Popcorn and Passion
From the March 8, 2004 issue: In which two moviegoers conduct their own interfaith dialogue.
Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By MATT LABASH
Norm, who loves Gibson's "Mad Max" movies, though "I suspect this will be different," religiously attends synagogue, and tells me his son was scandalized that he would come to see this movie. But Norm was tired of talk-show gasbags telling him what he should think. He came here like he occasionally goes to Christian churches on safari, not to have meaningful religious experiences outside his own faith tradition, but "just to know."
We watch "The Passion" together, as Jesus gets slapped and beaten and scourged until his body is transformed from solid to liquid, with loose bunches of skin hanging as if from a reptile trying to molt. We watch His mother, of Hail Mary/lawn statue fame, become a flesh-and-blood mother, unable to help her helpless boy, who's being tortured, as she's tortured herself by the knowledge that He's not helpless at all, that His death is by choice. Norm Linsky and I sit there in the dark, our senses overwhelmed at the sheer viciousness and brutality, and watch Jesus die for our sins. Or, as Norm would probably prefer, we watch Jesus die for my sins.
When the lights come up, I'm pretty much speechless. Norm isn't. "Whoa! Mel did a good job, glad I saw it for myself." The depiction of the Jewish priests, he says, is "no big deal"--even though he thinks they looked like they were from "a bad dinner-theater production of the 'Merchant of Venice'" (the Romans came off as Nazi caricatures from a World War II movie, he adds). Norm whispers that he has a prediction: "There's not gonna be any rioting in the streets tonight. Get a life, people, it's just a movie. And a good one." Norm's glad he came, he says, because this has people "talking about some core issues about belief." It has him talking "to the church ladies out in line," and "a fine reporter from a fine magazine, as opposed to me going to a mindless movie where people are blowing stuff up for the hell of it."
Norm's right, sort of. We stick around for a theater-sponsored interfaith panel discussion between clergy. It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: A Lutheran, a Catholic, two Baptists, and a rabbi walk into a movie theater. . . . The panel is moderated by Rev. Clark Lobenstine, a Presbyterian minister from the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, who specializes in endeavors like "interfaith dialoguing" and "fostering mutual understanding." Lobenstine is ideal for the job. He is timid and inoffensive and wears his sensitivity credentials proudly, as evidenced by his canvas, public-television-pledge-drive tote bag (he's a presidential club member).
He intones that in 25 years of dialogues, this is the most difficult thing he's done, which would seem odd, since Christ's crucifixion, historically speaking, is a cow that's been out of the stable for a good 2,000 years. The rabbi, feeling slightly outnumbered at one point, offers that the New Testament gives his ilk "the willies," but the rest of the panel takes care not to throw theological elbows or, for the most part, discuss Jesus very much at all (the Baptists, being Baptists, try to sneak in a few J-bombs and salvation themes, but without much vigor).
If the clergy seem to prefer their religion toothless, the audience bares its fangs. While I'd hoped people would discuss the implications of what Christ's death on the cross meant or didn't mean to them, most just want to elbow Him aside and climb up on the cross themselves. One grievance group after another airs its concerns. A Lutheran minister thinks the Romans got shafted in the picture, and an elderly woman who worked with concentration camp survivors reads from her speech decrying the film as anti-Semitic, one she'd obviously written before she'd even seen it. A female Disciple of Christ minister in a zebra-skin kufi wanted to know why there weren't more faiths represented on the panel to drive home the "message of the multicultural church, praise God!" and why Simon of Cyrene wasn't portrayed by an African. Sitting there listening, I was unsure if we'd just watched "The Passion" or "Rashomon."
The only real interfaith dialogue I hear all night occurs between me and Norm Linsky. We clearly communicate an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless, which brings us to mutual understanding (Lobenstine would be proud). Norm understands that I believe that Messiah-wise, he is waiting for a train that has already left the station. And that when the Messiah comes round again, it's not going to be to conduct nerf-bat interfaith dialogues. I understand that Norm believes that I believe in Santa Claus, albeit, one with nail-prints in His hands.