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Gibson's 'The Passion' Sparks Academic Debate Among Princeton Professors

Matthew Hersh

Since the release of the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ, theological, social, and academic debates have mounted regarding the verity, purpose, and effect of the movie's message.

Recently, Princeton University hosted a panel to discuss The Passion, joining professors of religion with representatives of national Catholic and Jewish organizations for an incisive, albeit brief, presentation offering the individual views of the panel members.

The panelists both praised and condemned the film, but all agreed that that it opens doors to discussion and brings a subject to American pop culture that may have otherwise gone unaddressed.

Rabbi David Elcott, the U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that when one's belief is based on a series of narratives, there can be several interpretations of one common theme.

"We live our narratives. We don't simply believe them, we live them out," Rabbi Elcott said. "Historically, those narratives have been used by peoples and nations to conquer and destroy, to humiliate and to denigrate."

However, in regard to the movie The Passion, Rabbi Elcott contended that the movie is not about anti-Semitism, but is about "polarizing" certain narratives.

"If there is no one with whom I can identify in that movie except for Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and James, and every other person there is evil incarnate, I can't believe that is the way the world should be or how any narrative should be told."

University Religion Professor Robert George discussed a personal element, saying the situation called for more than the academic perspective.

"It is important not only for Jewish organizations, but also for Christian, Protestant, and Catholic [organizations] to remind people it is solemn Christian teaching that Christ's death is not to be blamed on the Jews, and that anti-Semitism is always and everywhere a sin," he said.

However, when posing the question of who, in fact, did kill Christ, Prof. George blamed neither the Roman, or the Jews, but himself.

"I approach the question of responsibility for his death from a perspective of faith, and the answer to the question is clear – all too clear for my own comfort," he said. "I am the one responsible."

"It was for my sins that Christ died, it was for my selfishness, my greed, my lust, my covetousness, my self-indulgences, my injustices, my failures of courage and love," Prof. George said.

Prof. George defended Mr. Gibson's interpretation of Christ's Passion saying that one's interpretation or representation of an event does not make one anti-Semitic, and that Mr. Gibson's views should be viewed simply as one of many interpretations.

"This should be done and can be done without in any way suggesting that devout Protestant and Catholic believers are living powderkegs of anti-Semitism. They are not."

William Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, argued that religious interpretations are not the issue, but the ability for an artist to create a product while maintaining artistic control.

"I have never in my life seen a more vicious, unethical assault on a filmmaker and his movie than on Mel Gibson and The Passion," Mr. Donahue said. "Every trick in the book as been pulled to change [the movie]."

Mr. Donahue outlined the importance for artistic autonomy saying that the movie was made even without going through a traditional Hollywood studio.

"Mel Gibson doesn't need to vet his movie by any scholars," he said. "He's not an altar boy, this is not a docu-drama. It's his interpretation."

"There's no doubt that much is at stake in this discussion," said Cornel West, professor of religion at the University. Questioning the gruesome content, Prof. West asked if the scatological approach to the Jesus' Passion was the responsible route, considering the mainstream audience.

"Our culture is preoccupied with voyeuristic pornographic representations of suffering already, now here comes my Jesus being invoked in this regard with very little about his life, deeds, or practices," he said.

Prof. West, said that while he may have a "professional obligation" to see the film, he had "no desire" to see it.

University Religion Professor John Gager, who also had not seen the movie, opted to speak around The Passion, and did not directly address the film's interpretation. He said the that because the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, on which the movie was based were written at 40 years after Jesus' death, they do not completely represent "innocent, uncut video tapes of Jesus' life and death."

"You cannot just jump into the Gospels and say 'Look, this is what Jesus said, and this is what Jesus did,' it takes a certain amount of effort to work your way back through the Gospels to the earlier stages and levels where we can perhaps encounter the figure of Jesus," he said.

Prof. Gager said that "the gospels do not place great emphasis on the suffering of Jesus." He said when suffering is addressed, the focus is in the context of "the healing and the redemption of Israel that comes through this suffering."

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