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The Gospel According to Mad Max

I'm probably going to see The Passion of the Christ. It irritates me that I'll have to pay to see it, and I'll probably walk out in the middle, but I have to say I'm curious. I mean, how often do you get to hear Aramaic at the movies? And Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene? I could not approve more.

My objections to the film will, I suspect, be similar to my objections to Mel Gibson's "traditionalist" faith. These are theological objections. Basically, I don't believe that the New Testament was written by followers of Jesus named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; I think they were edited and revised over time by a variety of anonymous writers and compilers. More fundamentally, I don't believe that there is such a thing as an "objective" reading of the Bible; that is, no one person or group can claim to know the unique truth of the Bible. And, seriously: If I were going to give primacy to one person's reading of the Gospels, I would not choose Martin Riggs as my spiritual guide.

So, for me, it's just bullshit when Gibson says, "It happened; it was said." His avowed literalism lets him off the hook; it allows him to avoid responsibility for his own artistic creation. We can't blame him for the movie: God wrote it, and the Holy Ghost directed.

Now that film critics besides the Pope have had a chance to see The Passion, the focus has shifted from the movie's latent anti-Semiticism to its pornographic violence. While it should come as a surprise to no one that a man who had himself disemboweled on-screen might decide to lay it on thick when depicting caning, scourging, and crucifixion, even the critics who kept this in mind seem to have been shocked. Kenneth Turan sums up the consensus view pretty nicely in his review for the L.A. Times:

The problem with "The Passion's" violence is not merely how difficult it is to take, it's that its sadistic intensity obliterates everything else about the film. Worse than that, it fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins.

Despite flashbacks that nod to Jesus' other words and thoughts, no viewer coming to this film absent any knowledge of Christianity would believe that this is the story that gave birth to one of the great transformative religions as well as countless works of timeless beauty.

And without belief, this film does not add up. Without training in or exposure to Christianity, you are likely to feel as flummoxed by what you're seeing as Western missionaries did when they observed pagan rituals to which they lacked any emotional connection.

It's worth noting, however, that violence is, and always has been, a part of the Christian tradition. The most egregious and graphic examples are crusades and autos-da-fé, but Gibson's movie reminds us that the central story of Christianity is one not just of resurrection and redemption, but of torture and self-sacrifice, too. For some contemporary theologians, the violence at the heart of Christianity is a cancer, a pathology that cannot be reconciled with Jesus's message of radical compassion. Of course, the belief that Christianity is a religion of niceness and that Jesus was some sort of cosmic kindergarten teacher is rather new. In this very interesting article for Reason, Charles Paul Freund argues that Gibson's movie is part of a long theatrical tradition, one in which the lives of the saints provided endless material for the medieval equivalent of splatter films.

At the very least, I hope The Passion of the Christ gives Jesus a much-needed image makeover. While I actually appreciate the considerable kitsch value of the 20th-century Jesus, this cleaned-up, soft-focus pretty boy is, from a theological and traditional standpoint, absurd. Jesus's most hardcore followers—from his very first to the Franciscans to the Anabaptists—have recognized that he's a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, an ass-kicker. What would Jesus do? I'll tell you what he wouldn't do: He wouldn't say no to drugs and he wouldn't get good grades, but he might take out the trash.


February 25, 2004 | Permalink


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