Year 16 -- Passionate voices on God beat

The Harvard Divinity School didn't hide its feelings about "The Passion of the Christ."

Mel Gibson's hit is "deeply sadistic" and "militaristic," said history professor Robert Orsi, during a panel discussion.

"Pornographic," added New Testament scholar Ellen Aitken, speaking with what a press release called "biting contempt." The always outspoken Harvey Cox called it a "celebration of apocalyptic violence." Make that "obscene" and "blasphemous," according to writer James Carroll.

The room was packed but, apparently, there were no dissenting viewpoints. Which is interesting, if you think about it. I have found legions of intelligent, articulate people whose views of Gibson's work are all over the map, from ecstatic praise to incisive damnation.

Perhaps it's hard to find such diversity at Harvard. Perhaps there were some people present who liked the film -- even parts of it -- but didn't feel free to speak. It might have taken courage to speak up in such a "tolerant" setting.

Which is quite sad, I think. Every year, I mark this column's anniversary -- this is No. 16 -- by sharing some of the year's offbeat anecdotes that didn't fit into any particular column. If I have learned anything on the religion beat it is that sometimes you have to let people say what they really want to say and then just quote them saying it.

This gets wild, when people start opening up on matters of faith.

Trust me. Here are some recent examples.

* Speaking of the Passion phenomenon, the Glassport (Pa.) Assembly of God caused a stir with its civic Easter program that included the mock scourging of a youth minister in a bunny suit. The goal was to show that Easter is not about a bunny, but the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Associated Press reported that some viewers were confused. Melissa Salzmann said her 4-year-old son J.T. was "crying and asking me why the bunny was being whipped."

Clearly, the AP showed restraint. Obvious questions remained. Was the bunny in chains? And with what was the wabbit whipped?

* Yes, it's a cheap shot. Addressing the election of gay Bishop Gene Robinson, the Los Angeles Times opined: "The actions taken by the New Hampshire Episcopalians are an affront to Christians everywhere. I am just thankful that the church's founder, Henry VIII, and his wife Catherine of Aragon, his wife Anne Boleyn, his wife Jane Seymour, his wife Anne of Cleves, his wife Katherine Howard and his wife Catherine Parr are no longer here to suffer through this assault on our traditional Christian marriage."

What's next on that story? Keep in mind these words from Karl Marx: "The English established church will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 Articles (of Religion) than on 1/39th of its income."

* Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, critic Mark Swed called the opera "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" a "glorious and goofy pro-life paean." But some someone changed "pro-life" to "anti-abortion," which would have been a different opera. Or did the editing software do that?

* The British edition of Cosmopolitan has decided there may be more to life than sex and credit cards. The magazine's new "spirituality editor," Hannah Borno, wrote: "I've come to the painful realization that men and shoes are not enough to make me happy. The key to true contentment lies elsewhere."

But not in a pew, she said. "We're looking at spirituality rather than organized religion, because that's where there seems to be a demand from our readers. They want something a bit more alternative."

*A reader sent this: Gilligan equals sloth and the skipper represents anger. Then Thurston Howell III equals greed, Lovey Howell is gluttony, Ginger is lust, the professor is pride and, finally, Mary Ann represents envy. Who knew?

* The interfaith scribes at asked religious leaders to complete this statement: "If I were God for a day I would..." Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer of the VeggieTales offered this: "I would, with the noblest of intentions, make a monumental mess. Having seen the sort of messes I can create in my personal and professional life with my tiny little powers, I can only imagine what horrific catastrophe I could engineer with omnipotence. I'll leave God right where he is, thank you."