Gary Goldhammer is a freelance writer based in Orange County, Calif. Visit his blog, Below the Fold, at http://belowthefold.typepad.com.
Lessons From Linus
I can recite it from memory: An elementary school theater, a single spotlight at center stage, a boy giving a soliloquy worthy of reverence and pause:
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them...and the angel said unto them, fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
The boy, of course, was Linus from Peanuts, the scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas. And though I didn't understand it at the time, this annual television event was my first real introduction to Christianity.
Throughout my childhood, this was how Christianity entered my world--from the glow of a television screen. Christians were happy, joyous; they sang songs and prayed and went to church every Sunday. Even their services were on TV--can you imagine the same treatment for Friday night synagogue services? Perhaps if the rabbi danced and shouted to the backbeat of an R&B choir, though that would have a better chance getting on "Funniest Home Videos."
Christians were everywhere--but many of the Christians on TV and in magazines didn't seem real. In my mind, most were evangelical, Bible-thumping, Hallelujah-screaming religious fanatics. The made-for-TV Christians were outspoken and veritably outrageous, because if they weren't, well, then they wouldn't be on TV, right?
The Christmas stories--Charlie Brown, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street--were different, because they weren't religious. The messages were universal, the intentions pure and non-proselytizing. Christmas, to me, was different than Christianity.
These are the perceptions I took with me when I left Los Angeles and enrolled in college at the University of Missouri, where for the first time I was surrounded by more non-Jews than Jews. It wasn't long before I realized that my media-inspired precepts were about as accurate as a sundial during a solar eclipse.
Christians were normal people. Sure, there were still Bible-thumpers, but that was the exception. What was most shocking, however, was learning that Christmas was actually a religious holiday. "Normal" Christians weren't fanatics, but they weren't secular, either.
Jesus mattered. Christians still sang carols and shopped at all the sales, but the holiday was deeper. And as a Jew, I was on the outside--and alone.
So imagine my trepidation after falling in love with a Christian and meeting her family. Much to my relief, and despite our differences, they accepted me and made me feel welcome. Even more shocking was going to church with them on Sunday, and discovering that it wasn't much different that a Friday night service--inspirational, at times boring, and not a TV camera in sight.
The media was wrong about Christians, and I overcame my stereotypes. But today, the media is shaking the foundation of relations between the religions, and it will affect every Jewish-Christian interfaith family in the coming weeks.
The Passion, Mel Gibson's film about the life and death of Jesus, will soon open to curious audiences across the country. It doesn't matter whether you believe he was accurate in his interpretation--any artist has the right to share his art, just as any person has the right decry it.
But the media--which today is a 24-hour morass of pseudo-reporting and entertainment-driven conjecture--has reduced the debate to "who really killed Jesus," who is right and who is wrong. And in doing so, they have insulted every right-minded Christian, Jew and human being on the planet.
This is not a flavor-of-the-week story; this is serious theological business. By sensationalizing the issues surrounding The Passion, the media has done more damage than if they had just stepped back a bit, let people watch the film and decide for themselves.
Discuss the movie, yes. Provide a forum for debate in newspapers and on television, absolutely. But a full-color photo on the cover of Newsweek showing a bloody, beaten Christ? That's over the line, even by today's lax standards.
So how do we change things to ensure that our children, especially children in interfaith families, have a balanced view?
For me, I started by ripping the cover off the Newsweek so my 5-year-old daughter wouldn't see it. Then after dinner, I joined her in the living room and sat with her on the couch as we watched one of her favorite movies. It stars a young boy, who stands in the middle of a stage under a lone spotlight, and delivers a message that all Christian and Jewish children should hear:
"Glory to god in the highest. And on Earth peace, and goodwill toward men."