Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Kingdom not of this world strikes back 

Mel Gibson's "Passion" continues its dream run at the US box office. I would not be surprised if following the Easter period it overtakes "The Return of the King" on its way to $400 million. In addition, far from precipitating a wave of synagogue-burning and Jew-bashing, as critics have feared, "The Passion" has managed to thaw some consciences.

Here's my thoughts (rather a lot of them) I wrote down soon after watching the film:

It’s not every year that a self-financed vanity project with a largely unknown foreign cast speaking solely in two dead languages becomes a cinematic phenomenon. Thanks to a series of controversy-generating leaks, “The Passion of the Christ” has become something of a phenomenon long before its release. Now, its status as the 2004’s movie to see gets reinforced with every new broken box office record.

Mel Gibson probably didn’t quite expect – or care about – all the hullabaloo that has erupted around his work. Yet “The Passion”, like no other movie in recent times, has divided America (and to a lesser extent other Western countries), with the majority of critics and commentators behaving like the film’s Sanhedrin, indignantly shaking their golden staffs and theatrically tearing their robes at the sight of the blasphemer. The masses, on the other hand, instead of baying for Gibson’s blood, have flocked into suburban megaplexes in droves, ignoring the learned opinion of their betters. Lest I myself get accused of blasphemy for comparing the controversial director/producer to Christ, let me make it clear I don’t consider Gibson a saint, much less a Hollywood Messiah. I am rather amused, though, by how little the politics have changed from the first century Judea to the twenty first century United States.

Proving that September 11 only subdued but never finished the culture wars, the believers and the curious are now streaming into theatres, the former rejoicing that a mainstream film finally took their faith seriously. Meanwhile, our enlightened liberal elites have (often without the benefit of seeing the movie first) passed their own judgement: “The Passion” is a violent anti-Semitic flop. Considering the consensus reaction, one would think that Gibson had produced a Quentin Tarantino remake of “The Eternal Jew”.

So is Gibson’s movie a spiritual masterpiece or misguided, brutal schlock? To quote the Gospels, what is the truth? As Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” would I think say, the truth is that our enlightened elites can’t handle the truth. Here’s why.

The most common charge of the liberal commentariat against Gibson’s epic is that it’s too violent. Hollywood’s standard output over the years must have succeeded in completely desensitising me, for I did not squirm or turn my gaze away during the movie. Personally, I find Tarantino’s “coolification” of violence and Rodriguez’s brutal nihilism far more unsettling and disgusting than Gibson’s vision of Christ’s suffering.

Own reaction aside, is the film objectively violent? Well, here’s a newsbreak for the critics: crucifixion was the most gruesome form of public execution practiced by the Romans and its propaganda shock value was not infrequently explored to send a clear and simple message to those under the Roman authority: don’t mess with us or we’ll make it really really painful for you. So yes, as befits its subject matter, Gibson’s is a violent movie, but is it gratuitously and unnecessarily so? Again, not if you call your movie “The Passion” and focus on the last twelve hours in the life of Christ. I’m sure a trendier director could find ways to de-emphasise or soften the inherently violent nature of Jesus’s demise (which is why we already have Scorsese’s Christ fantasising on the cross about sex with Mary Magdalene), but Gibson is unsophisticated enough to focus on the fact that yes, Jesus was indeed horribly mistreated, scourged, tortured and finally executed in the most painful and prolonged way available to his contemporaries. No false advertising here: this is not a “happy Jesus” family movie experience; you go into the theatre fully expecting to witness Christ’s agony in all its naturalistic gory detail. It might be a shock for the comfortable and soft middle and upper middle classes, but reality often is.

The gore factor, in turn, leads to another common accusation levelled against “The Passion”: by ghoulishly focussing on Christ’s physical suffering and death, Gibson denies the viewer a chance to meet the fuller Christ of the Gospels (“If only Gibson had taken the time to tell more of us why it mattered,” laments “The Washington Post”). With exception of brief and confusing flashbacks we see little of Jesus’s life and mission, and, as critics argue, among all the torrents of our Saviour’s blood splashing on the screen we are unlikely to learn much about his teachings and his message. Thus, Gibson stands accused of decontextualising Christ by divorcing his horrible end from his pre- (and if you’re a Christian, also his post- ) crucifixion life. Devoid of such broader context Jesus’s suffering is turned into a sadomasochistic spectacle that shocks the viewers but doesn’t teach them much about Christ himself.

This is a very disingenuous accusation, coming as it is from our cultural elites, which have made it one of their most important missions to ridicule, demystify and marginalise Christianity in our society. Our fiercely secular elites have by now largely succeeded (more so in Europe and Australia, less so in the United States) in creating and shaping the new, post-Christian culture, where the word “Christ” is nothing more than an exclamation mark and an old church is but an empty building more useful if converted into a nightclub or an art gallery. It is a bit rich now for the liberals to complain that Gibson’s one-dimensional focus will confound and perplex the viewers instead of educating and enriching them – the elites have, after all, worked particularly hard to ensure that religion is rarely a topic for serious discussion and younger generations are among the most ignorant about the Judeo-Christian tradition that has so significantly shaped the Western society and culture.

Not that I expect many post-Christians (with exception of the obliged reviewers and commentators) will actually go and see “The Passion”. Why watch some ancient dude getting scourged and nailed to the cross if you can watch “Kill Bill” instead? Those attracted to see Gibson’s movie can be safely assumed to have come to the movies with all the necessary factual and spiritual background knowledge. They will be able to place Christ’s final hours in the context of his life and mission, and they will be fully aware that Christ’s suffering is not a meaningless and gratuitous spectacle, but a necessary part in the cosmic drama of redemption and salvation.

Let’s come finally to the critics’s ultimate anti-Gibson canard: that the movie is anti-Semitic. Unsurprisingly, there’s more politics than religion to this accusation. It is one of the articles of faith for the liberal commentariat that strong religious commitment invariably goes hand in hand with narrow-mindedness, bigotry, ignorance, intolerance and violence. For those for whom “religious right” is a term of abuse, a Christian believer will always be an ill-educated, prejudiced hick, more at home in the Middle Ages then in our post-modern, multi-cultural, liberal utopia. It’s little wonder that our elites actually seem to believe that after watching “The Passion” the viewers will leave theatres and drive their pick up trucks to the nearest synagogue to burn it down.

At least, as Ann Coulter noted, it’s nice of the elites to have finally noticed that anti-Semitism is a problem. Pity about the target of their indignation. In a world where young Muslim men and women strap themselves with explosives and jump onto peak hour buses in Jerusalem, it seems stupid, if not actually obscene, to worry about the impact of Gibson’s movie on middle class American or Australian viewers. The trendy liberal elites, who as a general rule simply don’t get the whole “religion thing”, not surprisingly failed to notice a seismic shift taking place in the West over the last few decades: it is now the derided fundamentalist Christians who arguably the most philosemitic segment of our society, as well as the strongest supporters of the state of Israel. At the same time, anti-Semitism has become an obsession shared by an unholy coalition of the secular left and Islamic fundamentalism.

That’s why we shouldn’t really expect members of Glad Tidings Baptist Church to detonate themselves inside a Jewish restaurant after watching “The Passion”. Conversely, we should expect that Hamas militants will, without the benefit of Gibson’s film. Yes, we in the West were guilty of anti-Semitic pogroms in the past. Just as we were guilty of promoting slavery, and witch-burning, and the persecution of heretics. But we have moved on. Many other parts of the world unfortunately haven’t. The ever-concerned critics would potentially save a lot more Jewish lives if rather then lashing out against “The Passion” they would focus their attention and anger on the fact that, for example, the Egyptian state TV routinely screens mini-series based on the notorious anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elder of Zion”. But true to their form, in a curious inversion of Christ’s words, our elites prefer to dwell on the sliver in their own eye rather than a beam in someone else’s.

I consider myself a friend of the Jewish people and a strong supporter of the state of Israel, so I sat through “The Passion” with my anti-Semitism antennae fully extended and on-guard for any subtle expressions of prejudice. I didn’t find Gibson’s movie anti-Semitic. The bottom line is that Jesus was a Jew, his supporters were Jewish, and his enemies were Jewish too. This the film portrays faithfully, just as it does the fact that in the end Jesus was executed by the Romans. Our PC elites would much rather have Jesus nail himself to the cross to avoid having any human agency responsible for his death. For critics it’s still the year 1500 and all Christians are dumb enough to take literally that whole “his blood on our heads and our children’s” thing. After all, it helps to make a didactic point about dangers of religious fundamentalism. But it’s Gibson, for all the accusations of unsophistication and lack of subtlety, who is nuanced (and realistic) enough to know that there were Jews who wanted Jesus to die as a blasphemer, just as there were Jews who believed him to be the Messiah – and just as there were cruel, vulgar and stupid Romans who so cruelly put Jesus to death, there were also those uncomfortable with the turn of events, even if in the end they lacked courage to do anything about it. History might be a morality play, but it doesn’t mean that its participants are stereotyped cardboard cut-outs.

Not satisfied with the charge of anti-Semitism, critics also wrong Gibson for presenting us with a white-washed, almost sympathetic figure of Pontius Pilate. The historical Pilate was by all accounts a harsh and insensitive imperial apparatchik, although the truth be told we don’t know a lot about him outside of the Gospels, and what we do know invariably comes down to us from sources biased against him. Still, our enlightened elites would do well not to be too tough on Pilate, for spiritually he’s a lot closer to them then they realise. His most famous question “What is truth?” (as well as ultimately his inability to answer it himself) make him an early patron saint of post-modernism and relativism. His dithering and lack of spine suggest more than anything a first century United Nations administrator, seemingly well intentioned but in the end too gutless to stop the slaughter in Srebrenica or in Rwanda.

In the end the whole question of who killed Jesus is meaningless. Christianity teaches that we all did. It teaches us that that God so loved his creation that he sent his son to take human form and to be killed for our salvation. The bottom line is Jesus came to this world as the ultimate sacrificial lamb – he had to die. Judas who betrayed him, Jewish notables who condemned him, the mob who bayed for his blood, the fearful disciples who deserted him, last but not least all of us whose sins sent him to Gogotha – were all part of God’s plan; it had to be that way for Christ’s sacrifice to take place. “The Passion”’s viewers are sophisticated enough to know that – pity that our elites aren’t.

“The Passion” is destined to remain a perfect cinematic and political Rorschach test for out times, with everyone seeing in the movie what they want to see. For Christians and conservatives the movie will be evidence that popular culture can do so much better, and Christians in particular will continue to enjoy their newly demonstrated commercial clout. For liberals it will be a salutary lesson on how things would look like if the Christian Right ever got their hands on Hollywood.

And when the controversy over “The Passion” finally dies down, it will leave us with a few unexpected legacies. The star of “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon” ridiculed and hounded for bringing Christ to the screen. Secular liberals attempting to lecture people on theology. And Christians and conservatives defending violence in a movie.

The Lord truly moves in mysterious ways.


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