There is much to recommend in the "Who Really Killed Jesus?" cover story in the Feb. 16 Newsweek. It contains a wealth of information and weaves together the major themes in this media storm. It's a fine essay. It isn't journalism, but it's a fine essay.
When I say it isn't journalism, here is what I mean. It is not American journalism as defined for a century or more. It is not an attempt to take a controversial story and give the reader an accurate representation of what the major players are saying on both sides.
Jon Meacham's essay quotes many people who defend The Passion of the Christ, including a wide variety of quotes from Mel Gibson. But when it comes to the heart of the article -- the wide swaths of scholarly material on the biblical and historical issues relevant to the debate -- the controversy goes away.
Poof. It's magic. There is no controversy. Apparently, all of the scholars who could speak to these bitterly contested issues are of one mind. They all agree with Meacham. Either that or anyone who disagreed with him or the scholars who guided his writing did not make it into the essay. (Newsweek describes Meacham as the perfect man to do this article, in part because he is "an observant Episcopalian." Alas, this is a term that covers everyone from rock-ribbed evangelicals to those who blend Christian worship with salutes to other gods.)
The article is packed with information that seems to come from nowhere. The basic building block of American journalism -- the "said so-and-so" attribution clause that lets the reader know the source -- is nowhere to be seen, when it comes to issues of faith, doctrine and history. It all comes from somewhere on high.
Thus, liberal Christian scholars do not debate conservative scholars. Reform Jews do not differ with Orthodox Jews. The stunningly complex and angry world of biblical scholarship, for some strange reason, has become a choir that sings in perfect unison. Anyone who reads widely on these issues is left wondering: What is all the controversy about?
Many conservative critics of the article will focus on this paragraph:
But the Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance. And the roots of Christian anti-Semitism lie in overly literal readings--which are, in fact, misreadings--of many New Testament texts.
However, another sweeping passage by Meacham -- focusing on the work of the Second Vatican Council -- is probably closer to his thesis:
The council went on to make another crucial point undercutting the use of Passion to fuel anti-Semitism, either in fact or in drama. "Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now," Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) says, "Christ underwent his passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation." And his mercy is not limited to those who confess the Christian faith. "The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion."
I have not seen this movie, but according to numerous friends who have, the first half of this paragraph is a crisp statement of Gibson's main theme -- that Jesus willingly gave up his life for all, to make salvation possible for all. Who really killed Jesus? All of humanity. Everyone in the theater audience. Everyone.
But it's the second half of the paragraph that fascinates me. Note the leap from issues of "salvation" to issues of "discrimination." Note the theological question left hanging, a question that divides liberal and conservative Catholics and many others. If the mercy of Christ is open to all, does that mean that all -- even those who reject the claims of Christ -- will find salvation?
Just asking. These are huge issues and very, very divisive.
But do not look for debates on such issues in this cover story. For Newsweek, these theological debates have all been settled. There is no need for journalism, in this case. There is no controversy -- only the anonymous voices of the good, smart, scholarly Christians who agree with Newsweek.