John Leo

My current theory is that Christians and Jews see two different films when they watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." For example, when Satan slithered through the crowd, I saw nothing objectionable.

It's conventional Christian theology that the temptation to do evil (or Satan himself) is everywhere. But many Jews saw Satan acting through a specifically Jewish gathering, yet another in a long line of Christian libels. For Jews, this film was very close to the traditional passion play so often used to incite anti-Semitic violence. Jews also noticed that when God becomes angry at the killing of Jesus, he doesn't wreak havoc on the Roman forum or Pilate's house. He doesn't even confine the damage to Herod's palace and Caiaphas's house. He destroys the temple.

Jews don't understand why Christians don't seem to get this. They tend to think that Christians are either blind to the movie's message, or insensitive to the feelings of Jews. I don't think that's it. I think the emotional impact of this film was so powerful that it tended to blot out concerns about history, accuracy and blame.

These concerns dominated among intellectuals and media types. But ordinary Christians were so overwhelmed by the film that they didn't much want to involve themselves in yet another debate about whether a few Jews or a few Romans were mostly responsible for killing Jesus. This was the first movie, available to a mass audience, that powerfully portrayed the scope of Jesus's sacrifice and what it means for the way Christians lead their own lives. That's why so many came out of the theater shaken, weeping or talking about their need to become better Christians. Nobody came out wanting to talk about Mel Gibson's father.

The Christian unwillingness to analyze this film showed in a more obvious way. The core audience, evangelicals and fundamentalists, is meticulous about literal reading of Scripture and at least stand-offish about Catholic interpretations. Yet they flocked to a film with a profoundly Catholic sensibility, based on the sometimes eccentric visions of a 19th century nun, and filled with free-wheeling scenes found nowhere in the Bible. You could argue that Gibson's movie departed from the Gospels almost as much as Hollywood potboilers like The Robe.

But to audiences, this didn't matter much. It was emotionally true to the Gospels, and audiences found that good enough.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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