On coming away from a first, full viewing of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," among the questions that came is mind was: What in heaven's name was all the howling about?
For the all-powerful impression this emotionally draining film leaves one with is that this is what the Son of God went through for our sins and our salvation. Those who called "The Passion" anti-Semitic without seeing it, who tried to censor it and keep it out of theaters, and who trashed it as pornographic as soon as it appeared on Ash Wednesday have made perfect fools of themselves.
For Catholics, this first week of Lent was a decidedly mixed one. The magnitude of the scandal of pedophile and pervert-priests, now fully documented, testifies that Pope Paul VI was right when he warned, post Vatican II, that the smoke of hell had entered the vestibule of the church.
But Gibson's "Passion" gives us a Lenten masterpiece, a beautiful moving work of art. To cradle Catholics who can recite the lines of each episode before they are uttered, it is faithful to the Gospels, to the Stations of the Cross, to the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
But what you come out of this film with depends on what you took in. If you are looking for evidence of Jewish villainy, you can find it in Caiphas, the sinister high priest of the Sanhedrin who was the driving force in the mob's demand for the crucifixion and death of Jesus. And in the pathetic figure of Judas the betrayer. But almost all the heroines and heroes are also Jews.
For this is, after all, a Jewish and Roman story, though Caiphas appears as a cartoon villain alongside Pilate, the more interesting figure. For Pilate is gripped by a moral dilemma, and takes the weakling's way out, ordering Christ crucified -- though he believes Christ to be innocent.
But the gleeful sadistic brutality of the Roman soldiers who scourge Christ near to death and to their own sweaty exhaustion, and to the disgust of their centurion, is more memorable and indelible. Yet no one has suggested the film is anti-Roman or anti-Italian.
Every Easter, Christians have had the passion of Christ read to them from pulpits. Yet, never has there been a pogrom in America. Why in heaven's name, then, all this hysteria about pogroms by Christians who might see a filmed representation of the passion of Christ?
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Mel Gibson is under attack not because he twisted the Gospels but because his film is faithful to the Gospels. It is anti-Semitic only if the Gospels are anti-Semitic, only if Christianity is anti-Semitic, only if a hatred of Jews is embedded in the New Testament from Gethsemane to Golgotha. But no true follower of Christ can believe that about Him or about His mission or His words.
Indeed, in the savagery of the attacks on Gibson what is coming out of the closet is a visceral hatred of Christianity.
Consider: Art critics have instructed us to appreciate that the "Piss Christ," a figurine of Jesus on the Cross in a jar or urine, was art; that a portrait of the Madonna with elephant dung smeared on it and female genitalia surrounding the face is artistic freedom of expression that must be respected.
We were told "The Last Temptation of Christ" that portrayed Jesus as a lustful wimp pining over Mary Magdalene was a beautiful film. Yet the same critics tell us "The Passion" is an insult to decency that should never have been made.
Now, it seems, comes payback time. Apparently, Hollywood, that bastion of artistic freedom where the First Amendment is the First Commandment, intends to blacklist Gibson.
Writes The New York Times' Sharon Waxman: "Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, the principals of DreamWorks, have privately expressed anger over the film, said an executive close to the two men. ... The chairmen of two other major studios said they would avoid working with Mr. Gibson because of 'The Passion of the Christ.' ...
"'I won't hire him. I won't support anything he's part of. Personally that's all I can do,' said one of the chairmen."
What we see here is naked hypocrisy. Traditional Christians must accept "art" that degrades the symbols of their Faith in the name of artistic freedom, but a film that upholds the Faith, to which the Hollywood elite objects, will cost you your career.
Gibson has scored a triumph in the culture war by telling The Greatest Story Ever Told with artistry and courage, while under a year-long attack by enemies whose hatred of the Gospel truths caused them to stumble and blunder themselves into laughable absurdity.
And there is an ancillary benefit. Because of the over-the-top attacks on Gibson, millions who see "The Passion" will also come to see the slur of "anti-Semite!" for what it has all too often become, an attempt to smear, silence, intimidate, ostracize and blacklist.