Conservative thumbs down for 'Passion'

Classics scholar John Granger will not be joining the throngs of other Christian conservatives as they pack theaters to witness "The Passion of the Christ."

Why not? Granger answers with four words: "Gone With the Wind."

Think about it, he said. Long ago, this best seller was devoured by legions of devoted readers. Then it was made into a Hollywood blockbuster, with Rhett Butler played by the charismatic Clark Gable. The film ruled.

"Ask yourself, after reading this 900-page novel, what your mental picture of Rhett Butler is," said Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known for his "Harry Potter" critiques. "If he does not look like Clark Gable, you are a remarkable reader. If you are that rare bird who has read the book and not seen the movie, write down what you see with your mind's eye when you hear the name 'Rhett Butler.' Then see the film.

"Now repeat the previous test. Is Rhett looking a lot like Clark?"

In other words, Granger is worried that images from Mel Gibson's cathartic epic will replace -- in the memories of many devout Christians -- those handed down through scripture, prayers, music, poems, icons and two millennia of holy tradition.

Yes, the vivid, violent visions of this film may grip the imaginations of many who know little or nothing about the faith. But something will be lost, as well as gained.

"I value very much the relationship I have with the Christians who have come before my time," said Granger. "I know that if I see Gibson's movie that I will never understand the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ as they did, which is to say, from reading the scriptural accounts, by experiencing these events liturgically and in hearing about the life and death of Christ as church and elders explain it."

Granger is not alone in these concerns. French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger recently said that he worries about all attempts to film the Passion, because this art form "can be very ambiguous."

The cardinal told reporters that pious devotional practices, such as the prayers and rituals of the Stations of the Cross, are different because the faithful actively take part, rather than merely "sitting in an armchair." As a rule, he added, "I prefer the icon to a photo of an actor playing Christ and I prefer the Blessed Sacrament to any icon."

The conservative Catholic journalist Philip Lawler has reached the same conclusion. While many Christian leaders believe "The Passion of the Christ" will be an effective tool for evangelism, he said he not sure it is wise to focus these efforts on such a raw, emotional version of the Christian faith. After the tears are dry, will anything remain other than bloody images of torture and death?

"The graphic display of violence can have a destructive effect on viewers who are unbalanced or immature," said Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report. In addition to adults, "theater audiences will ... include impressionable youngsters and teenagers who have been formed by Hollywood to revel in the display of gore. I worry how this film might affect them."

The sad reality is that these young viewers may be precisely the audience Gibson was trying to reach, said Bishop Savas, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He attended a summer screening of an early cut and discussed some of his concerns with the director.

It is almost impossible to view this movie without seeing that it is rooted in Gibson's faith and devotion to traditional forms of Roman Catholic worship and prayer, said the 46-year-old bishop. Yet these elements have been fused with the lessons he has learned in the Hollywood marketplace.

Gibson knows how to get inside a modern viewer's head and shake things up.

"Mel Gibson is trying to find a way to pierce the emotional hides of people -- especially the young -- who have become callous from years of overexposure to the violence that permeates our media today," said the bishop.

"Now I am not squeamish about these kinds of things. ... I know what the violence in this story is supposed to mean. I know what the symbolism means. I can see what he was trying to do. But I still have to ask: Did he really need to go this far?"