I feel a little like

I feel a little like a TV guide service during these few weeks where the networks are rushing to take advantage of the Jesus conversation. NBC is running another two hour Dateline special tonight entitled The Power of Faith. I don’t have any idea what we’ll get in terms of content, but it’s sure to be more conversation material. Also, James Caviezel (who plays Jesus in the film) will be on Leno tonight. Somehow I missed Mel on The Tonight Show last night (probably because I usually can’t stand to watch Jay), but I’m told the vibe was mostly positive. Jay seemed to dig the film, and the audience was applauding Mel as he explained his motives and methods. On a less spiritual note, Bill Cosby will be on Letterman tonight. I doubt he talks much about Jesus, but it’s likely to be pretty good television.

One other note as the hype continues to swirl about The Passion of the Christ: As people of all faiths and perspectives pour out of theaters, reactions are even stronger than many expected. Some people love it; some people literally despise it. Frankly, I’ve read some reviews that are nothing short of vitriolic, even embodying a kind of verbal brutality that’s every bit as bloody as the physical brutality they find so repulsive in the film. We’re going to talk about all of this in the near future. In the meantime, don’t overwhelm yourself with the harsh and narrow commentary from either side. In fact, take a minute to read this Dennis Prager piece and let it be Pepto to the rhetorical diarrhea smelling up the rest of the media. It’s probably the most thoughtful and balanced perspective I’ve encountered when it comes to the different reactions so many will have to this experience.

I’m sure many of us

I’m sure many of us will see the film in the next few days. For now, use the comment link on this post to just clock in once you’ve seen it. I’d like to know who sees it when, but let’s hold off on reviews or reactions for a little while. I just want to give people a little time to experience it for themselves before we start opining and, yes, tainting one another. That said, it’s not a bad idea for you to go ahead and write what you think and feel even though you won’t post it yet. It’s healthy to write while it’s all over you. Save it and post it later.

Just a quick note…Charlie Rose

Just a quick note…Charlie Rose will deal with the film tonight (11 p.m. ET). I think that’s worth noting because Rose is one of the best interviewers and professional conversationalists left on the planet, and his program airs on PBS shielding him from some of the corporate entanglements of the networks. The details:

DAVID DENBY, Film Critic, The New Yorker
DAVID STERRITT, Film Critic, The Christian Science Monitor

Meacham wrote the recent Newsweek cover story that basically embraced the gospels as nice pieces of fiction that were written to advertise Christianity with little regard to historical accuracy. That was a long sentence. I don’t know what you’ll get from critics Denby and Sterritt or from the always provocative Hitchens.

Rant Advisory Level: Orange I

Rant Advisory Level: Orange

I read today that Ebert and Roeper gave The Passion of the Christ two thumbs up. “Mel Gibson is a masterful storyteller, and this is the work of his lifetime,” Roeper said. I don’t know how significant that is in the long or the short term, but it was interesting to see given the status those guys have in the realm of American cinematic discourse. I guess it interests me for the same reason that I chose the banner up top that includes Michael Medved’s quote (rather than Billy Graham’s or the Pope’s or those of several other famous Christians).

I think it’s worth noting that reputable film critics without a dog in the fight consider this a very good film. There’s so much shouting going on about whether the existence of The Passion is good or bad for society, and it seems like heads get less and less level with every day that passes. I get the sense that people are digging in based on their assumptions and agendas and not giving the film a chance to just be a film. Jewish opponents of the film think it’s dangerous propaganda. Christian advocates of the film call it “the greatest tool for evangelism in 2,000 years” (and we’ll chalk the elevation of a Mel Gibson film over the New Testament up to a well-intentioned, if overzealous subculture). Unfortunately what could be a very healthy and helpful dialogue has deteriorated before it’s even started in many corners. That’s a shame.

Here’s my other beef. People can just be silly and, well, stupid. I read this quote in a CNN story from a woman who saw the film on Wednesday: “I think it is, in a way, Hollywood’s interpretation of something,” she said. “And I’m not quite sure of the ultimate purpose, because I do feel it is extremely graphic and somewhat biased.” No kidding. News flash — a movie based on the Bible made by a professing Christ-follower about the death of Jesus is biased. Oh, and that’s bad. I suppose she’d prefer to see an “unbiased” portrayal of Jesus being tortured and nailed to wooden beams. I have no idea what that means, but maybe it involves some Moonies and Martians and Portuguese lesbians standing around the cross and giving their alternative points of view about life and salvation. Sounds like a great movie. Somebody call Alec Baldwin.

Look, I don’t expect everyone to love Jesus, and I don’t expect everyone to love me because I love Jesus. I understand and embrace life in a pluralistic world. What makes absolutely no sense to me is this notion that we need to sanitize ourselves to some mythical land of unbiased vanilla. Let’s all pretend that we don’t believe anything that might possibly conflict with or threaten someone else’s beliefs.

And that’s the first problem with that nonsense — it’s all pretend. It’s a fairytale. People believe, and they believe lots of different things in lots of different ways. Quit trying to run from it. This is not about my oppressive and exclusive religion. It’s about all of us (and Christians need to learn this too) dealing with reality rather than trying to conjure up Fantasy Island where everyone pretends not to notice the fairly noticable difference between Tatoo and Mr. Roarke.

My other major problem with this absurd push for a world of eternal neutrality is that it’s boring as hell. Okay, so that’s a poor choice of words since it would be hypocritical for me to pretend that hell is boring in the midst of a rant like this. But you get the point. I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe – who really wants to live like that? I’ll take passionate people who disagree with me over a bunch of lifeless newts who don’t believe anything at all.

So anyway, here’s my moment behind the pulpit on the eve of the film’s release — Let it be what it is. It’s a film. It’s art. It’s an imaginative visual depiction of the gospel accounts of the final twelve hours of the life of Christ. It isn’t the Bible, nor is it an interfaith story about why all religions are equally valid paths to God. It’s important and it’s worth seeing for all kinds of people, Christian and non-Christian. Read the film, don’t just receive it. Give it an avenue into your brain and your soul. There’s no reason to avoid that, no matter who you currently say that Jesus is. If he’s Lord, you should want the deeper encounter. If he’s not, your soul has nothing to lose. Whatever you do, don’t get into a shouting match with anyone. Jesus never dragged anyone into the Kingdom by the throat, and you aren’t going to one-up Him in that regard.

A note to the regular

A note to the regular commenters: I just upgraded my commenting account, which means you now can post longer comments. The previous limit was 1000 characters; now it’s 3000. This also rids us of the ridiculous ads. I do this because I love you. Carry on.

I think this The Last

I think this The Last Days of Jesus thing may be worth talking about, but I don’t want to stir it up if no one is interested. So, if you’re interested, go read this transcript from the show. I don’t know how exhaustive it is relative to what aired, but it appears to be (at least) a thorough representation of the program. Once you read it, chime in to let me know you’ve read it and you’re down with a discussion. I’m interested in a dynamic of this beyond the actual conversation about the historical accounts of the last days of Jesus, but I won’t go into detail now so as not to taint anyone’s honest perspective or reaction.

So, who watched The Last

So, who watched The Last Days of Jesus on NBC tonight? We were out, and I forgot to set the VCR. I’m curious about it, particularly after realizing that Stone Phillips hosted it. It’s my understanding that he’s a believer. Anyone roll tape on it?

As I expected, the issue

As I expected, the issue I didn’t get to last night has surfaced pretty quickly. It was the one quote from Gibson’s interview on ABC that tended to attract the most attention from my Christian friends. The common sentiment was – I thought the whole thing was great, but what in the world did he mean when he said “everyone gets to heaven, I just have an easier way?” For the record, this is how it actually went down…

Diane is voicing over shots of Mel’s Traditionalist Catholic church, noting that his particular home in Catholicism stands in opposition to the Vatican reforms of the 1960’s (known as Vatican II…not to be confused with Lethal Weapon 2). Among those reforms was a more inclusive view of other faiths. Concluding her voiceover, Diane says, “So when we talked with Gibson and his other actors, we wondered, ‘Does his Traditionalist view bar the door to Heaven for Jews, Protestants, Muslims?’”

Mel’s response: That’s not the case at all. Absolutely not. It is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s just easier for– …And I have to say that because that’s what I believe.

Diane: You have the nonstop ticket?

Mel: Well, I’m…yeah. I’m saying it’s an easier ride where I am because it’s like, uh, I have to believe that.

I have some thoughts on what that particular moment in the interview might represent, and I tend to break those thoughts into a couple of possibilities.

First, I think it’s worth talking about context a bit. I know a little about TV and film production, and I was occasionally confused during the interview by the cut-aways from Mel and Diane’s one-on-one shots to this other interview where Mel was accompanied by Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays Mary, and Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Jesus. This particular answer is one of those occasions. We hear the question in Diane’s voiceover, then they cut to his answer from this other interview that we don’t really know much about. It seemed like an odd edit with all kinds of questions about context. We don’t actually know what he was asked to provoke that particular answer, and he could have been saying something fairly different from how it played with that edit. It could have been something as simple as Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 1 that the preaching of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. He could have simply meant that the road to eternal life is “easier” for him because he was raised Christian (or Catholic) than it is for those who live most of their lives under Muslim or Jewish teachings. Remember, he said Jews and Muslims can get to Heaven – he didn’t say they could get there without Jesus. In that sense, believing the Gospel is often easier for those who are raised under Christian teaching than those who aren’t.

It’s also entirely possible that the editing was a coincidence and that we didn’t miss the context of what he said and meant. So, if the context was fairly solid, what did he mean? I think the answer to that has a lot to do with him being Catholic. Before I take a swing at this, let me acknowledge that I’m not a master theologian. If that’s true about my command of Protestant doctrine, it’s certainly truer when it comes to Catholic theology. It’s also worth noting that it’s a bad idea to assume the label “Catholic” is a monolithic and universal descriptor. There are all kinds of Catholics just like there are all kinds of Baptists. There are Baptists who ordain homosexuals, and there are Baptists who wag around picket signs that say, “God hates fags.” Most Baptists are somewhere in between those extremes. A lot of Protestants are inclined to paint Catholics with broad strokes that don’t necessarily apply to any and every Catholic. My attempt to discuss Mel’s Catholic theology will be feeble and very, very general. There are at least a few regular visitors here who either are presently Catholic or have some Catholic background or connection. Feel free to chime in and correct or clarify my hacking up of what you learned in Catechism class.

I’ll start by reminding everyone that Mel is very Catholic. Most of what he said to Diane Sawyer was safe for evangelicals, but Traditionalist Catholicism generally thinks of itself as more Catholic than the Vatican. He’s not going to be walking the aisle of Hollywood Baptist Church anytime soon.

That said, the perspective that Mel was probably representing with his statement that “it is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the Kingdom of Heaven,” is a fairly standard Catholic doctrine when it comes to salvation. As I understand it, it’s generally the idea that certain folks who aren’t terribly evil have a second chance of sorts in the afterlife to have Jesus burn away their sin so they can eventually get their ticket punched. It’s not ideal since Purgatory isn’t Disneyland, but I guess it beats the eternal smell of sulfur. They don’t necessarily view it as a way around Christ as The Way; they just think Jesus can work atonement for some folks post-humus. The standard Protestant reminder is that Catholics generally factor in the role of works or deeds more than Protestants when it comes to determining who’s under the cover of grace and who isn’t. So it probably makes some sense that they think some non-confessors can get a second chance if their lives were somehow good enough to avoid immediate damnation. This is not universalism. It’s not a declaration that all good Jews and good Muslims and good whatevers get to Heaven eventually. The Catholic belief in Purgatory is not a guarantee for good people who don’t follow Christ. It’s just a possibility, and a fairly mysterious one at that.

I also think it’s fair to point out, lest we start looking down our Presbyterian and Baptist noses at the concept of Purgatory, that there are a lot more Protestant theologians than you might think who espouse a very similar notion, minus some of the details. Here’s some blog homework before you comment on all of this – take five minutes and read the first half of Romans 2, paying particular attention to verses 11-16. (I’ve linked to a couple of versions here that I think are particularly interesting. Read verse 16 in The Message a few times.) Mull that over and let me know if you’re absolutely sure about what it means about who definitely gets into Heaven and who doesn’t. This is one of those passages most people (wisely) won’t declare a precise interpretation of, but many suspect it means God works salvation for some who we wouldn’t necessarily identify as Christians using our particular language and labels. I think the typical end game in those interpretations is to say, “I’m not sure who that might be, and I don’t know that we can know who it might be, so you’re better off not trying to slip in under that cover.” That’s pretty similar to Mel’s: “It’s an easier ride where I am.” I’m not entirely sure what to do with all of that, but I’m pretty confident that none of our theological systems will lack for gaping holes when exposed to the fires of eternal Truth.

I’m not arguing for an ecumenical or universalist mish-mash, but I don’t think Mel is either. The guy just spent three-hundred-hundred Gs of his own coin to make a film about the brutal death of a homeless man from Nazareth two thousand years ago. I’m pretty sure he thinks Jesus is relevant to folks’ eternal destinies.

I need to quickly remind

I need to quickly remind a certain wife-beating soul singer about the this stuff protocol when it comes to anonymous posters and pseudonyms. Generally, neither are allowed. I tend to be a little lenient when the made up names appear once or twice for humor, but we don’t do permanent internet handles on here. Especially once you start posting serious thoughts, you have to be who you are. It’s not a silly rule just to have a rule. If there’s any point to this experiment, it partly involves having worthwhile adult discussions. We’re going to do that the old fashioned way with our names attached. No chat room disguises. So, divulge your true identity or prepare to disappear from this stuff.