Passionate news in 2004

For headline writers, 2004 was the year of "values voters," stormy acts of God in Florida, gay marriage rites and countless clashes between "believers" and "infidels" in Iraq, Russia, Spain and other locations around the world.

This may sound like the annual list of the top 10 news events released by the Religion Newswriters Association. But no, these events dominated the 2004 Associated Press survey of the top stories in the world -- period.

In a typical year, at least half of the world's top news stories have a strong religious element. But it was next to impossible to find a major news story in 2004 that didn't raise faith questions of one kind or another. It was just that kind of year on the religion beat.

Thus, it was no surprise that the re-election of President George W. Bush was voted No. 1 in both the AP and the RNA surveys. But the religion-news specialists decided that another story was just as hot as the White House race. The release of "The Passion of the Christ" tied for the top spot and director Mel Gibson was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, with Bush coming in second.

Truth is, these faith-based stories had much in common, according to Frank Rich of the New York Times, one of the critics on the cultural left who fueled the firestorm that enveloped Gibson and his film. This was the year of the angry fundamentalist in politics, war and pop culture, he said.

"The power of this minority within the Christian majority comes from its exaggerated claims on the Bush election victory," argued Rich, in an essay entitled "2004: The Year of 'The Passion.' "

"It is further enhanced by a news culture ... that gives the Mel Gibson wing of Christianity more say than other Christian voices and usually ignores minority religions altogether. ... In the electronic news sphere where most Americans live much of the time, anyone who refuses to engage in combat is quickly sent packing as a bore."

Cultural conservatives would, of course, disagree with Rich's claim that they were uniquely to blame for the acidic atmosphere that surrounded the White House race and the smashing box-office success of Gibson's epic exercise in sacramental symbolism and bloody special effects. After all, culture wars require at least two armies. One thing is certain: Preachers on the religious and secular left are sure to turn up the volume in 2005.

Here are the rest of the RNA poll's top 10 stories:

(3) Gay marriages are performed for the first time in Massachusetts, but the legal status of the rites remained uncertain. Religious groups mobilize on both sides, as 11 states pass amendments against the redefinition of marriage.

(4) Sen. John Kerry runs for president, setting the stage for several archbishops and bishops to warn that they will deny Communion to Catholics who openly oppose church teachings on moral issues such as abortion and gay unions. A task force of U.S. bishops leaves the decision up to local bishops.

(5) The Anglican sex wars escalate, as a Lambeth Commission report does little to close the global rift caused by last year's installation of a non-celibate gay bishop in New Hampshire. More Episcopal parishes flee, uniting with Third-World dioceses.

(6) Church-state conflicts continue to hit the U.S. Supreme Court, which upholds the Pledge of Allegiance's "under God" language and the right of the state of Washington to block scholarships used for ministerial studies.

(7) Religious groups debate the role of American troops in Iraq, while Shiite clerics emerge in leadership roles that are crucial to that war-torn nation's future.

(8) The United Methodist Church's split on homosexuality is demonstrated by the trials of two lesbian pastors. Karen Dammann is acquitted in Washington State and Beth Stroud is found guilty in Pennsylvania. Some mainline Protestant leaders publicly call for amicable splits in their denominations.

(9) The Catholic dioceses of Portland and Tucson go into bankruptcy because of sex-abuse scandals, while the largest financial settlement in such a case is reported in Orange County, Calif. Former Springfield (Mass.) Bishop Thomas Dupre became the first bishop indicted, but the statute of limitations had run out in his case.

(10) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes to pull investments from companies profiting from Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decreases somewhat from recent years.

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."

The Passion according to Judas

It's hard to watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" without concluding that the suicidal Judas Iscariot was chased by demons into the pit of hell.

On the other hand, it's hard to watch the ABC television movie "Judas" without concluding that somehow, before he hanged himself, his sense of remorse put him back on the road to redemption.

These movies offer radically different takes on the Passion and events that led to it. While Gibson has been attacked for his stark, traditional Catholicism, "Judas" (March 8, 9 p.m. EST) offers a modern, made-for-television, post-Vatican II Catholic approach.

"It's hard to have your little movie compared to a $25 million epic by an Academy Award winner," said Charles Robert Carner, who directed "Judas" when it was filmed back in the summer of 2001. "We don't want people to see this as some kind of cheesy TV rip-off of this big movie. ...

"We did our thing long before anybody knew Mel Gibson was making the Passion. We're just thankful that our movie finally has a chance to be seen."

Produced by the Catholic media pioneers at Paulist Productions, "Judas" began nearly a decade ago as one of the final projects of the late Rev. Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, founder of the Humanitas Prize. The goal was to create a miniseries called "Jesus and Company," which would tell the same story a number of times, only seen through the eyes of characters such as Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas and others. In the end, only "Judas" became a reality.

The movie was shot in only 23 days in Morocco with a $5 million budget. The 106-page script came from executive producer Tom Fontana, who is best known for his gritty work in crime dramas such as "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets."

"Judas" was supposed to have aired during the Easter season in 2002.

"The movie is coming out now because of 'The Passion' and all of the publicity it has generated," said the Rev. Frank Desiderio, president of Paulist Productions. "Our movie deals with some of the same material, but in a very different way. We would like to bring more light, rather than heat, to some of the issues that are being discussed."

"Judas" opens with a crucifixion, only the man on the cross is one of hundreds of Jews being executed by the Romans. The man is Judas' father and this event plants a fierce hatred of the "Roman bloodsuckers" in the heart of his young son. Judas grows up to become a bitter urban rebel and his anti-establishment anger prevents him from grasping the peaceful, sacrificial message of Jesus.

The goal was to look traditional and sound contemporary. Jesus is shown performing miracles that literally take place onscreen, while speaking in modern, even chatty, language. Some viewers and critics may find it jarring, but the "Judas" team did this intentionally.

Desiderio is also unapologetic about the movie's hopeful ending.

Judas, of course, hangs himself in a fit of guilt, despair and madness.

Still, the voice of Jesus is heard in a flashback, telling Judas: "I want you to spend eternity with me _ with my father. It's not too late. It's never too late."

Later, Peter and two apostles pray over the traitor's lifeless body, because that is what Jesus would have wanted them to do.

So did Judas go to heaven? This may seem like a radical idea, said Desiderio. But it's a logical question for modern Catholics.

"Without that flashback, I would never have made the movie," said the priest. "That's the point. It's never too late. That's the message to Judas and to each and every one of us. ... The Catholic Church teaches that there is a hell, but we don't know if anyone is in it. Only God knows if Judas was somehow able to repent and find forgiveness.

"That is what this movie is saying: It's never too late to turn back to God."

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?"

The Passion and the Talmud

The ancient rabbinic text is clear about the punishment for those who twisted sacred law and misled the people of Israel.

Offenders would be stoned and then hung by their hands from two pieces of wood connected to form a "T." The Talmud once included this example from the Sanhedrin.

"On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth," said the passage, which was censored in the 16th century to evade the wrath of Christians. "The herald went out before him for 40 days saying, 'Jesus goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.' And they found nothing in his favor."

If armies of Jewish and Christian scholars insist on arguing about Mel Gibson's explosive movie "The Passion of the Christ," it would help if they were candid and started dealing with the hard passages in Jewish texts as well as the Christian scriptures.

At least, that's what David Klinghoffer thinks.

The Orthodox Jewish writer -- whose forthcoming book is entitled "Why the Jews Rejected Christ" -- believes these lines from the Talmud are as troubling as any included in the Christian Gospels. They are as disturbing as any image Gibson might include in his controversial epic.

The Talmudic text seems clear. Jesus clashed with Jewish leaders, debating them on the meaning of their laws. They hated him. Many wanted him dead.

It is possible, said Klinghoffer, to interpret these documents as saying that Jesus' fate rested entirely with the Jewish court. The use of language such as "enticed and led astray" indicated that Jesus may have been charged with leading his fellow Jews to worship false gods.

There are more details in this confusing drama. Writing in 12th-century Egypt, the great Jewish sage Maimonides summed up the ancient texts.

"Jesus of Nazareth," he proclaims, in his Letter to Yemen, " ... impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions.

"The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."

Is that it? What role did the Romans play?

In terms of historic fact, stressed Klinghoffer, it's almost impossible to find definitive answers for such questions. But the purpose of the Jewish oral traditions that led to the Talmud was to convey religious belief, not necessarily historical facts.

"If you really must ask, 'Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?', then you can only conclude that both the Gospels and the Talmud agree that the Jewish leaders did not have the power to execute him," he said.

"Did they influence the event? The religious texts suggest that they did, the historic texts suggest that they did not. It's hard to know. ... But if Gibson is an anti-Semite, then to be consistent you would have to say that so was Maimonides."

Obviously, Klinghoffer is not spreading this information in order to fan the flames of hatred. His goal, he said, is to provoke Jewish leaders in cities such as New York and Los Angeles to strive harder to understand the views of traditional Protestants and Catholics. And it's time for liberal Christians to spend as much time talking with Orthodox Jews as with liberal Jews.

It's time to everyone to be more honest, he said.

"I don't see anything that is to be gained for Judaism by going out of our way to antagonize a Mel Gibson or to antagonize as many traditional Christians as we possibly can. I think we have been yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," said Klinghoffer.

"To put it another way, I don't think it's very wise for a few Jewish leaders to try to tell millions of Christians what they are supposed to believe. Would we want some Christians to try to edit our scriptures and to tell us what we should believe?"