theologically, sounds rather nice. But actually what Gibson has done is made us face what it looks like. And I think he may have laid bare the savage heart of that theology," Crossan said.

"He forces us, I think, to look at that and ask: Do we believe in this God? And secondly, Should we? And what are the alternatives?"

The theologian has other concerns, too. Gibson's film doesn't hew as closely to the Bible as the director would have audiences believe, Crossan said.


It relies not so much upon the New Testament for its script as another source: the meditations of Sister Anne Emmerich, an Augustinian nun and mystic who lived from 1774 to 1824.

"If you go through her book, every single scene that anyone remembers in that movie, other than the bare bones of the plot, all the details that make this a film rather than a half-hour documentary ... are all from Emmerich. So he's just following her script," Crossan said.

What about the charges Gibson has made a movie that is anti-Semitic, that could ignite hatred against Jews?

"Any conscientious Christian that knows what has come out of these (Passion) stories for the last 2,000 years should be scrupulously careful about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Gibson is irresponsibly careless. I have used this phrase: depraved indifference," Crossan said.

"Basically, I don't know how you could make an anti-Semitic movie if this isn't an example of one."

Lawrence pastors

Crossan may not have liked "The Passion of the Christ," but some Lawrence pastors had a different opinion.

"I thought it was an excellent movie. I thought that Mel Gibson did an excellent job of portraying, the best he could, the scourging that went on ... I think it is one of the best Christian movies," said the Rev. Leo Barbee, pastor of Victory Bible Church, 1942 Mass. "It gives an accurate depiction of the death of Jesus Christ."

Barbee is president of the Lawrence Association of Evangelicals, a group of pastors representing eight of the city's congregations. He saw the film Wednesday.

The association had reserved all the seats for two 7 p.m. screenings of the Gibson movie.

Barbee said the amount of graphic violence the film depicted did not trouble him, especially when compared to other Hollywood offerings.

"You look at 'The Last Samurai,' and there is ketchup and red paint thrown all over everything," he said. "That was more violent as far as people getting killed than this movie of the Lord Jesus Christ."

'Accurate and very fair'

The Rev. Paul Gray also gave a positive review.

"I thought the movie was accurate and a very fair portrayal of what crucifixions were actually like during that time period. I think it was accurate in the sense that it showed that Jesus willingly allowed this to happen. He had a choice, but he did it out of love," said Gray, senior pastor of Heartland Community Church, 619 Vt.

But should Gibson have spent so much time on the agonizing death of Jesus, and so little time reflecting upon his life and ministry?

"That's where the emphasis ought to be for what he wanted to do. You can only do so much in a couple of hours," Gray said. "He wanted to emphasize the Passion. That doesn't mean the rest of Jesus' ministry wasn't important. Gibson just wanted to give an accurate portrayal of that part of his life, which he did."

Gray is one of two Lawrence pastors who attended a special preview of the film in January in Chicago. He also planned to attend the screenings sponsored by the Lawrence Association of Evangelicals.

Rabbi's reaction

But how do Jews feel about the film that has stirred so much controversy?

"The first thing is that parts of it are hard to watch, because they're beating the heck out of the guy," said Rabbi Scott White, spiritual leader of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive. "There are 15 minutes straight of scourging, blood is flying everywhere and flesh is being torn. It was very hard to watch. The people behind me were crying."

White said he saw the movie Wednesday out of a sense of professional obligation, knowing people would be asking him for his opinion.

"My impression is that Gibson is not an anti-Semite, and if he is, you can't make a case for it from the movie," he said. "Because the movie is about suffering, the name of it is 'The Passion of the Christ,' it's not 'The Guilt of the Jews.'"

White said he did have a serious concern about the film, but regarding something Gibson omitted.

"The one thing he could have done, that I wish he had done, is to put a disclaimer at the end to say that it wasn't intended to contribute to anti-Jewish sentiment. I have a hard time understanding why he wouldn't do it," he said.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.