Beliefnet
I have spent the last 40 years of my life as a scholar and professor, author and lecturer. All of that activity is conducted in the public arena, where both support and criticism are normal, and controversy is an expected part of the landscape. In the last decade I have been conducting seminars on the historical Jesus, earliest Christianity, and their contemporary implications, in churches across this and other countries. I have always told those churches they could tape officially for their own purposes (including sales) and told individuals they could tape unofficially for their own private use.

My reason for that openness is simply to avoid an obvious contradiction between content and format. My content is a Jesus who was utterly open, so open that it cost him his life. Asked about his teaching, Jesus responded, according to John 18:20-21, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said." I have therefore tried, as a scholar who is also a Christian, to be equally open and transparent and to accept both support and criticism, especially and above all else when speaking of Jesus himself.

On January 21, I registered for the full three-day "Beyond All Limits 2 Pastors Conference" of the Global Pastors Network at Calvary Assembly in Orlando, Fla. My only purpose was to hear an interview with Mel Gibson that afternoon and to see a screening of his film The Passion of the Christ that evening (9:30-11:30 p.m.) although I also attended most of the sessions that first day. I filled out all appropriate forms, gave my full name, local address, and status as a Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. The $245 fee allowed me a name-tag and the letter G marked on the back of my left hand (presumably for Gibson). Both tag and G were checked at the bottom of the stairs, again at the top of the stairs, and finally at the door leading into the 5,500-seat auditorium.

I also expected to sign a Statement of Confidentiality. That in itself did not bother me. I understood that as a pre-screening of a "rough cut," some privacy could be necessary. I did think, however, that, since most people know how the story ended, it was a little unnecessary.

In any case, it was not the fact but the content of the confidentiality agreement that surprised me. On one hand, it enjoined me "to hold confidential my exposure, knowledge and opinions of the film." On the other hand it affirmed that, "pastors and church leaders are free to speak out in support of the movie and your opinions resulting from today's experience and exposure to this project and its producer."

I understand that legalese to mean that negative opinions are forbidden but positive ones are solicited. It is one thing to say that nobody can give any information about the movie or even express any opinion about it; but to allow support while denying criticism is something between cover-up and censorship. And its power is that of fear--the fear of ordinary and unprotected persons like myself that they might be sued for giving their opinion, even insofar as that could be done without discussing the movie itself.

One footnote here. Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith infiltrated the movie's screening the same night without signing a Statement of Confidentiality. Although I did not know about their presence that night, I was aware that, after registration, one could enter the auditorium with the stealth high-technology of a black marker to make a simple G.

What bothered me most about that Statement of Confidentiality's disjunction was not just its clear attempt at censorship or its even clearer attempt to promote interest by secrecy and conspiracy. What bothered me intensely was the way it contradicted the character and attitude of its own subject, that Jesus who spoke always openly and publicly, who received and accepted both loving support and lethal criticism. If the Gospel of the Christ was so publicly open, why is "The Passion of the Christ" open only to support but closed to criticism? If you cannot take criticism, Mr. Gibson, get out of the Passion.

I signed that Statement of Confidentiality in order to see the movie, and thus I can only speak about that document and not about the film itself. I emphasize its disjunctive content--supportive opinions are acceptable, but critical opinions are forbidden---and especially its contradiction with its own subject.

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