A washingtonpost.com article from: Edappel8@cs.com

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Sun Mar 7 14:20:35 EST 2004


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 What follows are thoughts on the "Passion" of someone else who didn't see the film.  Ms. Himmelfarb was not hesitant about having her say---on the phenomenon as reported in things she has seen and read. 
 
 A  'Passion' Out of Proportion
 
 By Gertrude Himmelfarb
 
    I have experienced a conversion of sorts as a result of "The Passion of the Christ," although hardly the conversion Mel Gibson had in mind. I hasten to say that I have not "personally" seen that film (rather like not having "personally" read a good many books that I have the illusion of having read from a multitude of reviews). But my own reaction to it has to do not so much with the film itself as the phenomenon -- what it represents in the culture and what it is making of the culture.
 
 I still believe (as I recently had occasion to write) that "religion is, by and large, a force for good, and that it does not become less good when it emerges from the home and temple and assumes its rightful place in society." But I also believe, now more than ever, that when religion does emerge in the public square, it should do so prudently and responsibly. 
 
 This does not require an attenuation of religious faith or creed. But it does require a respect for other religious faiths and creeds and, even more, a respect for a civil society that makes possible the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and creeds. And this, in turn, requires a sense of propriety and proportion, a recognition that passions and emotions appropriate to the home and church may not be appropriate to the public sphere, that depictions of violence and barbarity that may have spiritual meaning for a particular faith may be not only derogatory to another faith but also detrimental to society, sanctioning and encouraging a culture all too well disposed to violence and barbarity.
 
 Mel Gibson has said that his film is simply a graphic rendition of the historical truth as conveyed in the Gospels. I leave this issue to others. Nor will I dwell on the question of whether a graphic visual representation of a written text -- a text, moreover, that does not contain some of the more memorable and horrific details depicted in the film -- can be said to be truthful to the text. Instead, I will propose a "thought-experiment" or two that may put this film in perspective.
 
 How would we (Gibson and all the rest of us) feel if a Hollywood producer (a Hollywood so notoriously populated by Jews) made a film, in the same "over the edge" spirit vaunted by Gibson, dramatizing another historical event -- the auto-da-fé in Spain in February 1481, for example, in which six men and six women conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) were tortured and burned alive at the stake, while richly robed prelates triumphally presided over the scene? Such a film, taking its cue from Gibson, might utilize all the devices of violence, sadism and malignity that he has deployed so skillfully, here as in his other films. It might be even more credible, and therefore emotionally powerful, than his because the contemporary as well as scholarly sources are more reliable. The effect would be to make of the auto-da-fé a defining experience in the relations of Jews and Christians.
 
 Or, another thought-experiment: a film of the First Crusade produced by a Muslim. The venerable 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes, in relatively sober terms, the month-long siege culminating in the capture of Jerusalem: "The slaughter was terrible; the blood of the conquered ran down the streets, until men splashed in blood as they rode. At nightfall, sobbing for excess of joy, the crusaders came to the Sepulchre from their treading of the winepress, and put their blood-stained hands together in prayer. So, on that day of July, the First Crusade came to an end." An "over the edge" depiction of this scene would surely be as riveting, bloody and unforgettable as the scene of the Crucifixion, or of the auto da fé or, for that matter, of all too many episodes in our all too bloody history.
 
 What is sauce for the goose. . . . One remembers now why David Hume and other luminaries of the Enlightenment were wary of religious "enthusiasm." Some of us, in recent times, have come to respect, even welcome, religious enthusiasm -- to welcome it in the public square as well as in church. But not if it were to take this form, exploiting violence, ferocity and sadism in the cause of religion.
 
 It is not so much anti-Semitism that worries me -- not in America, at least, although the film might well have that effect abroad. One can imagine even French secularists trotting out the argument: "As the Jews once persecuted Jesus, so they now persecute Palestinians." What I find so disquieting is the coarsening of the religious sensibility evident in the response to this new Passion play, as if the message of Jesus is validated only by that degree of suffering, torture and violence, as if a lesser degree would make him less a savior and redeemer. By the same token, the culture as a whole is coarsened, abandoning any notion of limits and restraints, requiring more and more doses of sadism, continually going "over the edge," as if seeking redemption in the abyss. 
 
 The writer is professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is author of the forthcoming book "The Road to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments."
 
   

 
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