Passion with a Prof

“People don’t believe in heroes anymore,” Roger Ward whispers to Mel Gibson in the climactic scene of the 1979 shoot-’em-up

“People don’t believe in heroes anymore,” Roger Ward whispers to Mel Gibson in the climactic scene of the 1979 shoot-’em-up epic Mad Max. Strangely enough, twenty-five years later, the king of blockbusters is still making R-rated epics about the bloody trials of troubled heroes. But now, Gibson has traded the race car for the cross.

Gibson wrote, produced, directed and recently released The Passion of the Christ, an ultra-violent, divisive interpretation of the gospel story. The movie has been heavily criticized by film reviewers, theologians and viewers alike—but others claim it is uplifting and inspiring. In search of answers to the myriad questions the film stirs up, FM spoke with Harvard Divinity Assistant Professor of the New Testament Ellen Aitken about the film.

Much of the controversy over The Passion relates to its radical take on the gospels about Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. Aitken, who is also an Episcopal priest, believes this disputation is generally justified. “The movie distorts what the gospels are doing, from a scholarly and theological point of view,” says Aitken. She explains that four gospels, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell subtly differing accounts of the passion narrative, and that these four accounts were “by no means eye-witness accounts, or written at or near the time of Jesus’s death.”

“It harmonizes the four gospels into one account, so there’s a stripping away of a lot of the detail,” says Aitken. In addition to the four gospels, Gibson drew upon the writings of a sixteenth century nun who had visions about the Passion gospel. This is problematic, Aitken says, because, “it locates the movie in late medieval Catholic theology.”

“I dreaded going to see it,” Aitken concedes. “I thought it was a highly manipulative movie, and really far distant from the gospels.”

Aitken agrees with film critics and scholars that Gibson is simply inaccurate in some cases—inaccuracies a non-scholar or specialist may never recognize. An expert in early Christian studies, with emphasis on Hellenistic and Roman contexts, Aitken points out many errors in the film. “The movie focuses only on the torturing of Jesus by excluding the Last Supper, the rehabilitation of Peter and the discovery of the empty tomb.”

Aitken highlights historical errors as well; for example, despite the extreme unlikelihood that Jesus would have spoken any Latin, he converses with Pontius Pilate fluently in the film. Greek, which was spoken commonly in Jerusalem at the time, is completely absent. Additionally, Gibson misrepresents the ethnic make-up of Jerusalem and greatly heightens the role of the so-called “Jewish mob,” which calls for Jesus’s death. According to Aitken, Gibson also fictionally contextualizes Judas’s story, adding a scene of his harassment by a group of morphing, devil-like Jewish children.

This skewing of the narrative has led critics to label The Passion anti-Semitic, and Aitken concurs. As the passion narratives were written during the Christian church’s nascent stages, she explains, they were in part an attempt to “unify a given community and define one group against another.” Thus, it is impossible to “put modern labels” on the complicated racial and ethnic makeup of first century Jerusalem, she says.

“I believe it’s anti-Jewish,” Aitken explains. “Gibson picks up on the rhetoric of contention in the gospels—the reification of Jewish and Christian communities— and heightens it to an incredible extent.”

She points out that Gibson took Jesus’s famous “I am the way, the truth and the life” quotation—which is not in the passion narrative—and juxtaposed it with the spectacle of the moments just before Jesus’s death on the cross. “In doing so, there’s no religious openness. There’s simply a sense of ‘believe in me,’ or be wrong.”

Aitken adds that Jews are polarized into either members of a blood-thirsting mob or true, redeemed believers. She also believes women are grossly misrepresented, as devil figures or as supplicants, despite the biblical presence of independent females.

The Passion’s $200 million gross so far has attracted criticism that the film exploits religion. Hollis Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox walked out of the movie half-way through. He complains, “The whole thing is a disaster and I’m particularly annoyed and resentful that Mr. Gibson’s going to make an awful lot of money on it. It’s gotten a lot of free publicity and I’m sorry that I’m contributing to it. “

But the film has revealed a previously existent American fascination with Christian mysticism. In the last twelve months, Touched by an Angel won an Emmy, the HBO Adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America received a record number of Golden Globes, Christian rock group Evanescence won several Grammys and the The Da Vinci Code, a novel about alternative gospels, topped best seller lists.

Clearly, Aitken notes, the film clearly taps into a renewed and burgeoning interest in religion. But Aitken hopes that viewers understand Gibson’s subjectivity. Despite the lambasting the film has received for its incendiary qualities, it has raised enormous dialogue about religious issues, and even latent American anti-Semitism.

Aitken admits that the dialogue created in the press and around the water coolers nationwide has been “full of sound scriptural and religious education.” Yet, Aitken and some of her Harvard Divinity School colleagues question the effect the film may have. Cox says, “The Passion not only has a questionable and destructive view of Jews, it fundamentally distorts the Christian message as well.”

To stimulate more open and accurate dialogue, HDS professors are holding a forum on Thursday, March 18, at 6 p.m.

“Was the Holocaust a good thing because it opened up dialogue about anti-Semitism? Is the abuse of women a good thing because it brings to consciousness gender inequalities in our society? Absolutely not,” says Aitken.

Ultimatley, Aitken advises Harvard students to “bring every critical faculty you have in yourself to bear on it. This is what a liberal arts education is about—increasing your ability to stand free of exploitation, to make decisions outside of influence. This is an opportunity to be a free person and to make your own decision about the movie.”