Brouhaha on Gibson

There is at least one upside to the brouhaha over Mel Gibson’s controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ": It has led to some serious probing of current Jewish-Christian relations and given many Jews a crash course in the varieties of Christian theology.

On Feb. 10, more than 750 Jews and Christians gathered in a Manhattan hotel to listen and participate in a debate between a rabbi and a messianic Jew on the question of who killed Jesus.

On the same evening in Los Angeles, a similarly mixed audience of approximately 400 at the University of Judaism (UJ) attended a more scholarly discussion on "Crucifying Jesus," ranging from the New Testament Gospels to contemporary interpretations and anxieties. The panel consisted of four academicians — three Christian, one Jewish — and if the Jews in the audience drew one lesson from the presentations it is of the diversity of views among Christians on the history and theology of their faith.

There are vast differences between denominations and between "radicals" and "conservatives" in the same church, said Dr. Kathryn Smith, who chairs the biblical studies department at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University. Besides not being monolithic, Christian views also change and evolve. "We are a theology in process," she said.

From the audience, UJ lecturer J. Shawn Landres put the case more graphically, observing, "Episcopalians, Mormons and Southern Baptists have even less in common than Reform Jews and Chabadniks."

The different views of Jesus’ life and teachings are already apparent in the four Gospels of the New Testament by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, from which Gibson supposedly drew for his film. The Gospels are not history, and there are large variations among them, said professor Gary Gilbert, the lone Jew on the panel, who teaches a course on Jesus at Claremont-McKenna College.

"We don’t even know whether Jesus was actually crucified," he said, adding, "There was no Jew more frum [religious] than Jesus."

For their indictment of Jewish culpability, two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and John, drew heavily on the pronouncements of the ancient prophets of Israel, who scourged their people for their sinfulness and shortcomings, observed Smith.

One panelist who had actually seen "The Passion of the Christ" was professor Jeffrey Siker, who heads the theological studies department at Loyola Marymount University.

"The film is not directly anti-Jewish," he said. "It reflects Gibson’s highly personal testimony that Jesus, in dying for the sins of mankind, saved him [Gibson] as a sinner."

Siker likened Gibson’s perspective to a T-shirt he saw, with a picture of a bloodied Jesus on the front and on the back the words "His Pain, Your Gain."

Professor John K. Roth, a prominent Holocaust scholar at Claremont-McKenna College, testified to his own deep Christian faith. At the same time, he acknowledged that while the Holocaust could not be solely blamed on Christianity, it was a "necessary condition" for the tragedy of the Shoah.

All the speakers agreed that Jesus was put to death primarily as a political rebel who threatened the political stability of Roman rule, although the leading Jewish priests, who owed their jobs to the Romans, encouraged Pontius Pilate’s decree. The panelists also agreed with a questioner that while the film would hardly inflame scholars of Christianity, the impact might be quite different on the man in the European or Arab street.

Professor Michael Berenbaum, director of the UJ’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which sponsored the event, added a provocative thought from the perspective of a Jewish historian. One or two centuries from now, he said, Jewish scholars might well look back on their people’s fate in the 20th century and see in it an analogy to Jesus’ progression from crucifixion to resurrection.

The final word came from Landres, who currently teaches the first course at the UJ on the theology and history of Christianity.

He has prepared a list of 10 dos and don’ts to guide Jewish responses to the issues raised by Gibson’s film, which opens Feb. 25.

The first "commandment" reads: "Do what Jews do best. Study the sources. Read the Gospels for yourself, as well as Paul’s letters, especially his letter to the Romans."

Another is, "Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and the Jewish people, but do not be surprised if Christians wish to do the same for their faith."

And finally, the shortest and perhaps most practical suggestion of all is: "Don’t forget that it isn’t always about the Jews."

Vigil Points to Interfaith Inroads

With Chanukah bracketed by major Christian and Muslim celebrations, last month might have been a propitious time to find common ground between the Abrahamic faiths.

Instead, a pair of incidents occurring within days of each other reveals the breadth of the cultural divide.

Prompted by recent car bombings of two synagogues in Turkey and a mosque in India, local leaders of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths came together for a vigil on Dec. 7 to publicly condemn such acts of violence as "nothing less than vicious murders."

"The Muslim community unequivocally condemns such discriminate and indiscriminate acts of violence against any innocent human being," said Mohannad Molos, a director of the Orange County Islamic Foundation, known as the Mission Viejo mosque, reading a statement that represented 70 Islamic centers in Southern California.

"This is truly a breakthrough moment in local interfaith relations, for to condemn terrorists who kill Jews in synagogues is perceived by Muslim militants as being comparable to treason," said Rabbi Allen Krause, of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El in a message to congregants. "It’s not an easy thing to do."

Even so, the courageous clerics were all but eclipsed by the controversy over an Irvine flag football tournament for young Islamic men with team names such as Intifada, Soldiers of Allah and Mujahideen.

The 29-year-old organizer, Tarek Shawky, conceded the names were chosen without "much forethought" to serve "as a positive source of team pride." Organizers maintain that "intifada," for example, means the universal struggle against oppression, despite its use by various Palestinian groups that promote suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

Jewish leaders said the names showed cultural insensitivity that risked inciting harmful activity.

"This is taking a political situation that’s explosive and bringing it to the parks of Irvine," said Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Costa Mesa.

Legally, the city lacks the authority to bar the tournament, Greenspan said. She likened the situation to professional and college teams that dropped names such as Warriors and Crusaders without a threat of legal action but under heightened pressure over cultural awareness.

A similar explanation came from Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who fielded a call from an angry resident decrying the team names as "hate speech" on public lands.

"There is a moral issue here, not a legal one," said the constituent, who asked not to be identified. "He’s hiding behind political correctness."

Whether the intent was provocative or an instance of jock bravado, "I suspect that many local Muslims are embarrassed by the situation and wish they could exert more influence on the young people involved," Krause said.

The team names are a vivid reminder of the cultural blinders that keep faiths isolated despite their similarities.

The public condemnation against recent bombings of religious centers by leaders of Orange County’s Islamic community grew out of interfaith work begun in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We perceive ourselves as serving the community and doing humanitarian efforts," said Molos, of the Mission Viejo mosque, which has about 2,000 members. Last spring, congregants from the mosque, Beth El and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach raised a house together in Mexico. The priest and the rabbi recently urged the imam to be more visible opposing acts of violence by Islamic radicals.

"We never viewed our function as doing that," Molos said, leaving public statements about world events to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which maintains a local office in Anaheim. "We felt that was enough."

There is a growing recognition now of the importance of public advocacy, Molos said, noting that the young Muslim community made up of immigrants has been preoccupied with achieving economic certainty. "This is like the Mexican community, focused on putting food on the table," he said.

The Rev. Will Crist, of St. Mary’s, said "Sept. 11 not only knocked down some buildings." It also revealed "our ignorance of people who live around the corner from each other."

He described a conversation between the religious leaders about a scriptural passage that took place at a Laguna Beach restaurant. In the passage, Jesus replies to a question about the most important commandment, saying "to love thy neighbor." "That is as good as a summation of the Quran," said one of the Muslims present.

"We knew we had found a common mountain top," Crist said.

"We’re here to mourn a tragic loss," he continued, "but the greatest leverage we have is here with each other; we become a community.

"We can do this in Southern California," Crist said, "to turn swords into plowshares and live in peace."

Perhaps the next interfaith dialog should take place on the gridiron.

The American-Muslim Experience, a panel discussion featuring five leaders from the local Muslim community, in a panel discussion with Rabbi Arnold Rachlis and the Rev. Fred Plumer of Irvine United Church of Christ, will take place Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m. at University Synagogue in Irvine.

‘Girl Meets God’ — Again and Again

“Girl Meets God: On the Path to Spiritual Life” by Lauren Winner (Algonquin Books, $23.95).

Lauren Winner’s spiritual memoir, “Girl Meets God,” is a passionate and thoroughly engaging account of a continuing spiritual journey within two profoundly different faiths.

Winner, the child of a Reform Jewish father and a “lapsed Southern Baptist” mother, was raised as a Jew in the South. Told she was not really Jewish, since Jewish law dictates that Judaism passes through the blood of the mother, she chose to convert to Orthodox Judaism at the end of high school, following her parents’ divorce. By the end of her senior year at college, she decided that while in graduate school in England she would convert again, this time to evangelical Christianity.

One of the fascinating things about “Girl Meets God,” beyond the seismic shifts in Winner’s affiliation, is the degree to which faith and practice have formed the underpinnings of her life. As a teenager, Winner immersed herself in the activities of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va. She “traded in lacrosse practice and ballet lessons and field hockey sticks, awkward dates at the movie theater and Friday night football games and many other normal teenage activities for more hours, more afternoons and weekend at the synagogue.” As a college student, now an Orthodox Jew, she was drawn to Christianity through diligent study, constant questioning and careful, nearly obsessive attention to spiritual teachings.

She explains herself in this way: “What draws me to a religion is the beliefs, the theologies, the books, the incantations, the recipes to get to God, and I like to imagine that they work in the abstract, that they are enough, that they exist, somewhere, pure and distinct from the people who enact them.”

The great strength of “Girl Meets God,” though, is not purity of theology but force of personality. Winner is insatiable, and dauntless, in her search for religious truth, at whatever personal cost. The sheer energy of her quest, combined with her refreshing honesty and flashes of wild humor, give her story its edge. The book follows the arc of a liturgical year, opening with Sukkot in the fall, and then dividing into sections named according to the ecclesiastical calendar — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Eastertide — with subchapters, some only a page or two, on varying topics. There are commentaries on subjects like “Family Reunions” and “The Bible I Use,” the author’s reading of the Book of Ruth and a discussion of the similarities between Christian and Jewish festivals. Yet, Winner’s thinking is so wide-ranging, in scope and in time, that the organizing principle seems imposed, almost too decorative.

Early on, she refers to her increasing love for Jesus in terms of marital infidelity, and compares her abandonment of Judaism to a wrenching divorce that has caused her to lose friends and distress family members. She does not deviate from her path, though, once converted to Christianity for good by a powerful dream. “I knew, as soon as I woke up, that the dream came from God and it was about the reality of Jesus,” she writes. “The truth of Him. That He was a person whose pronouns you had to capitalize. That He was God. I knew that with more certainty than I have ever known anything else.”

The book is, in fact, a curious mixture of certainty and searching, from beginning to end. Nor is it clear even at the end that Winner’s journey is over. Having given away her entire collection of Jewish books at the time of her second conversion, Lauren later finds herself buying the old familiar texts again, missing Judaism and rebuilding her library even as she works to build and sustain her Christian life. “Now I am reading Ruth again,” she writes. “I find I am reading her differently. Ruth is still my favorite. Not because she is a convert, but because she is a bridge, genealogically and literally, to Jesus.

“It is no surprise, I guess, that I read Ruth differently than I used to. All the stories look different, through Christian glasses.”

Skeptical friends have suggested that Winner may convert again, perhaps becoming a Buddhist next time. She insists that she will remain a Christian, albeit one who has been formed and trained by Judaism. “Judaism and Christianity have something to do with each other,” she writes. “Judaism and Christianity make a path.” Most readers of this thoughtful and highly entertaining book will be moved by her journey.

Reeve Lindbergh has written “No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh” (Simon & Schuster, 2001) and “On Morning Wings” (Candlewick Press, 2002) an adaptation of the 139th Psalm for children.