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Passion's pilgrim

As the debate about a major new movie intensifies, here's a story

ONE OF THE JOYS OF THIS MADDENING AND beautiful life God gives us is the people we meet. At a book event a few years ago, I met a fellow author who lives in Australia. That's interesting in itself, but so is her background.

Her father is a native of France and her mother is French by extraction, born in Indonesia. Growing up French in an Anglo culture, with English as a second language, Sophie had ample opportunity to absorb contrasts. Her parents were a study in contrasts, as many parents are: her mother cool and rational, her father emotional and passionate. Sophie recalls how, when he suspected one of his children of telling a lie, he would stand the child in front of an icon of Jesus and say, "Now look at Him and repeat what you said." Her mother could just look at a suspect and decide for herself if the truth was not in him.

Both parents were committed traditional Catholics, devastated when Vatican II introduced the non-Latin Mass. In their view the Council showed an appalling lack of regard for loyal parishioners and for orthodoxy itself, caving in "to a world that only sought its destruction," as Sophie put it. The decisions of a group of churchmen in Rome wrought mortifying changes in the life of a girl in Australia-first the embarrassment of her father's arguments with the local clergy, which led to the nuns at her school branding her as the child of heretics.

Finally, one Sunday, her parents took the family to a "renegade" church that met in the stark, unhallowed confines of a community hall many miles from home, where a defiant priest conducted Mass in Latin. To Sophie it was like being chained and dragged back to the Middle Ages. Rebellion was fine (this was the '70s after all), but not tagging unwillingly behind your parents' rebellion.

Before long they were committed to the Latin Mass Society, a collection of families bound by nothing but their devotion to the discarded heart of their beloved church. Her father even volunteered to be treasurer. The secretary of the organization was another stormy temperament: Hutton Gibson, a transplanted Irish-American. The two men argued violently, with equal passion-sometimes on the same side of an issue, sometimes not. Religion was no trifling matter for either of them.

At that age, Sophie recoiled from her father's "dark, difficult" Jesus-the icon with the penetrating eyes that always knew if she was telling a lie. At home in her room she would draw pictures of a Messiah more to her taste: gentle and accepting, long-haired, blue-eyed and (not incidentally) very good-looking. Remove the mandatory beard and He would look a lot like one of Hutton Gibson's sons, whom she always wanted to know better. They didn't talk much; the Gibson children were overshadowed by their father, and this one seemed quiet by nature. During the few years they were acquainted, Sophie never knew what Mel was thinking.

Throughout a very public career Mel Gibson has remained a private personality, but soon the world will know, at least in part, what he's thinking. The Jesus that movie-goers will soon observe on screen doubtless owes something to Hutton Gibson, to the Latin Mass Society, and to the uncompromising saints of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. But perhaps most of all to the director's own soul-wrenching struggles in the dark of night.

Experience is a faulty guide; one of the problems with contemporary religious culture is that it hypes personal experience at the expense of doctrinal truth. But still-experience is the fabric on which God works out His doctrine, in highly idiosyncratic ways. And truth is truth.

Is The Passion true? When Jesus meets a man, He turns him inside-out. Judging by reports, the Jesus portrayed in Mel Gibson's film is capable of just that, and is already offending critics who, as they squirm like children caught in a lie, refuse to look Him in the eye. Instead they focus on the director's supposed anti-Semitism, or his hypocrisy, or his father's crackpot beliefs.

My reservations are different: doubts that an image-based (as opposed to a text-based) gospel will have much effect on our self-obsessed culture, and serious problems with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But at the same time I suspect that Mel has experienced the real Jesus. If the Holy Spirit chooses to draw people to Christ through his movie, I will rejoice. And marvel at the astonishing use that God makes of our confusing, error-filled, deeply flawed experience.