Amity or animus?

Author:Berger, David
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

Two instances do not constitute a pattern, and it may be that I have simply run into unusually bad luck, but it is disconcerting that both critiques to which I have been subjected in FIRST THINGS during the last year or so have grievously misrepresented what I wrote. First, my book on Lubavitch messianism was savagely attacked by David Singer for an argument that it did not make ("The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Heresy Hunter," May 2003), and now Richard John Neuhaus, in a more moderate piece ("Anti-Semitism and False Alarms," Public Square, August/September), compresses several significant distortions of my Commentary article on The Passion of the Christ into the space of a few paragraphs.

Father Neuhaus writes that I "deplore Christian literalists who defend the film as being faithful to history and the gospel texts, as well as Orthodox Jews who defend such literalism and the film more generally." This sentence clearly gives the impression that I criticize literalists for their literalism. Precisely the opposite is true. My article repeatedly and uncompromisingly defended the right of literalists to their literalism and vigorously criticized Jews and others who denied that right. I expressed satisfaction that my own Orthodox community is sensitive to the concerns of fundamentalist Christians on this score. It was only after adducing detailed evidence that the film is in significant measure patently unfaithful to the Gospels that I criticized literalists and their Jewish supporters who falsely affirm its fidelity.

Fr. Neuhaus goes on to write that "Berger ... is exercised that the film does not abide by guidelines issued by the Catholic bishops conference for presenting the passion, although he knows full well that the bishops did not sponsor and had no control over the film. Berger expresses sympathy for the judgment of another Jewish critic who said, 'The solid bridge of trust Jews had with the Catholic Church now lies exposed as merely a drawbridge, readily placed in raised position when it is most needed.' Perhaps Berger fails to appreciate that Catholics viewed the film in order to witness and enter into the suffering and death of their Lord, not to check out its conformity to episcopal statements on Jewish-Christian relations."

I indeed expressed sympathy with Catholic scholars who wanted the film to follow the guidelines in question, but my criticism (and that of the other Jewish critic) directed at the bishops conference was aimed...

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