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Jewish Journal

The Gospel Truth

by Rob Eshman

February 19, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Just before midnight on Monday the phone rang at our house. It was a guest booker from ABC's "Good Morning America," asking if I would speak that morning to Diane Sawyer, live on air, about Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

The booker, Asa, sounded young, and he spoke with nervous, job-on-the-line urgency. He made clear that he had wanted to get an East Coast Jew, but it was almost 3 a.m. He dialed all the West Coast Jews he knew and came up blank, then stumbled across my name.

As ego-boosting as it was to be Asa's absolutely last choice at the end of a disappointing search, I told him I had still not seen "The Passion of the Christ," and I wouldn't comment on a movie I hadn't watched in full. Fine, he assured me, what Sawyer wanted was to speak to me about the controversy the movie has already created. Was I aware of the controversy?

Was he kidding?

The movie, which opens Feb. 25, has WMD, Israel and Kerry vs. Edwards as Topic A. People are telling me they're worried, but when I ask, "About what?" the worry turns inchoate. No, they don't expect to be in physical danger after the movie comes out. No, they don't expect mass rallies, or even anti-Semitic attacks. They're just ... worried.

In my pre-Sawyer screening interview, Asa asked me how I thought Jews should respond to the movie. The answer to that question resides on the front of this week's Journal, which admittedly is an unusual choice for the cover of a Jewish periodical.

I told Asa that, if I had my druthers, Gibson would have made a different movie, maybe a watchable version of "Wild Wild West." But this is the movie he made, and it is up to us to deal with the product of this man's midlife crisis. Gibson told Sawyer during a "Primetime Live" interview that he has battled numerous addictions. Indeed, this movie is the result of the kind of single-mindedness -- and money -- that only a man addicted to faith could pull off. That is noble, and it is frightening.

For hundreds of years, the Gospels, in the wrong hands and hearts, have been weapons of hate. Gibson's movie might just become a kind of 21st-century Gospel, eventually leaving its quaint home at the local bijou (so 20th century) for a digital eternity on DVD and online. We will once again be witness to the power of the Gospels, like Frodo's precious ring, to bring out the best and worst in humanity.

It would be nice if Gibson, to demonstrate his awareness of these concerns, used some of the proceeds from his movie to support educational programs that address the misuse of the Gospels.

As for Jews, calling Gibson names doesn't seem to have helped. The actor and his publicist Alan Nierob, the son of Holocaust survivors, have played the Jewish community like maestros. They have curried the few non-Christian voices of support and, perhaps in an attempt to forestall a boycott, stonewalled the rest, including the Jewish press.

A cynic would say that at some point both sides realized that a full-frontal face-off would be, on Gibson's side, good for box office and, on the Jewish organizational side, good for visibility and fundraising. But I'll be more pure of heart and say that both sides missed opportunities for a rapprochement that would have made for smaller headlines but lesser tensions.

And those dissenting non-Christian views are worth noting. After viewing an early version of Gibson's movie last November, Dennis Prager wrote in these pages that Jews and Christians watching Gibson's movie, "are watching two entirely different films." For Jews it is a movie about Jews killing Jesus. For Christians it is a foundation story of faith and sacrifice. Our reporter Gaby Wenig saw the movie in North Carolina this week while covering a Christian broadcasters convention. Gaby, who is observant, found the movie dealt in abhorrent "Christ-killer" stereotypes of Jews. But the Christians she interviewed said it was the word of God, and didn't in the least implicate "the Jews" in Jesus' murder. Perhaps Prager is on to something.

So if protest, fear and trembling are not suitable responses, what are?

One answer is education. That's why The Journal asked Getty Center scholar Jack Miles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "God: A Biography" and former book review editor of the Los Angeles Times, to write this week's cover story. The only important work that Jews know less about than the Torah are the Gospels, and that is a handicap in discussing this movie. Jesus as man, Jesus as arguably the most famous Jew in history, Jesus as -- in the brilliant scholar Daniel Matt's words, "a Galilean Chasid" -- is a figure we should study and understand. Gibson's movie won't destroy decades of fruitful Christian-Jewish dialogue; it will simply prove how crucial that dialogue is.

Funny thing: Eventually the producers of "Good Morning America" found a local New York Jew, David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, to speak with Sawyer, and I got to sleep in. And what did Elcott say? About what I just wrote.

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