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Agony and Art

The rhetorical devices employed by Russell Hittinger and Eilzabeth Lev in “Gibson’s Passion ” (March) to justify the orgy of sadomasochism and anti-Semitism in Mel Gibson’s film”and to cover over their own lack of cogent arguments”should not go unchallenged. They note, for example, that the film is “nearly the opposite” of a passion play because viewers “must struggle to keep watching, which is humiliating in its own right.” This is precisely what makes the film so dangerous: it leaves the audience so humiliated that it will look for someone to blame. This is how people react to being humiliated. Just as Hitler used German humiliation during the Weimar Republic to galvanize anti-Semitism, Gibson’s message is: don’t blame the Romans or Pilate for what happened to Jesus”blame the Jews.

Michael Rose
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Not one of us escapes the struggle between the better and lesser angels of our nature, not even the Sanhedrin. A film that better portrayed the trial of Jesus, somewhat downplayed by Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev, was Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth . In that film, the Sanhedrin debated, confronted, agonized, and sought to understand the metaphors of Christ. Even the darkest voices were portrayed as possessing doubts about having made the right decision to the very end. Because it portrays the Sanhedrin as fairly monolithic, Gibson’s Passion , an otherwise brilliant work of art, is flawed.

Edward J. Baker
Fresh Meadows, New York

I am a rabbi. I have been a student of early Christianity since my childhood. I have seen The Passion twice and have participated in some amazing discussions about the movie over the past weeks in formal venues and informal exchanges. As a Jew, I understand and empathize with the fears and anxieties of most of my fellow Jews about the potential for anti-Semitism, grounded as those fears are in a strong collective memory.

But as a person of faith, I also empathize and understand the response to the film on the part of believing Christians. Indeed, if the central message of Christianity is that Jesus suffered and died for all of humanity’s sins”how could there not be as much blood as there is in the film? Indeed, why wasn’t there more?

I believe”and I have seen”that this film has an incredible potential for generating deep and meaningful conversations between believing Jews and Christians. That potential will be realized if: 1) Jews will understand that because Christians really do believe what happened to Jesus was from God and not any segment of humanity, they are not necessarily anti-Jewish; 2) Christians will learn more about how Christian anti-Semitism over the past two millennia has fueled current fears and anxieties.

Rabbi Cary Kozberg
Columbus, Ohio

The Passion of the Christ includes many powerful images: of the scourging and crucifixion, as well as of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Yet I wonder if these images have clouded the ability of Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev to see some significant flaws in the film.

The misrepresentations of the Gospels begin in Gethsemane, when Satan replaces the angel of the Lord sent to comfort Jesus. Certainly, Jesus’ time of anguish in Gethsemane is an “opportune time” (cf. Luke 4:13) for Satan to attempt to get Jesus to abandon his mission. So it does make sense for Mr. Gibson to place Satan here in the story, even though Satan is not mentioned explicitly in the Gospel accounts of Gethsemane. However, it seems to me that it is important to keep the angel who appears to comfort Jesus (Luke 24) in the story, especially if the appearance of Satan is added. As the film stands, Satan functionally replaces the angel. The only response to Jesus’ prayer is the appearance of Satan to torment him.

This change removes from the film an important point made in the Gospels: Jesus is the Beloved of the Father, and even his suffering and death do not negate that love. In the film’s version of events, Jesus is abandoned by the Father before the movie starts. The prayers in Gethsemane seem to reach only Satan’s ears, not the Father’s. Indeed, throughout the film, the Father is absent, in appropriate faithfulness to the text of the New Testament. But this makes it all the more important to get this detail right. In the Gospels, the Father hears the prayers in Gethsemane and strengthens Jesus for the horrible ordeal to come, an ordeal which includes Jesus feeling abandoned by the Father while on the cross.

Perhaps an extremely bloody, violent film is the way to reach people in our age of extremely violent “entertainment.” I do hope and pray that those who view the film come away with a greater understanding of the horrors Jesus endured to redeem us and a deeper sense of God’s love for us. I hope and pray, like Professors Hittinger and Lev, that the movie drives people to the Bible and the Church. Still, I cannot help being disappointed by the film’s distortions of the Christian message, especially since it easily could have been so much better.

(The Rev.) Timothy Oslovich
Trinity Lutheran Church
Vernon, Connecticut

A short demurral to the excellent article by Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev. I am convinced that The Passion is inscribed not in the tradition of Michelangelo (think of the Piet ) but rather in the tradition best illustrated by Mathis Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece (which was so greatly admired by the 1920s Expressionists) and by many a medieval Spanish retablo .

In this tradition the emphasis on the figure of Jesus Christ is presented from the point of view of suffering, torture, agony, and sacrifice. Such is the complexity and multiplicity of this figure that there should be plenty of room for interpretations along this line to accompany more common interpretations of Jesus as representing just serenity, peaceful joyfulness, resignation, and reconciliation.

I submit that a good part of the controversy about the film is due to Mr. Gibson’s choice of the turbulent and intensive mode of presentation as opposed to the smooth, neoclassical aesthetic that had been almost universally accepted in the last fifty years or so”by thinkers, by artists, and by audiences of all religions. Once we understand this distinction I am persuaded that the “conflict of confessions” highlighted in our sensationalist media can be considerably defused.

Professor Virgil Nemoianu
Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev reply:

Michael Rose’s self-parodying letter censures us for use of “rhetorical devices” and for failing to build “cogent arguments.” Without referencing anything in the film, he accuses Mel Gibson of anti-Semitism and of inciting viewers to acts of revenge. Although a few people projected such passions onto the film, in nearly every case they were the critics, not the target audience of believing Christians. Most of the fifty million American Christians who have seen The Passion have come to a different conclusion than Mr. Rose. As for the “orgy of sadomasochism,” Mr. Rose reminds us of the truism that what the viewer brings to a work of art will affect what he or she takes away from it, which is why a person’s reaction often says more about the person than about the work itself. An interesting parallel to Mr. Rose’s vision can be found in Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo , in which papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena was asked his opinion of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. A “stew of nudes” for “public baths and taverns,” he replied. Never one to suffer fools gladly, Michelangelo added Biagio to the painting as the legendary Minos, judge of Hell.

Rabbi Kozberg’s remarks are most welcome. Admittedly, The Passion is not the easiest place to begin Christian-Jewish dialogue. Images that Christians find profoundly edifying can also be the occasion for “fears and anxieties” on the part of the Jewish community. On the one side, it has to be admitted that strongly held and deeply felt Christian theological convictions are not necessarily unjust or uncharitable to Jews; at the same time, Christians need to pay careful attention to the historic residue of anti-Jewish polemics and the always present danger of anti-Semitism.

Edward J. Baker states that The Passion is flawed because it presents the Sanhedrin as “fairly monolithic.” He compares it unfavorably to Franco Zeffirelli’s depiction of the group in Jesus of Nazareth . The problem here, of course, is taking Zeffirelli as the point of reference rather than the Gospel accounts which, if anything, present the Sanhedrin as more monolithic than Gibson’s rendering. None of the four evangelists mentions any sort of internal division during the Sanhedrin trial. Perhaps the more important issue is not what is in the film but what is missing with regard to the original historical setting of these events. The Sanhedrin at that time was packed with members of Annas’ own family; this group cooperated with the Romans. So the question is not whether the Sanhedrin was monolithic but whether it should be understood as representing the Jewish community. The answer is no. Neither Gibson’s movie nor the others we mentioned make this point clearly enough. Mr. Baker’s remedy would obscure the issue even more.

Although Pastor Oslovich goes too far in saying that The Passion seriously distorts the canonical text, he raises an interesting question about the angelic presence at Gethsemane. He himself notes that there are reasons to place Satan in the thick of things. Luke ends his description of Jesus’ diabolic temptation in the wilderness with the words: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13). Though he never tells his readers when this opportune time is, one is permitted to surmise that Luke is here referring to Jesus’ temptation in Gethsemane. Note, too, Jesus’ remark in Luke 22:53, just after the scene in the garden, that this is the hour of the “power of darkness.” Returning to the film itself, Mr. Gibson’s use of moonlight during the struggle in the garden perhaps answers Pastor Oslovich’s concerns. When Jesus asks the Father“to remove this cup,” the moon is obscured, darkness encroaches,and Satan arrivesto dissuade. The moon then reappears, bathing Jesus in light as he lifts himself from the ground and crushes the head of the serpent.

We appreciate Virgil Nemoianu’s thoughtful response to our article. When we stated that the movie is filmed in the High Renaissance tradition of Michelangelo, we were referring chiefly to the techniques designed to engage the viewer. As we emphasized, the body of Christ threatening to enter the viewers’ space, as well as the spatial dynamic created by the figures and the screen”these recall elements of Michelangelo’s work. Of course, Professor Nemoianu is correct that Michelangelo would not have chosen to depict Jesus with such a battered, tortured body. Nonetheless, in terms of artistic composition Mr. Gibson’s Jesus resembles the painted Jesus of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece only superficially. While Grünewald’s work owes much to the Italian tradition of dramatic anatomy, he represents Christ’s body as something grotesque and unnatural. The corpse is elongated, with distended feet and hands, impossible musculature, and an exaggerated chiaroscuro that heightens the sense of nervous angst. This technique shows how unnatural and indeed antinatural the treatment of Christ has been.

By contrast, although Mr. Gibson’s body of Christ has been tortured and flayed, it is portrayed in the more truthful manner typical of Caravaggio, where real pain is inflicted on a real body. Moreover, Gibson sets the body against the most austere and stark surrounding imagery, which allows for no distraction from the principal subject. Finally, Grünewald’s Christ is a figure chiefly of pity. In both the Crucifixion and the Lamentation, Jesus is dead, to be mourned over. Nowhere in the flayed skin of Grünewald is there a trace of the Jesus who looked at Pilate through his one good eye and informed the Roman procurator that he would have no power were it not given from above.

Treading Out Clichés

In his review of Michael Knox-Beran’s Jefferson’s Demons (March), Wilfred McClay takes the author to task for having mixed his metaphors when he wrote that Thomas Jefferson “drew on the very traditions he censured in order to tread out his own prophetic wine.” But Professor McClay must really take the matter up not with Knox-Beran but with Isaiah, to whose beautiful figure, I take it, the author was alluding in his evocation of Jefferson as a prophet of democracy: “and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting: the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage-shouting to cease.”

Much of what passes for clear writing will, if examined carefully, be found to consist of dead figures of speech, so dead that we do not notice how often they are used and how subtly they are intermixed. In his review, Prof. McClay reveals a gift for decaying and moribund figures of speech. The Jefferson Memorial, he writes “nestles peacefully amid the greenery,” as though it were a nest-making bird, yet many people “take a pass” on visiting it because it is off the “beaten path.” Jefferson’s reputation has suffered from “erosion,” while the growth of cities has “put paid” to his agrarian ideals. But although Knox-Beran’s book “aims” at an admiring “view” of Jefferson “without skirting” his faults, it forces too many aspects of his life to “take a backseat” to his psyche, which Knox-Berann has not fully understood, for he failed to grasp that Jefferson, with his fear of “superstition-laced” dogmas, believed that “unimpeded” reason (reason on foot, that is, encountering no obstacles) would carry men across the stormy sea to a “safe harbor” (reason”in its capacity, we must suppose, as divine logos ”being endowed by Prof. McClay with the ability to walk on water).

Let him who is without (literary) sin cast the first (figurative) stone. I do not, however, fault Professor McClay for using and mixing stale figures of speech. Every writer does, except perhaps those who, like Isaiah, have submitted to a higher dictation. A prose such as Sainte-Beuve desired, completely free of both dead and impure metaphors, must for most writers be an impossible ideal. As far as I’m concerned, though, Prof. McClay’s metaphors “take a back seat” to Isaiah’s.

M. Miguel Rodriguez
New Haven, Connecticut

Wilfred M. McClay replies:

M. Miguel Rodriguez is far too generous, first in according me a gift for decaying and moribund figures of speech, and then in assuring the world that he does not fault me for the exercise of that gift. I’m quite overwhelmed with gratitude, and feel obliged to return the favor. In fact, I have no trouble asserting, on the evidence of this letter alone, that Mr. Rodriguez has at least two great gifts himself. First, he has an abundance of what a lesser writer than himself might call “time on his hands.” Second, he clearly has an unusual knack for what is sometimes called, by the aficionados of stale metaphor, “missing the point.”

Perhaps, since he is already so manifestly endowed in these two respects, it would be uncharitable to ask for more. But I have this troublesome interest in the substance of things. It would have been interesting, for example, to know how Mr. Rodriguez’s explicit identification of Beran’s allusion to Isaiah alters in any way my assessment of its usage in this context, rhetorically and substantively. (Particularly when my chief aim,stated in the very next sentence, was to credit Beran with having made, despite his tendency to overwrite,a point that is not only correct but profound.) Before this moment, I never knew that in complaining about the misuse of a biblical text I was elevating my own metaphors above those of the Bible.

If I, too, had the gift of limitless free time, I’m sure I could learn even more from this letter. I would have time to ponder, for example, how it is that the publication of a mildly critical book review resembles the stoning of an adulteress, and how Mr. Rodriguez resembles Jesus Christ. It is not quite fair of Mr. Rodriguez to tantalize us so, with mere glimpses of his wisdom and goodness. But since he is not faulting me, I shall not fault him.

Godless Juries

I read with much dismay Robert T. Miller’s “A Jury of One’s Godless Peers” (March). How the Third Circuit Court of Appeals could hold in United States v. DeJesus that a peremptory challenge based on religion (as opposed to a challenge based on race or gender) does not violate the Constitution is baffling.

The puzzling part of the court’s reasoning is the distinction between belonging to a certain religious denomination and “heightened religious involvement.” If the same reasoning were invoked to allow discrimination on the basis of race or gender, there would be a public outcry. But, then again, I am quite sure that no judge would try to justify a black man being held off a jury on the grounds that his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People demonstrated “heightened racial involvement,” which would, in turn, make it impossible for him to judge the facts of a case impartially.

Even without conducting an analysis of the relative evils of racial, sexual, or religious discrimination, this type of reasoning is repugnant and legally wrong. According to the Supreme Court, governmental action that discriminates on the basis of gender is subject to an “intermediate scrutiny” standard of review, while discrimination based on race and religion are subject to “strict scrutiny,” which requires that a compelling state interest be at stake. In view of this high standard, it is not apparent why seeing the world through the prism of heightened religious involvement should disqualify one from jury service.

Hugh M. Smith, Jr.
New York, New York

Robert T. Miller replies:

I agree with the conclusions of Hugh M. Smith, and I have one additional observation about the Third Circuit’s distinction between mere affiliation with some particular religious denomination and “heightened religious involvement,” regardless of confession. This distinction is not so puzzling when we remember two facts about ideological secularism.

First, the primary tenet of ideological secularism is that the ultimate good for man consists in something obtainable in this life. From this it follows that all doctrinal differences among religions are trivial; what counts is that they all challenge secularism by holding that the good for man is not, at least not fully, obtainable in this life. Second, ideological secularism is compatible with a certain kind of participation in organized religion. Thus some secular people attend church services because they think such attendance serves some cultural or moral purpose relevant to their secular vision of the good for man in this life.

Taken together, these two facts explain the Third Circuit’s distinction between mere affiliation with a particular religious denomination and what the court calls “heightened religious involvement,” regardless of denomination. For secular people, the differences between denominations are mere matters of taste. But the difference between secular people (of whatever denomination) and religious people (of whatever denomination) is morally significant to the secularist because it involves a substantive disagreement about the nature of the good”whether that good is ultimately found in this world or not. Thus, from the point of view of ideological secularism, the distinction the Third Circuit drew makes perfect sense.

In a way, this result is not surprising. Fallen human beings tend to dislike those who disagree with them on fundamental issues, and whenever proponents of one belief system have held unchallenged power in a society, they have almost always used that power to discriminate against dissenters. Secular people discriminate as much as, and probably more than, other people. That they fancy themselves above such things is a measure of how little they understand themselves.


As a grateful inheritor of the tradition of rabbinic Judaism, rooted in the teachings of the Pharisees, I must take exception to the offhand reference to my ancient teachers in R. V. Young’s discussion of The Merchant of Venice in “The Bard, the Black, the Jew” (March).

A century of scholarship has dispelled the hoary caricature of the Pharisees as legalistic, self-righteous hypocrites; yet the caricature continues to circulate. Some film reviewers have even identified the persecutors of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s current film as Pharisees, even though Pharisees do not appear in the Gospels’ passion narratives (the first-century High Priest and his entourage would have been known as “Sadducees.”)

It would have been helpful for the editor to place Professor Young’s reference to Pharisees (entirely understandable within a discussion of the English literary tradition) within quotation marks, as was properly done with the reference to the egregious term “the Jewish lobby” elsewhere in the same issue.

Rabbi Shamai Kanter
Canandaigua, New York

R. V. Young replies:

I am happy to acknowledge the justice of Rabbi Kanter’s complaint, and I regret not putting “Pharisee” in quotation marks in the original text, since I apply the term ironically at the expense of the Christian character Antonio.

Constitutional Reminders

In “Publick Religion: Adams v. Jefferson” (March), John Witte, Jr. reminds us of John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s views on the proper relationship between church and state. However, he conspicuously fails to focus on the one source of a rough consensus statement of the Founders’ views that we have readily available. This is the text of the Constitution itself. We all know of its anti-establishment and free exercise provisions. Perhaps more relevant to Professor Witte’s point is the clause that says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (Article VI, Clause 3).

This wisdom of the Founders, like Aquinas’ admonition that the positive law ought not to forbid every sin, needs to be at the center of our politics lest we repeat the consistent errors of others when they join the power of God to the power of government.

Walter J. Kendall III
The John Marshall Law School
Chicago, Illinois

The Virtues of Penance

Lay people deeply distressed by the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church certainly appreciate Richard John Neuhaus’ “The Bishops get their Report Card” (Public Square, March). Referring to Father John J. Coughlin’s article, he shows that, alas, canon law has been in abeyance even though it gives precise answers to the question of how certain sins are to be dealt with. It is, as he so rightly says, the triumph of the therapeutic over the laws of the Church. No doubt the climate of the time favors compassion, mildness, and understanding. Psychology is valuable indeed when it is based on a sound metaphysics, but when it relies on a false philosophy, it is disastrous.

The lives of the saints tell us that those who have “reached the heights” have practiced various forms of severe penance. Since Vatican II, this piece of wisdom seems to have been forgotten. The laws of fasting and abstinence have been reduced to an absolute minimum. Meat can be eaten on Fridays, Ember days have been abolished. Children going to “Catholic” schools never hear the word “sacrifice.” I wonder if classical means of penance, such as hairshirts and discipline, should not be brought back into religious life. The discomfort created by the former and the pain caused by the latter are supposed to be powerful helps in resisting certain temptations. This is what the wisdom of the past has always taught.

Has any bishop confronting a priest who has fallen into the grave sin of abusing a young boy ever thought of recommending this “medicine”? In the past the members of strict religious orders took the discipline as a matter of course. St. Thérèse of Lisieux scourged herself so severely that it brought tears to her eyes. St. Francis de Sales, who founded the mildest of all religious orders”the Visitation, an order opened to elderly people or women of frail health”nevertheless recommended that his daughters take discipline; he even recommended it to lay people. Saintly diocesan priests have used it. St. Thomas More, who was a layman, used it. It worked in the past, and one wonders whether, if it were reintroduced not only in religious orders but also in seminaries, the scourge of sexual perversions would disappear. As Christ said to his disciples, there are certain types of devils that can only be chased by fasting, sacrifice, and prayer.

Alice von Hildebrand
New Rochelle, New York