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Sifting through ‘Passion’-ate responses to Gibson’s film

It seems that no film since Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which hit theaters in 1993, has sparked so much debate and ignited so much controversy-until now. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” released nationwide Feb. 25, has likely superseded Spielberg’s film in terms of open public discourse.

I have been intrigued by the manifold responses to Gibson’s film. One man on a local talk radio program suggested that we “crucify Christ afresh” when we sit through a film depicting Christ’s crucifixion and the events leading up to it. He refuses to see “The Passion.”

Another listener called in and said it was one of the most spiritual experiences she had ever had. She let her teenage children decide if they would see “The Passion”-and they did. It had a profound effect on each of them.

I had hoped for a deeply uplifting, spiritual experience tantamount to the one the aforementioned listener and her children had. For me, that was not the case. But I don’t side with the listener who feels it necessary to eschew every violent representation of historical events, either.

“The Passion” has brought to the forefront an important discussion about the appropriateness of depicting historical events on film-especially controversial ones such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Gibson has been criticized for weaving anti Semitic sentiment throughout his film, just as Spielberg was rebuked for portraying Holocaust victims as helpless and passive, allowing the Aryans to control their fate. Even some Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians are upset with Gibson for presenting such a realistic and true-to-form story that some historians deem implausible. Catholic League President William Donohue, in his essay, “‘The Passion’ Wounds Theologians’ Egos,” counters them by writing, “Why are [the theologians] angry with Mel for giving us his version of what happened when they confess they don’t know what happened? How can his portrayal be unauthentic if they don’t know what is authentic?” As a filmmaker-or, for that matter, an author, poet or playwright-attempts to recreate history, his or her own biases and perceptions of the portrayed events are connected inextricably with the final product, no matter how great of an attempt is made to remain neutral or unbiased.

So it should come as no surprise that any work of art is bound to upset some groups and individuals. Does that mean we should refrain altogether from recreating the past through our current perspective? Certainly not. Any opportunity we have to more fully understand an event that has had such a profound impact upon humankind-be it the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ or the mass murder of more than 12 million Jews, homosexuals and other victims of Nazi savagery-ought to be embraced and learned from.

The fact is both events did occur. To what extent they happened as we depict them in film and literature, we are unsure. But filmmakers, authors and playwrights take what historical evidence we do have and recreate history through their own perspective.

For Spielberg, the task, from a historical standpoint, was much simpler-he had first hand and written testimonies, photographs, footage and other physical evidence to draw from in producing his representation of the Holocaust. For Gibson, the task was more daunting-he had only the written word as a source for his film

C.S. Lewis, in his “Essay on Historicity,” comments on the difficulty of recreating the past. “Most of the experiences in the ‘past as it really was’ were instantly forgotten by the subject himself. Of the small percentage which he remembered…a smaller percentage was ever communicated to even his closest intimates. Of this, a smaller percentage still was recorded and of the recorded fraction, only another fraction has ever reached posterity…When once we have realized what ‘the past as it really was’ means, we must freely admit that most-that nearly all-history…is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us.”

Hence, the reality of attempting to grasp and recreate historicity. But to shy away from tackling controversial, historical issues-and to make them any less realistic than they actually were-is doing history a collective disservice. Gibson is making it OK to talk about Jesus again in a public setting (against secularists’ wishes) and he is keeping arguably the most important historical event from becoming “wholly unknown to us.”

I must confess-it was not easy to watch “The Passion,” just as it was hard for me to view the edited-for-TV version of “Schindler’s List.” The horror of man’s inhumanity to man is disturbingly real in both films. To say I walked away from the TV or out of the movie theater feeling “uplifted” or “spiritually renewed” would be an exaggeration.

But I don’t think that is what Spielberg or Gibson were trying to accomplish. It is a good thing if one can walk away from “The Passion” feeling rejuvenated and ready to conquer life’s perplexing problems. I did not. I felt sorrow and a heavy darkness after I viewed more than two hours of Christ being butchered by Roman soldiers. That, I believe, is what Gibson intended for us to feel-even the weight and the darkness and the hell that Christ must have endured from Gethsemane to Calvary. It is what we were supposed to feel when we sat through “Schindler’s List” and experienced the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau and Treblinka and any number of concentration camps.

I read “Schindler’s List” by Thomas Keneally before I saw Spielberg’s film. I was touched by the statement at the end of the novel, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.”

Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,100 lives from the hands of cruel Nazi officers, and consequently, saved “the world entire.” His story is worth retelling.

Jesus Christ-to whom the “one lost sheep” matters, but who also died for “the ninety and nine”-also saved “the world entire,” only on a much grander level.

Isn’t his story worth retelling?

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