26 February 2004

The Passion, from Jane's Perspective

Warning: possible spoilers.

I saw The Passion of the Christ last night. I do recommend it to many people. To some, especially those of a sensitive nature, I would not recommend it.

I read Andrew Sullivan's post on the topic. I think it goes without saying that I disagree with him, but I somehow feel it necessary to point out exactly where I disagree. Quotes from him are in italics.
In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh.
From my perspective, this film does not reduce all human thought to mere flesh. The people portrayed in this film have souls. Mary Magdalen remembers when Jesus saved her from being stoned. Peter denys Jesus, and then runs to Mary to repent. Simon is changed from a man who did not want to carry the cross to a man who has to be dragged away from Jesus.

The center-piece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting and despicable piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive - slowly, methodically and with increasing savagery.
No real basis in any of the Gospels? "Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. (John, 18:19) "So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him up to be crucified." (Mark, 15:15) "Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified." (Matthew, 27:26) Ok, so we're not four for four on this one, but three out of four isn't bad. Jesus was scourged. We know enough about the Romans to know that they could be cruel and savage. Why is this a stretch?

There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it.
At the time, all you had to say is "Jesus was scourged." They knew what scourging meant. It was savage. Ancient cultures had strange interest in developing the most horrible punishments imaginable. As for the theological reason, I'm sure there are people who could explain this better than I. Does it make a difference to you to know that not only did your God die for you, He died an agonizing, literally excruciating death? Would it make a difference if someone you love very much chose to die an excruciating death for your sake than if they chose a quick, painless death? It would make a difference to me.

The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree.
It's not insane. It's what happened. It was gruesome. Mr. Gibson was not exagerrating. Here are two articles about Jesus' Passion and death, both written by physicians. The first is from an Orthodox church's website, the second is a personal website maintained by a Mormon. If you don't believe those, check out Amazon and I'm sure you'll find some useful books on the subject.

Gibson has a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man's eyes out. Why? Because the porn needed yet another money shot.
Or maybe because it's symbolic? I admit, though, I thought this was disgusting and wish it had been left out.

Moreover, the suffering is rendered almost hollow by a dramatic void. Gibson has provided no context so that we can understand better who Jesus is - just a series of cartoon flashbacks. We cannot empathize with Mary fully or with Peter or John - because they too are mere props for the violence.
Peter denies Jesus and then runs to Mary to repent; you don't empathize? Mary sees Jesus fall and wishes that she could comfort him the way she did when he stumbled as a child; you don't empathize? Because I do. I thought that the flashback involving Jesus making a table was pretty silly, but most of them were not "cartoon". They were realistic. When we see things, they sometimes remind us of the past. Also, I don't think this movie was made for people who don't know the story. And if people already know the story, you don't have to beat them over the head with it. Subtle references are enough.

For good measure, Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans.
"Then the high priest tore his robes, and said, 'He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You now have heard his blasphemy. What is your judgement?' They answered, 'He deserves death.' Then they spat in his face, and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, 'Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?'" (Matthew, 26:65-68) Yes, Jesus was beaten in the presence of the priests.

Yes, the Roman torturers are obviously evil; yes, a few Jews dissent; and, of course, all the disciples are Jewish. I wouldn't say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It's motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them.
I think it is pretty clear in the movie that the high priest led the people. The Jewish people were unquestioningly doing what he said. If anyone is to blame, it is the high priest, not the crowds. The Jewish women wept on seeing Jesus in the street. The Roman soldiers were sadistic. Pilate wasn't exactly commendable for letting politics dictate this man's life or death. I think that this is true to the Gospels. I don't think Mr. Gibson exaggerates or highlights the role of the Jewish people in Jesus' death, at least, not more than the Gospels themselves do. But then, I have always been taught a right understanding of this story and I am not sensitive to what might look anti-Semitic.
As for the movie being motivated by psychotic sadism, I highly doubt it. It is an accurate portrayal of what crucifixion is like. Some people will benefit from seeing what Our Lord suffered for our sake. It was horrible suffering such as most people on earth could not imagine, and now we don't have to imagine it--we can see it.

It is a deeply immoral work of art.
It portrays truth with a view toward telling the story of the God who died to save his people, and of the Man who voluntarily endured atrocities for the most noble of causes. How can that be immoral? That it is a work of art I will not disagree with.

25 February 2004

Guinness as Usual

Downtown, a small, friendly Irish pub is the weekly host of the Folklore Society's Irish Music Sessions, usually on Tuesdays. Jane and I often go and sit in a quiet booth near the musicians who take over three of the large booths in the center of the restaurant. Depending on who is there, there can be any range of instruments-- from guitars, fiddles, and tin whistles to spoons, bodhrains, and an occasional upright bass.

After a few sessions, you start to get a feel for things. Jane is an experienced session-goer, while I for the most part have encountered Irish music through recordings or TV. This requires a different sort of musicianship than I've seen with the opera singers I normally end up with. There are very few chord books or cheat sheets, and they all seem to be able to play at least two other instruments besides the one they've brought with them. For opera singers, music is, often enough, their career, but for these musicians, it was a hobby. Perhaps music is their first love, but it's different. It's not how they earn their daily bread.

After a few sessions, you start to learn about the musicians too. Simply listening from an adjacent booth and singing along with the choruses, you learn which musicians like which songs the best. When a certain guitarist is there, they always play "Black Jack Davy." When a certain singer is there, they sing more Steeleye Span songs. Nearly every week, they play "Whisky in the Jar" and "I Wish I Was Back Home in Derry."

No matter what tunes they play, there is always interesting conversation.

Somehow, today's topic was medieval music. The mandolinist, knowing that Jane and I are Catholic, felt it necessary to tell us that for Lent, he would again give up Catholicism but go to Mass Good Friday and Easter. His reason: Catholics have the best music. His favorites are Leonin and Perotin and I must admit that I'm impressed. Not only did he know who they were, he knew the difference in their styles. However, he had a strange way of showing appreciation for them. He said it was good sh*t.

Every time we go downtown, we learn something new. This week's lesson was that Orlando di Lasso is the sh*t. And yes, that is a direct quote.

21 February 2004

Is there a Deficit of Decency in America?

Senator Zell Miller of Georgia seems to think so.

19 February 2004

Divine Liturgy with the Byzantines

On Sunday, my sweetheart and I went to Sts. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Church in Spokane for Divine Liturgy. It was Meatfare Sunday, the Sunday when they traditionally begin their preparatory fast for Lent by giving up meat. Next Sunday is Cheesefare Sunday, when they give up all dairy products. (For more on Eastern fasting, see Summa Contra Mundum.) There was a potluck lunch in the hall after Divine Liturgy which we were invited to by some very friendly parishoners. Five or six people, including the priest, recognized us as visitors and introduced themselves. Not that it would be hard to recognize visitors--the congregation on Sunday consisted of, I don't know, maybe thirty people.

The church is tiny. It has pews (I wasn't sure whether it would or not), but they're not very comfortable pews. The icons on the walls are beautiful, and for me anyway, they served their purpose well. This was my first experience with the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It was all in English, except for some song refrains. I was surprised at the amount of congregational participation required by this liturgy. There are no long periods when the congregation is silent, except for the homily. With the aid of booklets the parish had put together, the liturgy was pretty easy to follow--much easier than following along at the only other Catholic liturgy I've attended that was unfamiliar to me, a Tridentine Mass. Perhaps that's because it was in English, but somehow I don't think so.

I was grateful to see two of my Eastern Catholic schoolmates there. We sat next to them and followed what they were doing. It's a bit hard to get all the bowing and crossing oneself. I was not sure whether I ought to try and blend in by crossing myself Eastern fashion, or just do it the way I'm used to. I don't know whether it would have mattered much. Most of the time my hand went up-down-right-left-right again of its own volition, anyway.

Oddly, I felt very at home with the chant. They don't have a choir, only amature cantors, so the chants sung were not complex, but I felt more at home with it than I do even with the simple Gregorian chants that I have been singing for years. I don't know much about Eastern chant, but it seems to be much more closely related to the major and minor modes of Western secular music than Gregorian chant is.

The experience was wonderful. The community is obviously very strong, though many of them drive quite a distance every weekend to be there--or perhaps it is because of that. If you've driven a long way, maybe you're more inclined to stick around for lunch afterwards and socialize than if the trip home is only ten minutes. I hope to go there again soon, perhaps to bring Lizzy. I am Latin rite to my very bones, but coming to an appreciation of the beauty of Byzantine liturgy and theology is important. The Church must breathe with both her lungs, and I want to know more about the other lung.

09 February 2004

Bradley Birzer on Tolkien and Jackson

ISI, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has published online a wonderful article by Bradley J. Birzer about Tolkein's mythology and its representation in Jackson's film. I feel like the subject of my previous post has intersected with my Ethics class, in which we are discussing the importance of stories to the moral development of children (and adults, too, I suppose). Don't you love it when things fit together like that? I do. Anyway, it's a great article. You know Birzer has to be pretty cool if his book has an introduction by Joseph Pierce. He brings up some good points, including one which justifies a long-held secret desire of mine to write a story about Rosie Cotton. Of course, at the heart of it all is what anyone reading this blog probably knows already: that Tolkien's myth is essentially Catholic.

08 February 2004

The Good and the Beautiful

Terry Teachout has posted a quote about beauty and goodness which struck my eye. I confess I know nothing about the author of the quote, Karl Stern, except that an Amazon.com search says people who bought his book also bought books by George Weigel and Peter Kreeft, so I guess he's someone Catholics read.

The quote struck me largely because I have had so many encounters with the question of the relationship of art and God and goodness over the past two weeks. Last week, a friend asked me about objective beauty in music. How can you say that some music is good music, and some music is not good? I answered him as best I could, and of course dragged out that famous Louis Armstrong quote, "If it sounds good, it is good." There are all sorts of problems with people being from different cultures when you talk about art and music, because Eastern and Western music, and within those distinctions several genres, all sound very, very different. People from different traditions will at first think that other art is strange, yet I think even then they will be capable of saying both whether they like it, and whether they think it is good (not always the same thing).

My second encounter was a post by Samwise over at the Southfarthing Soapbox. (There are actually two posts now, the 2nd and 5th of February.) Samwise is talking about visual art, most specifically painting, although sculpture is also covered by what he says. I am still trying to figure out whether I believe him or not. I think further reflection and possibly a little research is required on my part. But, it is definitely worth thinking about. He talks about why he thinks most modern art violates the rules of good art by lacking reverence for the beauty of God's creation, and the artist's role as sub-creator.

The third encounter was one I shared with Lizzy. We attended a lecture by Perry Lorenzo, the education director of Seattle Opera and Gonzaga alumnus with a philosophy degree. The talk was titled, "The Theology of Beauty; an Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar." I'm not going to post about that lecture, though, because Lizzy took notes on it and said she would post.

07 February 2004

My First "Passion" Post

Well, I guess it had to come eventually. Catholic Exchange has an interview with Jim Caviezel who is playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion. Via Mark Brumley.

04 February 2004

Catholic Musicians at Protestant Churches

Gavin posts about a job opportunity at a Protestant church. I think he raises some questions which are worth considering for all liturgical musicians.
1. Under what circumstances is it ok for a musician of any faith to take a permanent or semi-permanent position of leadership at a church which has conflicting beliefs?
2. If a musician takes a position at a church with different/conflicting beliefs, should he allow his own beliefs to affect his musical choices? If so, in what way?
3. To what extent is it legitimate for this musician to participate in their worship service? (I suppose this depends largely on his faith and the faith of the church he's working in.)

I think we can all agree that being a liturgical musician, especially one in a position to lead a congregation and make important musical choices, is not "just another job," in the way that playing for a party is. I think we can also agree that, while it is certainly a good thing for a Catholic musician to be a witness to his faith, it is not part of his job description to convert the congregation for which he works or tell them that their Eucharist is not valid (assuming that they believe in the Real Presence).

I know that some of you out there, especially Mary Jane at Sacred Miscellany, currently or have in the past been a Catholic musician at a non-Catholic church. I know I have been called upon to play at Protestant weddings, and I always wonder how much to participate in the service. It is important not to distract those around you by your lack or participation, but leading them to think that you believe as they do could also be detrimental. How do you handle it?

01 February 2004

Red and Purple?

This evening, Gavin and I went to see Gonzaga Theater Arts' production of "Pippin." (No, it's not about everyone's favorite hobbit, it's about Charlemagne's son.) While the musical was fun, I think the best part was my first encounter with the Red Hat Society. I was a bit surprised to see several silver-haired ladies in garish purple dresses and fantastic red hats enter the theater and sit in the front row. After the play, I complimented one of the ladies on her feather-bedecked head covering, and asked what sort of organization they belonged to. She said, "We're the Red Hat Ladies. It's a new, national organization. We go on cruises and to plays and concerts and have tea parties, and just have fun because we're old!" I thought that was a wonderful answer, so of course I came home and looked them up on the internet. Frankly, it sounds like a lot of fun. Perhaps in 31 years when I reach the golden age of 50, I too shall don a purple dress and a red hat, and go to a tea party.