Gibson’s Piper Plays a Different Tune

Knocking off a religious book to piggyback on a movie has a venerable history, going back to at least 1976 when the aptly-named Frank Allnut brought out After the Omen to cash in (sorry, “provide an evangelistic tool”) in the wake of the great 70’s schlocker.

Now Crossway Books brings us The Passion of Jesus Christ, with a cover designed in such a way that it just about avoids treading on Mel’s copyright (This book is not to be confused with Tyndale’s official movie tie-in, mentioned a couple of posts ago). Playing Schrader to Gibson’s Scorcese, the author is a Calvinist named John Piper, and the book provides “Fifty Reasons Why He [Jesus] Came to Die”.

Piper first, though, decides to tackle the anti-Semitism issue head on, with an introduction titled “The Christ, The Crucifixion and the Concentration Camps”. Although it tries to be sensitive, this section seems likely to wind Jews up:

Is there a way that Jewish suffering may find, not its cause, but its final meaning in the suffering of Jesus Christ? Is it possible to think, not of Christ’s passion leading to Auschwitz, but of Auschwitz leading to an understanding of Christ’s passion? Is the link between Calvary and the camps a link of unfathomable empathy?…And perhaps a generation of Jewish people, whose grandparents endured their own noxious crucifixion, will be able, as no others, to grasp what happened to the Son of God at Calvary. (p. 16)

In fairness, Piper uses Elie Wiesel’s mention of the word Calvary in relation to the Holocaust as a springboard for these reflections. However, I suspect many Jews will be rather annoyed that the Holocaust should be interpreted in Christian terms, and the implication of “oh well, the Holocaust was bad but look on the bright side: Jews might understand Jesus better than anyone else” is likely to appal.

I’m also uneasy with Piper’s implicit mysticism. Yes, the Holocaust was unique. It was an industrialised, bureaucratic death machine aimed against a people ultimately not because of what they believed, nor because of their behaviour, nor because they had land or assets that their persecutors wanted to steal, but simply because of their existence on the earth. It can be therefore be distinguished from other horrors, such as, say, the Armenian genocide or the Atlantic slave trade – events that are also sometimes called “Holocausts”. But the idea that the descendents of Jewish Holocaust victims (not just the victims themselves, and not the non-Jewish victims of Hitler at all!) therefore have a unique insight into suffering is mystical and problematic. It seems to me that Piper is working with an abstract idea about “the Jews”: a romantic stereotype based on his theology rather than on spontaneous human encounter, with all its complexities and ambiguities.

This is a pity, as Piper is clearly opposed to anti-Semitism and racism. He’s a critic of Christian Zionism, a theology that also stereotypes Jews and Arabs. But he’s also a man who cannot think of people as just people rather than as types fitting some predetermined role. I note his writings against Evangelical feminism, where he approvingly quotes J.I. Packer’s absurd claim that “‘a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary’ puts strain on the humanity of both”, because (Piper says) “The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior” (p.43). If not having a female boss is what Piper needs in order to feel good about himself, he’s really rather sad. But I digress…

UPDATE (3 March): According to AP

A book unrelated to Gibson’s film, “The Passion of Jesus Christ,” by Baptist minister John Piper, came out in January. Published by Crossway Books with a first printing of 175,000, “The Passion” now has 1.6 million copies in print…Tyndale reports that a 150,000 first printing of the film’s companion book, called “The Passion,” sold out so quickly that some stores may have to wait up to two weeks before an additional printing of 250,000 fully arrives…

Meanwhile sales of Gibson’s source, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “have jumped from under 3,000 for all of 2002 to 17,000 just last month”. This last work has obvious anti-Semitic content, by the way. As well as “cruel” Jewish mobs, it has this bizarre story (not in the film or the Bible) about how the cross was built, not by the Romans, but by the Jews:

A short time before when Judas had received the price of his treason, a Pharisee had gone out, and sent seven slaves to fetch wood with which to prepare the Cross for our Saviour…They procured this wood from a spot about three-quarters of a mile distant, near a high wall, where there was a great quantity of other wood belonging to the Temple, and dragged it to a square situated behind the tribunal of Caiphas.(section 124)