Old teachings outclass new shows of piety

April 11, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

A WOMAN SEATED front row center at the Senator Theatre during Good Friday's 1 p.m. viewing of The Passion of the Christ raised her long arms and held her hands up in praise, charismatic style, even before the movie started, even before we heard the disembodied voice of the theater owner telling us to turn our cell phones off. She raised her hands and swayed from side to side, and while I respected the woman's state of grace, I found it mildly annoying and asked myself, "What would Jesus do?"

And I think he might have done what I decided to do - keep my distance, about 30 rows back, maintain a healthy live-and-let-live attitude, refrain from harsh judgments and eat my Raisinets slowly.

But Jesus also might have said this (because I knew he said something about public piety and I looked it up): "When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

Such eloquent teachings provide wisdom for the ages, and for all faiths, and just as we meet at funerals to reflect on the lives of our loved ones, and the good they did, I have a tendency to see the Easter season in that frame - an occasion to reflect on the words and deeds of Jesus. I can't dwell on his death. Such is my bias.

At the Senator box office on Good Friday, a very pleasant woman told me - even before she had seen Mel Gibson's breathtakingly violent film about the torture and death of Christ - that she hoped it would become an Easter tradition.

I can't imagine this. But then, I never thought Bravo would show the Godfather trilogy every Christmas, either.

Don't get me wrong - I like traditions. I like getting haircuts just before Easter, and maybe buying myself a new tie or pair of shoes, coloring eggs with the kids, hearing Gospel stories, savoring spring and listening to Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.

But I'm not going to make Mel Gibson's perfect cinematic storm - commercial exploitation of the massive and fervent Christian marketplace combined with slasher-film violence wearing the bloody robe of historic realism - a family tradition.

In fact, I went to see it by myself, purely out of "cultural curiosity." My wife, who found that the Stations of the Cross and quiet prayer provide sufficient solemnity for Good Friday - "Pray to your Father who is in secret" - took a pass. My son wasn't interested in a gory movie, either, and resisted the temptation to see an R-rated blockbuster. They both made a good call.

I don't think we'll be preordering the DVD, either.

Last week, during Mass on Palm Sunday, a priest at a downtown Baltimore parish noted how, in telling of Christ's final days, the Scriptures left out the intricate descriptions of his torture and death. The tellers of this story, the priest said, "believed you could imagine how horrible it was."

We have been immersed in images of Christ scourged and nailed to the cross all our lives - to the desired effect for most believers, I think. Now Mel Gibson, who must think crucifixes and Renaissance paintings do not drive home the point sufficiently, has given us the Zapruder film version.

And the critics were right about the anti-Semitism. As if it is not enough to depict ancient Jewish leaders as bloodthirsty, up to the final minutes of the crucifixion, Gibson floats a hooded devil figure among them as they watch Christ's torture at the hands of Romans.

This is not what I want in an Easter tradition - a film that revives the old Christ-killer slander, used in the persecution of Jews for centuries and finally repudiated by the Second Vatican Council. I am of the generation of Second Vatican Catholics. So is Mel Gibson, but he apparently prefers the old school. In an interview with ABC's Primetime Live he said, "I'm just Roman Catholic, the way they were up until the mid-'60s."

Gibson has also said that the film was divinely inspired, saying it is the result of the Holy Spirit.

I believe in such inspiration. It can happen. Mel says it has happened to him, and now his labors will make him one of the richest moviemakers ever. He is making a fortune from a film based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

To Mel I say (or, rather, his Lord and savior says): "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

Mel, already a millionaire many times, can probably afford to give all of his profits from The Passion to the poor, the diseased, the persecuted, the homeless.

One of his spokesmen said Mel does not like to make a fuss about his charitable giving.

That's fine, and also in keeping with Christ's teachings: "When you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you. ... Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret."

Go for it, Mel. Give every cent away. As the great teacher said, "Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

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