Mel Gibson’s controversial movie “The Passion of the Christ” will be in general release at theaters beginning tomorrow.

The film is “relentlessly savage [with a]…pronounced streak of sado-masochism” reports Newsweek.

Perhaps the public should expect such horrific detail from the Oscar-winning director of Braveheart, which after all included heads lopped off, gored guts and culminated with its star impaled.

Newsweek critic David Ansen speculates that maybe The Passion might be subconsciously autobiographical.

The middle aged Gibson has said his film is the product of more than a decade of personal reflection that at times included suicidal thoughts, which were ultimately resolved by his renewed religious faith.

The Braveheart star is a member of a schismatic fringe group that has often been charitably labeled by the media as “traditional Catholics.”

However, the extreme movement that broke away from mainstream Catholicism, which includes the Hollywood star, has no official connection to the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, its members and leaders frequently denounce truly traditional Catholics who accept church authority as essentially “apostates.”

Gibson’s current movie focuses upon the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, apparently in a brutally graphic way.

It “plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade” says Ansen.

What was Gibson’s purpose in producing this bloody “Passion,” which reportedly cost the actor/director about $30 million dollars?

Is it just the product of faith, like the star of Lethal Weapon claims?

Despite Gibson’s rather cynical but savvy marketing approach the star seems driven more by his childhood indoctrination than a desire for profits.

Mel Gibson grew up in a family ruled by a father who has denied the extent of the Holocaust and seems consumed by bizarre conspiracy theories.

Religious leaders have criticized Gibson’s film for its dark portrayal of Jewish people and rabbinical authorities. “Those inclined toward bigotry could easily find fuel for their fire” from this movie, Ansen said.

Gibson’s marketing strategy has specifically focused upon the fire of faith burning amongst fundamentalist Christians and perhaps has delineated the differences between that community and more ecumenical believers.

The star skewed virtually every advance screening of his new film towards this demographic group, which he apparently feels will assure its box office success.

The popular action hero is probably right. He will no doubt not only recoup his initial investment, but also reap hefty profits.

The film and its faithful audience is telling though, not only because of Gibson’s seemingly dark view of Jews, but also because the film’s fans include so many Christians that like the star eschew mainstream ecumenism in favor of the theology of triumphalism.

And Gibson, like many of his fundamentalist supporters, appears to think you cannot really question his religious vision.

“The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,” the actor has reportedly said.

Is Mel Gibson’s film “anti-Semitic”?

“I don’t want to lynch any Jews…I love them. I pray for them,” Gibson said somewhat cryptically.

But Mel Gibson has made “artistic” choices for his film that cannot be supported either historically and/or biblically, which shed a less than loving light on Jews reports Newsweek in the article “Who Really Killed Jesus?” (Feb. 16, 2004).

In The Passion the director/producer has chosen to have Mary Magdalene plead with the Romans to save Jesus when he is taken away to be tried by Jewish authorities.

However, there is no such scene in the New Testament. And it does suggest greater Jewish culpability than can be supported historically.

Likewise, in Gibson’s film the High Priest Caiaphas must determine if Jesus will die, despite the fact that historically the priest had no such authority without Roman approval.

Again, Gibson made a historically inaccurate choice by portraying the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate as a conflicted sensitive man, who only executes Jesus because he is pushed into it by screaming Jews.

History records Pilate objectively as a cruel tyrant, even by questionable Roman standards.

In fact, according to Gibson’s script Jesus actually tells Pilate that Caiaphas specifically bears the “greater sin” for his execution. But only the governor could actually determine that sentence, which after all was a Roman form of execution.

In a less guarded moment Mel Gibson was reportedly overheard describing those who opposed Jesus as “either Satanic or the dupes of Satan.”

Mel Gibson may not see himself as “anti-Semitic,” anti-Semites seldom do, but his selective version of the final hours of Jesus’ life seems to depict a decidedly negative image of Jews.

To some extent the New Testament can be read this way, but biblical scholars concerned with placing the Gospel accounts within their historical context explain that such depictions reflect the political concerns and polemics of early Christians.

In fairness it should be noted that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have called such scholarship, “liberal” and “unbiblical.”

And it seems Mel Gibson has more in common with such conservative Protestants than he does Roman Catholics.

The Roman Catholic Church has officially resolved such issues, acknowledging that such negative interpretations of the Gospels caused rampant persecution of the Jews, such as the Inquisitions.

But Gibson’s faction of supposed “traditionalists” does not endorse Vatican II and the modern ecumenical dialog between Catholics and Jews.

And as for his film’s largely fundamentalist Christian fan base, they frequently see religious dialog as largely a means of proselytizing to reach the “unsaved,” which includes Muslims, Buddhists and Jews.

However, authentic ecumenical dialog is actually a two-way street based upon mutual respect and regard for other religious beliefs, which is not something fundamentalists like Gibson and many of his current movie fans are known for.

Those who oppose their religious views are at best “lost,” or maybe as Mr. Gibson purportedly puts it “dupes of Satan.”

And how does such ethnocentric triumphalism affect the mindset of its proponents?

Maybe it would be interesting go to The Passion, more to study its fans than to see the movie.

Note: Rick Ross is a former member of the National Committee for Interreligious Affairs of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a large denomination of Judaism.

Madonna’s production company Maverick Films is prepping a feature based upon a “prison experiment” conducted by a Stanford University professor in 1971 reports Reuters.

Professor Philip Zimbardo, past president of the American Psychological Association (APA), conducted “The Prison Experiment” to demonstrate the dynamics of social influence between guards and prisoners.

However, that behavioral research project was shut down in less than a week due to its unsettling and potentially dangerous results.

Two years ago when German filmmakers released “Das Experiment,” based upon the same Stanford project as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, Zimbardo was not pleased. He reportedly had a credit removed from the film acknowledging his work.

Can it be that the doctor has found a more suitable match in Madonna?

Zimbardo has compared the dynamics of influence demonstrated by his experiment to the sort of control techniques utilized by cults.

Ironically, the 1980s pop diva is perhaps the most ardent devotee of a group called the “Kaballah Centre,” led by religious guru Philip Berg, which has often been called a “cult.”

After the tragic “Heaven’s Gate” suicide in 1997 the Stanford professor wrote:

“A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it’s so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed. They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us: to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy…Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope.”

Is it possible that by producing this feature about Zimbardo’s work Madonna might have an epiphany about the undue influence at times alleged regarding the group that she considers the source of her “spiritual awakening”?

Could exposure to information about the prison experiment offer the pop icon a vehicle to “deprogram” her from “cult mind control”?

Probably not.

The former “Material Girl’s” latest foray into feature films, like her recent children’s books, may be just another extension of the seemingly slavish devotion she displays to her mentor and his teachings.

And wouldn’t it be a supreme irony if Zimbardo’s historic work, as an acknowledged cult expert, was somehow used by a purported “cult” to convey its message?

Note: Maverick Films, owned by Madonna, may simply have a producing arrangement on this project. But let’s hope the diva at least watches the film and gets its message. Wake up Madonna!

The so-called “Kabbalah Centre” run by religious guru Philip Berg and popularized by 1980s rock diva Madonna has often been called a “cult” and criticized as little more than a business, by Jewish scholars and leaders.

Never mind.

Extra, a Hollywood TV show that features celebrities has now apparently determined Berg’s group really “isn’t a cult,” but instead infers that it represents “a set of 4000 year-old teachings, predating all religions.”

At best this statement is misleading.

But of course when religious scholars need a definitive explanation about a controversial group like the Kabbalah Centre, what better source to rely upon than Extra?

Seriously, such a proclamation carries little weight amongst experts, but it may influence the public’s perception. And celebrities like Madonna seem to call the shots at shows such as Extra, which cater to stars for face time.

If such a program reported something critical about a celeb’s favorite “cult” it just might end up on the star’s list marked for no more interviews. And this may mean lower ratings for celebrity-driven shows like Extra.

So rather than focusing on the facts, Hollywood TV shows often produce puff pieces that soft focus on a subject in a way that pleases celebrity patrons.

Warning the public about a potentially dangerous group and possibly preventing someone from being hurt does not appear to be a concern for such programs. Instead, they seem to care more about a bump in their ratings, which the cache of an icon like Madonna often delivers.

In this sense these Hollywood shows frequently serve as convenient free advertising for whatever trendy guru or “cult” a star wants to promote, from Scientology to Philip Berg.

However, if you are interested in substance rather than fluff read what one religious authority has to say about something called “scanning” taught to students like Madonna at the Kabbalah Centre.

“This practice of scanning is pure and utter nonsense,” says Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok at the website Kosher Torah.

“Scanning” is the practice of viewing pages of religious text without the ability to read the words, that never-the-less somehow provides a supposed “spiritual” benefit, according to the Kaballah Centre.

Despite Extra’s apparent endorsement Madonna’s version of the Kabbalah doesn’t appear to be Kosher. And more serious reporters have actually ridiculed it as “McWisdom.”

But don’t expect Extra to change its format any time soon. Instead, the program will likely continue to allow celebrities such as Madonna to present little more than infomercials about their favorite “cults” in a seeming exchange for face time.

The Church of Scientology may be “mentoring” some recently released convicted criminals in your neighborhood soon.

Scientology is included as “part of a program that gives churches, mosques and other religious organizations an instrumental role in shepherding such men and women back into the community” reports the Washington Post.

Forty-two institutions have signed up for the project, including the controversial church favored by such Hollywood stars as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

And who is paying for this program?

Not wealthy celebrities, but the American taxpayer.

That’s right, $300,000.00 is budgeted annually, which comes from President Bush’s so-called “faith based initiative.”

Two hundred mentors from an array of religious institutions are currently assigned to 100 convicts.

“It just gives you that spiritual stability,” said one former prison inmate.

But that’s not what TV preacher Pat Robertson once said about using federal funds that in some way might be linked to Scientology.

The televangelist noted that the organization, often called a “cult,” has been “accused of all sorts of underhanded tactics.”

He then concluded that President Bush might potentially open up a proverbial “Pandora’s box” by handing out grants to religious groups through his initiative.

Well, it looks like the box is wide open.

And Robertson hasn’t been critical since he received a generous grant for one of his own pet programs through the Bush plan.

But how do Scientologists “mentor” ex-cons?

Time Magazine once stated, “In reality the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”

Within its cover story “Scientology: The Cult of GreedTime reported that 11 top Scientologists, including the founder’s wife, were sent to prison for burglarizing and wiretapping more than 100 private and government agencies in attempts to block investigations.

Maybe those ex-convicts could have used some “mentoring”?

The source for all things Scientology and the top mentor to Scientologists is its deceased creator L. Ron Hubbard (LRH).

However, a California Superior Court Judge stated flatly, “The organization clearly is schizophrenic and paranoid, and this bizarre combination seems to be reflective of its founder LRH.”

It seems like trusting Scientology to mentor convicted criminals is like the blind leading the blind, or at best evidence that “Pandora’s box” has indeed been opened and all hell may just have broken loose.

Karen Robidoux was found not guilty of second-degree murder, in the 1999 death of her infant child this week, reported the Taunton Gazette.

The Massachusetts mother was accused of starving her baby son Samuel to death.

Robidoux’s husband Jacques was convicted for Samuel’s murder in 2002 and is now serving a life sentence.

But the mother’s attorney, Joseph Krowski, offered the defense that cult “brainwashing” coerced Karen Robidoux’s behavior

The attorney argued that his client was victimized, abused and ultimately controlled by an obscure religious sect led by her father-in-law Roland Robidoux called “The Body.”

“There were two victims here, Karen and Samuel,” Robidoux’s older sister told the press.

And after seven hours of deliberation the jury agreed with the defense and its witnesses, acquitting the “cult” mom of murder, but finding her guilty of misdemeanor assault and battery.

“Because a child died, it may be an unpopular verdict, but we felt Karen Robidoux’s intent was not to kill her baby,” the jury foreman told the Boston Herald.

He later added, “I do believe she was psychologically held prisoner,” and concluded “she has suffered enough” reported NBC News.

Private journals kept by a “cult” member were made public after the verdict and they offered further proof of Roland Robidoux’s total control over his followers reported the Boston Herald.

“Dad [Roland Robidoux] feels that the end is coming soon…Our prayers should not be for Samuel to be healed but for God’s purposes to be fulfilled…What can we do for Samuel? Nothing…God is the master. We are his servants,” wrote the “cult” member.

The mother of four was sentenced to time served and walked out of the Bristol courthouse a free woman reported the Boston Globe.

“I’m just glad the nightmare door is shut,” she told reporters on the courthouse steps.

“It was a trail-blazing case that will affect all cult cases nationally. It’s now been proven what can happen when someone is brainwashed,” said nationally known forensic pathologist Dr. Millard Bass.

In Virginia late last year another jury came to a similar conclusion regarding the sentencing of “D.C. sniper” Lee Malvo. His lawyers also claimed their client was “brainwashed.”

The teenager’s defense team contended that he was dominated and controlled by his mentor John Mohammed.

Mohammed was sentenced to death, but Malvo was sent to prison for life.

In a noteworthy child custody case in North Carolina this fall a judge ruled that the Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF) exerted “complete control over the mind, body and spirit of its members, both adults and children.”

WOFF led by Jane Whaley has been called a “cult.”

The Carolina judge concluded, “The environment created at WOFF has an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of children,” and he subsequently ordered them to be removed from the group.

In a tacit acknowledgement of cult “brainwashing” another judge in California granted the release last year of a woman charged with the death of her small child to receive “deprogramming.”

Later that same judge sentenced the cult leader to 16 years in prison, while charges were dismissed against two of his followers.

The mother charged received an eleven-year sentence and told the court, “Mind control is a reality.”

CultNews reported that professional cult apologist Dick Anthony was involved in both the California and Carolina cases. Anthony is a psychologist and well paid for his work, but he failed his clients abysmally.

Judging from the prosecution’s arguments in the Robidoux case, they apparently were receiving input from someone like Anthony.

But the Robidoux verdict may be the most colossal setback for cults and their apologists to date. And will likely be cited in the future as proof of “brainwashing.”

Overall, 2003 was possibly the worst year ever for cults and their apologists.

They even attempted fruitlessly to dismiss the “brainwashing” of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

But brainwashing has become understandable to the public after Jonestown, Waco and the “Heaven’s Gate” suicides. It is no longer the mystery it once was when Charles Manson and his followers entered the California judicial system.

Europeans likewise came to acutely understand the cult brainwashing phenomenon through the Solar Temple suicides in Switzerland. And the Japanese were forced to confront this reality by the cult Aum, when it attacked Tokyo’s subways.

Joseph Kibwetere sent shockwaves through Africa when he led hundreds of his followers to death in Uganda shortly after the Millenium, once again demonstrating the power of cult mind control.

And isn’t “brainwashing” something Osama bin Laden has used to transform his followers into tools of terror?

Cults and their apologists will have increasing difficulty convincing anyone that “brainwashing” is only a “theory.”

The Robidoux verdict is evidence of that.

Madonna and Kate Capshaw, the wife of director Steven Speilberg, have both sent their kids to programs at the Kaballah Centre.

Ms. Capshaw has been a student at the LA Center, and Madonna supports the London branch and is the organization’s most ardent and notable booster.

But what kind of education do kids receive through the controversial group, that some critics have called a “cult”?

This week the Kaballah Centre School of New York City held an “open house” and one neighborhood mom that attended told CultNews all about it.

“I am concerned about children being indoctrinated beginning at two years of age,” she said.

According to the Manhattan parent kids at the Kaballah Centre “are taught to share their food with each other.”

This is called “sharing and caring.”

And visitors at the open house were told that other private schools are “mean” by comparison.

Of course this school is not just about learning the basics, it’s about “spirituality.”

Madonna and Karen Berg, wife of the center’s founder, jointly launched a program called “Spirituality for Kids,” which is closely linked to the former “Material Girl’s” children’s books.

Visitors to the NYC school learned that “Kaballah means to share and to change.” And unlike other schools they have no time-outs.

Instead, students are taught to confront and convert the offender, who may simply be having a “bad day.”

Parents were informed that at home children may be individuals, but at this school they learn to think as a “group.” For example, children may bring a toy from home, but they must share it with others.

Students even do a project that involves the “72 names of God,” and learn about how to reconfigure those names for “healing.”

But can kindergarten kids really fathom this stuff?

One lesson at the center teaches unity using the much-touted amulet of Berg’s faithful, the red string, now worn by recent convert Britney Spears to ward off the “evil eye.”

In this lesson the teacher holds a long red string and the children say words that “stop unity.” Each time such a bad word is said the teacher cuts the string.

This leads into a discussion about how unity can be destroyed.

Hey, doesn’t this sound a little like what some might call “brainwashing“?

Children enrolled at the center are given their very own red string bracelet just like Madonna and Britney. It is a symbol “of love, safety and care,” though some might observe it also reinforces group identity.

The NYC Kaballah teacher is from Israel and she instructs children on how to “manage life in an easier way.”

But sharing your lunch and memorizing God’s 72 names might just be a little tough.

Starting at the age of 2 Kaballah kids are allotted 13 minutes daily, for religious study in Hebrew.

Two-year-olds also learn how to “scan the Zohar.”

Such scanning is based upon Berg’s teaching that by simply running your eyes over the religious text, even though you don’t know how to read the language, you are somehow imbued with “spiritual” benefits.

However, rabbis and Jewish scholars have ridiculed such claims.

Steven Speilberg is known for his ability to direct fantasy films, such as Indiana Jones and ET, but doesn’t he want his kids to know the difference between make believe and reality?

As for Madonna, she seems to have regressed into a state of child-like devotion and dependence upon her long-time guru Berg.

Maybe the fading pop diva thinks he helps her to “manage” middle age “life in an easier way.”

However, parents should know that sending their children to the Kaballah Centre means more than simply day care or receiving an education.

The NYC center also has plans for a summer camp this year.

But it looks like the school and summer program are more about indoctrinating kids into what can be seen as “Bergism,” rather than simply education and recreation.

President Bush recently signed into law legislation specifically designed to benefit the Amish religious sect reports Pennsylvania’s Daily Local News.

The new law will allow children as young as 14 to work within Amish family businesses in what is referred to as “apprenticeship” programs.

Previously such child labor was prohibited, and the Amish were fined for violations.

However, legislators that sponsored and supported this change in the law said it will allow the Amish to pursue their traditional and religious way of life.

“This is an issue of freedom of religion,” said Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector.

However, groups called “cults,” such as the “Twelve Tribes,” have used religion as an excuse to work children in their own version of “apprenticeship” programs.

But unlike the Amish the Twelve Tribes have operated what can be seen as “sweatshops,” historically using kids to produce or package products under negotiated contracts with outside companies.

The controversial group led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former carnival barker turned self-proclaimed “super apostle,” is also known for its anti-Semitic tracts and racism.

The Twelve Tribes was exposed and fined for child labor violations in 2001.

Spriggs and his followers, not to mention other “cults,” may see the new legislation passed to benefit the benign Amish as a windfall for their not so traditional business concerns.

The new labor law may become little more than a legal loophole used by “cults” to exploit children.

The Albany Times-Union picked up the story about the tragic death of Kristin Snyder in a featured article today.

Snyder was an active participant in the controversial group NXIVM, which Forbes Magazine called a “Cult of Personality.”

“I do, indeed, feel that her involvement in ESP was a first-cause factor in her death. I do not believe that Kris wanted to kill herself. She cried out for help for almost a week, but was totally ignored,” her father told the upstate New York newspaper.

NXIVM leaders Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman did not respond to repeated requests for an interview from the Albany Times-Union.

NXIVM attorney and supporter Arlen Olsen claimed he knew nothing about Snyder and refused to comment.

It was disclosed that Nancy Salzman, called “Prefect” by her NXIVM students, personally led Kristin Snyder’s first 16-day-intensive in Anchorage.

The 35-year-old self-employed environmental consultant would never complete her second “intensive” in Alaska and disappeared one year ago this coming week. She is presumed dead.

But Snyder paid NXIVM in full, $14,000.00 for her two courses reported the Albany Times-Union.

Kristin’s domestic partner Heidi Clifford also paid NXIVM $11,500.00 for her courses.

The couple spent $25,500.00 on NXIVM in a matter of months and accumulated $16,000.00 of indebtedness.

Clifford sought a partial refund for her partner’s never completed “intensive.”

NXIVM refused to return any money despite the tragedy.

Clifford subsequently found it necessary to sell the couple’s truck.

Meanwhile NXIVM told Forbes Magazine it earned millions that same year. And in 2003 it formed NXIVM Properties LLC, which purchased at least three properties near Albany, including one home for $175,000.00.