An old evangelistic line holds the Bible as "the greatest book ever written," though many Brits gave that kudo - in a 1997 poll - to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."
Peter Jackson's movie version of Tolkien's Middle Earth epic is leaving the nation's screens, though it may get a reprise if what should happen does happen at the Oscars Sunday night. Mel Gibson's movie version of Christ's Passion opened Ash Wednesday across the land.
As with Jackson's effort, so with Gibson's: The puristic and the all-knowing have nits to pick. With Jackson, the movie is not easily comprehensible - all this business about Hobbits and orcs, good and evil, rings of power and walkin' talkin' trees. And, they say, some key things are left out and some included things are over- or under-emphasized.
With Gibson's movie, the complaints beyond the nits - the Marian centrality, the androgyny of Satan, and the seemingly sympathetic treatment of Pilate - reduce essentially to two: The movie is inexcusably violent and may fuel anti-Semitism.
Both are wrong.
The violence is extreme: "chastisement" (scourging), torture, beating, forced march with the burden of the cross, and spike-puncturing crucifixion. But it all has a reason beyond mere reality: Christ suffered hugely to bear the sins of all mankind - a heavy load indeed. An early scene shows Satan saying no man can do that. Jesus says this man, God's son, can. The movie bears him out.
Anti-Semitism? Hardly. As depicted, hardly are Jews more complicit in the killing of one of their own than anyone except perhaps his mother and the Simon who helps him carry the cross and desperately begs the centurions to lay off.
Yes, the Sanhedrin demands his crucifixion for the audacious blasphemy of contending he is the son of God; yes, for reprieve the Sanhedrin choose the murderer Barabbas over Jesus. But the Sanhedrin is no more responsible for the crucifixion than Herod for not caring, than Pilate for ultimately agreeing, than the Roman guards for nailing him up. They all are guilty, as we are - and that's a crucial point.
Gibson and Jackson were scrupulous in adhering to the texts of the books they cinematize. And regarding both, rare is the criticism that the movies are not - in essence - textually true. If Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" is difficult to understand, that difficulty goes to the book itself and so is reflected in the movie. If Gibson's "Passion" is equally perplexing, certainly it reflects not Scriptural distortion but textual perplexity debated for millennia.
Gibson's "Passion" (Jackson's "Lord of the Rings," too) contains no more reasoned violence than "Braveheart," than "Gladiator," than "Saving Private Ryan," than "Schindler's List" - all of them highly praised and awarded cinematic enterprises. Yet not even they received more praise than the mindless, needlessly violent movies that litter the cinematic landscape. Killing and raw violence too often win critical acclaim.
Why should that not be the case now? Why should any theatrically performed Passion win more approval than Gibson's movie version, when the graphic enormities achievable through film are factually justified? Why does Andy Rooney dismiss Gibson as a nut case? Why does The New York Times' Frank Rich write that Gibson is trying to "bait Jews and sow religious conflict"?
Because in a secularist hour Gibson's "Passion" is overtly Christian (and not much more so than "The Lord of the Rings")? Because this movie, backed for accuracy by the pope, may succeed in uniting the nation's 65 million Catholics with about an equal number of evangelicals in what could become the broadest spiritual crusade in America since the Great Awakening? Because Gibson's "Passion," directed by a schismatic Catholic, may provide Christianity with the most effective evangelizing tool it ever has possessed?
In a widely circulated essay, Albert Jay Nock wrote of "The Remnant" - the cohort that quietly understands, believes in the cause, and soldiers on. Gibson's "Passion" may speak to - maybe was made for - Nock's "remnant" there in a latter-day catacomb, and may swell its ranks.
Go see it and decide for yourself.