Hard Sayings

     During the uproar over Mel Gibson's film THE 
PASSION, another movie based on the Gospels has just been 
released, almost unnoticed: THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, financed 
by Bible Visual International Inc., a "faith-based media 
company" that plans to film all the books of the Bible.

     JOHN is being released chiefly in Southern states, 
but not in New York and Los Angeles, where a hostile 
reception was apparently feared. The producers tactfully 
played down the passages that were most likely to have 
incurred the charges of anti-Semitism that Gibson's film 
has been dogged by.

     "It's probably the issue that we spent the greatest 
amount of time as an advisory committee discussing," Dr. 
Peter Richardson, a consultant to the producers, told THE 

     Rabbi Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League, a 
harsh critic of Gibson who has also seen JOHN, says of 
the latter: "It's difficult and some of it is offensive, 
but that's the GOSPEL OF JOHN."

     Indeed. All the Gospels, ACTS, and the Epistles of 
St. Paul have been accused of anti-Semitism; a filmstrip 
shown at the taxpayer-funded U.S. Holocaust Museum (and 
eventually removed after Christians protested) blamed the 
Gospels for the rise of anti-Semitism.

     Modern Christians may like the sentimental (and 
wholly recent) notion of a "Judaeo-Christian tradition," 
but nothing could be more false to history than the idea 
that Judaism and Christianity are kindred religions whose 
differences are trivial. To say so trivializes Christ 
Himself. He insisted on His own primacy and authority. 
His claims shocked the Jews, although -- and because -- 
He was Himself a Jew.

     Both Jews and Christians recognized from the start 
that the two religions were, despite their common root, 
incompatible. The Gospels and ACTS record the opposition 
of the Jews and the Christians' fear of them. The Jews 
encouraged the Roman persecution of Christianity; the 
Talmud itself contains insults of Christ and the Blessed 
Virgin. When Christianity finally became the official 
religion of the Roman Empire, Christians continued to 
regard the Jews as their adversaries. It's a bitter 
history, and there is no use pretending otherwise.

     This should be no surprise. The Prince of Peace said 
that He brought not peace, but a sword. He predicted His 
own death and warned the disciples that they must take up 
the cross and prepare to suffer for His name's sake. He 
is still a "sign of contradiction." Countless Christians 
were martyred in the 20th century, though most American 
Christians are barely aware of that fact, or of the 
continuing suffering of Christians from Africa to Korea.

     Christ taught us to interpret even the Hebrew 
Scriptures in an entirely new way, as prefiguring 
Himself, from GENESIS onward. So even the holy books Jews 
and Christians share have radically different meanings 
for the two religions. Compared with these differences, 
liberal and conservative differences over, say, the U.S. 
Constitution are minor.

     Differences long submerged between the two religions 
have now come back into the open in popular culture. The 
furors over issues like school prayer, the Christian 
right, and movies about Christ illustrate how potent the 
ancient enmities still remain even in seemingly civilized 

     The old Jewish-Christian division is by now only 
part of a far more complicated picture. Christians are 
being driven out of the Holy Land by both Jewish and 
Muslim antagonism; the huge Muslim world didn't even 
exist in biblical times. In addition, Christendom has 
been split and nearly atomized by heresy and apostasy; 
American Protestants (President Bush is rather typical) 
are now largely allied with pro-Israel Jews and 
indifferent to the plight of Palestinian Christians.

     The whole situation would be even grimmer if not for 
the genuine goodwill of many people, Christian, Jewish, 
and Muslim.


     There is a special irony about this new movie. The 
GOSPEL OF JOHN is often called anti-Semitic, but it might 
also be called anti-Protestant. Its sixth chapter relates 
that many of Christ's disciples fell away when He 
proclaimed the essential Catholic doctrine of the 
Eucharist: "Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man 
and drink His Blood, you have no life in you." Some of 
His listeners responded: "This is a hard saying; who can 
accept it?"

     I wonder if this scene is in the film; somehow I 
doubt it. If Christ's words had been figurative, they 
would hardly have been a "hard saying." He could easily 
have explained that he was only using a metaphor, if that 
had been the case; then the doubters could have said, 
with relief, "Good! For a moment there we thought you 
meant it literally!" And the incident would hardly have 
been worth recording. But the passage obviously 
underlines the meaning of the climactic words of the Last 
Supper: "This is my Body ... This is my Blood."

Editing the Gospels

     Catholics are still taunted as cannibals for 
believing literally in this hard saying, which is at the 
very heart of the Church. Garry Wills, one of the leading 
liberal Catholic writers in America today, has done his 
eloquent best to reduce the Eucharist to a mere symbol, 
and one of his recent books is titled WHY I AM A 
CATHOLIC; but given his rejection of papal authority and 
the priesthood, one wonders why he even bothers calling 
himself a Catholic.

     It isn't only the Catholic reader who says this; the 
atheist philosopher Richard Rorty, praising Wills's other 
recent book on the Church, PAPAL SIN, expressed both his 
warm general agreement and his puzzlement that Wills 
should continue adhering to a Church whose essential 
doctrines he rejects.

     To me these doubters appear as unwilling witnesses 
for the Church. After two millennia, Christ's words still 
have their original power to trouble us. We are still 
tempted to explain them away, to make them easy to 
accept, to reduce divine mystery to prosaic reason.

     One way and another, the world still wants to edit 
the Gospels, to purge them of "offensive" material, 
whether the supposed offense is anti-Semitism or 

     The Enlightenment rationalist Thomas Jefferson did 
actually edit the Gospels, pruning out the miracles and 
leaving only what he considered edifying moral wisdom; 
today the Jesus Seminar does the same thing, eliminating 
the hard sayings it finds uncongenial to modern 

     But what all these editors wind up producing is 
Christianity for the complacent; which is not 
Christianity at all. We have to take the Gospels whole. 
The hard sayings are of the essence. Those who eliminate 
the disturbing words eventually eliminate the supremely 
joyous words: "He is risen."

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