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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Hard Sayings

(Reprinted from the issue of October 9, 2003)

Capitol BldgDuring 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 New York Times.

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 countries.

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 supernaturalism.

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 liberalism.

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.”

Sinner that I am, I try to tell a few truths without compromise in SOBRANS, my little monthly. Get your free copy of my pamphlet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just subscribe, or renew your subscription, to SOBRANS for a year or more. Call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

We also have a few autographed copies of my book Hustler: The Clinton Legacy. Call the same number, or purchase it on-line.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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