Thursday, July 31, 2003

THERE IS AN ESSAY ON MEL GIBSON'S THE PASSION by Professor Paula Fredriksen in New Republic Online. Unfortunately, it requires paid registration. But members of the ad-hoc committee called together by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League have posted some information on the Boston College website, based on the draft of the script they saw.

Me, I haven't seen the script or the movie and, although I'm not encouraged by the trailer, I'm going to wait to form an opinion until the movie is out and I've seen it. The problems in principle with this sort of project are, first, that the four Gospels are themselves internally inconsistent and, second, they were written long after the events they describe. There is much debate on how historical their accounts of the Passion are, and serious views range from taking them to be fairly accurate to taking them to be almost entirely made up. Doing any kind of artistic account of the Passion will involve a good deal of picking and choosing, not only among the Gospels but also among the available historical-critical reconstructions.

Also, if you mix in bits of things like the Emmerich visions (and I reserve judgment on whether Gibson has or not), then any claim to be trying to present a historically plausible account goes out the window.

You can find discussion of Fredriksen's piece in Andrew Sullivan's blog here (with the full text of the letter here - and keep scrolling up for more), in David Nishimura's blog Cronaca, in Pro Deo et Patria, in a press release by William Donohue on the Catholic League website, and in Rebecca Lesses's blog Mystical Politics. Some of these commentators obviously have very strong views on the matter! I'm sure there's more, but this is all I've been able to find (and I do have other things to do).

As for my humble opinion, all I have to say is that this is a movie, everybody. It's entertainment, and there's a long tradition of movies playing fast and loose with history, science, and pretty much anything else important. Movies aren't important: they're fun, but they rot your brain. They are usually not harmless but they are trivial. If you're working on this movie (or if you think you will like it when it comes out), don't be pretentious and take it personally when people point all this out. If you're not working on this movie but you don't like what you've seen of it, don't get upset. It's not worth it. It won't bring down civilization and it probably won't cause riots. At worst it may confirm a few idiots in idiotic opinions they already hold. At best it may give a lot of people a few hours of good gross entertainment. It doesn't matter. If you want something that matters, read a good book.

UPDATE: David Klinghoffer comments on Fredriksen's essay in the August issue of Forward Magazine.

UPDATE: Upon reflection, "usually not harmless" is an exaggeration. Many movies are harmless, I suppose. What I meant is that if they deal with anything important, where facts matter, they tend to be careless and to get a lot of things wrong. But they are trivial, so let's not take them too seriously.

UPDATE (1 August): Leon Zizter comments on Fredriksen's essay in his Historical Jesus blog (permalink not working at the moment, but scroll down to the 7/26 entry).

UPDATE (2 August): David Nishimura at Cronaca (same link as above but updated), disagrees with me about the importance of movies and offers the 1915 Klan revival hit "Birth of a Nation" as evidence. Point taken. Let's hope that The Passion does not turn out to be as destructively idiotic or have such a large concentration of idiots receptive to it if it is. I think both are unlikely, myself. And I still think the best response here is to say, "It's a Hollywood movie; of course it's going to be silly." Not that I wouldn't be pleased if Mel Gibson proves me wrong.

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