The Gospel According to Mel: Although Not Yet Released, Mel Gibson's Movie the Passion Is Already Embroiled in a Heated Public Controversy. Is It Anti-Semitic and Theologically Flawed or Simply the Greatest Movie Ever Made?

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THIS YEAR THE MOVIE GRABBING THE MOST HEADLINES didn't have a major star in front of the camera, hadn't been picked up by a studio, and wasn't even expected to arrive in town until next Easter.

Still, by September everyone from Hollywood to Vatican City had weighed in on Mel Gibson's unfinished and (largely) unseen film about the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. The Passion has generated praise and protest from evangelicals, scholars, columnists, cardinals, and the op-ed pages of major journals and papers. As Gibson's marketing director noted, "You can't buy that kind of publicity."

The buzz began with a March Wall Street Journal article singing hosannas to Gibson's $25 million epic, which the director promised would be the most authentic and historically accurate film ever made of the Passion. To achieve this historical realism Gibson would immerse viewers in the graphic violence of Jesus' torture and execution, have his actors speak in the ancient languages of first-century Palestine, and rely on the gospels as the source for his script--embellished somewhat by the dramatic visions of two 17th-century nuns.

The following week a less complimentary piece in the New York Times Magazine reported that Gibson belonged to a traditionalist Catholic church that rejected Vatican II, the council that repudiated the long-standing libel that Jews are "Christ-killers" and guilty of deicide. The article also reported that Gibson's father was a Holocaust denier who believed that the council had been hijacked by a gang of Jews and Free Masons. (Gibson himself, it turns out, argues that secular Jews have long been trying to pin the blame for the Holocaust on the Catholic Church.) What did this mean, then, for the film Gibson was making about the Passion of Jesus?

As part of their struggle against such unholy critics Gibson and his production firm, Icon, showed a rough cut of the film to select audiences of political and theological conservatives. Columnists Cal Thomas and Peggy Noonan, movie critic Michael Medved, and talk show host Rush Limbaugh all loved it. Ted Haggard (president of the National Association of Evangelicals) got a peek and declared, "Gibson is the Michelangelo of this generation." Michael Novak wrote in the Weekly Standard, "It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen."

Still, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, had to wait until August for Icon to agree to show him the film. When he complained that even in its present form it "will fuel the hatred, bigotry, and antiSemitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, slammed what he called Foxman's "politicized attack" on the film.

Meanwhile, Gibson, who thinks the papacy has been vacant since Pius XII, began showing clips of the film to select members of the Catholic hierarchy. Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Francis George of Chicago both got a preview, as did Archbishop Joseph Chaput of Denver and the Vatican's Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos and Archbishop John Foley. George thought it was faithful to the gospels. Hoyos praised the film as a "triumph of art." Still, Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews stated that Hoyos' comments were "purely personal" and "carried no official status." The Vatican, like the U.S. bishops' office, would wait for the movie's release before offering its imprimatur or condemnation.

I AGREE WITH THE POLICY OF NOT REVIEWING A FILM I HAVEN'T seen and will reserve my final judgment until Gibson s movie (in whatever form) is released next Ash Wednesday. Still, public debates about the movie and its historicity, theology, and potential anti-Semitic impact raise pertinent issues.

First, there is the matter of Gibson's biblical naivete. Gibson has described The Passion as "the most authentic and biblically accurate film about Jesus' death," and it's clear he believes he can bring the historical events of the Passion onto the screen by translating the gospel accounts into a film. …