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.

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