Better get used to it

Culture | Critics of new films about Christ are really objecting to the Bible

Issue: "Beyond the nightly news," Oct. 11, 2003

MEL GIBSON'S MOVIE THE PASSION IS NOT THE only new film about the life of Christ. The Gospel of John pairs visual cinematic images with the Word of God, working in the whole text of the Good News Bible translation with a dramatization of John's Gospel.

Visual Bible International, a Christian company in Canada, had already made low-budget visual renditions of Matthew and Acts, but The Gospel of John is far more ambitious, with high production values crafted by world-class British and Canadian filmmakers. The movie debuted at the Toronto film festival last month and will be released in a small number of markets in the United States throughout the fall. (Today, high-quality Christian movies are being made. But having them widely distributed in mainline theaters is another story.)

Although John's Gospel portrays "the Jews" as opposing Christ, this movie has finessed the criticism from Jewish groups that is hounding Mel Gibson's The Passion. The producer hired by Visual Bible to make The Gospel of John is respected filmmaker Garth Drabinsky, who happens to be Jewish. A panel of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish advisers helped the filmmakers navigate through sensitive territory. And the Good News translation renders the "Jews" that were contending with Jesus as "Jewish authorities." One of the Jewish scholars involved in the project, Alan Segal, told reviewers that although the book of John is "the most anti-Jewish in its perception," in fact, it is "the most Jewish in its subject matter."

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To one critic, though, this makes no difference. According to the Canadian intellectual Donald Harman Akenson, both Mr. Gibson's movie and Mr. Drabinsky's movie are full of hate because both Christianity and Judaism, in their Scriptures and in their monotheism, are intrinsically hateful religions.

Mr. Akenson, the recipient of the Molson laureateship for contribution to Canadian culture, argues in the Toronto Globe & Mail that when Jerusalem fell in a.d. 70, only two sects of Jews survived: the Pharisees, from whom today's Judaism descended, and the followers of a rabbi named Yeshua, aka Jesus Christ.

Following the tenets of the higher-critical approach to Scripture, Mr. Akenson says that the book of John is nothing more than a polemical screed between these two sects. "The rivalry of these two groups would have been merely a cat fight in a Middle Eastern sandbox," he writes, "had not the Roman Empire turned Christian in the fourth century, a win for the Yeshua crowd. Suddenly, arcane polemics of the first century a.d. were broadcast empire-wide and eventually worked their influence on governmental policies in dozens of Western countries for several centuries."

So much for the Judeo-Christian tradition. But Mr. Akenson goes further. This whole tradition is hateful because both Jews and Christians are monotheists. "There is no such thing as a nice monotheism," he writes. "How could there be? Monotheism associates the One True God with one set of people, its tribe or its converts, and the god of any other people is traif (non-kosher). It either has to be destroyed (by destroying its adherents) or, at a minimum, marked down as misled, mistaken, or nonexistent. So, when projected upon the big screen of world history, tiny fights between monotheistic sects of the late first century become huge, life-threatening harangues."

"Of the four Gospels, the Gospel of John is the closest to being hate literature," he writes. "Why would anyone want to be faithful to such a text? ... To film a literal version of the Gospel of John is like filming a faithful version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

In a brilliant op-ed rebuttal published in the Globe & Mail, Bruce Waltke, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and a member of the film's advisory panel, demonstrated that "Prof. Akenson's scholarship is poor, his tone is grating, and his arguments bogus." His diatribe against both Jews and Christians, according to Mr. Waltke, constitutes genuine hate speech.

This exchange demonstrates what both Christians and Jews are up against in the emerging polytheistic religious climate. At a time when genuine anti-Semitism is surging among the secularist left-with all of the Western apologists for Islamic radicalism, growing anti-Jewish violence in Europe, and Jews being killed regularly by suicide bombers and other terrorists-Mel Gibson's movie should be the least of the Anti-Defamation League's worries.

Mr. Akenson's blithe dismissal of the Bible, monotheism, two major religions, and the influence of all of these on civilization-setting aside contributions such as human rights, transcendent moral values, political freedom, to name just a few-is breathtaking in its ignorance, reductionism, and bigotry.


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