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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

'The Passion' and faith 'The Passion' and faith (March 03, 2004)

Gibson's film dovetails on trend toward religion
By Bill D'Agostino, Jocelyn Dong, Sue Dremann and Don Kazak

On a recent Sunday, hundreds of eager readers lined up to purchase a much anticipated book. The throng outside Kepler's weren't there to purchase the latest "Harry Potter."

The object in question was "Experiencing the Passion of Jesus," a 64-page booklet addressing issues raised by Mel Gibson's controversial new film, "The Passion of the Christ." The site was Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, one of the largest Protestant congregations in the Midpeninsula. The crowd: Devout parishioners clamoring for one of 500 copies.

"We were wiped out after the first service," one Menlo Presbyterian staff member said. "We could have sold 2,000 copies."

The parishioners' intense interest in Gibson's movie, a graphic depiction of Jesus' last days, reflected the groundswell of enthusiasm - and debate - touched off by the latest depiction of a classic Biblical tale.

Many view the "Passion" as a powerful illustration of how Jesus died for humanity's sins, a central tenant of Christianity. Others, however, decry the film's gut-wrenching violence and fear its depiction of Jews could fan the flames of anti-Semitism.

Arguments aside, however, few can dispute the film's box-office clout; it hauled in $117.5 million in five days, a figure only exceeded by the final chapter of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

As the media, religious leaders and filmgoers argued the beauty and danger of Gibson's vision, local residents sifted through the hyperbole to reflect on how the film touches their lives and whether renewed mainstream interest in spirituality - exemplified by such best-selling books as "The Da Vinci Code" and popular television programs like "Joan of Arcadia" - represents a positive or negative development for the religious community.

A devout, but strongly conservative Catholic, Gibson based his controversial account of the Passion narrative on the four Gospels and non-Biblical sources, such as "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ," a 19th century book of religious visions by Anne Catherine Emmerich, a German nun and mystic.

Gibson's willingness to step outside the Scriptures, as well as his noted disdain for church reforms initiated 42 years ago by Vatican II, has left local Catholic leaders with mixed emotions.

Father Patrick LaBelle, director of Stanford's Catholic community, said he fears a possible backlash against the church as a result of Gibson's film. Catholicism has taken several hits recently over issues like birth control and child molestation, and LaBelle said the movie's alleged anti-Semitism could represent a further setback.

"We're anticipating the problem the media will cause from looking at this and wanting to turn it into a fight, whether (the film) is anti-Semitic or not," he said. "We're anticipating trouble."

Gibson's film boils down to a multi-million dollar Passion Play, a dramatic portrayal of the trial, execution and resurrection of Jesus. Such plays have long been considered powerful symbols of Christian faith, yet historically also served as vehicles for anti-Semitism by holding the Jewish race responsible for Christ's death -- a view that led to hatred and violence against Jews throughout the Western world. Vatican II represented a shift from such beliefs, and strongly proclaimed Jews were not to blame for Jesus' execution.

"We're talking about a younger generation and this is a foreign concept to them," LaBelle said of his college-aged flock. "These kids don't have a clue about what Passion Plays mean and what harm they caused to Jews."

Although the Vatican has not issued any position on the movie, La Belle noted that Pope John Paul II met with American Jewish Community leaders last month and was thanked for his efforts to improve Jewish-Catholic relations.

The Pope was also quoted as stating that Vatican II's condemnation of anti-Semitism is still necessary today.

LaBelle and the Rev. Scotty McLennan, the university's dean of religious life, plan to visit residential dorms and listen to student concerns about the movie. They also hope to hold a panel discussion in April for the larger community.

"The unintended consequences of the movie are very real," McLennan said. "There is a lot of media attention, but will it be thoughtful and healthy or will it be sensationalistic?

"Our clear understanding is that people are seeing and experiencing this movie in different ways," he added. "It's important for me, as an academic, to see this as a teachable moment."

Father George Aranha, pastor of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic parish of Palo Alto, also expressed concern that media coverage of "The Passion" will cause more division than genuine discussion.

"This is not a quote-unquote Catholic movie," he said. "The movie may be subjective, but it's all interpretive. A Jewish rabbi was quoted as saying that maybe the media is making more about this than it deserves."

Although Aranha said he hadn't heard much buzz from parishioners about the movie, he still held out hope for the film's overall impact.

"The movie will pique interests among Catholics," he said. "(Gibson) is a Catholic who put his faith on the line. To see people come forward and say what their faith means to them is very important to me as a priest.

"Even the fact that this is a movie about Jesus is a good thing."

Although Catholic response to the film has been somewhat muted, local Protestants of all denominations consider "The Passion" the biggest cultural phenomenon to hit their religious circles since the Promise Keepers conferences a decade ago.

Laurent Swanson, a member of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Menlo Park, attended a preview of the film and was profoundly moved.

"I thought I would leave (the film) heart-wrenched, but I didn't. What I came out with was a sense of the incredible love God has for us," she said. "I'm so afraid people will say, 'I can't see it because of the violence,' and lose the message."

Aside from the violence, local Protestants were acutely aware of the film's controversial depiction of Jewish priests and unruly mobs, but hoped to stem allegations of anti-Semitism by calling attention to the Christian belief that Jesus' crucifixion was caused by all of mankind's sins.

"Twenty minutes into the movie, when a tear ran down Jesus' face, I started crying and continued throughout the rest of the movie," said Juliet Terry, a member of Menlo Park Bible study. "The first thing I thought was, 'I did this to Jesus.' God had to do this to his son to get us to heaven."

Joan Scott, another Menlo Park resident, was deeply moved by scenes of the Romans scourging Jesus.

"As Christians, we remember the nails put in the hands of the cross, but one thing we haven't reflected on was the scourging. ... The scourging lasted a long time (in the film), but I think it made an emphasis on what I've done in my life," Scott said. "As a Christian, my sins were part of that scourging."

Even before last week's opening - on Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar - a number of local churches bought out showings of the movie. Some parishioners view it as a way to commemorate Lent, a 40-day period of self-reflection and repentance that leads up to Easter. Others are inviting friends of other faiths to see the movie, in the hopes of sparking interfaith dialogue.

Carol Lind, a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, planned to see the film last week with friends of a different faith. She noticed people's curiosity about religion has been piqued by the movie and other spiritually oriented media.

"All of a sudden, it's kind of surfaced. I think it's a great opportunity because you're being approached, and I think people are open," she said.

Another local pastor, Pete Sommer, concurred.

"I've never had so much interest in the topic since I started ministry," said Sommer, who's been in the field for 32 years.

People are inquiring about three things, according to Sommer: "Who is Jesus?" "How do you know it's true?" and "What happened at the cross?"

A few years ago, the issue was different. Sommer said the dominant concern was "Give me evidence of (Jesus') resurrection."

The tragedy of Sept. 11 has reframed spiritual questions in people's minds. Christ's suffering in the movie resonates with "heightened suffering in the world right now. There's a felt connection."

If "The Passion" is the biggest spiritual tidal wave to crash onto America's cultural shores lately, other spiritually themed movies, books and TV shows over recent years have created sizeable ripples in their own rights.

But unlike Gibson's movie, local Protestants hold mixed views when it comes to material like "Harry Potter" and "The Da Vinci Code," which run counter to standard Christian theology.

One Christian thought faith-related media was a double-edged sword raising awareness of spiritual issues and creating the chance for discussion, but also promoting beliefs, a la Harry Potter's sorcery, that he considered "unhealthy."

Another found it disconcerting that friends were willing to believe assertions about Jesus in the fictional "The Da Vinci Code," but reluctant to read accounts of His life in the Bible. ("Da Vinci" claims Jesus' divinity was a fourth-century fabrication and that he was husband to Mary Magdalene.)

Beth Kawasaki, however, considers not-quite-orthodox media a healthy challenge. Last November, Kawasaki's book club of 20 women -- many of whom were Christian - read "Da Vinci."

"I love to get extra-biblical perspective," she said. "It enlivens the Scripture and drives me back for my own exploration.

"Asking good questions and being in dialogue with people inside and outside of my faith is a good, holy thing," she added. "All dialogue is good."

For some younger Christians, the media's interest in spirituality is a welcome relief. They see books, movies and TV shows as a way of finally putting faith in the language of their own post-MTV generation -- a way of giving Jesus as much buzz as Donald Trump and Jessica Simpson.

"We live in a generation that gobbles reality TV," said Grant Kim, a 30-something high-tech entrepreneur and seminary student. "This same generation also has a real hunger for spiritual things, but hasn't found quite the right medium.

'The Passion' is reality TV about Jesus. Imagine a camera following Jesus for 12 hours of his life," he added. "A reality show of a man dying has intense relevance for an audience hungering for meaning."

Many in the local Jewish community fear uninformed audiences will draw the wrong meaning from Gibson's film.

"There are a lot of questions about Jewish identity," said Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Hillel at Stanford, a resource community for Jewish students. "For some Jews, it's bringing to the surface questions about persecution. When they see the film, they see the (portrayal of) Jewish mobs screaming for Jesus' demise. They think, 'This is why for centuries my people were tortured and killed.'"

For many, Passion Plays stir memories of Eastern European pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where homes were ransacked and burned and Jews were raped, tortured and murdered.

"It certainly raises questions when a Passion Play comes out in the U.S. and throughout the world in 2004," said Copeland.

"Some people are upset that Gibson is producing a movie like this after Vatican II," she said. "We have worked so hard and gone so far with our Christian neighbors, and then in 2004 he has the audacity to create this film at this time."

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth shared such concerns.

"So much good work has been done in establishing good relationships with Christians and Jews," he said. "I'm a little bit fearful that it will be undone because the movie has so much power. I don't know what happens to the inner reaches of people's souls."

Rabbi Ari Kartun of Congregation Etz Chayim said he worries the extreme violence of "The Passion" could inflame anti-Semitic feelings. However, he admitted that individuals are constantly inundated with violent images. "Some people watch 'Freddy Vs. Jason' and are not affected by it," he said.

At a time of increasing reflection on the significance of Jesus as the Messiah, Kartun will participate in a March seminar on Jewish views of the Messiah. It is open to people of all faiths who wish greater understanding, he said.

Whether the Messiah is Jesus, or is yet to come, is the major difference between Judaism and Christianity. But for some, the Messiah - "Christos" in Greek, or "anointed one" is representative of an enlightened age, the potential of human goodness.

"Among modern liberal Jews, it's a Messianic Age of Enlightenment and tolerance rather than a person," Kartun said.

Copeland, a member of Stanford Associated Religions, said programs are in the works to ensure that Jewish student can express their concerns about Gibson's film and learn more about Jesus and Passion Plays.

"Hopefully, this movie will bring people of differing faiths and historical perspectives together to learn and listen," he said. "So often, we can't keep silent long enough to hear another's perspective.

"The test of this issue will be our willingness to sit down with one another and listen to what pains and inspires us."

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