Saturday, September 27, 2003

Passion and Knowing your Friends from your Enemies 

I find myself with mixed feelings about Mel Gibson's upcoming movie, Passion. Lots of people are taking shots at Gibson for the movie, and I am slow to want to join them, because they're all taking shots at him for the wrong reasons. He's being criticized for anti-Semitism, since of course John tells us, along with all the gospels, that it was the Jews that killed Jesus.

I probably don't need to spend a lot of time on the profound ridiculousness of this criticism, since essentially it amounts to saying that being a Christian is fundamentally antisemitic. The Gospel of John, and the passion story in general, lies at the foundation of our faith, and we can't alter our understanding of that without changing our religion. Some Jews, at least, have recognized the foolishness and hypocrisy of attacking Gibson over this, but many Jews and many non-Jews have piled onto the PC cause du jour.

I've read a fair amount of confusing and self-contradictory stuff on the web about what the exact criticism of the movie is- is it that he simply represents the gospel story as it is presented by John? Or does he embellish the story? Perhaps he highlights the guilt of the Jews even more than John himself does? I guess I'll have to wait for the movie to find out.

But that presents the other side of my dilemma. I have no intention of seeing the movie at all, as representations of Christ in any form violate our understanding of the 2nd Commandment. "God may not and cannot be imaged in any way." The Reformed have always understood this to include Christ. The Roman Catholics of course have a very different understanding of the 2nd Commandment, and Gibson is a Roman Catholic.

Now what is the reason that we believe that the 2nd Commandment applies to the incarnate form of Christ? We are perhaps on slightly more ambiguous ground here than on any other aspect of the 2nd Commandment. There is little doubt that we ought not have golden calves in our worship services, or the like. We must not worship other gods beside Jehovah. In traditional Protestant circles there is strong agreement that pictures in general should not be used in the aid of worship, although this understanding has eroded significantly. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't even view the 2nd Commandment as a separate commandment, lumping it in with the first, and calling the commandment about taking the Lord's name in vain the 2nd Commandment. Therefore, to the RCC, there is no unique commandment regarding the use of pictures in worship, and a good thing too because they use a truckload of them.

Our complaint is, the only proper response to God is worship. That is, if I say "That is God", then whatever the That is, I have to worship it. If an artist pictures God, and I say, "that artist has pictured God," then I must worship that artist's picture. But of course I am then worshiping a false God because I am worshiping that artist's conception of God in his mind, which cannot possibly correspond in any meaningful way to the real God, who is a Spirit and cannot be represented by the physical. There was no idol in Solomon's temple.

The same applies to a dramatic interpretation of Jesus. Even if they stick to the plain words of the gospel, the way Jesus looks, the way he talks, the way he walks, all will communicate the actor's and the director's understanding of who Jesus is, and if I say, "that's Jesus," I have to worship that understanding, and am thus worshiping a false God, because it's based on a human understanding. So we in the Reformed community avoid any dramatic interpretation of Jesus as well.

Then why do I say I have mixed feelings? Well, all that being said, Mel Gibson is one of the few conservatives of any kind in Hollywood, and we have to do some serious thinking about who our friends are and who our enemies are. I can picture some saying that those who appear to be on the side of Christianity but subvert it with dangerous doctrine do more damage than outright enemies of the faith. I think that's true, but I'm not sure if Gibson falls into that category. And in this particular controversy, what Gibson appears to be coming under attack for is believing that the gospels are true, and we all have a dog in that fight. I'd venture to say that how exactly someone understands the Second Commandment is of less importance than believing in the truth of the Bible, and I hope that we in the Reformed community do not distract ourselves from the central issue, which is whether the secular community or any particular religious community can demand that we give up our faith because it offends them, with what is a relatively minor point of doctrine.

The Second Commandment is not a minor point of doctrine, and I hope that you don't think I'm saying that it is. I'm saying that the particular application of the Second Commandment to this particular situation, is _relatively_ minor, in comparison to the larger question of whether we will be permitted to exercise our faith in the public square at all.

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