ON JESUS & MEL GIBSON'S "THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST"
I saw Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" on opening night in Sedona (2/25/2004). Having lived in Sedona for over 16 years, I have seen many movies at the local theaters. This, however, was the first time that I attended a movie where I was accosted, before and after the movie, by people handing out flyers about Jesus and pocket-sized copies of the New Testament.
Considering that Sedona has a reputation for being a hotbed of New Age ideas and spirituality, seeing so many "Christians" rallying at the local theater was something of a shock.
And so was the movie. I came hoping to see an inspiring portrayal of Christ's last hours, and left depressed and agitated. Not only had Gibson concocted an excessively violent, dogmatic, and uninformed portrait of Christ and his crucifixion, but he had driven dozens of long, rusty nails into my personal wounds around Jesus.
Yes, for those of you who may not know, Jesus has been a central part of my life. Early on, I met Jesus through a beloved grandmother who fervently watched Oral Roberts on TV and regularly hauled my little brother and I off to Sunday School at the local Baptist church. Later on, in junior high and high school, I met Catholic and Mormon versions of Jesus. And in college, I met the Jesus that lives in the Twilight Zone -- the Jesus of Sun Myung Moon, the Jesus of The Aquarian Gospel of Levi, the Jesus of The Masters of the Far East, the Jesus of space brothers, mediums, and psychics.
In the end, the Jesus that appealed to me most, was a composite Jesus: about 30 percent of him came from the New Testament; about 40 percent came from the psychic readings of Edgar Cayce; about 5 percent came from my own dreams and ponderings; and about 25 percent came from a hodge-podge of mystics like Brother Lawrence, saints like Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Francis, and Joan of Arc, Protestant rabble-rousers like Martin Luther and George Fox (the founder of the Quaker movement), Eastern masters like Yogananda, psychologists like Carl Jung and M. Scott Peck, and a host of Cayce-like psychics.
While I can laugh about it now, it was no laughing matter then. Cayce's apocalyptic earth changes were just about to hit the fan and the only sure way to survive the coming holocaust was to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Following after Jesus was also the best way to accomplish another important goal: to prepare the way for his imminent return. For me this meant reducing my worldly possessions to a backpack, living a celibate lifestyle, working for God, not money, in the hopes my meager financial needs would be met as miraculously as they had been for Jesus and his followers, sleeping outside, all year round, on beaches, in swamps, in forests, in churches, in abandoned houses, and spending lots of time praying, meditating, and paying close attention to my dreams. Conspicuously absent from my "following in the footsteps of Jesus regiment" were the kind of miracles that the Bible said were supposed to happen to Christ's followers (I didn't raise anyone from the dead, exorcise demons, or cure any blind or lame people). I also spent very little time feeding the poor and comforting the needy (mostly because I was the poorest person I knew, and also one of the neediest).
That didn't prevent me, however, from thinking I was following Jesus as closely as anyone I had ever met -- and encouraging those around me to get with the program. Sadly, I had a lot in common with the folks who were handing out flyers and Bibles at the Mel Gibson movie. In a word, I was clueless.
But like all visions that are not based on reality, my vision of Jesus eventually ran into trouble.
On the New Testament front, I began to learn how the New Testament was put together. Contrary to popular notions of infallibility, I learned that the New Testament didn't fall out of the sky engraved on stone tablets. Instead, it was put together by a messy, controversial, emotionally-charged process that spanned several hundred years. Here's a brief summary on how the New Testament was actually created:
To be perfectly clear on this point: a diverse, argumentative, and often politically motivated group of Christian men (women, as far as I know, were not included in the selection process) decided which books to include, and which books to leave out of the New Testament. They also decided what ideas to emphasize, what ideas to avoid, and how to silence those who refused to tow the party line. The Gnostic traditions4, for example, which focused on attaining a direct, personal experience of the Divine -- and painted Jesus as a person who lived and advocated this path -- got axed, ferociously, even though the early Christian church was full of Gnostic thought and practice.
The relatively homogenized version of the New Testament we have today is nothing like the wild west that emerged in the aftermath of Christ's death and reported resurrection. Moreover, none of the four Gospels that emerged as cornerstones of Christian faith, were written during the time of Jesus. Most scholars believe the earliest Gospel accounts were written 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus, by different people, with different perspectives. On some things they agree, on others they do not, and there are gaping holes in between. Some of the Gospels also borrowed large chunks of their material from each other and trace back to an as yet undiscovered Gospel (the Gospel Q). The books that ended up in the New Testament were also embellished and/or misreported by the authors and scribes who wrote them.
How much were they embellished and/or misreported?
The Jesus Seminar <http://www.westarinstitute.org/>, an organization made up of over 100 reputable scholars, including such renowned experts as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong5, estimate that 82 percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels probably were not spoken by him, including almost the entire Gospel of John. They came to this disturbing conclusion after reviewing 15,000 "parables, aphorisms, dialogues, and stories containing words attributed to Jesus" in the first three centuries of the Common Era.
Let me repeat that: 82 percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels probably were not spoken by him.
The events of Jesus' life, including the immaculate conception, the birth story, the miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection, are also hotly debated.
Assuming we are interested in knowing who Jesus really was, and what he really said and did, there are so many misconceptions and controversies whirling around Jesus that it is difficult to know what to believe -- let alone what to pass on to others as "the Gospel truth".
Which brings us back Gibson's movie.
Were the Jews as bloodthirsty as the movie (and the New Testament) make them out to be? In a recent interview with Dateline (February 20, 2004) <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4315203/>, Biblical scholar and best-selling religious scholar John Dominic Crossan, had this to say:
While Gibson has publicly stated that people who have trouble with the way he presents the Jews in his movie, are really having trouble with the way the story is told in the New Testament, the New Testament isn't the only source Gibson turned to for his movie. Another source is Catholic nun, mystic and stigmatist, Anne Catherine Emmerich. In an article posted on BeliefNet ("Hymn to a Savage God") <http://www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14099.html> Crossan explains:
Crossan is also unhappy with the way Gibson portrays Christ's scourging and crucifixion. Still referring to the visions of Sister Emmerich, Crossan writes:
Let's pause a moment and let this sink in: Gibson did not base his movie exclusively on the New Testament. He also included visions from nuns like Sister Emmerich and, reportedly, St. Mary of Agreda (see below for more information about these nuns and their visions).
Like it or not, much of our understanding of Jesus comes from visions (and other inner experiences). Beginning with the disciples and the Apostle Paul, and passing through the turbulent, vision-filled years of the early church, all the way to the present day, vast numbers of people have experienced visions of Jesus. While most of these visions have been fleeting -- they come and go in the blinking of an eye, some have been Hollywood-style productions that not only carried their visionaries off into the wild blue FOR YEARS, but also left thick volumes of written material for future generations to marvel over.
Since the current scriptural and historical record is such a mess, you'd think that these visions would tell us, once and for all, who Jesus was and what he really said and did. This, in fact, is what these visions often say is their purpose: to give the world a true record of the life, times, and teachings of Jesus. But in the end, they usually have the opposite affect. Far from clearing up the confusion, they add more mud to an already heavily polluted pond.
In my case, I was deeply affected by the visions of Jesus that came through the psychic readings of Edgar Cayce.
For those of you who may not know, the Jesus of Edgar Cayce does not magically appear, full blown, as a miracle-working Nazarene with supernatural powers. Instead, the soul that eventually becomes Jesus is the central figure of a much larger drama. He appears at the very beginning of human evolution, before humans show up on Earth. Then he incarnates as Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) and passes through 28 different incarnations, including such notable Old Testament personages as Joshua, Joseph, and Melchizedek. Finally, after having played instrumental roles in human history's most important events, he appears in Palestine as Jesus and becomes the first human to attain perfection.
Visions that constrain themselves to otherworldly and impossibly distant times and places are difficult to prove, or disapprove. If, however, they place themselves in historical times and places, they usually don't last long.
Cayce's worldview finally hung itself on elaborate tales of Atlantis, which came complete with flying machines, powerful crystals, and a secret Hall of Records. While the role that Jesus played in this time period was somewhat obscure (one reading suggested he designed and built the Great Pyramid), the time period itself was a central part of Cayce's worldview. According to Cayce, the fleeing remnants of the sinking continent of Atlantis were responsible for building the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The Great Pyramid, in turn, not only predicted when Christ would be born, but later served as the site of a special initiation that Jesus received with John the Baptist.
For me, the dominoes started falling when Mark Lehner, a University of Chicago-trained anthropologist who wrote a book championing Cayce's view on Atlantis and ancient Egypt <http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/lehner.htm>, went to Egypt to search for evidence that supported Cayce's views. Unable to find ANYTHING that supported Cayce's fanciful Atlantean tales, Lehner, who is regarded today as one of the world's foremost experts on the Sphinx and Giza Pyramids, ended up renouncing all mythologies (including Cayce's) that claimed other civilizations (from this planet and elsewhere) created the monuments of ancient Egypt.
While I no longer believe Cayce's story of Jesus, I wouldn't go so far to say that everything he said about Jesus was wrong. He is, in fact, credited with scoring significant hits on the Essenes and the possible relationship that Jesus and John the Baptist had to them. The height and weight that Cayce ascribed to Jesus also closely matches the image on the Shroud of Turin. (For more information about Cayce, Cayce's vision of Jesus, and my adventures with his work, see the links at the end of this article.)
Having investigated many other visionary-based worldviews that were as elaborate as Cayce's, I'm no longer surprised to see how wrong they are about human evolution, ancient history, apocalyptic predictions, or historical personages and events -- or how enthusiastically people embrace them. I wish human beings (including myself), were more discerning, and less susceptible to wild flights of fantasy, but we aren't. Instead, most of us seem to go through phases that mimic the one I went through. If we are growing and paying close attention, we eventually begin to notice inconsistencies in our chosen path. This, in turn, leads us into deeper waters where it becomes uncomfortably clear that no one -- not Jesus, not Buddha, not Lao Tse -- has all the answers. Instead, we come face to face with the realization that we are a newly emerging species that still has a great deal to learn about ourselves and the universe that surrounds us.
So who was Jesus? And what did he really say and do?
One thing we can be sure of: the Jesus of Mel Gibson (and other Christian fundamentalists) is not the Jesus that walked the Earth two thousand years ago. Nor are the cast of characters that these folks lift from the New Testament accurate representations of the historical personages they represent. Mary Magdalene, for example, was not a prostitute, nor is she referred to as one anywhere in the New Testament. This unsavory reputation was foisted on her in an Easter sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in the 5th century <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/insearchofjesus/message/69>. And Pontius Pilate, who is regarded as one of the vilest proconsuls Rome ever produced, was almost certainly not the tender, conscientious fellow Gibson portrays him to be <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12083c.htm>.
As for Jesus, the more I learn, the more I tend to believe that Jesus followed the same path that other religious figures before and after him did: beginning with an inspired message and some unusually high-powered healing abilities, he became a larger-than-life movie screen that billions of human beings could use to project their hopes and dreams on. If we were able to strip away all the personal and collective agendas that humankind has heaped on Jesus over the ages, I think we would probably find someone very much like ourselves -- someone who possessed special insights and gifts, but also wrestled with the same kind of human weaknesses and cultural ignorance and biases (ancient Jewish/Roman/Iron Age ignorance and biases in his case) that the rest of us do.
As Joseph Dillard, a PhD. and long-time friend who followed the same path I did in and out of the Cayce mythology, recently wrote:
That said, three things continue to haunt me about Jesus:
1. The message of Jesus (Love one another, forgive your enemies, do good to those who abuse you), including the way he boldly championed it in an ancient, narrow-minded culture that institutionally marginalized women, the sick, the poor, sinners, tax collectors and other borderline people, was truly revolutionary. It required guts, vision, and, in my opinion, a Herculean connection to something greater than himself. It also happened to change the world more dramatically than any other vision that has ever set foot on this planet.
2. Jesus continues to appear, both inwardly in the form of visions and voices, and outwardly in the form of flesh and blood bodies, to people all over the world. Assuming these encounters are accurately reported, are they produced by the minds of the people who experienced them, or has Jesus himself come a knocking? I tend to believe that these kinds of experiences are primarily produced by the minds of the people who report them, but I can't dismiss the possibility that Jesus, in some form, might also be involved.
3. Finally, there's the Shroud of Turin. Assuming it is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus, it bears witness to his existence, to his crucifixion, and to something remarkable happening after his death. In the final analysis, it is the Shroud of Turin, more than anything else, that prevents me from dismissing Jesus. In it, there is not only physical proof that Jesus lived, but that his life and teachings may well have some lasting significance above and beyond the other great teachers that have passed through this world.
(A side note: while the man pictured on the Shroud was brutally beaten and crucified very much like the New Testament says Jesus was, he was not beaten to a pulp like the Jesus in Gibson's movie. The nails were also driven through his wrists, not his hands, which is a common misconception perpetuated by the New Testament and uninformed Christian artists.)
A few years ago I joined with a close friend of mine (Robert Perry) and created a website that was dedicated to nailing down a lot of the issues I have outlined in this report <http://www.insearchofjesus.org/>. Our hope was to gather together information about Jesus from a wide variety of sources -- scriptural, historical, archeological, mystical, psychic, personal stories and encounters, even hoaxes and myths -- and see if greater insight would emerge. But after creating the website, and adding data to a few of the sections, I could go no further. The topic of Jesus was so overwhelming, so full of wildly differing perspectives and discouraging dead ends, that I couldn't see a way to solve the riddle through gathering information.
While the website (and a sister mailing list <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/insearchofjesus/>) continues to remain online, I've been looking for another way to tackle this exceedingly important topic. So far, lightning hasn't struck. But after watching Mel Gibson's movie, I felt an obligation to share with you what I have learned, as incomplete as it is, in the hopes that it might deepen the discussion.
Now it's your turn. Have you seen "The Passion of the Christ?" If so, what was your reaction? And what are your thoughts about what I've said in this report? If you will take the time to share your thoughts <firstname.lastname@example.org>, I will include them in a followup report...
CATHOLIC JESUS VISIONARIES:
OTHER JESUS VISIONARIES:
"Speak, Shining Stranger"
Book of Mormon:
NHNE SPECIAL REPORTS & ARTICLES:
Lost City of the Pyramid Builders (11/27/2001):
Builders' Village Found in Egypt (8/7/2002):
Special Report: Earth Changes & Millennium Fever:
Review of Scallion's Predictions for 1995
Shift Torpedoed by Author
Great Pyramid & the
Origins Challenged - Again
Cayce: An American Prophet:
Association for Research and Enlightenment:
Egypt Research Associates
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