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Feb. 16, 2004

ADVISORY
U-M experts available to discuss latest interpretations of Christ

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Interpretations of Christ in film and other mediums rekindle passion and controversy—a historical response marked with contention, a University of Michigan professor says.

Ralph Williams, an English professor who teaches a course on "The Bible in English," said that any film depicting Jesus, such as the new Mel Gibson movie, enters a minefield of conflicting understandings. For many–both believers and non-believers–the issues have been ones of life and death, he said.

"The accounts of his trial(s) and death in the Gospels vary considerably, and any given film may seem to some to reinforce old strains of anti-Judaism in Christian culture; and to be historically invalid," he said.

The question of who was responsible for Jesus' death has been at the center of much Christian thought and emotion. Some viewers may think that any film which does not lay the blame on the Jewish leaders or Jewish people runs contrary to what they have learned as Biblical truth, Williams said.

These issues and others having to do with historical accuracy have sparked controversy about Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," which some critics have described as having anti-Semitic overtones. The film—which opens Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday—presents itself as telling the story of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

"The compilers of the Gospels present stories which some believe to contain many important differences within an overall consistency in their rendering of Jesus and his experience," Williams said. "Other believers hold that the Gospels don't represent so much different "takes" on Jesus, his mission and death, but constitute rather something like transparent windows which open on history as it really was, accurate and consistent down to the last nuance."

Film-goers should remember that "Passion" is essentially a commercial movie and not the ultimate interpretation of the story of Christ, said Stashu Kybaratas, a lecturer in the Program in Film and Video Studies "It's not a sacred text; it is just a movie," he said. "It's a contemporary conservative Catholic interpretation of Christ's passion."

Terence McGinn, a sociology lecturer who teaches "Religion and Society," said the movie poses many questions for sociologists: how does this film reflect, and possibly inflame, existing divisions in our society? Also, how does the media (including the studio that released the film) benefit from reporting controversy, and does that benefit result in their exaggerating the controversy or framing it in a particular way?"

"Religion sells; controversy sells; and religious controversy sells big," McGinn said.  

To schedule an interview with Williams, call (734) 647-6771 or e-mail him at fiesole@umich.edu . For more about Williams, visit http://www-personal.umich.edu/~fiesole/index.html

Kybaratas is available at (734) 546-9966 or skybar@umich.edu

McGinn can be reached at (734) 663-0677 or tjmcginn@umich.edu

 

Contact: Jared Wadley
Phone: (734) 936-7819
E-mail: jwadley@umich.edu