Is Mel Gibson a cynical manipulator or an insensitive true believer? Those are two theories being floated in trying to explain the increasing controversy over Gibson’s upcoming film, "The Passion," his bloody retelling of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Some leading interfaith experts say the film, which the 47-year-old Gibson co-wrote and is due out in February, violates Catholic teachings and will foment anti-Semitism worldwide.
Tensions continue to mount over his self-financed, $25 million labor of love as the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic has privately screened a rough cut for selected right-wing conservative journalists, religious leaders, politicians and celebrities across the country while denying requests by Jewish community leaders, Jewish journalists and some Catholic scholars.
Among the new developments, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals warned Jews that lobbying against the film could cost them evangelical support for Israel.
"There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now, and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel," said Ted Haggard. "For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted."
Haggard also declared that the film is "an accurate depiction of the final hours" of Jesus … "and true to the teaching of the New Testament."
Michael Medved, a right-wing film critic and an Orthodox Jew, called the film "the finest adaptation ever in cinema of a biblical story." On CNN Monday, Medved said he is "totally sympathetic" to Gibson for not cooperating with the Anti-Defamation League and a team of Catholic-Jewish scholars assembled by the ADL and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who were shocked by the number of anti-Jewish canards contained in a script they reviewed.
Medved repeated Gibson’s oft-repeated accusation that the scholars used a stolen script. (The Jewish Week has reported that Gibson and his Icon Productions clearly knew the scholars were reviewing the script and were cooperating with them until they received the team’s critical report.)
Gibson’s critics are questioning his tactics, motives and claims this his film is the true story of the death of Jesus.
Noted New York Times critic Frank Rich on Sunday compared Gibson’s recent Washington screening to "the membership lists of restricted country clubs that let in a minority member or two to deflect charges of discrimination."
"If ‘The Passion’ is kosher," the column said, "couldn’t Mr. Gibson give Jews the same access to a Washington media screening so they could see for themselves? Such inhospitality is not terribly Christian of him."
Rich argued that even not knowing what the film contains, Jews already have been libeled by Gibson’s "pre-emptive" marketing strategy for the movie.
Rich presented evidence that in January and March, Gibson publicly defended himself against "any Jewish people" who might attack the film before any Jewish critics ever came forward.
"The real question is why Mr. Gibson and his minions would go out of their way to bait Jews and sow religious conflict, especially at this time in history," Rich said.
Meanwhile, perhaps the only rabbi to be invited to a screening supports the theory that Gibson is engaged in a dangerous marketing scheme.
"I believe a lot of this is a deliberate strategy to get attention for the movie that otherwise they wouldn’t get," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
In an interview from Israel Monday, Rabbi Eckstein confirmed Icon invited him to a private screening last month, but on the Sabbath. "That’s almost like not inviting me," said the Sabbath-observant rabbi.
Still, Rabbi Eckstein said Icon needs to get input from interfaith experts. "The wrong interpretations of [‘The Passion’] if really publicized widely… can be particularly pernicious with devastating consequences," he said.
Even more so today, Rabbi Eckstein noted, when "Jews feel far more insecure because of increasing anti-Semitism in Muslim countries and among European Christians."
Rabbi Eckstein, a close ally of Evangelical leaders, also criticized Haggard’s comments as "very, very irresponsible."
"The statement was the first time in 25 years that I have seen an evangelical leader make a quid pro quo between support of Israel and some other issue," Rabbi Eckstein said.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, also blasted Haggard as "offensive and arrogant to flaunt the Israel support, and then to decide for us what is important or trivial for us."
(After initially standing by his remarks in a phone interview Tuesday, Haggard called back Interfaith Affairs later in the day with a clarification: "I clearly want to say our love for Israel and Jewish people and their concerns is unconditional.")
Meanwhile, Foxman acknowledged the controversy could blow up into a internal Christian battle over Scripture and interpretation, with Jews caught in the middle.
(Catholic scholars who read a draft script say Gibson’s film was biblically flawed, historically inaccurate and erroneously mixes differing Gospel accounts with extra-biblical anti-Semitic sources to create his own dangerous anti-Jewish interpretation.)
Foxman believed that Gibson is not cynically marketing the film but is sincerely pushing his religious beliefs. Gibson is a member of a right-wing Catholic splinter sect that doesn’t accept the 1965 Vatican reforms that repudiates the deicide charge against Jews.
"He’s trying to project his interpretations and views," Foxman said. "There’s nothing wrong with that except accusing us of bad faith" and refusing to screen the film for ADL.
Veteran interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin agreed that Gibson appears to be a true believer who is deaf to the concerns of mainstream Catholics and Jews.
"What’s being played out is not Christians vs. Jews," Rabbi Rudin said. "It’s between Christians sympathetic to what Mel Gibson is portraying, and Christians and Jews who are into their faith and modern scholarship who believe in continuous revelation."