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Karen Bartlett column.

Byline: By Karen Bartlett

With only four days left to Christmas you may think that there is nothing left to be said about the festive season.

There are the familiar elements: A cruel King carrying out a census, a stable, a baby in Bethlehem.

The Christmas story has long been doubted by religious scholars in terms of its precise date and details, but this year Mel Gibson added immeasurably to our perception of Christianity by posing the question: Jesus Christ, saviour of mankind ( or maker of the first dining room table?

Historians have long despaired over the treatment of their subjects by film makers and I suspect Gibson's The Passion of the Christ led to more eye rolling and hand wringing than most.

Setting aside its almost nauseating brutality, there was an unforgettable scene where Jesus shows his mother how he has made higher chairs, rather than the more common low stools, so that people could sit and eat their meals in comfort.

"It'll never catch on," says Mary, shaking her head. Thankfully Jesus knew better, and the audience can conclude from this that he was indeed a man of great foresight.

You may mock, but research conducted this week to promote a festive screening of the film on satellite television revealed that many people were relying on The Passion of the Christ for basic religious knowledge.

One third didn't know that Jesus was Jewish and a quarter didn't know that he was born in Bethlehem.

Like all Biblical epics, for a month or two Gibson's masterpiece bestrode crass commercialism and epic pomposity. Having being acclaimed by the Vatican, audiences were reportedly left rapt, hushed and sobbing. Unexpectedly, hundreds of thousands of `passion nail' necklaces were sold around the world.

Fortunately the fervour of The Passion of the Christ was eventually diminished when it was knocked off its top slot at the box office by Scooby Doo 2, but not before it had aroused a great deal of controversy and ill feeling with other religious groups, particularly for its depiction of Jews.

In provoking this kind of criticism, Gibson is hardly unique.

Claims of anti-semitism have stalked religious films since Cecil B DeMille made The King of Kings in 1927.

Having once hung off a swooping crane shouting to his actors "Don't be extras, be a nation!" DeMille went on to be the granddaddy of the Biblical epic, encapsulating our concept of gladiators, lions and undraped maidens, and famously parting the Red Sea in a giant tank at the back of the Paramount lot for The Ten Commandments.

So what real harm can come from this type of historical embellishment?

Yes, The Passion of the Christ was seized upon in countries across the Middle East, but concerned peaceniks might better direct their attention to rectifying the fact that school books in many Arab countries fail to show Israel, while Israeli books have a blank space where Palestinian territories might be.

Meanwhile, lovers of British history should brace themselves. Mel Gibson, a far richer man at the end of 2004, has turned his attention to Boadicea.

The Christian groups used so effectively as ticket sellers are now busy raising the profile of Tim Allen's Christmas with the Kranks, apparently it's a Jewish-Christian feast of understanding.

At a time when the world could hardly have seemed further apart in its views the divide over The Passion of the Christ is probably cultural rather than religious. A battle of conservatives for Mel Gibson versus liberals for Michael Moore ( although both are equally as biased and distorted.

Under the circumstances it should be no surprise that the same global constituency hoping for a President Kerry remained neither mystified nor moved by The Passion of the Christ.

For the true believers it's boring, bloody progress made it the Star Wars of a generation.

Less a literal gospel one admirer enthused, and more a case of "May the force be with you."

And sadly, so it seems
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 21, 2004
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