U.S. News skims the surface

The cover copy for this week's U.S. News & World Report promises more than its reporters deliver, especially in the deck: "Searching for the truth between Mel Gibson and the Gospels." The deck implies that Gibson and the Gospels represent different extremes, and that U.S. News -- still so attached to its News You Can Use formula that it splashes a white-on-red Annual Career Guide banner atop the cover -- will sort it all out for us with businesslike efficiency. The cover story, by Jay Tolson and Linda Kulman, follows the familiar script from other coverage of Gibson's Passion of the Christ: It's a theological smackdown pitting Gibson, conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants against most Jews, liberal Catholics and all scholars.

The magazine shows less knowledge of the range of biblical scholars than Diane Sawyer's PrimeTime team, which at least found Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary and gave him token moments on screen. Consider this portion of a paragraph:

New Testament specialist Margaret Mitchell, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago and a Roman Catholic, worries that Gibson's movie, like all uncritical, ahistorical readings of the Gospels, will potentially "flatten what ought to be a curriculum for each generation of Christians to struggle with, including this strange fact of a religion starting in Judaism and then moving away from it."

A neat trick, that: Gibson's "uncritical" reading of the Gospels, which assumes they were written by eyewitnesses to the life of Christ, is "ahistorical." Is the scholarly consensus really that tidy? Only if a reporter's range of sources is as selective as U.S. News argues that Gibson was in his depiction of the Gospels' Passion narratives.

U.S. News columnist John Leo covers Gibson's film with a more even-handed criticism:

Gibson thinks that some critics came close to saying that a Christian is not allowed to film the Christian Scriptures as written (i.e., with the charge that some influential Jews wanted Jesus killed). He has a point. But Gibson's adherence to the literal text of the Bible is selective. He had no trouble inserting many things not found in the Scriptures (pretrial abuse of Jesus, Mary mopping up Jesus's blood, the vast extent of the scourging). However, he declined to tweak the script to reflect biblical and historical scholarship that points primarily to the Romans as those responsible for the Crucifixion. This is not a liberal plot or a political attempt to placate Jews. It is simply where the scholarship is, and has been, for some time. Early Christians were in no position to provoke the Roman conquerors by blaming them for killing Jesus. On the other hand, the first Christians were harassed by synagogue authorities and bitter that their fellow Jews were not accepting Jesus as the messiah.

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