Donald Akenson's harangue against Garth Drabinsky for his cinematic version of the Gospel of John, abetted by the demeaning caricature of Mr. Drabinsky that accompanied the article in these pages Wednesday, merits a response.
Mr. Akenson, identified as a recipient of the Molson laureateship for contribution to Canadian culture, asks, "What brought Mr. Drabinsky to do his own cinematic version of the Gospel of John?" and answers, "God only knows." Had he done his homework, Mr. Akenson could easily have found the answer from anyone on the eight-person advisory committee, all prominent scholars of religion. The ecumenical advisory committee unanimously advised Mr. Drabinsky to produce the Gospel of John ahead of any other gospel because it is the best-known and most-loved book of the New Testament.
Mr. Akenson reveals some grave misunderstandings. He gives the impression that Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, is as faithful to text as The Gospel of John. How can this be? The Gibson film, as Mr. Akenson notes, is "entirely in Aramaic, Latin, and a bit of Hebrew," but the text of all four gospels is in Greek! Of the many Jesus films, by far the most accurate and faithful is Mr. Drabinsky's word for word presentation of the Gospel of John, directed by the brilliant and inspired Philip Saville.
Mr. Akenson labels Visual Bible International, the film's producer, as "evangelical." This is preposterous. The advisory committee the producers appointed consisted of Jews, Catholics and Protestants, under the leadership of Peter Richardson, formerly head of the Department of Religion at the University of Toronto, and the film's creative team included several Jews.
Mr. Akenson notes that Mr. Drabinsky's prologue only fleetingly recognizes that "the Fourth Gospel is part of a nasty exchange of polemics between two sects of Judaism." In fact, the committee, at the urging of Mr. Drabinsky, laboured diligently to establish the historical setting of the Fourth Gospel in order to explain its content.
Mr. Akenson, however, aims not only to discredit the film but the Gospel of John itself. According to him, when the Roman Empire turned Christian, "the arcane polemics were broadcast empirewide." In other words, the popularity of the Gospel of John lies not in its truth and poetry but in serving a political agenda. How many read the Gospel of John for this reason?
This critic aims to dismiss monotheism by arguing that monotheistic sects "become huge, life-threatening harangues." This is Mr. Akenson's real beef. He rejects Jesus Christ's claim in the Gospel of John to be the Son of God and the only way to God. The Gospel of John forces one to make a decision about Jesus Christ. Is he trustworthy or a fraud? If the lights on the dashboard flash red that your engine is in trouble, you can smash the dashboard, deny the signal, fix the engine, or, as Mr. Akenson prefers, dim the lights so that nobody sees the warning and feels uncomfortable. In truth, however, he rejects the warning and slants his argument to that end.
Our bitter pundit alleges that "of the Four Gospels, the Gospel of John is the closest to being hate literature." But a gospel announcing that Jesus the Son of God died for sinners and commands his disciples to walk in love is not the stuff of "hate literature." Mr. Akenson misrepresents the book when he writes that the gospel shows the Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus. According to his own testimony, Jesus Christ is responsible for his own death: "No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will (John 10: 18)."
In sum, Prof. Akenson's scholarship is poor, his tone is grating and his arguments bogus. Ironically, he piously asks us to redeem the text "by informed, discriminating and gentle scholarship," when his own diatribe amounts to hate literature against Mr. Drabinsky and Christians. I say "hate literature," because among many other charges, he maligns true believers as "lunatics" for believing "that Jesus's blood be shed to complete God's plan for the[ir]salvation."
Donald Akenson's effort to discredit the greatest story ever told has, in fact, discredited the author and Canadian culture.
Bruce K. Waltke, professor emeritus of biblical studies at Regent College, UBC, is professor of Old Testament studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla., and a member of the advisory committee for The Gospel of John.