GIBSON, ANTI-SEMITISM & BISHOPS
One of my fellow editors sent me a ZENIT news service story (dated May 30) about the new Mel Gibson film about Christ's Passion that will be released sometime next spring. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver wrote a column defending the movie against its critics. Apparently a Catholic bishops committee has weighed in against the film, which hasn't even been screened yet. ZENIT reports:
[Chaput's] column follows on the heels of a string of recent attacks on Gibson's film, culminating in an 18-page report of an ad hoc committee of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs criticizing the script of the movie.
The ad hoc scholar's group that produced the report was assembled by Eugene Fisher of the bishops' conference and Rabbi Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League, and comprised a mix of nine Jewish and Christian academics. One of the signers, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University describes herself as "a Yankee Jewish feminist ... with a commitment to exposing and expunging anti-Jewish, sexist and heterosexist theologies."
The group's report, dated May 2, criticized everything from the size of the cross used for the crucifixion scene, to the languages spoken, to poor character development. The document's central complaint, however, is that "a graphic movie presentation of the crucifixion could reawaken the very anti-Semitic attitudes that we have devoted our careers to combating."
The report takes issue with director Gibson's decision to focus on Christ's passion rather than presenting a broader vision of "the ministry of Jesus, of his preaching and teaching about God's reign, his distinctive table companionship, his mediation of God's gracious mercy."
The report furthermore disapproves of the film's treatment of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' passion as historical facts. According to the signers, Gibson disregards exegetical theories that the Evangelists' accounts represent later efforts of the Christian community to "shift responsibility from Pilate onto Jewish figures," and accuses the script of utilizing the four distinct passion narratives "without regard for their apologetic and polemical features."
Yet Gibson has recently received support from the Jewish sector as well.
Writing in the New York Jewish weekly Forward, Orthodox Jewish author David Klinghoffer defended Gibson's efforts and chided his co-religionists for adhering to the historically dubious account of Jesus' death handed down by Jewish officialdom.
Such an account absolves the Jews from complicity in Jesus' death and places the blame on the shoulders of the Romans. "Our loyalty should be to Judaism and to truth," Klinghoffer writes, "not to an officially sanctioned, sanitized version of Judaism or the truth -- which may be neither Jewish nor true."
To listen to the bishops' committee report, one would think that reading the Gospels and portraying the story is an act of complicity in the sin of anti-Semitism. And, really, a report written in collaboration with someone who has "a commitment to exposing and expunging anti-Jewish, sexist and heterosexist theologies"? Given that last item, it would seem that Ms. Levine's next target might be exposing the bishops' commitment to the "heterosexist" theology of the Catholic Church.
Surprising to me at least, is Newsweek's cover story, Should a Fetus Have Rights? What surprises me is that the issue is even on the table at all. But the Laci and Conner Peterson murder case in California has focused the issue on the moral status of the fetus. There are a number of articles in the cover story section, including a pro/con section with Hadley Arkes and Bonnie Steinbock, the latter taking up the "pro-choice" view. Even Prof. Steinbock says this:
The reason viability seems morally important is that the more developed the fetus gets, the later in gestation it is, the more it's like a newborn baby-and the more it seems to deserve our protection. Which is why the Supreme Court said that states could prohibit abortions after viability.
That last bit surprises me: I know it's in the text of Roe V. Wade, but for all practical purposes the law seems to be abortion on demand at all stages. The supposed prohibitions in the last trimester have all sorts of loopholes, so that the end result is that abortion is unrestricted right up to the moment of birth. A Nebraska law prohibiting partial-birth abortion (after viability) was struck down, so what recognized rights do the states have for prohibiting abortions? The "right to abortion" effectively has been defended by many as an absolute right. Even U.S. Senators of alleged Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox persuasion have voted against a ban on partial birth abortion.
I think what is happening is that pro-choicers are having a very hard time defending the assault against the innocent unborn in the light recent medical and scientific advances (e.g. much-improve sonograms showing in great details the intricate feature of the child in the womb). Newsweek includes a follow up story of the young boy who at the age of 21 weeks in the womb was photographed grasping the finger of the surgeon who was about to operate on him. The photo is remarkable and was sent all around the internet about 3 years ago. It is increasingly difficult to defend killing these young viable babies even to the average citizen. What the pro-choicers are being forced to do is pretend that all along restrictions during the 3rd trimester have been available to the states, even if they themselves have been in the forefront pushing for no restrictions. Is it possible we may see a growing movement against Roe v. Wade?
WHAT GODS HAVE WROUGHT
In Why Gods Should Matter in Social Science in the Chronicle of Higher Education, sociologist Rodney Stark takes on the question of the relationship between morals, rituals, and the images of God in various cultures. It's a long article well worth reading.
So then, let us finally be done with the claim that religion is all about ritual. Gods are the fundamental feature of religions. That holds even for Godless religions, their lack of Gods explaining the inability of such faiths to attract substantial followings. Moreover, it was not the "wisdom of the East" that gave rise to science, nor did Zen meditation turn people's hearts against slavery. By the same token, science was not the work of Western secularists or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God. And it was faith in the goodness of that same God and in the mission of Jesus that led other devout Christians to end slavery, first in medieval Europe and then again in the New World.
In those ways at least, Western civilization really was God-given.
Rodney Stark is a professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington. His article is adapted from For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, to be published this month by Princeton University Press. It sounds like a book worth getting.
Touchstone published an interview with Dr. Stark in Jan/Feb 2000, and a review of his provocative book, The Rise of Christianity.
WHAT COMES WITH FREEDOM?
With the winning of the War in Iraq against Saddam Hussein comes the problem of what to do with new freedoms. In this story in the London Times the situation is described:
With the Iraqi judicial system still in chaos, mosques have been setting up Islamic courts. Alcohol-sellers, distilleries, brothels, music shops and cinemas have all been targeted either by "advice" from religious leaders, or violence from extremists.
Until the war, Allaa Records, in a heavily Shia district of Baghdad, used to sell Western music and kept a small secret stock of Islamic songs banned by Saddam. After the regime's fall, a painted banner appeared outside the shop, declaring: "Please will owners of record shops stop selling music that is bad for Muslims, and change their music to that permitted for Islam."
It was signed by the Hawza school of Islam, a powerful sect that runs the local al-Khardum mosque. Allaa Salim, the record shop's owner, felt that he had little choice: "We stopped selling foreign songs, and now we just sell Islamic songs. All the music shops around here have changed," he said, also clearly frightened of the religious authorities.
While the track record of Islamic regimes on certain human rights is, umm, spotty, to say the least, one can sympathize with those who would prefer not to see pornography peddled next to the candy counter, or anywhere for that matter. Must freedom and democracy always mean pornography, smut, and assaults upon humane sensibilities? What sort of freedom of speech means that I must see an 40-foot image of a barely clad female looking at me whenever I drive down a certain highway? Must my 12-year-old son see women constantly portrayed as sex objects outside, in stores, on sports programs, in ads? Doesn't anyone think that such portrayals do harm in the long run and that the public might have a slight interest in thinking about curbing things offensive and degrading? If a society loses its ability to draw lines against degrading messages, won't it eventually become degraded?
Regular readers may have wondered why the number of entries went down the last two weeks or so. We haven't written as much because several of us were away the last two long weekends.
First, several of the editors and staff went to the celebration of the centenary of Malcolm Muggeridge's birth, held at Wheaton College two weekends ago. Wheaton's library has many of his papers and offered this conference with the help of the Muggeridge family, particularly his niece Sally. Touchstone was one of the conference's sponsors.
The two evening addresses (given on Thursday and Friday nights) were given by two men who had known Muggeridge, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Thomas Howard. The papers given during the day Friday were offered by members of the family, including Muggeridge's son John (a funny and moving memoir of his father), several people who had known and worked with him, his biographer Gregory Wolfe, and others, including me.
My paper looked at his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time as an example of a subtle but effective apologetic for the Christian faith. In the same session, a young scholar, Adam Schwartz of Christendom College, spoke on Muggeridge's social thinking and the journalist David Virtue told stories of his friendship with Muggeridge in the sixties.
We hope to run some of the papers in the December issue. Sally Muggeridge has offered us one or two uncollected articles of Muggeridge's as well.
For links to several articles on Muggeridge, see this blog and also this blog.
Second, the editor Jim Kushiner and the senior editors were away last weekend at our spring meeting. It ran from Thursday lunch to early Saturday afternoon, and we were all able to find cheapo flights home on Saturday, which hardly ever happens.
We made some changes in the staff of the magazine, which will be announced in due course, and worked on the next several issues, evaluated articles people had submitted, discussed people we'd like to have write for us or join the editorial board, and the like. We will be asking another Protestant to join us as a senior editor - that is, a member of the group that runs the magazine - to help ensure a balance in our ecumenical enterprise. We try to be sensitive to each other's particular concerns, but it is obviously best to have people who will naturally see things even the most sensitive outsider will miss.
A friend sent me an article by an Evangelical Episcopalian that reviewed the division within the Episcopal Church between the advocates of sodomy and their conservative opponents. The division may come to a point at this summer's General Convention. Or may not, given the ability of Episcopal politicians to craft compromises that let both sides claim to have won the battle but not the war- and thus to raise more money from their supporters.
For those of you who don't know, GenCon is the triannual meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops and House of Deputies, which makes the law and decides the doctrine for the Episcopal Church. Both bodies are dominated by liberals but many of those liberals, especially among the bishops, are cautious liberals. I covered the last five from the press gallery.
The article concluded:
In short, we're still stuck with each other. As much as we're tempted to demonize our opponents, we still find ourselves in the same denomination, the same diocese and often even the same parish. Much like the residents of Al Gore's Blue America and President Bush's Red America, we occupy the same land, frequently are baffled by our ideological opposites and yet feel a curious kinship and love for them. As we approach General Convention and as we live in its aftermath, let us resolve to treat each other with the kindness and compassion we want for ourselves.
Before I comment on this, let me disentangle the logic here. (And mention that the phrase should have been "kinship with and love for them.")
The last sentence is true, of course, being the Golden Rule, but that is not what the writer is actually arguing for. It is a platitude offered for rhetorical effect, but a platitude that distorts the argument and makes it seem obviously true.
What the writer is really arguing for, as shown by the first three sentences, is not treating his opponents with kindness, but staying with them no matter what. He is arguing for an ecclesiology in which Episcopalians are "stuck with each other" no matter how thoroughly one group assaults everything Christian. Can you imagine St. Paul asking for such an accomodation with behavior he described as he did in Romans 1:18-32?
Another friend argued that the problem with the article was
the absolute and total lack of any ecclesiological consciousness whatsoever. This can, it seems to me, be attributed more to the sentimental individualism of modern American Evangelicalism (itself part of the baleful influence of Rousseau in the modern world), than to the theological stance of the English reformers.
Well, perhaps, but the encounter with apostasy ought to drive one to think ecclesiologically. It's the natural thing to do. A morally and theologically sensitive Christian will ask "What should I do with these people? Shouldn't I get away from them?" and if he is as biblically literate as the Evangelical claims to be will remember all those warnings about being yoked with the apostates.
What the Christian won't do is blandly announce "We're stuck with each other," because he obviously isn't stuck with people who toss out the Scriptures. Nothing stops him from breaking with them. He won't say "we still find ourselves in the same denomination," as if he could not quite easily find himself somewhere else. Nothing stops him from finding his way to a new denomination. It's the fatalism of this argument and its assumption that theological differences should not lead to practical divisions that astounds me.
Remember, Anglicanism began in a break from the Catholic Church over differences rather smaller than those that divide conservatives like the writer from the moral innovators he opposes. I don't remember Thomas Cranmer looking at the pope and saying "He believes in Purgatory and indulgences and prayer to the saints and lots of other things I think God despises, but we're stuck with each other, and anyway, I feel a curious kinship with the old guy." There wouldn't be an Episcopal Church if the leaders of the Church in England had thought like this writer, but he presumably is glad they did not think like him.
In other words, the absence of ecclesiological consciousness is not necessarily innocent, because it seems to require a degree of willful refusal to face the obvious questions. As I said, the Christian should ask these questions automatically.
This is what people do, when asked to accept something wicked. Would any one of those who say things like "We're stuck with each other" stay in a club when he found out that a lot of the members, including the leaders, were neo-nazis? Would he stay even at a family reunion if half the family started toasting Hitler? Would he claim a curious kinship with and love for advocates of the Holocaust?
No, of course not. Neither should conservative Episcopalians speak like that of people who wage war against the Christian moral tradition and promote lives that kill the soul and sometimes the body.
I think, by the way, that a believing Protestant can make a good argument for remaining in a mainline/oldline denomination in as bad a shape as the Episcopal Church, but it is not the fatalistic one the writer offered. It requires you to believe that you have been called to serve particular people in a particular place and that you have not been called elsewhere, but also to fight liberalism with every weapon you have and never, ever, support it.
You will not let apostate bishops into your parish to preach and confirm, send no money to the budgets of liberal dioceses, cut no deals with the liberals to get a little peace and quiet. You'll probably get kicked out for this, of course.
A REVIEWER'S EXPERIENCE:
Our contributing editor and Dallas Morning News writer Rod Dreher just wrote me in response to my blog "Parental Guidance Required". In it I remarked of the movie The Matrix: Reloaded that
As you might expect, no one thought to warn the viewers that the movie included a scene guaranteed - and calculated? - to put stimulating images into the minds of the testosterone-poisoned teenage boys to whom the movie appeals.
This brought to mind one of my pet peeves when I was a newspaper film critic, which was this: film critics are disconnected from their readers to an astonishing degree. This is true in a number of ways, but one in particular - probably the most important one - is suggested by your comment.
Most critics honestly don't understand how morally offensive and corrosive the content of most films are to the general viewer, especially viewers who are parents, and who will be making decisions about whether or not to let their kids watch a film in question. From my experience, the cluelessness of film reviewers comes honestly. They have to see so many films each year that they lose their sense of discernment, and ability to be shocked.
When I was chief film critic for the New York Post, I saw eight to ten movies each week. Every now and then, I'd take my wife with me to a screening, and I found she was often disturbed by filmic content that barely registered with me. I thought then that she was too sensitive, but after I quit reviewing movies for a living, I found that I reverted to "normal," and was far more easily appalled by the kinds of things that I had taken in before without really noticing. And believe me, I had the reputation among my colleagues of being just shy of prudish!
It is entirely believable to me that most critics who wrote about The Matrix: Reloaded wouldn't have thought to mention the sex scene as a possible point of concern. I remember being at the Toronto Film Festival for the first-ever screening of Todd Solondz' extremely dark comedy Happiness.
I watched with increasing anxiety and repulsion as the transgressive scenes piled up. The worst was a long sequence involving a pedophile trying to drug his son's young playmate so he could rape the child (he succeeded).
The scene was played for comedy, and it impressed critics, some of whom noted how skillful the director was to manipulate the audience into laughing at something that ought to horrify us, and indeed into rooting for a villain against our instincts. In other words, they saw this as entirely an aesthetic phenomenon. Solondz got a standing ovation at the end.
I was so disgusted I had to leave the theater. I ran into a single critic, the guy from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in the lobby. He felt as violated as I did. Everyone else I ran into thought it a masterpiece.
Most of the time this failure to level with one's readership is honest. But not always. I recall arguing with a smart critic from a major American newspaper about Happiness, which he loved. I said to him at one point that he ought to have at least been straightforward with his readers in his four-star review, that people ought to have been given a much more clear idea of what to expect when they paid their money for a ticket to this thing.
I'll never forget his answer: "But then they wouldn't have wanted to see it."