April 14, 2004

Review: The Passion of the Christ



I saw Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" about a month ago. I started writing this post the day after and, well, as you can imagine, it started to get a little out of control.

So, let me take a step back.

Mel Gibson's father Hutton is a complete loon. The man has gone on record denying the existence of the Holocaust, and Mel refuses to rebuke him. Gibson himself belongs to a branch of Catholicism that rejects the reforms of the second Vatican council, one of which is the Holy See's official statement refuting the idea that Jews should be held accountable for Jesus's death. By his own account, he is not a good person.

Media accounts of the near-Fangoria level of violence in The Passion really made me reluctant to see it, let alone pay $14 at the Arclight for the privilege. I saw pictures of devote churchgoers, who probably won't see another movie from godless Hollywood all year round, walking out of theatres in tears. I worried with my friends that many of these folks aren't particularly media-saavy and will have a hard time keeping in mind that this is simply a movie, a distinctly interpreted exercise told through the prism of Mel Gibson's mind, and not a documentary about Christ's final moments.

A very large and vocal part of me did not want to see this movie. In fact, a large part of me even resented the existence of this movie. But I felt like I had to see it. I can't NOT talk about it, and I can't talk about it without seeing it.

Of course, it helped that I had a friend with free passes to the Magic Johnson Theatre at Crenshaw Plaza.

My initial reaction?

That was a great movie.



Surprised?

I am a Christian. Born and raised as a Protestant - United Methodist to be exact. I consider myself pretty faithful. I pray daily. I try to read the Bible daily. I tithe. On the other hand, I haven't regularly attended church since high school. I like to say that I haven't found a church that moves me yet. The ones that I have seen, either back at Princeton, or in my old home in Montclair, New Jersey, or, most recently, here in Los Angeles, always seem so contrived. After spending all of my formative years at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church back in Baltimore, I've probably heard just about every cliche` and overused Christian phrase on the planet. I can instantly tell when a minister is simply going through the motions and when he's actually speaking "The Word".

For those of you who may not be completely up on the Bible, one of the most interesting scriptures to me is the Gospel according to John, Chapter 1, Verse 1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"

What's interesting to me is that, way back in the book of Genesis, the first thing God does is speak. And God's speech, the formulation of words, is the original creative act. Everything in existence, everything that IS, spawns from that Word.

Christian theology goes on to tell us that Jesus is, in fact, The Word, made into flesh. The power of God, squeezed into the form of a prehistoric Bob Villa.

I'm a writer. I've written my entire life, in one form or another. But I think I've only recently become truly aware of the power of writing, and of words. Stephen King once said that writing is a form of telepathy - a vehicle by which the author can insert their own thoughts into the heads of others. In Mark Millar's Superman: Red Son, Lex Luthor is able to defeat a Stalinist Man of Steel with a simple phrase, written on a slip of paper, that drives him to the brink of suicide. I wrote a poem to my ex-girlfriend that, when I recite it, even brings other women to tears. The right word from the right person can take you past Heaven.

There's a scene in "The Passion", where Pontius Pilate questions Jesus to determine his guilt, and Jesus tells him "whenever you hear Truth spoken, you hear my voice".

The point is, I know the Word when I hear it. Sometimes it's from the voice in the pulpit of my family's church. Other times, it's the casual comment of a total stranger. It's a song on Hot 92.3. It's the rhyme from a poet in a dank coffee shop. It's the affections breathed into my ear with a kiss at midnight.

Of course, that's the trick with the Word. It can come from anywhere, at any given time. As I struggled over the seemingly decadent lives of so many clergy, a very good friend who happens to be an AME minister told me that being called to preach in no way means that you're a good person.

I'm saying all this to say that, yes, Mel Gibson is an extremely imperfect messenger, but this movie forced me to confront issues with my own faith that I've been dodging for years.

Case in point: I've always tried to conceptualize God and Jesus in almost mathematical terms. For instance, if sin, theologically speaking, is the state of being separated from God, it's impossible for God to understand, and, therefore, absolve sin, without God somehow separating from himself. Which is, essentially, what Jesus is. He's a sliver of God. A slice. A portion of the whole.

But, to me, that's always meant that Jesus was not an ordinary man as we think of it. After all, he can see the future, heal the sick with a touch, walk on water, feed thousands with just a loaf of bread and a pair of fish, turn water into wine, tell demons to hit the bricks, and raise the dead, including himself.

Superman has nothing on this guy.

So, when people talk about how painful and costly the crucifixion is, and they're all so impressed with the sacrifice Jesus made, I always felt like they missed the point. To me, Jesus was not an ordinary man and his entire reason for being here was to die. It wasn't some great sacrifice. It was his mission. And, since he knows the future, he knows he'll succeed. Where's the drama and sacrifice in that?

Ironically enough, my daily Bible reading took me through the Easter story in the week before I saw The Passion, so the story elements were fresh in my mind. I'd forgotten that, according to the Bible, Jesus pleaded so hard with God to find another way, ANY other way, to complete his mission that he sweat blood. I'd forgotten that, as he hung on the cross, Jesus found a moment of abject dispair where he literally screams to the Heavens why has God forsaken him.

These two things helped to highlight for me what is the essential paradox about Jesus - he is the Word Made Flesh, but he still acts like a man. Because that's what he is.

Which changes a great many things. When Jesus does all of his miracles, and then says to his disciples that they can do these things, too, if they only had faith, it makes you wonder about the nature of faith.

I have a very good friend who speaks constantly on manifestation and energy and tapping into the intelligent source of creation. She'd sooner shoot herself than ever actually use the word "God" (which, needless to say, gives me pause), but she is also completely confident in her world view. There isn't a single doubt in her mind.

I really, really hate people who don't have doubts. I want to attack them, to know what gives them the nerve to actually think that they've got it all figured out. But, I've forced myself to realize that my problem isn't with them for their arrogance. It's with myself, because I'm riddled with doubt. I always have another question. I can always conceive of the alternative. In many ways, I think that much of the really harsh criticism of this film from the left, from people like Christopher Higgins, starts in this same place - an utter disdain for the faithful. Mel's issues only make it easier.

But I also realize that you can't really acquire faith. Just like when Morpheus says that no one can ever actually be TOLD what the Matrix is. You have to use building blocks. Use the fact that I have faith that I'll wake up tomorrow morning in my right mind and with all my fingers and toes as a way to expand my faith to bigger things.

The Passion also made me re-examine the nature of sin. As I've said before, sin is that which separates you from the divine. So, in many ways, we define our own Hell. We all have our own interpretations of what it means to be God-like, and we all have a sense on how close we, individually, meet our own standards. I've always taken the fire images of Hell to be metaphors for the state of constant longing, when you know that you must spend all eternity outside of God's presence.

The Passion paints a different picture of sin, as illustrated through it's depiction of the final fate of Judas Iscariot. As Judas agonizes over his betrayal of Jesus, a pair of kids start to taunt him for being a crazy man. But their taunts become more violent, to the point that they actually snap and bite at him. Their faces contort into grotesque monstrous images. In the end, they form a horde, like a pack of wolves, that drive Judas from the city and into a hangman's noose of his own making. It's as if they were conjured by his own spiritual torment.

I'm reminded of a passage in Genesis, where God tries to warn Cain, as he senses his growing anger and jealousy towards Abel, that, if he does wrong, "Sin crouches at his door, seeking to consume you." Somewhere else in the Bible, Satan is likened to a lion, stalking the Earth, in search of souls to devour. Which must have been what Dante had in mind in his image of the final circle of Hell in the Divide Comedy - Judas, trapped in Satan's mouth, chewed on like Prometheus, but never dying, for all eternity.

It's an interesting contrast to what we see of Jesus in the movie, on his arduous journey to Golgotha, where the crowds and the Roman soldiers continue to whip and kick and beat him, even after he's been lashed to within an inch of his life and forced to carry a giant log up and down city streets. In the very beginning of the film, Satan warns Jesus that no one man can bear the sins of the entire world. if the demon children are a representation of the sins of one man, it gives new meaning to the enormity of the task that is set before the Messiah.

Now, for those of you who aren't Christian or interested in theology, who've managed to stick around all the way down through my missives about this film and my religious faith, my hats' off to you. I'm simply saying all these things to illustrate one point. As a Christian, particularly as a media-savvy, jaded, non-church-going, somewhat secular Christian, this movie had a tremendous amount of meaning for me, and, for that, I'm grateful to Mel for making it. And, as a filmmaker, I applaud the absolute artistry that went into its construction. Since it seems to be on track to be one of the highest grossing films of all time, I'm curious to see if it gets remembered next year at Oscar time.

But, just like I believe that this is a film made by Christians and intended largely for Christians, I don't know that I can adequately gauge how offensive it is to Jews. Personally, I don't think it's particularly anti-Semetic. Yes, some of the main villains are the Jewish high priests, but I didn't get the sense that the film was saying that they were bad because they were Jews and, therefore, all Jews are bad. After all, aren't Jesus and all of his supporters Jewish? Moreover, a point could be made that the film illustrates what the Jewish high priests may have felt was a legitimate greviance with Jesus. After all, they're living under an occupation, and some dude who seems to have his own cult appears out of nowhere, claiming to be God incarnate, and that he's mad at his own priests so he's going to destroy their temple and make himself king of the Jews. Blasphemy & insurrection, all wrapped into one package. It would almost be like what you'd expect most pastors to do if some guy showed up today and claimed to be the second coming. Conservative Christians would be calling for his head on a platter.

On the other hand, I can see how it would be uncomfortable at best for Jews to see guys wearing their religious regalia and acting like Snidley Whiplash. In fact, I have a friend who felt that the depiction of Judas' demon childen tormentors was also an anti-Semetic statement because, presumably, the children were Jews. Or the fact that Satan is seen lurking among the high priests during the scouring.

At the end of the day, I don't think it's anymore helpful for Christians to tell Jews that the movie isn't anti-Semetic than it is for White people to tell Blacks that a movie like "Traffic" isn't racist when it shows Erika Christiansen being used as a sex slave for a Black drug dealer. The issue isn't intent, but, rather, how much these things play into and, perhaps, legitimize existing stereotypes. Ultimately, no one can tell anyone else what they can or cannot be offended by. Whether you intended to offend is irrelevant if offense is actually taken. If Jews say they find the movie offensive, it is, by definition, offensive to Jews. The issue, therefore, creates what one of my friends in academia calls "a teaching moment".

Until this movie came out, I had no appreciation for just how Christian our culture is from the perspective of non-Christians. That, in and of itself, makes its existence worthwhile.
Moreover, now that I have some perspective on it, I can see just how much the fact that I am a Christian colors my profound reaction to that movie. Conversely, I'm now aware how much, if you were not raised in a Christian tradition, that "The Passion" probably appears gratuitously violent and exploitative. In many ways, if you don't know the basics of the Gospels, the movie may not even make any sense.

But these conversations, both with the larger community and within myself, wouldn't even exist if the film did not exist. And for that, despite all the egregious faults of the messenger, I am deeply appreciative of the message.

P.S. - but I'm still angry that, after all the trouble to make it authentic by using Latin and Arameic, they STILL couldn't get a brown-skinned Jesus. "Historically accurate", my ass. I guarantee you Jim Caviezel does NOT have hair like wool or feet of brass. Ya dig?


p.p.s. - and when is somebody going to do a Mary Magdelene movie? This book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala REALLY has me intrigued.


Apparently there's a forgotten, non-Canonical gospel (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls? not sure) written by Mary herself, where she is actually one of Jesus' apostles and one to whom he revealed some secret knowledge. Needless to say, this didn't make Peter and the boys happy. Was there a bit of Hater-Ade served at the Last Supper?
I must admit, despite my good Christian upbringing, Gnosticism fascinates me. Like looking at the deleted scenes on a DVD.
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