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Guilt Trip

Bible scholar weighs in on ugly 'Passion'

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In its ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation, Talking Pictures takes interesting people to interesting movies.

Dr. Robert Funk is flabbergasted. That's his word for it. As the end credits finally roll on Mel Gibson's much-hyped The Passion of the Christ, I turn to gauge the final reactions of Dr. Funk, a renowned biblical scholar, historian and author who is best-known as the founder of the controversial Jesus Seminar and as director of the Westar Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group devoted to encouraging "religious literacy."

With a shake of his head, Funk lets out a long, slow sigh and wearily declares, "Well. Gosh, I don't know. I'm just flabbergasted." Five minutes later, as we make our way out to the parking lot, he elaborates a bit, stating, "What in the world has Mel Gibson done in his life that he feels so guilty he has to make a God-awful film like that?" He adds, "Here's my bottom line: this movie will set Christianity back 500 years. I think it's that bad."

Much has been written about The Passion of the Christ over the last several weeks, with interest reaching Ararat heights among Christian and Jewish leaders alike, all curious to see for themselves whether Gibson's self-financed labor of love is as anti-Jewish as originally rumored (Funk feels it is, on a deep, subliminal level). Curiosity has been further heightened by early reports of the film's over-the-top violence, and, according to Funk (author of A Credible Jesus and The Five Gospels), there's been plenty of curiosity among the fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

An international group of boundary-pushing Gospel scholars, the Jesus Seminar was formed in the mid-1980s to shine scholastic light on ancient scripture, identifying those pieces of the New Testament that are historically supportable, and those parts that evidence shows were gradually made up over those centuries in which the Christian religion was first taking shape.

"How close do you think this was to what Jesus actually suffered?" I ask Funk, after we arrive, following a short road trip, at the Westar Institute's Santa Rosa headquarters.

"Well, I don't think it was very close," Funk replies. "But then you have to remember that I think the Passion story is fundamentally a fiction. I don't have any doubt that he was crucified. And I don't have any doubt that the Romans did it, and that it was during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. But the Passion story we have today is fundamentally a piece of Christian propaganda, and I think it's very important that we get that straight."

While we're setting things straight, what about the bizarre flashback to Christ's hunky carpenter days, in which Gibson seems to be saying that Jesus (are you ready for this?) was the inventor of the chair.

"That was strange, wasn't it?" Funk laughs. "Do you suppose that was a way to suggest that Jesus had prophetic foresight? Or was it just a spoof?

"If there had been more of that, it might have helped the film," he allows. "It was all pretty serious, pretty heavy."

Pretty heavy indeed. And the violence, the focus of nearly every scene, is everything it's been said to be, and more. Passion wins the Gratuitous Gore Grand Prix, now officially ranking as one of the most violent movies ever filmed.

"I've never seen a movie that had so much meaningless violence!" exclaims Funk. "As I said before, Mel Gibson must be carrying an enormous load of guilt. You have to measure the violence in that film, in part, by how guilty he feels as a sinner. Of course, vicarious suffering is a very moving thing. It appeals to all of us and to some of our better instincts. It is often associated, in my mind at least, with survivor's guilt, the kind of thing when two people go off to war and one of them gets killed, the other one doesn't, and the survivor feels guilty because he wasn't one of the victims.

"So to say 'Jesus died for us' is to appeal to a very fundamental emotion, a powerful emotion and, I think, quite a good one: to be grateful to people who are willing to suffer on your behalf, or who are victims of tragedies that you've escaped. I wouldn't want to belittle that emotion, but unfortunately it's often hooked up with guilt, and then it really becomes tragic. When it becomes associated with guilt, I think in the end it enervates and destroys the person who feels guilty."

Concludes Funk, "I certainly think this movie tells us a lot more about Mel Gibson than it does about Jesus of Nazareth."

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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