Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Passion – Part II

I am away right now, visiting my Dad in Texas, where he has taken up wintering since his retirement. So in addition to visiting with other relatives and seeing the sights of the Hill Country, he and my stepmom and I went to see the "The Passion of The Christ", which is the second time for me. I almost never see a movie twice at the theatre, but I was happy to do so in this case. And, of course, that second viewing is the source of some further reflections about the movie:

Satan: This is, as far as I am concerned, one of the most theologically insightful depictions of Satan I have ever seen on screen. (Another one - though of a lighter, and utterly different character - is in the original Dudley Moore version of "Bedazzled".) Satan's malevolence in "The Passion" is utterly cold. Not even Satan himself derives any satisfaction from it. Satan’s hatred for us is almost palpable: he drives Judas to his death after using him, discarding him like a soiled, useless rag. He is all negation: At the beginning, in the Garden, his "temptation" of Christ is negative: You can’t do this. No one can do it. It isn’t worth it. Give up. And on the Via Dolorosa, Satan mocks Christ with another negation: after being comforted by His Mother, who is the archetype of all motherhood, Satan carries a hideous and grotesque man-infant in caricature of what Christ just experienced and what Mary just remembered. Mel Gibson clearly understands that while Satan is, in a sense, clever and devious, he nonetheless is ultimately a one-trick pony.

Violence: On the second viewing, the violence has less sheer punch-in-the-guts impact, but it is still gripping. It is gripping because it is Real. I am not an “expert” in Roman punishments and crucifixion, but I do have an M.A. Classics and have read quite a lot about such things in both primary and secondary sources. I have given presentations on the topic to parish groups and high school classes. I have to say that in most ways, Gibson’s depictions of the scourging and crucifixion are accurate in their brutal detail. To complain that it is "unnecessary" is to miss the point. It happened. Obviously, in some sense, God thought it was necessary because He asked His Son to endure it. Jesus thought it was necessary because He willingly chose to undergo it. He had power to lay down His life and take it up again. He had power to come down from the cross, but he chose to stay on it.

Peter Nixon at Sursum Corda comes closest to offering a substantive objection to the violence, but I find his points fall short. He seems to think the violence is gratuitous, and compares it to a hypothetical "film depicting a concentration camp victim choking to death on gas and then having his skin removed by Nazi doctors", and asks whether such a movie would really tell us "a truth about the Holocaust that we don’t already know?" I think the holocaust movie analogy falls short, because, as horrific as what they endured was, nonetheless they weren't bearing all the weight and burden of all human sin and evil. Jesus was. The scourging and crucifixion were ugly and brutal because sin is ugly and brutal. The Christian can never become complacent or forgetful of this fact. Peter complains that the violence is the "stuff of nightmares". Yes, and Sin is nightmarish. If only more of us had nightmares about our sins! Seriously, how many people do you suppose these days have nightmares about their sins? And if they do, they're more likely to go to a therapist and medicate them away than they are to go to confession. Our salvation was purchased at a terrible price, and "The Passion" brings that point home.

Peter also compares the movie to devotions such as the Stations of The Cross, which obviously don't have the same level of brutal realism as Gibson's movie. But this comparison is also false. The movie isn't a prayer or devotion, though I, and I believe many others, prayed during it. The movie is Art. And there is ample precedent in Sacred Art for making depictions of Christ's passion as "realistic" and "brutal" as the artist's medium and technique would allow. Just look at much of medieval and baroque art, or the paintings of Gibson's claimed patron, Caravaggio.

Is the violence of the film "necessary"? Obviously, in a literal sense, no. The violence is not logically or morally necessary. Gibson could have made a powerful movie that did not feature such a graphic account of the Lord's suffering. But the fact that it could have been done that way doesn't mean that it shouldn't have been done in the way Gibson has. Gibson's movie is a powerful antidote to the many inside and outside the Church who would say that Jesus was all about "preaching a message of love." This sentiment is insipid and false. Jesus came to die for us and our salvation, "and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

The Critics: Amy Welborn has rightly cautioned us not to equate criticism of Gibson's movie with hatred of the Church or the Gospel. I can disagree with Peter Nixon about the merits of the movie and still respect his opinion, because he is trying to look at it and think about it as a Catholic and from "within" the faith. He also shows that he is at least trying to meet the movie on its own terms. So I have no doubt that there are very good Catholics and others who will not like the movie for all sorts of credible reasons.

Nonetheless, there are critics of the movie who I think can justly be accused of bad will and/or bad faith. One such critic is Andrew Sullivan, whose criticisms are a monument of intellectual dishonesty. Sullivan's entire life-project revolves around overthrowing the Christian tradition regarding his "one little thing". In that light his denunciation of Mel Gibson for his "heterodox" theology is rather rich. Of course, Sullivan is also wrong: "The Passion" is clearly based on a "substitutionary atonement" theology which is not only mainstream, but may even be considered normative for the Western Christian tradition. And for Sullivan, whose enjoyment of his "lifestyle" revolves around making the scriptural condemnations of homosexual behavior "go away", to upbraid Gibson for his artistic liberties with the Gospels is almost comical in its irony.

Evangelism: Many, especially evangelical Protestants, have been touting "The Passion" as a medium of evangelism. If by that they mean converting those who have no faith in Christ, I doubt it will be effective. I think that unbelievers may very well be moved to compassion and pity for Christ, but it is faith which makes one understand the meaning of what He did and suffered. On the other hand, I think that this movie has the potential to reinvigorate the faith of many, and to rekindle fervor for the gospel. I know of many who have been moved to repentance, and to a desire to spread the Good News, by this movie. I think, that followed by a time of meditation and prayer, such as what we are organizing in my parish for a high school Youth Ministry event, it could be a very powerful instrument for deepening one's faith in and love for Our Lord.

The "Ordinary Man's" Reaction: I mentioned that my father went with me to see the movie this time. I think his reaction is instructive. Now, my father is in many ways no "ordinary" man. But he is in this sense: he is not a church professional and has no theological degrees. He is college-educated but has spent his life working very much in the "real world". He does not read blogs. (Not even my own – how's that to keep me humble!) But he knows his faith, and he knows Jesus, and tries to live accordingly. And he was very moved by this movie. He had to wipe the tears from his eyes more than once, not that I'd ever make him feel self-conscious by pointing out that I'd noticed. He was pretty choked up by it. And he observed to me afterwards that nobody came out "looking good" in this movie except Jesus and Mary. Not the Jews, not the Romans, no one. "I suppose that's about right", he said, "none of us [emphasis mine] come out looking good." He got it, and I think most people will as well.