Thursday, February 26, 2004

pre-"Passion" musings

NB: What follows is the somewhat-edited text of an email I sent two friends, who shall remain unnamed, regarding some issues related to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," now showing in a couple thousand cinemas across America as of Ash Wednesday. (I should've given up blogging for Lent. Instead, it appears I've given up sleep.)

Fric & Frac,

Unsurprising that a German nun would have "holy" visions implicating the Jews in Jesus' death, eh?

As for Gibson...

I mistrust all big-money spirituality. Gibson's apparently spoken in interviews about his own "walk through the wilderness," if you will; how he was near suicide, then rediscovered his faith (etc., etc.). I don't doubt this is at least partially true, if for no other reason than that most of the reviews of the "Passion," good and bad, leave little doubt that Gibson's giving us a real piece of himself.

But "Passion" trucker caps, "cross nail" replicas, and other merchandise?? Just how deep does Gibson's spirituality run? Why would he permit these things to be sold? One pissed-off Christian blogger reminded us of Jesus' scourging of the Temple when it was filled with money-changers. Is Gibson so different from the money-changers?

Fric: Gibson's lack of comprehension or blatant disregard of the historical context of the Gospels, and his lack of comprehension or blatant disregard of the Passion and its historical context.

On one level I can, without intending to defend Gibson, point out that this is an artistic choice. On another level, though, I admit this is absolutely problematic if the movie is being passed off as "true" in some sense other than the vaguely artistic. If "true" means "historically true," then no.

Fric: Gibson's use of non-Biblical source material while publicizing his film as being the purely Gospel version of the last 12 hours.

And there we go: this is the problem, isn't it.

Fric: Aside: last 12 hours... 12 disciples... Coincidence?

There could be something going on here. A lot of reviewers are noting how Catholicism-saturated the film is; symbols that Catholics are more likely to see than other people will, Protestant or otherwise. "12" has symbolic meaning for Jews and Christians alike.

Fric: Gibson's obsession with violence and pain.

I think it's pretty well-established by other critics that Gibson's acting & directing history together form a martyrdom-arc. I'd go with that; the man does seem intent on peering closely at agony and gore and sacrifice and Big Ideas like freedom ("Braveheart") and faith ("Signs," "Passion").

Fric: An article by the president of CUA, while praising the film, did claim that Gibson may have misread the Gospels. If two gospels depicted a particular torture scene differently, Gibson interprets that to mean two distinct torture scenes, and he depicts both taking place in tandem. The author (A. read the article) asserts that it's now believed that they would both be representations of the same event. The author seemed to think Gibson was obsessed by blood and violence, but the author didn't seem to have a problem with it. He gave the film his blessing, so to speak.

As for literal interpretation: a chuckle is warranted. How much of this actually happened as related in the gospels? We don't know. Period.

re: the issue of torture, gore, viscerality

Frac [who's Catholic; I'm Presbyterian] might want to chime in here, but my understanding of Catholic sacramentality is that it is very much the opposite of what you find in Christian Science or Jehovah's Witnesses: for Catholics, sacramental reality implies the nonduality of the divine and the material. This is what makes such phenomena as transsubstantiation plausible. There is no dichotomy. There's no clear distinction between spirit and flesh; earthly agony isn't merely an analogue for spiritual agony: it is spiritual agony! Gibson's focus on gore will be understood by Catholics in this sense. Non-Christians might look at it and see only an "obsession with violence."

I'm not in total disagreement with the Catholic idea (which, BTW, does have some scriptural justification), if for no other reason than that it seems odd to posit "supernature." Catholic sacramentality is ancient and earthy and, in a real way, brutal: to participate in the eucharist is to participate in more than a merely "symbolic" feast: that is the blood of Christ; that is the body. Sacramental reality affects the Catholic notion of "symbol" as a result: a symbol, for Catholics, participates fully in the event; it's not merely a sign pointing elsewhere or standing in for something. To take part in the liturgy is to enter an organic, divine/material/unitary reality.

I don't know whether any of that makes sense [NB: Fric isn't Christian]; I hope it does, because it makes a lot of things clearer: for example, the whole deal about carrying around rotten "holy relics"-- body parts of saints, usually things like bone or hair. Even for Protestants, it's a bit weird to think of the spiritual as tangible, but for devout Catholics, that's not the case. Those relics have meaning because the divine and material realms are unified within them.

So when you look at gore & suffering & all the rest, and you realize it's a Catholic filmmaker's vision of what happened to Jesus, it becomes clear that Gibson's vision does make sense from a certain point of view (said he, Kenobi-like)-- that of Catholic sacramentality.

Fric: The first point above is a very sensitive topic for non Christians living here. It's something that many Christians don't seem to understand. And in the hands of a talented, and popular filmmaker, it can be dangerous.

Yes, I agree it can be, though I think there's merit to the idea that people already predisposed to bigotry are the ones whose bigotry will be inflamed by what they see. In the case of both bigots and non-bigots, we'll take from the film what we bring into it. If we're predisposed to Jew-bashing, then we'll be happy to see Gibson confirming this. If, however, we come in with the more metaphorical attitude that, in a sense, we all crucify the Christ (and keep in mind that the Christ isn't exactly synonymous with the historical Jesus), then we're more likely to see the guilt that lies inside our own hearts-- i.e., the film becomes a humbling lesson. I imagine that Gibson would prefer that we all watch his film this way, but even he has to know that that's not going to happen... and that's why groups like the ADL are justifiably alarmed.

On the other side of the fence, critics rightly point out that the Jewish retelling and celebration of stories about thousands of Egyptians being drowned in the Re(e)d Sea present some of the same problems as the gospel stories: celebration is occurring at some other people's expense (in this case, the Egyptians'), and this has been codified into religious ritual.

One possible reply to that is the same one made by blacks when talking about who "owns" the word "nigger": it's OK for blacks to use this word because of the asymmetrical structure of the power dynamic. If you view yourself as an oppressed minority, you can't pretend to be color-blind. For a white to say "nigger" is far more dangerous than for a black to do it. I'm somewhat (somewhat) sympathetic to this argument, and I think it's applicable in the Jewish situation: yes, there are Jewish ritual moments that commemorate biblical events where one people suffered (usually the Hebrews' enemies) while another prospered, BUT because the Hebrews, and by extension the Jews, have been a long-persecuted minority all over the world, it's somewhat disanalogous to accuse the Jews of practicing the same kind of bigotry (?) as Christians who participate in gospel readings where the Jews come off as the bad guys.

That, by the way, is an ongoing debate. I report; you decide. Heh.

Fric: Gibson's dishonesty in the second point above puzzles me. He's either trying to take a non-mainstream view and make it mainstream, or he's trying to hide his motivation. Either way, it doesn't paint him in a very good light. Liar at best IMHO.

I don't know how much of this is outright lying, though if you pair Gibson with his dad, they're a scary duo. Maybe Gibson is quite sincere in what he believes (i.e., if he's lying, maybe he doesn't realize it); maybe his artistic motivation is sincere. But because this is Hollywood, and because this is big money, and because we're dealing with touchy scriptural questions and power relationships, yes, there's definite cause to worry.

For myself, I guess I'm insulated from some of this because the imagery in Gibson's film will be brutal, but won't be unfamiliar. Christians all know the story of the suffering of Jesus (or Jesus' Passion, as Catholics call it). I'd like to think that most modern, mainstream Christians know better than to take too literalist a tack regarding the gospel accounts, but...

...BUT, we're dealing with an event that many consider the essence of the Christian faith: that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" and was raised again on the third day. I.e., literal death, literal resurrection. Easter is the most important event on the Christian liturgical calendar, bar none. It's strange, but even Christians who're willing to grant that other miracles (e.g., Old Testament miracles like God stopping the sun for three days, or NT miracles like Jesus walking on water) might not have happened, will claim that Jesus really rose again from the dead. Somehow, they find it necessary to believe this literally, even in the mainstream.

I don't want to devote this email to an explanation of resurrection theology, which is a very muddled business, but I hope I've provided a bit of Christian background for why Gibson might be doing what he's doing.

The problem, of course, is judging the film sight unseen. That's prejudicial, too. I'm going to see the movie, try to view it both critically and uncritically (is that possible? I dunno), and will definitely want to talk w/you all about it afterwards. I don't know when it's going to hit Korea, and have no clue what kind of stink it's going to make here.

I doubt I satisfactorily answered any of your questions, Fric, re: what makes non-Christians nervous, so I ask forgiveness in advance for that. I tend to think the main politico-religious issue is that Gibson may have created a "rallying point" for frothing fundies, who will go out into the world reassured of the rightness of their vision. In other words, what's worrisome is not so much the film as the fervent masses' reactions to it. The film is only a text. We, in our freedom, respond to it in various ways.

Tentative prediction: "The Passion" will cause a big stir while it's out, but the furor will die down pretty quickly as the election approaches (summer movies, too) and other matters reassert themselves in the public mind. Not so different from the national climate during the showing of Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ," which turned out not to be that big of a deal in the larger scale.

Might be interesting to go back and read old IMDB reviews of "Last Temptation."



Check out Ryan Overbey's review of "The Passion." Ryan also provides a link to GetReligion's take. See also Andrew Sullivan's review, in which he says "The Passion" is a kind of pornography.

"Passion" reviews and speculation abound, but one thing is clear: not many people like the musical score. Chalk up a point for Peter Gabriel and his inspired work on Scorsese's film-- Gabriel's album was, of course, titled Passion.


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