The Passion: A Post-Modernist Play on Ultraviolence?

No, I haven’t seen The Passion of the Christ yet. So this is a pre-review blog. (Yeah, I’m going to talk about it anyway whether Fox News likes it or not.) The wife doesn’t want to see the film at all. I’m going to have to make a solo trip in the next few days with my knit blackwatch cap on my head and dark navy pea coat. Apparently, I’ll need some tough threads to endure the bloody mashing of our beloved Lord and Savior.

The New Yorker-critic David Denby says of the Passion‘s director Mel Gibson: “[He] is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.”

The New Yorker gives a savvy eye to the arts, in general, and Denby in particular gives a fine review here (see, “Nailed,” New Yorker, March 1, 2004.) His review reveals much of the story of the movie, but it seems partially intended to report the movie to those disinclined to see it, so they might be spared. Denby does a smart job of exploring Gibson’s apparent fascination with ultraviolence and, thankfully, the writer makes no attempt to understate the horror.

I left High Times magazine in 1994. I re-ignited a relationship with Jesus at the age of 28. I got baptized, too. It’s not an easy thing to do, at least it wasn’t for me. I started to change my life and turn over what seemed like the impossible difficulties to the Higher Power. It’s a tough row to hoe for a party animal. And there were times when I certainly was that. Of course, I’ve failed miserably again and again as a Christian, but that’s another story.

On a certain level I can relate to Gibson and his dedication to the faith and what it means to undergo the conversion. On another level, I just wouldn’t have done it the same way as him. I mean, blood looks good on the screen, always has, even in black and white, but I just hate the pain, the agony, and the suffering, the absolute torture, especially absent important context. Sure, it’s a part that must be included in any complete, accurate depiction of the life of Jesus, but to dwell on it for more than two hours? Maybe, if this was a 24-hour movie series, but it’s not.

What this really tells me is, wherever he may be headed in the afterlife, Gibson is trapped in the post-modern world now. To take a slice of a complete piece of art, which also happens to be the Word of God, and work it (and overwork it?) until it’s taken on a life of its own and then display it as entertainment. Even with the religious context this qualifies as post-modern sentimentality.

I have grown a heftier disdain for people who dish out cruelty for self-serving purposes (or any other reason) in this day and age. I realize over two thousand years ago it was people like me and you and everyone else who did the job on Jesus. People who could be cruel killed the Savior. They were Jewish and Roman in name, but they reflected advanced culture at the time. These were really elements of one of the world’s most advanced civilization, in that way not so unlike the America of recent times. The people who killed Jesus were like all of us, people who at times have fallen short of expectations, people who lost faith or never had it, people who ended up committing a great evil because it seemed like the easy way out (that’s not me, although the little things do add up).

Of course, Christ’s death was prophesied and it had to happen, but YEESH!! It’s not the only thing, and people ought not to get too frenzied about it. I mean, shots on TV of Christian sceening audiences looking like Grateful Dead crowds but with short hair and pastel crew-neck sweaters. People swooning, getting all emotional, losing their heads and weeping. The message certainly isn’t “Sugar Magnolia” either. It’s simply terrifying taken on it’s own; absent the miracles and the resurrection, it may not serve the faith well.

These are grave images of our Lord. And I don’t like to see repeat performances (except, of course, Bill Murray in Groundhog Day). I’ve read the Gospels thoroughly. We read about the death of Jesus every year on Good Friday in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches that I’ve attended in recent years. The gravity of the situation is invariably well delivered at these places and unless one has no power of imagination the graphic images of Christ’s sacrifice is pictured quite accurately.

Personally, I connect enough with great literature to make the pictures in my own mind for myself, thank you very much. The process happened well before I could even read. Images, as when my grandmother read to me at bedtime and sometimes on a rainy day in the afternoon. Images in my own mind. My interpretation of events as they were read. My thinking about it.

I’ve experienced the crucifixion of Christ through reading the Gospels and I’ve formed my own view. And that’s what THIS movie is. No new revelation. Maybe a new angle, and certainly more bloody “realism” than ever before displayed in a film about Christ, if the critics are to be believed. But, simply, the Passion is what Gibson thinks about the killing of Christ. One rather flawed man’s seemingly myopic (and possibly sado-masochistic in its excess) look at one of the most horrible tortures in the history of mankind.

Why am I going to see it? I don’t know, but I dig Jesus. Jesus was good to people. He died and was resurrected and ascended into heaven. Some people think that’s nuts, but I believe it.

Our colleague and friend Roger Born got me thinking about all this with some of his comments on Owen Rubin’s recent “…OUTRAGED” thread. I took this away from Roger’s comments: don’t worry, have faith and be happy. Of course, Roger’s words go much deeper than that. I was tempted to argue some of Roger’s finer points, but I took it at face value that he knows what he’s talking about and I agreed with most of what he was saying. When it comes to the Trinity, which so many of us pay homage to, I usually leave it to the experts for thorough debate, which tends to give me headaches (arguing the faith, that is). But I think Roger’s ideas apply to this film. That is, basically, Don’t worry. Talk about the movie all you like but stay short of the frenzy either way. It’s just one man’s artistic (and religious!) vision.

I can comment on post-modernist art, can’t I? Apparently I can. I’ve taken something of a swipe at Gibson, a fellow Christian, but I stand with him in principle. He had the privilege to make this picture and I believe he has the right, as a Christian, an American and a human, to do so. My fear is absent any context it may cause misunderstanding. Personally, I don’t want the image of the noble Savior messed with, and I fear this might happen with Gibson’s ultraviolent post-modern expression.

There is something of the Christian spirit compelling me to see this film with an open mind. I plan to meditate and pray before entering the theater, so I may view the film without a negative bias and give the most honest possible blog report here. It just might not be possible to have a fair-minded outlook about it now. I’m already wincing based on reports on TV and the New Yorker review. When it starts on the screen I may clench up. All those miracles and not a single one gets a play in this story? That’s just great. Sitting there by myself, in an enclosed theater, watching the excruciatingly detailed, vivid torture of my hero, just soaked in blood, for hours, in my itchy hot, black watch hat and pea coat? And I can’t even smoke cigarettes….

Sometimes being a Christian is unpleasant.

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