Friday, February 27, 2004

All That Blood: How Mel Gibson's depiction of Christ differs from others: "To be a Christian, [Gibson] seems to be saying, is not to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus but to enter through the ordinances of the Church into the mystery of the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood. It is not to love a lovely Jesus but to worship a battered Christ."

I have found myself completely unable to come to a conclusion about The Passion of The Christ as a whole. The best I've been able to say about it is, I liked it as a whole, though I'm not sure why, but there were stylistic choices and poetic choices Mr. Gibson made that I dislike immensely and I think were unnecessary. That being said, the movie, I think, conveyed the message of Christ's Passion very well.

I think what this article gets at is why my saying that last sentence is somewhat at odds with some of my evangelical friends here at Yale: I'm high church, they're low. They don't understand why it matters that this movie came out on Ash Wednesday--to be sure, many of them don't even know what Ash Wednesday is. I went to the movie directly from a smells and bells service, with the ashes still on my forehead. I'm not Catholic by birth or tradition, but I definitely find myself drawn to the high Episcopal church, which is clearly quite similar to Catholicism.

One of my friends who saw the movie with me on Wednesday night immediately said he didn't like it because "it completely missed the whole point: Christ's love! That's what the word passion means!" But that's simply not true. Dictionary.com defines the roots of "Passion" as: "Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin passi, passin-, sufferings of Jesus or a martyr, from Late Latin, physical suffering, martyrdom, sinful desire, from Latin, an undergoing, from passus." God is Love, it's true. But Christ's ultimate act of Love was not all of his teaching about how to treat one another, and his refusal to hate even those who persecuted him. Rather, it was his taking on all of our sin, all of our suffering. He, who was entirely free from sin, absorbed the punishment intended for the entire human race. He died a most excruciating martyrdom, from which he could easily have saved himself, so that we would be free from sin and death. This movie was not about Christ's choice, the love side of the Passion, but about the Passion itself, the act, the suffering, the pain and brutality that Jesus underwent.

Initially I blanched at the gore as much as anyone else. I thought it was excessive. I felt like Gibson had betrayed his own point by being so brutal. Upon further reflection, however, I think I was missing the point. The suffering is what's important. As the Satan character says to Jesus in the opening scene (and I'm paraphrasing here): "You can't possibly do it. Their sin is too great for any one man to bear." That's just it. It had to be more suffering than any man could survive. Only Jesus The Christ, fully God and fully man could last through such pain and physical brutality. The key is, this film was called "The Passion of The Christ," NOT "The Passion of Jesus."

So, while I still disagree with a few of Mr. Gibson's choices, I'd give this movie a positive rating overall. I think Mel accomplished what he aimed to do. And I can see why the Pope might very well have commented, at the end, "It is as it was."

For another perspective I support, written by a Catholic film reviewer, read Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun Times review.

On the Anti-Semitic Question
I'll keep my comments brief on this issue. I don't remember where I read it, but someone said about the movie "on some level, Christianity itself has to be anti-Semitic." That about sums up what I feel. As with the Gospels, as with all of Christian theology, you can find a repudiation of Judaism. I regret that Mel Gibson's father found the need to say such unfortunate things. I do not think this makes Mel an anti-Semite, and I absolutely do not believe it means that the message of the movie is in any way anti-Semitic.

The brutality towards Christ was inflicted primarily by Romans, secondarily by the high priests and leadership of the Jewish community. In the scenes where the Jews tell Pilate to crucify Jesus, and to free Barabbas, I saw an image of mob mentality, not of barbary. Certainly, there was nothing that implied to me any specific commentary directed at Jews. In fact, on the road to Golgotha (the Place of the Skull, where Jesus was crucified), many of the Jews fought the soldiers and pleaded with them to stop whipping Jesus.

In sum, if you look for it, you can find anti-Semitism. I think it was neither intentional, nor a part of the film's message. If you are encouraged to anti-Semitic behavior by the film, you were leaning that way to begin with.

UPDATE: From Andrew Sullivan:

"I saw The Passion of The Christ last night. I am still processing through what I saw and how I feel about it. The only thing I can say for sure right now is that it was, without question, the single most disturbing thing I have ever seen.

A couple years ago I went to the movies and watched Hannibal. When I left the theater I felt this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was a very disturbing experienc...but for different reasons than The Passion. When I left Hannibal I felt disturbed at myself, at the fact that I had willingly paid money to watch such gratuitous and gruesome violence. Not only was there cannibalism, there was a scene where Hannibal drugged a man, cut off the top of his skull, sliced off part of his brain, and fried and ate it in front of the man. The entire movie was sickening. And I watched it with friends for "entertainment". I left the movie as sick at myself as I was at Hollywood.

The Passion was different. After it was over I couldn't do anything but sit and stare blankly at the screen. The violence in this film was terrifying, but in a totally different way than in Hannibal. I have been a Christian for most of my life. I have done a lot of missions work and, I've felt, have served Jesus well. I have thought of myself as a pretty good person who never did anything terribly wrong. But I did do something terribly wrong. I am complicit in, and responsible for, the savage murder of an innocent man, of my Lord. My faith demands that I accept this truth. I am equally complicit with every other person who ever has, and ever will walk this earth.

This Passion brought that point home with me in a totally new way. I've always known Jesus' death was terrible. Always knew he died for me. But never really thought through just how horrible and terrifying it must have been. Watching this movie was, to me, like being there as a witness to the act. As one complicit in His death, I might as well have been one of those shouting "Crucify!" I might as well have spat on Him, laughed at Him, placed the crown of thorns upon His head, and driven the nails into His hands. It was for my sins that He embraced the cross and willingly paid the terrible price. All my life I have taken Christ's sacrifice for granted without ever really considering the true cost of the cross in terms of the brutal and savage pain I inflicted upon the Savior. That is what I find most disturbing. It's also why I can never be the same after watching The Passion of The Christ."

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