The God Question | Part Three

[Moral] practice has not been able to keep pace with the mind. Man has begun to say, “This is wrong, that is wrong.” Whereas previously he justified his conduct, he now no longer justifies his own or his neighbor’s.  He wants to set right the wrong but does not know that his own practice fails him. The contradiction between his thought and conduct fetters him.
-Mohandas Gandhi
Non-Violence in Peace & War, II-76

I don’t really understand myself,
for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.
Instead, I do what I hate.
-Romans 7:15

The Problem of Me
In the summer of 1981, at the same time I was reading my friend’s pharmacology textbooks on LSD, I was also reading Gandhi. This was in part my Looking to the East phase. But it was also my looking within. I had begun to suspect myself as possibly my biggest problem.

That probably reaches back over my entire life up to that point. But over the last nine months I had come up against some unsettling indications that I was perhaps not the person I thought or hoped myself to be. The one I remember best had been the previous fall, when my friends asked me to help them with a proposed pot-growing operation. My gut told me was it was stupid and wrong, but the money that could be made turned my head. I was quite disgusted with myself over that. Why would I not only think but also act in a way so at odds with my self-professed values?

If I could be hard on myself in a very selective way, I was even harder on others, and also extremely defensive. I couldn’t take any sort of criticism; to me, it was always personal and never welcome. As a harsh judge of others, it seems I always assumed the same sort of harshness must have been behind the least bit of criticism directed at me. Underlying my assessment of myself and of others, was a complete lack of insight. I really did not get people. It followed that I didn’t get myself.

When I looked in the mirror, seemingly every part my persona had an opposing aspect. I was a clown who made others laugh but actually took himself far too seriously. I was violent yet peaceful, sensitive yet capable of being really mean, even to friends; serene and patient, yet plagued by anxiety and frustration; compassionate yet judgmental; wildly gregarious but often a loner, vain yet at times overcome with contempt for myself.

It wasn’t a pretty picture, fractured into these paradoxes, and obscured by shadows of unknowing. I wondered what do with myself. That summer I picked up a compendium of Gandhi’s writings. I thought initially that he could inform a decision I had already made to personally adopt a nonviolent lifestyle. Up until the age of 14, violence was part of my life. I chose that it would not be anymore. But in Gandhi there was more, a philosophy of living and working in the world that resonated with me. Non-violence does not sufficiently convey in English what he meant by Ahimsa. It was something greater and deeper than merely refraining from physical violence. It was peaceful and just action, not mere pacifism. It required much of the individual, from within the heart.

This is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts; whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.
-Non-Violence in Peace & War, I-114

It also answered the militant Left and any others who saw violence and destruction as the only means to their utopia –  something I had only awakened to in the last few months in Seattle. And Gandhi insisted that freedom was for all, regardless of their beliefs or station in life.  Ahimsa met me where my desire for personal betterment intersected with my desire for social and political change – inner peace and world peace, so to speak.

However much I was taken with these values, reading about them and pondering them was as far as I got before I was distracted by life and the tumult of the next twelve months, and events that would send me in a very different direction.

* * *

House on Ronald AvenueI stayed with my parents for the summer, who had rented a daylight basement just across Bonner Park from the house on Hastings. Right away I started looking for a job. I had hoped to get on as a YCC crew leader, but was notified in March that I hadn’t been selected. I ran around to all the movie theatres in town, but couldn’t find a job. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get a paying job, I had to line up enough volunteer work to stay busy. That was the deal. I readily agreed, and right away went out to do it.

Missoula Art Museum

Missoula Art Museum

First I lined up a few shifts on the welcome desk of the Missoula Art Museum. We were showing a fantastic exhibit of the photography of Philippe Halsman. Between the exhibit and the hours I sat reading art magazines, my knowledge and appreciation grew, especially for painting and black and white photography.

Then I started serving at the Poverello Center, a NPO that served the hungry and homeless of Missoula. I would come and help with the food line they had every day at lunch. This proved a revelation to me. First, the admonition Gandhi made that we ought to live in service to others, that helping the poor was a special obligation, was now something I was suddenly able to practice every week. It also happened to have been what my parents and Church had taught me since I was little.

Second, it had a lasting effect on me. It was Christianity in practice. It was a direct and effectual expression of the way that Jesus said his followers should be in the world. I was struck by how I felt, giving my time and labor on behalf of others. It was awesome. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. In fact, while I was there, I didn’t think about myself. A year later this sense would revisit me and change my life forever.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

I argued a lot with Mark. Daring to relate my dalliance with Gandhism, I was met with exhausting objections: it isn’t practical, it doesn’t work, they are hopeless ideals. I wasn’t able to defend something I had just begun to read about. I felt deflated. Back in Seattle (before or after the summer, I don’t recall) Mark also contended vociferously against altruism, that nothing humans did was truly selfless. I believed that we could act for the benefit others and against our own.

Well, of course I did. I hoped I was doing good, and not solely to satisfy myself. Just a little bit of good work did a heck of a lot to counterbalance how badly I felt about myself most of the time. It suggested that I had at least some good impulse, that I wanted to serve some higher purpose. Sometime in the past year, I had what I considered a revelation. I don’t know how it came to me, but it was the realization that bad people – selfish, mean, violent, treacherous – must be unhappy people. Which was the cause of the other, I couldn’t say, but happiness and badness couldn’t reside together.

I had read enough to know that according to Buddhism, human suffering comes from selfish desires. When I turned for a few hours a week from my selfish desires to the needs of others, to help feed the hungry, I felt perhaps that was true. At the Pov I also met some Children of God who lived a vagabond lifestyle as ‘missionaries,’ denying themselves many physical comforts ‘for the sake of the Good News.’

This was not the end of the variety of spiritual paths I was presented with. In Seattle the Church of Scientology spotted me as a promising target, and I couldn’t seem to get away from them: three or four of my co-workers were Scientologists. In fact, I seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that signaled to all the major cults: “Easy Mark. Proceed with Confidence.”

Yes, the religious smorgasbord was spread before me. Yet for all my searching over the last couple of years; all of the different religious people, ideas, groups and cults I had encountered; the books I read, the hallucinations I had, the hours of pondering and debating, I was still in the dark. Neither the Catholics, the Protestants, Gandhi, Camus, Aquinas, the Scientologists, the Mormons, nor the Children of God had shown me the way out of my questing and confusion. And, right or wrong, I hadn’t latched onto anything that seemed to answer the problem of me. I was no better off, as far as I could tell.

One day I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, wearing my Easy Mark t-shirt. A girl approached me with a clipboard and a pen. I knew right away that she was a Scientologist, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. This had happened a couple of times before. They ask you questions, and don’t even pretend to mark down your answers. The questions are meant to make you emotionally vulnerable to their recruitment pitch: “We can help you with that.” One thing leads to another and a few months later you are penniless and insane, awaiting the big alien invasion. In Portland once, I went as far as being walked to the downtown Church to get a personality test. But I got the heebie-jeebies and left.

“Hi! I’m taking a survey,” she said, flashing a friendly smile and standing about six inches closer than a complete stranger would. “Could I ask you a few questions?”

I am constitutionally incapable of telling someone to get lost. And saying no was just plain rude.

“Okay.” How was I thinking this was going to turn out? I don’t know, dear readers, I don’t know.

“If there was one thing about yourself you would like to change, what would it be?”

Only one? I thought. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I lied. Now I just wanted her to go away.

“Isn’t there something about yourself you’d like to change?” The smile was fading.

I squirmed. Without even knowing me, she had my number. How’d she get it? I had a fresh incision from my chin to my belly button, and she was tugging at the stitches.

“Probably.” But I’m not telling you.

Her tone became impatient. “Like what?”

“Um…”

“Come on, all of us have something!”

I shook my head. Angered at my failure to comply, she walked away in a huff.

There were a lot of things I would change if I could, including knowing how to talk to someone like that without becoming flummoxed, and letting myself feel guilty for making her mad. Weak, slow on my feet, not knowing what a boundary was between myself and another person, not even a stranger. “No, thank you, I’m not interested, have a nice day,” would have sufficed. But no, one question from her and I need some medication.

Worse was the real answer to her question. I couldn’t have begun to put it into words, but the feeling plagued me of not being good, or good enough, or knowing what to do about it. I never killed anyone, or raped or tortured anyone, but what if what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with other people, the people I judge, the people who anger me, shock me and repulse me with their outrages against my sense of moral order? If I can’t change, then how can they? I have no interest in becoming some kind of saint, but something is wrong with me. Maybe it means I’m in the same fix as the people who make the world so wrong. The people who made the world wrong a thousand years ago as well. In other words, the people who made me question the faith of my mothers and fathers. Where do I look next?

Who knows?

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

Part Four (coming soon)

The God Question | Part Two

Warning: drug use, scholasticism.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
-John 4:48

The Knowledge Problem, or Doubting & Thomas

Let’s talk about Sunday mornings. Circa 1976, when I was twelve. There was fighting over the bathroom, lots of hollering. Bickering and jostling in the car on the way to church. Morphing from brat to boy, as we went from the car to the sanctuary.

I would sit through the Mass, bored, compulsively fidgeting, and occasionally entranced by the wondrous interior of the neo-gothic building. I would stare at the brilliant stained glass windows, which portrayed the saints, mostly as they were being martyred. I found the St. Lawrence window a little hard to accept. It showed a large grill ornately carved from solid stone, which I was told was the device on which the saint was, uh, fried, I guess. Broiled? Simmered to taste? They burned him. That seemed very cumbersome to me. Once I said out loud, “Why didn’t they just drop that thing on his head?” Very likely I was more suited to making martyrs than being one. The window of St. Stephen, my namesake, also fascinated me. He was being stoned to death. I had no idea who he was.

The Mass is beautiful, smells good and is gorgeously adorned, but I could make no connection between the rite and my life as it was the moment we walked out of the building back to the car to jostle and bicker our way home.

The warm feelings I often felt during the service were, I thought, the most you could experience of God. The only other time I felt anything like that sense of awe and coziness was watching sunset or the ocean. It was nice, but it didn’t answer any of my questions. It may have hinted at it, but it didn’t put me in touch with God.



Confronted with serious questions about the nature and character of the Catholic Church, at 13 I began to wonder how it was that I was to know anything regarding God. I really did not have anything to go on.

The following year I was back in Portland. Perusing my mom’s books, I first reached for the Bible. I turned to the Gospels, looking for the Jesus that so impressed me a few months before in Jesus of Nazareth. What I found seemed to be in a foreign language, incomprehensible. The words on the page were dead to me.

I put the Bible back and pulled another book out. It was a collection of writings by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), derived mostly from the Summa Theologica, his 3500-page exposition of Christian doctrine. There, in Part One, under his treatise on God, I found his reasoned arguments for the existence of God.

Concerning the Divine Essence, we must consider:
(1) Whether God exists?
(2) The manner of His existence, or, rather, what is NOT the manner of His existence;
(3) Whatever concerns His operations—namely, His knowledge, will, power.

Concerning the first, there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the proposition “God exists” is self-evident?
(2) Whether it is demonstrable?
(3) Whether God exists?

-Summa, Q. 2.

I took it to my bedroom, and struggled with it for some time, trying to draw out the answer, the dawning truth, the solution to the problem of knowing.

Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_BartolommeoI answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; …Hence it is necessary that some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height. Now since the natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God, as was shown in the preceding article, it is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace.

-Summa, Q. 12. Art. 5

Thomas holds that apart from God’s gracious intervention, the human intellect lacks the understanding it needs to see the the essence of God. What about seeing, perceiving God himself? How does one obtain this grace?

It seemed like a mirage. I could see the dim outline of what he was saying, but as I looked at it, the tangible and certain truth I needed would fade. I wanted something I could grab hold of, and his logical arguments weren’t giving it to me. His thinking was way beyond my grasping. Even if I could follow him, he could only help if I were trying to reason my way to God.

Too, Thomas was a product of the same medieval church that was so problematic for me. He endorsed one of the singular crimes of the Church, something unique neither to Catholic Christianity, medieval Christianity nor to Christianity at all:

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

-Summa, Q. 11. Art. 3.

People_burned_as_heretics

Of course, not only Christian dissidents but infidels aplenty fell victim to the stake, the sword and the torture chamber: Jews, Muslims, pagans and the falsely accused. Poorly done, boys.

* * *

In the medieval world, called by some ‘the age of faith,’ I noticed that the supernatural was a present reality to those who believed, at times entering the natural realm in the form of miracles, visions and spirits – both good and evil. It seemed to me that if an angel or a long-dead saint, or Jesus himself visited you, your days of doubting and questioning were over. That would pretty much seal the deal. Of course, I doubted whether such events ever took place and did not expect any such visitation, but I did think it would sure be helpful.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that instead of philosophical or theological arguments, what I needed to settle the question of God’s existence and the truth about our faith was an experience, some glimpse of the other side, the eternal, the transcendent – hopefully real enough that my questions would be answered in a moment. It was like wishing I could fly, I sensed, but with a little more hope of the possibility. I was a dreamer, though, and this was likely just another dream. I never even made it a prayer.

In the absence of such a unlikely occurrence, I was left where I was. I wanted to believe, but more, I wanted to know. I remember about this time (eighth grade) reading Thoreau’s statement that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Wow, I remember thinking, I feel like that. I don’t want that to be the way I lead my life. If there was no God, and I never had an answer, and I was left thinking that my life had no apparent meaning or purpose, then that is exactly what my life would be: quiet desperation. The prospect was depressing.

Over the next year or two, I could no longer honestly make any profession of faith. During my sophomore year, Dad had strongly encouraged me, stopping short of insisting, to attend a youth group at the Catholic church that he and Jane had begun to attend. I did so for a few months, but when they stopped attending, so did I. This was the same time that I began to party, drink and use drugs. They were a nice group of kids, and the leader was a guy in his twenties who showed real caring for us but had little to offer someone in my situation. What does an apologetic for the faith sound like from someone who lends little or no authority to Scripture or to the Church? I don’t know. I never heard one.

At 16, I remember telling my girlfriend – who had been raised a Lutheran – that I was an agnostic. I told her my doubts started with the Church. By this time I had undertaken to look beyond Christianity for answers. With my exposure growing up to the counterculture of the 70s, I naturally looked to the East. I read some Buddhist writings. It did not, and never has, made much sense to me. It just did not resonate with me. I was thinking within mindset I was raised with. In fact, it made me skeptical of claims by Westerners to fully embrace and comprehend the traditions of the Eastern mind. It’s really very different. I freely admit: I didn’t get it. But I didn’t give up on it right away.

Further, I was also wary of New Age spirituality. A girl in English class once asked me in a dreamy voice, quite out of the blue, “Have you ever tried astral projection?”

“Have I what?”

“Traveled out of your body to the astral plane.”

“Uh, no,” I confessed. “Have you?”

“It’s like totally intense. You should try it.”

Given my desire for a supernatural experience, you’d think I might be tempted. But I thought she was loopy. I wasn’t entirely sure she had returned from her travels. Besides, I had my own travel plans.

I was going to drop acid. I was very interested, but I put it off for quite a while because I had reservations about it. I wanted to make sure it was safe. After I had already taken two trips, I decided  should consult a travel agent. In the summer of 1981, now 17, I returned to Missoula from Seattle, where I had moved in February. My friend Matt Crowley was a freshman at the University of Montana, studying pharmacy. I asked if he had any information about LSD. He loaned me two or three of his pharmacology textbooks, and I read very word they had about the hallucinogen. There were two things I wanted to learn. One, How dangerous or safe was it? And two, What kind of supernatural experiences had people reported after taking it?

I have only a vague recollection of what I read about the risks, but I concluded that the danger was mostly psychological, and based on my first two experiences, decided it wasn’t a concern.  Instead I fastened onto the users’ reporting they had “seen the face of God” or had some other opening to the cosmos or the eternal. My thinking was right out of the 1960s. What if there was something to it, what Timothy Leary and others have been claiming? What if the effect of LSD is to open an unseen reality to our conscious minds that we cannot see otherwise? Suppose it was the missing ingredient: “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” As far as my friends were concerned we were all doing it for fun. But known only to myself, I was hoping for something more: a spiritual experience that would lead to knowledge.

I never received the experience I sought. But that summer, I took acid with perhaps five or six friends. We were at the house of a friend who’s father was a minister. I found a small icon hanging on the wall near the front door. And I was hypnotized by it. It was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus. I stood and stared. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty – who knows? In their shimmering faces I thought I was understanding something, connecting with something that reached across time, as if persons thousands of years and miles apart were suddenly face to face and knowing each other, smiling at each other, communicating without words. I believed I was looking into the infinite beyond. It made some kind of sense to me, and I told myself I needed to remember, after I came down, what it was I had just been shown or discovered or felt. But I couldn’t. It completely eluded me.

Is that how it is?, I wondered. Is experience always that temporary? Can it be just as much a mirage as Thomas’ logic, or Zeffirelli’s movie? Does it just dissipate like holy incense on Sunday morning? I know it was a hallucination. But how much more convinced would I be by any other sensory experience? Doesn’t every experience fade with time and doubt? Am I hoping for something that won’t actually give me what I need? Am I looking for the wrong thing?

Who knows?

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul,by Caravaggio.

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio.

Part Three…Part Four

The God Question | Part One

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
-Matthew 16:18

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
-Matthew 16:23

From the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen, I wrestled with what to think and believe about God and the Christian faith in particular. This not a polemic or an apologetic or a critique or an argument. It’s just a story. The ending of it is not here; it will be here in a few months.

I was raised in the Catholic Church during a time of considerable change. It was the Vatican II church of the 60s and 70s, and my parents found themselves in the liberal stream of change and reform. Questioning official dogma, institutions and customs was inherent in the liberal tradition. So was a modernist (as Rome called it), skeptical view of the Scriptures. Eden was allegory,  Noah’s flood a fable. Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.

As liberals we accepted the conclusions drawn by the secular world: we believed in Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and Freudian psychology. We went with general drift of the day, and mostly agreed with the cultural shift in values. After all, morality, in some arenas, needs to be updated to modern life. For example, why should premarital sex be considered a sin? Who says birth control or abortion or divorce are always – or ever – wrong? The very notion of sin is archaic. Hell is a preposterous conception in light of a loving God. In fact, psychology, medicine, and political and social progress offered more reliable, rational and scientific solutions to the human predicament than anything prescribed by ancient writ. When we look at the patriarchal, superstitious and pre-scientific worldview that formed the minds of the biblical writers, there is very little of what they wrote that can speak to us today. Yes, there are beautiful passages there, but we have to sift through the text to find what is inspirational and uplifting, and leave the rest. It is not, in its entirety at least, the divinely inspired Word of God.

I have told friends the religion I was raised with was defined more by what we did not believe than what we did. That may sound harsh, but it isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s meant to describe my experience. Though we affirmed many things that corresponded pretty closely with a secular-progressive worldview, when I asked if we believed one Christian tenet or another – the creation, Adam and Eve, the flood –  the answer was often No. But we did believe in God. That was foundational. We did believe in Jesus, and, even if the relationship might be strained, we did believe in the Church.

Where did this leave me? Well, let me spell it out. I have many friends who were raised in more conservative/traditional religious homes, both Catholic and Protestant, including fundamentalist homes. They commonly came to a point in their lives, if not as teenagers or young adults, then later in life, when they had to scrutinize their beliefs – those things that had been bequeathed to them as unquestionable certainties – with a more critical mindset. Usually this will result in walking away from faith or finding it strengthened by making it their own. They might become critical of the way they had been taught their faith, or adopt an easy bemusement toward the quaint backwardness of their parents and their church. I think they might not understand what an alternative would have been like.

So here is one. If the Bible is not a reliable source of information about what I should believe, and the Church is flat-out wrong in some of its bedrock doctrines, then what is my source, my authority? Me? How am I supposed to know anything regarding the faith, or what to believe? What is the truth about the most important things, and how do I discover it? This was at the root of my wilderness wanderings as a teenager.

The Historical Problem, or What if you are the gates of hell?
camelot 67It all began with King Arthur. Over my Christmas break in 1976, I spent a few days with my grandparents. At the time I was living in the country with my dad while Mom was away at grad school. I was 13. I watched the movie Camelot and was absolutely carried away by it. I watched it about three years later in a theatre and hated it, but when I saw it on TV, I was captured by the Arthurian story. When I got back to school, I spent the rest of the year in libraries consuming every book, historical or literary, I could find on the Arthur cycle. This led to an ardent interest in medieval European history and culture that lasted for years. I read up on the Norsemen, the Norman conquest, art and architecture, the Holy Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. I read the poetic Eddas, the chroniclers, and the epic poems. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Again and again I came up against the ugly character of the medieval Roman Church. It was politically powerful, enormously wealthy, and sometimes callous, manipulative, merciless and cruel. It sought to control the minds of people and the fates of nations. In short, it was a complete bummer.

I  began to think of this problem in a whole new light when I saw something else on TV at Easter: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single most important thing I ever watched on TV, and it was a singular milestone on the journey I am describing.

Simply put, this was the first time I ever saw Jesus as real, immediate, relevant or alive. Every Sunday morning I beheld him as a dead man hanging on a cross, and we read a mere few words from the Gospels. In six hours, I heard more of his words than I had in my whole life. The experience was profound for me because it was fresh. There wasn’t anything stale or statuary here. The flesh-and-blood man made sense. He answered something now.

The conclusion I drew from this experience would make all the difference in the next five years: If the character of a loving and compassionate God could be known, certainly no one has reflected that character better than Jesus. I still believed this when I came to question God’s existence. If there was a God, I thought, he was like Jesus.

Now I looked at the problem of the historical Church in light of this television Jesus I had just been confronted with. Now, not only the sins of the Church glared at us, but its very nature didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, mostly poor band of followers Jesus knit together with his message of love and hope. The disparity I now saw made the Church – both medieval and modern – seem that much worse. How was I supposed to believe that this was the same thing Jesus established with his own words 1,940 years ago?

That was about as far as my 13-year-old brain could take the problem. You might wonder why I didn’t simply embrace this new-found appreciation for Jesus and carry on. Because it was movie on TV, a fading memory, and it didn’t begin to answer my questions.  I was left wondering where this remarkable Jesus was in the world. In the Roman Catholic Church? In a book, or a miniseries? Is there a forwarding number?

Is he nowhere, dead and buried, and just a great guy with some great ideas? Or was he everywhere, alive yet unseen and actually God in the flesh?

Or is he just one of many standing in the religion pantheon, with Buddha and Mohammed and Moses? Pick your favorite guy and exit through the gift shop?

Who knows?

jesus of nazarethPart TwoPart Three…Part Four

When Was the First Christmas? A Minority Report

You’re a Superstar
What difference does it make when Jesus was born? Answer: Identifying the Star of Bethlehem as both an astronomical event and a meaningful sign. If the star was a natural phenomenon, then which one it was depends on when we date the birth of Jesus. I happen to believe the date most commonly accepted – between 6 and 4 BCE – is open to question and a later date to be preferred – and I’ll tell you why.

The dating of Christ’s birth is calculated from one event: the death of Herod, a specific historical event referenced in the Gospels. And how is the death of Herod dated? It is calculated from a specific astronomical event, namely a lunar eclipse. Most historians assume this eclipse to have been the one that occurred on March 12/13, 4 BCE. But that is not the only lunar eclipse that could be used to date it, and if a later eclipse is more likely, we also find an even more dramatic series of astronomical appearances in the Middle East – whose meaning would have been profound to star-gazers of the day – that occurred before and at the time of this later date for the birth of Jesus. We call these appearances the Star of Bethlehem.

Someone is bound to object that the Star of Bethlehem was a purely miraculous, i.e. supernatural, event. However, there is no explicit statement in the gospel narratives that requires us to believe that the star is something more than a natural, albeit extraordinary, phenomenon. (Regarding Mt.2:9, see below.) It served as a sign, I would contend, because of its timing and its meaning. So what was the timing and the meaning?

When did Herod die?
According to Matthew and Luke here is the order events around the birth of Jesus:

  • Augustus orders a census for tax purposes
  • Joseph and Mary travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem
  • Jesus is born, circumcised and presented in the temple
  • The Magi arrive in Jerusalem and are questioned by Herod
  • The Magi find Jesus in Bethlehem
  • Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s male infants
  • The family flees to Egypt
  • Herod dies
  • The family returns from Egypt

In order to date these events, at least one of them must have a fixed date, and that event is Herod’s death. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the circumstances of his death. Herod ordered the execution of two dissident rabbis on the same night as a total lunar eclipse (Antiquities, 17.167). He died shortly afterward. Most historians hold that the eclipse referred to is one that happened on March 13, 4 BCE. Shortly after his death was a Passover, indicating that it was spring. Herod had ordered the death of all boys two and under in Bethlehem, strongly suggesting that the Magi told him the star had first appeared some two years before their arrival.  Herod concluded that the birth he was worried about had happened sometime in the previous two years. Thus, Jesus’s birth is placed in 6-4 BCE, on the assumption that Josephus’ eclipse was in 4 BCE.

Jesus’ birth                                                   6/5 BCE ?
The Bethlehem Massacre                        5 or 6 BCE ?
Herod’s death                                March/April 4 BCE

Are there reasons to question this dating? Yes, a few.

1. According to Josephus, a lot of things happened between the eclipse and Passover, which fell on April 11 in 4 BCE. That’s less than a month. The other proposed early date of 5 BCE has a lunar eclipse on September 15/16, but Passover is seven months later.

2. A proper reckoning of Herod’s reign begins with beginning of his first full year of reign on April 11, 35 BCE. Josephus places Herod’s death in his 34th year of reign, which began on April 6, 2 BCE.

3. Most of the early Christian scholars date Christ’s birth to 2/3 BCE: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cassiodorus Senator and Orosious. All these people had a much better handle on the reckoning of time in the ancient world, and likely had access to records that no longer exist. No early historians give a 6-4 BCE date.

4. Another, later eclipse fits the timeline better. It was on Jan. 10, 1 BCE (there were no lunar eclipses in 3 or 2 BCE). The Passover was twelve and a half weeks later, allowing time for the events between the two, while Herod’s death could still be described as shortly after the first and shortly before the second.

In other words, Herod may in fact have died three years after the accepted date. In which case, the early historians, forming a consensus, may have been correct in assigning a later birth date. But there are even more compelling facts to consider.

“We Have Seen His Star”
How about celestial occurrences that we could identify as the Star of Bethlehem?

“Some may regard the star as entirely mythical, some as completely miraculous, but it is also possible to suppose and inquire after an actual celestial phenomenon back of the account.” – Jack Finegan (1908-2000)

We should go where the evidence leads, but I favor the  latter approach – investigating an event that can be verified independently of Scripture – for the following reason. The star as presented by Matthew is a sign to the non-Jewish world, and it is a sign that was not to be read about 60 or 70 years later. An immediate sign for people who would take note of it and seek to understand what it meant and what it pointed to. A miraculous star does not rule this out, but how much greater a sign it is, if in fact it is an astronomical event whose factual-historical nature stands unquestioned throughout all history to come – like the stars and planets themselves. So if there is such an event, and it happens to line up with the other events under consideration, we should not rule it out because it is not strictly supernatural. But Matthew 2:9 has this peculiar account:

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.

Not exactly how you expect a star or other celestial body to behave. But the planets could have reached their stationary points at that very time; they would seem to “stand still.” Also, there could have been a concurrence of zodiacal light which creates the appearance along the ecliptic of a beam of light (actually sunlight) and can seem to be shining down on the earth like a spotlight.

In short, a completely natural phenomena, but serving a divine purpose at a divinely appointed time.

Those who hold to 4 BCE for Herod’s demise can point to a number of astronomical phenomena which could account for the appearance of the star.

The Chinese recorded a nova (or a comet) in 5 BCE (appearing for 70 days, perhaps more), and another in 4 BCE. In 7 BCE there was was a triple conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in Pisces, with Mars also coming close.

But what if we accept a later date of 1 BCE for Herod’s death? If Herod ordered the massacre sometime in the last months of his life, it points back to 3 or 2 BCE for the birth. In those years there were no novae or comets, but there was something even more remarkable for its astrological meaning and its allure to the Magi.

Finegan (550*. Emphasis mine):

On the morning of August 12, 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus rose in the eastern sky, an event which could ave been what was meant when the magi said, “We have seen his star in the East,” or “in its rising” (Matt 2:2). (The word ἀνατολῇ means both the “rising [of stars]” and the “place of the rising [of the sun],” i.e., the East.) In this conjunction Jupiter and Venus were so close they were almost touching each other. From the point of view of astrological symbolism, Jupiter is the king planet and Venus (Ishtar in Babylonia) a female; so their conjunction can suggest a coming birth. The conjunction took place in Leo (the Lion) and near the bright fixed star Regulus. Regulus is the king star and the Lion constellation is the tribal sign of Judah…Afterwards Jupiter moved on to be in close conjunctions with Regulus three times (a triple conjunction on Sept 14, 3 B.C., Feb 17, 2 B.C., and May 8, 2 B.C.), then June 17, 2 B.C., came into again into conjunction with Venus, this time being so close that without a modern telescope the two planets would have looked like a single star. In the fall and winter 3/2 B.C. Jupiter appeared to stop several times against the background of the stars; and on June 17, 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in extremely close conjunction and shone almost like a single bright star in the west – in the direction of Jerusalem as seen from Babylonia. With these phenomena we may compare Matthew 2:9: “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” If the magi were students of astronomical events it can theorized that the appearance of this star on June 17, 2 B.C., was the final heavenly sign that impelled them in the late summer or early fall to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they found the child Jesus, ‘who was born some time during the previous year and a half.’

This is what the magi saw that foretold something they perceived as of immense importance to the world:

The king planet came together with the woman/maiden/mother planet in the constellation of the tribe of Judah – the tribe of David, Joseph of Nazareth and Jesus. Then the king planet came together with the king star – emphasizing the royal significance – not once but three times. And during the first of these, the sun was in the constellation of Virgo – the virgin. Then the king planet and the woman reunited, appearing as one.

Finally, on the winter solstice of 2 BCE, Jupiter reached a stationary point, “in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin) when Jupiter was directly over Bethlehem, about 68 degrees above the southern horizon as viewed from Jerusalem where the magi were.”

I don’t believe in astrology, that our fate is governed or revealed by celestial movements, but the magi probably did; that’s why they followed the ‘star.’ And I believe something even more rational and wonderful: that God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, synchronized the heavens with his unfolding plan of redemption and revelation. He spoke to a watching, wondering people, in the stars and planets sparkling in the night sky. He spoke their language, and bid them Come and see. I don’t know about you, but it fills me with awe.

We know, astronomically, what happened during those months. For those of us who believe, we also know what happened historically there in Bethlehem. It’s easy to imagine how jubilant the magi must have been at the discovery that lay at the end of their long journey and the years of sky watching that preceded it.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
-Matthew 2:10

They rejoiced because what they anticipated from their interpretation of the planetary and stellar paths was the birth of a great King, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and they came to honor and worship Him. The Star – the king planet and the king star shining in the house of the virgin – and words of the prophets, had led them to Him.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
{Psalms 19:1-4a}

——————————————————————

*These numbers are Finegan’s section numbers, rather than page numbers.

[This article is essentially a summary of some of the relevant sections from Jack Finegan's Handbook of Biblical Chronology - Rev Ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998). I have done no independent research here. Finegan, a professor of New Testament History and Archeology,  was a master of the subject. The book is extremely complex, and challenging to follow, so I have long wanted to write a digest of this topic that was more accessible.]

Here is a chronology of the period incorporating some of Finegan’s conclusions. Any errors are mine.

EVENT                                          DATE       YEAR         FINEGAN #
Jupiter+Venus near Regulus  Aug. 12     3 BCE          550*
Jupiter+Regulus (1)                Sept. 14     3 BCE          550
The Enrollment             Before Feb. 5     2 BCE          519 – 526
Jesus’ Birth                             January     2 BCE          569
Jupiter+Regulus (2)                   Feb. 17     2 BCE          550
Jupiter+Regulus (3)                     May 8     2 BCE           550
Jupiter+Venus                          June 17      2 BCE           550
Magi leave                                Summer     2 BCE
Magi arrive in Jerusalem              Fall     2 BCE
Jupiter stationary in virgo     dec. 25     2 BCE          551, 547
Magi go to Bethlehem & see Jesus
Joseph, Mary & Jesus flee to Egypt
Slaughter of the Innocents                                       508-510
Total lunar eclipse                 Jan 9/10     1 BCE          514
Herod’s Death                        Jan-March    1 BCE          501-518

 

We found the stone rolled away and the final reel missing

From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

Despite being made ten years later, it seems fitting to compare this movie with The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05). Both early silent Jesus movies, they are also both offered to current viewers on the same DVD and likely to be seen by the same audience.

From the Manger to the Cross is an important movie, apart from its subject matter. It was was made on a large budget, was a huge commercial success and was selected in 1998 by the Library of Congress for preservation in its National Film Registry. Director Sidney Olcott was praised as the greatest film director working.

Sidney Olcott 1873-1946

Watching Manger shows how fast the art and craft of cinema was developing in its early days. In most respects this careful American production, shot on location in Palestine, is superior to its French predecessor. The acting is much improved, and in place of theatrical sets and costumes,  locations, costumes and extras lend more authenticity to the experience. It has more of a narrative flow to it, using intertitles that include dialogue and quotes form the King James Version setting up each scene.

It is a more sober telling of the story. The pace is relaxed. The special effects take a back seat to the realism of the setting and performances. Though the camera does not move, the actors freely within the space, and different angles are sometimes used. The composition and blocking are much more sophisticated.

Gene Gauntier 1885-1966

Two of the performances should be noted. Mary the mother of Jesus is an older, down to earth woman, far from overwhelmed by the burden she has received. There is a fascinating scene that I think I have figured out.  In Nazareth, Mary and Jesus, age 12, are sitting together just outside Joseph’s shop. While Joseph seems to be fumbling with his work, Mary is holding up a scroll, presumably of the Scriptures, and they are reading and discussing it together. It is not clear who is learning from whom; perhaps they are learning together. Is this a suffragette Mary? Given the era, this seems a remarkable insertion into a fairly spare retelling.

I wondered about this until I recalled that Mary is played by the remarkable film pioneer Gene Gauntier – actress, director and screenwriter – who also wrote the script for this film. I believe that, like the renaissance masters, she has painted herself into the picture: a student of Scripture, sitting with Jesus.

Then there is Jesus. Robert Henderson-Bland has given us a better performance , with greater emotional range, including smiling here and grieving there. But  other choices make Jesus out to be a pretty cool customer at times. He puts on a nonchalance, turning away from amazed onlookers after a miracle as if t’were no big deal. After turning the water into wine, he saunters back to his seat. “Yeah, that’s how I party, folks.”

There are little flourishes and details that are interesting and unexpected. The last supper shows everyone actually reclining rather than sitting, and Jesus is shown carrying a tau cross – both indications Gauntier did her research. Mary of Bethany has the most delightful look of pleasure when Jesus admonishes her sister. The priests are particularly wicked, laughing out loud at Judas when he throws the money down and runs away in remorse. The passion is very violent, bloody even. It must have been genuinely intense viewing for a 1912 audience. The mockery and other abuse is ugly, as it should be. The crucifixion is realistic and beautifully shot.

The most stunning surprise of this movie shouldn’t have surprised me at all, because it’s in the title. When Jesus dies on the cross, the story ends. Intertitle with John 3:16. Roll credits. Movie over.

Wow. When they said from the manger to the cross, that’s just what they meant. No burial, no garden tomb, no resurrection. Yes, I was – and am – very surprised that a movie made for American audiences in 1912 ends with a dead Jesus.

If you were planning your Easter to include a Jesus movie, you should skip this one.

Animated Icon

The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
(La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) (1902-5)

I have intended for some time to post short reviews of the major Jesus biopics, so here goes. There are many more films in this class than you or I would have access to, so I am limiting myself to those that are available on Netflix. You may be able to find more if you seek out DVDs for sale. Many more are discussed at Matt Page’s Bible Films Blog.

It seems superfluous to comment on a movie for you, when you can sample it or view it in its entirety for yourself by clicking your mouse. Nevertheless, I have a few thoughts.

The Life and Passion
is an early and primitive movie, but one made by the best producers in the world at that time, Pathé Frères of Paris. It was originally made in 1902, then scenes were added until it took its final form in 1905. You can now find an amazingly well preserved print of this 44-minute feature superbly transferred to DVD. On the same disc they’ve included 1912’s From the Manger to the Cross, which I will review shortly.

This was a popular film, lively, colorful and Catholic in its point of view. It used elaborate if not convincing sets and costumes, and employed the best of special effects at the time, including the pain-staking process of hand-tinting: adding colors to the picture by painting them directly onto the black and white print, frame by frame. The film deserves some respect for the care, creativity and energy the cast and crew put into it.

Hardly anyone watches silent films anymore. As it would be hard to find anyone younger than myself (born 1963) who grew up with easy access to them (even though they are even easier to find now, on DVD), mine may be the last generation that watched and enjoyed them. I started with Chaplin around age nine, then Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton, and as I got older, added Griffith, Murnau and Lang. To appreciate them calls for a suspension of current standards in acting and film-making technique. You need to see them for what they were at the time, given the limitations they worked under. Do that, and you will marvel at the genius, artistry, innovation, unbridled creativity and sheer insanity some of these brilliant pioneers gave to the world. To this day, people are still watching and enjoying Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu, Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s City Lights.

At the same time, I don’t expect the average viewer today is going to enjoy most of early cinema’s lesser achievements. The Life and the Passion would probably fall into this category: it is technically marvelous for its time, but undeveloped in its story-telling and old-fashioned in its performances. When you see what was being produced in the mid-to-late 1920s, the turn of the century films are rightly deemed primitive. The camera might pan, but it doesn’t move (see the Nazareth scene). There are no close-ups. There is no montage, not even simple cross-cutting. In fact, there are no separate shots, only one master shot. (The year 1903 saw most of those innovations for the first time in Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery.)

With that in mind, I offer some comments for the modern viewer.

The Baptism of Jesus

Even with the kinetic energy and technical flourishes, it’s a little hard to look past the essential goofiness of this film. Through 21st century eyes it most resembles a Nativity pageant at the corner church, albeit with spectacular stagecraft. Shot in a series of tableaux scenes, there is no real narrative thread to connect them, so it it doesn’t flow or connect. “Scenes from the Life of Christ” might have been a better title. The intertitles identify each scene, but there are none that explain the action or provide dialogue. If you are not familiar with any of the stories portrayed, you are unlikely to have any idea what is happening in them. Possibly for the original, more biblically-literate audience, this was not much of a problem, since at that time the entertainment value was inherent any moving image. Add the spectacle, the miracles, real babies for the Slaughter of the Innocents, the appearance of Jesus, and well, you’ve got a happy audience.

In this early effort some of the challenges, solutions and failings of later Jesus movies are already presenting themselves. Here the legend of Veronica is used, found in Catholic tradition but not in the gospel narratives. Also, we find the conflation of stories, presumably for economy’s sake – an acceptable but potentially confusing adaptation (see this at 21:23 in the video below). Good Friday is bloodless, until  Jesus is “pierced” (actually tapped with a stick dipped in fake blood) by the centurion: the scourging (at 32:05) consists of Jesus being lashed with silk scarves for 11 seconds.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Let’s talk about Jesus. One of my keenest interests in Jesus movies is the portrayal each offers of Jesus himself, a role that poses serious challenges for the best of actors. I will have more to say about this in later reviews. For now, let me speculate that this actor (I haven’t been able to discover his name) was given a free hand in developing a physical presence in this film. In fact, the performances of both the 12 year old  Jesus and the adult Jesus  suggest the actors were having a lot of fun playing him. A little too much fun, perhaps. Not that he is merry. No, he is grand. Instead of being humble and unassuming, he sweeps through the scenes, with big, “Hey, look at me” gestures, waving his arms, lecturing everyone with his index finger, and making a big deal whenever his attention is turned heavenward. At least once it appears that he points at the ground as if he were telling the Samaritan woman to kneel before him (at 18:42; Jesus allowed people to worship him, but he never told them to.). This Jesus looks like the aging proprietor of a head shop or a roadie for the Grateful Dead, but he acts like a low-level bureaucrat that just got made king of the world.

So even with the stagey acting and frenetic pace that quickens to almost farcical speed as it winds up to its climax (The Ascension: It’s spectacular, but it ill-advisedly shows God the Father as a grey-haired old man, ala Gary Larson’s The Far Side);  its flat, fake scenery; its lack of continuity; even with all that, I must choose the portrayal of a show-boating Jesus (“Everybody watch me turn this water into wine!”) as the most serious flaw in this movie. Their first task was to tell a good story, but 110 years ago the conventions of doing that on film were not yet established, so I won’t hold them to that standard. But I will fault them for a hammy, grandiose Jesus who gesticulates but never connects with another person. How could you read any of the gospels and not at least observe the deeply personal connection he makes with everyone who approaches him? There’s nothing even remotely like that here. He is an eccentrically animated icon, nothing more.

This points to one of the supreme challenges for the makers of a Jesus movie: how to bring him to life. Knowing him would seem to be absolutely necessary for the attempt, or at least a genuine sense that one knows him – as a writer, as a director, and as an actor must know their subject. Some actors have been honest enough to say that they struggled with how to play him. Other filmmakers have brought something running the spectrum from admiration to love for him. But it is almost a sure bet that the cultural perspectives of the time will have a lot to do with the image of Jesus. In this case a traditional, French Catholic image, as presented by a studio rather fixed on the business of entertainment and on technological innovation, peopled by creative entrepreneurs and artists. “Let’s make a Jesus movie! Oui! Angels! Stars! Miracles!”

But enough of my opinion (or had that already crossed your mind?) – Watch it for yourself. And just for fun, see if you can find the completely weird placement of the Pathé rooster in almost every scene.

Passing on The Passion

It’s been more than six and a half years since The Passion of the Christ was released. I still have not seen it. This is by choice, not by chance. Since I am writing a series of reviews of all the major films that portray the story of Jesus, I thought I should explain why this one – by far the most popular and highest-grossing Jesus movie ever – is being omitted, at least for the time being.

My reasons are both personal and theological. Let me say at the outset that my reasons have nothing to do with the man who made the film, Mel Gibson. Even though I think his personal life indicates that he is a deeply troubled man with some serious failings, that alone would not keep me from seeing it. After all, Richard Wagner was at least as flawed, and I listen to his music. Also, the fact that the film was controversial would not have kept me away. The Last Temptation of Christ was also controversial, and I saw it. More on this point later.

The film was released three months, almost to the day, after the death of our 13-year-old son in an automobile accident. At the time our 11-year-old daughter had just awoken from two and a half months in a coma, and my wife was living at the hospital with her. At this point any sensible person would say that alone was reason enough why I wouldn’t go running off to the movies. But actually, just once I had gone to the movies (The Return of the King). And I wish I hadn’t, at least when I did. But one typically considers seeing a movie when everyone else is seeing it, when it is being widely discussed and, in this case, debated.

I went though a lot of anguish and inner struggle over having lost my son. As a Christian, it was not a crisis of faith so much as a trial of faith. I felt like the soldier on the battlefield who is having his leg amputated after the anesthetic has run out. I know I can live through it, and know I must endure it, but that does not take the pain away. Will the fire refine me or burn me up?

One thought that kept recurring was that God the Father had also lost His Son to the grave. I would always think, “Yes, but that was only for three days; this is for the rest of our lives.” I eventually came to believe that the difference I perceive between three days and the rest of my life will someday evaporate in light of eternity. If you were to say, “But God knew that His Son’s death was only temporary,” I would say, “So do I.”

All of this to say, I couldn’t contemplate watching a whole movie that focused on Jesus’ death. Death had gutted me: I’d had enough of it. “Well, it wasn’t just any death. Maybe it would have helped.” I doubt it.

Another reason: I was horrified at reports of people walking into the theater with their little kids, buckets of popcorn and half-liters of pop as if they settling in for Toy Story. This is not just a movie, and it is certainly not for the little ones. This is like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. It calls you to witness a harrowing portrayal of suffering that will not amuse you. It is not entertainment. Perhaps in a few months I could sit through such an experience, but I could not sit with such an audience. I certainly could not abide people subjecting their children to such an ordeal. I would have to watch it alone.

I know that the movie was charged with portrayals that some took as anti-Jewish (The movie had Jewish defenders as well as detractors). Without having seen the movie, let me assume that it reflects the gospel narratives. The gospels have a polemic nature, so there are antagonists and protagonists. It should be pointed out that while some of the antagonists are Jews, practically all of the protagonists are. But more significant is that, while in Jesus’ arrest and trials the key actors are the Jewish leaders, in his execution there is a clear and necessary joining of Jewish power and Gentile (Roman) power. Any fair reading of the texts would bear this out. This fact also has a theological significance for the early church:

So when they (the Christians) heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:
‘Why did the nations (Gentiles) rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:24-28 NKJV)(Parentheticals mine.)

Jew and Gentile, who were separate and opposed, came together in agreement that Jesus should die. In this collaboration they represent all of humanity. Luke, the only Gentile NT writer, makes a point of telling us,

That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other. Lk. 23:12

Of course, I would have to see the movie to know for sure, but if the charge is that the movie is anti-Jewish because the New Testament is, I don’t accept the premise. Just because the Jewish leaders are villains does not make the narrative anti-Jewish. All the the heroes are Jewish as well – not the least the rabbi Yeshua himself.

Finally, my interest in the film is dampened by by the apparent emphasis it has on the gruesome nature of Christ’s sufferings. I have no doubt that the torture and mutilation it shows is without exaggeration. I have seen plenty of stills, and a few clips from the movie. I have also seen most of the major Jesus movies, with their typically mild depiction of the passion. Tiny stripes with little streaks of blood. This is for two obvious reasons that I can think of and one less obvious. The audiences and the level of violence that both they and the censors (when they reigned) would have tolerated would not permit of a graphic rendering of Jesus’ torture. Second, most people would like to consider the story of Jesus a family movie, and not want the little children of the world to be exposed to such horrors. The less obvious reason is that most Jesus movies, from the silent era on, drew their imagery and staging from Christian iconography – most commendably from great renaissance painting and sculpture…

…and more regrettably from lesser forms of popular art, like those found in old family bibles or on prayer cards.

The Passion is to those sanitized portraits, I imagine, what P.O.D. is to Evie.

But I think there is an even more important consideration. I have sat through at least a half dozen sermons in my life that did in words what The Passion has done on film: draw attention to the gore and mutilation of the passion. The speaker usually goes for the effect of horror or revulsion and then says something to the effect of, “He suffered all of this for you.”

And it’s true. He did suffer these things on behalf of everyone of us. The New Testament says this very clearly, and I do not disagree. But what it does not include is any of the vivid details. That’s because it was neither necessary – most readers and hearers were all too familiar with the cruel practices of the day – nor was it central to the point of His sufferings.

The meaning of His suffering is profound, and it is considered from more than one perspective in the NT. We are to understand it as the ultimate form of humilty and obedience.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Php. 2:8

It is a model of suffering for us, that is, it makes our character and conforms it more to Christ’s.

For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. Heb. 12:3

It paid the penalty in full for all the sins of the world.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit…1Pe. 3:18

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1Jn. 2:2

It reveals the full extent of God’s love for humanity.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1Jn. 4:10

To understand this should not require – and apparently the writers of the NT agreed – a detailed mental image of butchery and mutilation. The point of His torture and death is spiritual and theological not physiological. To have witnessed the events would have elicited an R-rating, but to understand what they meant in the fullest sense certainly does not.

Perhaps someday I may feel differently about the prospect of watching The Passion of the Christ. From what I have read, it is an extraordinary film. But it is hard for me to foresee gaining so much from it that it would outweigh the ordeal of watching it.