Response to Readers
Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
(See my 2004 March 3 column)
30 Frequent Questions Answered
1. General response to emails to Vern Barnet about his views of the Gibson movie, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
2. To those who thank me
3. To those who condemn me
4. Article by Andrew Sullivan
5. Article by David Denby
6. Article by Leon Wieseltier and quotations from others
1. Dear Reader:
Already I have received over a hundred comments about my remarks on KCPT's KC Week in Review and my column on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." I have read each one, but I cannot respond individually to them because I have a full commitment to other urgent ministerial responsibilities right now. Please excuse this impersonal response, but I want you to know, whether you praise or condemn what I have written (and the reponses are about evenly divided), that I appreciate your comments and links and offers to other resources. I will try to respond personally next week.
My column scheduled for next Wednesday ( http://www.cres.org/star/star04q1.htm ) will add some context to why I wrote as I did, and a future column in March or April will explain a teaching of atonement that is, in my opinion, healthier than the one the Gibson movie perpetuates.
Below you will also find three articles I found after writing my column which may be of interest to both my defenders and my critics.
2. *** To those who thank me for what I have written:
Dear ministers, lay leaders, and interested citizens: In the current cultural climate, your affirmation of thoughtfulness in religion is more important climate than at any time I can recall. A nation addicted to violence and so blind it cannot see the dangers of religious prejudice (in this case, anti-Semitism) that it allows a movie maker whose history is gore and desecration to define the last few hours in the life of the Savior and, in ignorance of the Bible and history, calls it accurate) requires voices to protest and to offer a better way. I wish those defending the movie could see what you have written to me.
3. *** To those who condemn or question me, I hope you will find the
Andrew Sullivan, David Denby, and Leon Wieseltier articles below helpful.
Since I cannot repond to you individually, I have compiled answers to 30
of the most frequent questions or objections. You can find them at
http://www.cres.org/star/~gibson.htm . I think most of your concerns will
Some of you, full of fury, throw invective and insult at me because you perceive I am threatening the Truth. Others of you wrote with questions for clarification in a polite way that models respectful exchange. Whatever your attitude, I appreciate your writing because it shows you care about important things.
I respond in the context of a democratic faith that the best decisions and opinions are likely to emerge through an honest exchange of views in the marketplace of ideas. I want very much to respect your religious perspective and hope that this frank exchange will enable you to respect my right to fidelity to my own experience, study, and prayerful reflection, no matter how fragile, limited, or perverse it may seem to you. It is good to discuss disagreements with the hope not of agreement, but of better understanding.
4. ================ Andrew Sullivan, two entries from his Blog:
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: Well, I went last night to see the movie everyone is talking about. I'm writing this not long after leaving the theater so these are my raw and immediate impressions - not a fully considered review. I was of course deeply moved in parts. If you are a person of the Christian faith, it is impossible not to be moved by a rendition of the passion of the Savior that is not a travesty. The very story itself, embedded in the soul and the memory, stirs the emotions and prayers and meditations of a lifetime. To see it rendered in a believable setting in languages that, however inaccurate, give you an impression of being there, is arresting. It brings this simple but awe-inspiring story to life in a way very difficult to approximate in the written or spoken word. You can see why Passion plays were once performed. The Gospels do end in extraordinary drama, pathos, plot, agony. Portraying them vividly may, we can hope, bring some people to read the Gospels and even to explore further what the redemptive message of Jesus really is.
PURE PORNOGRAPHY: At the same time, the movie was to me deeply disturbing. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh. 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. We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man's body. Just so that we can appreciate the pain, we see the whip first tear chunks out of a wooden table. Then we see pieces of human skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more.
We see blood spattering on the torturers' faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man's body. And then they turn him over and do it all again. It goes on for ever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely unforgivable, vile, disgusting scene. No human being could sruvive it. Yet for Gibson, it is the h'ors d'oeuvre for his porn movie. The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It doesn't even evoke emotion in the audience. It is designed to prompt the crudest human pity and emotional blackmail - which it obviously does. But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination. Of over two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless sadism on a level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie before. And you have to ask yourself: why? The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree. Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was profound and voluntary and the culmination of a life and a teaching that Gibson essentially omits. One more example. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, 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.
GUTTING THE MESSAGE: 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. The central message of Jesus - of love and compassion and forgiveness - is reduced to sound-bites. Occasionally, such as when the message of the sermon on the mount is juxtaposed with the crucifixion, the effect is almost profound - because there has been an actual connection between who Jesus was and what happened to him. But this is the exception to the rule. Watching the movie, you can see how a truly powerful rendition could have been made - by tripling the flashbacks and context, by providing a biography of Jesus, by showing us why he endured what he endured. Instead, all that context, all that meaning, has been removed for endless sickening gratuitous violence.
PILATE, THE SAINT: Is it anti-Semitic? The question has to be placed in the context of the Gospels and it is hard to reproduce the story without risking such inferences. But in my view, Gibson goes much further than what might be forgivable. The first scene in which Caiphas appears has him relaying to Judas how much money he has agreed to hand over in return for Jesus. The Jew - fussing over money again! There are a few actors in those scenes who look like classic hook-nosed Jews of Nazi imagery, hissing and plotting and fulminating against the Christ.
For good measure, Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans; and he has Jesus telling Pilate that he is not responsible - the Jewish elite is. Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent. Again, this reflects part of the Gospels, but Gibson goes further. He presents Pilate's wife as actually finding Mary, providing towels to wipe up Jesus' blood, arguing for Jesus' release. 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. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable.
Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art. - 3:00:41 AM
Friday, February 27, 2004
SAY WHAT? Here's a bizarre sentence in National Review
Online: The gulf we place between ourselves and God through sin is bridged only by that intense physical agony Gibson depicts and is taken to task for depicting.
I think that's a fair inference from Gibson's movie. But it is theologically very suspect. Would our sins have been expiated if Jesus had only been flogged twenty rather than forty times? (The Gospels do not tell us how brutal this process was. For some reason, the evangelists reduced the episode to a couple of sentences. Gibson makes the flogging the centerpiece of the whole film.) If Jesus had been roped to the cross and died of asphyxiation, rather than being nailed there, would we still not be saved? If the nails had been placed in his wrists rather than his palms, would we not have been redeemed? Of course some of these details are there in the Gospels; but Gibson's loving obsession with them, his creepy love of watching extreme violence, is nowhere found in the Gospels.
Let's take a few clear examples. The Gospels do not tell us that the jailers of the High Priests beat Jesus to a pulp before he was even delivered to the Romans, or that he was thrown in chains over a prison wall, almost garrotting him. That's Gibson's sadistic embellishment - so that Jesus already has one eye shut from bruises before he is even tried. The Gospels do not say that the flogging of Jesus was so extreme and out of control that a centurion had to stop it because it had gone beyond any of the usual bounds of Roman punishment. That again is Gibson's invention. In the crucifixion scene, the Gospels do not say that in hoisting the cross, it fell down by accident so that Jesus was pinned headfirst between the cross and the earth, his crown of thorns thrust even deeper into his skull. Again, that's Gibson's interpolation. It's as if Gibson's saying that being crucified isn't bad enough - you've got be crushed face down by timber first if you are going to save all mankind.
I repeat that there is something deeply disturbed about this film. Its
extreme and un-Biblical fascination with human torture reflects, to my
mind, not devotion to the message of the Cross but a kind of psycho-sexual
obsession with extreme violence that Gibson has indulged in many of his
other movies and is now trying to insinuate into Christianity itself. The
film could have shown suffering and cruelty much differently. It could
have led us into the profound psychological pain that Jesus and his mother
and disciples must have endured by giving us some human context to empathize
with them; it could have prompted the viewer to use his or her own imagination
to fill in the gaps of terror, as all great art does; it could have done
much more by showing us much less. But the extremity is Gibson's obvious
point. I can understand why traditionalist Catholics might be grateful
that there is some Hollywood representation of their faith. But they shouldn't
let their gratitude blind them to the psychotic vision of this disturbed
director - and the deeper, creepier, heterodox theology that he is trying
to espouse. - 6:01:45 PM
by DAVID DENBY
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
Issue of 2004-03-01 The New Yorker
In “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson shows little interest in celebrating the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world. He largely ignores Jesus’ heart-stopping eloquence, his startling ethical radicalism and personal radiance—Christ as a “paragon of vitality and poetic assertion,” as John Updike described Jesus’ character in his essay “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.” Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus’ life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus’ temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus’ pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony—and to say so without indulging in “anti-Christian sentiment” (Gibson’s term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.
And against whom will the audience direct its hate? As Gibson was completing the film, some historians, theologians, and clergymen accused him of emphasizing the discredited charge that it was the ancient Jews who were primarily responsible for killing Jesus, a claim that has served as the traditional justification for the persecution of the Jews in Europe for nearly two millennia. The critics turn out to have been right. Gibson is guilty of some serious mischief in his handling of these issues. But he may have also committed an aggression against Christian believers. The movie has been hailed as a religious experience by various Catholic and Protestant groups, some of whom, with an ungodly eye to the commercial realities of film distribution, have prepurchased blocks of tickets or rented theatres to insure “The Passion” a healthy opening weekend’s business. But how, I wonder, will people become better Christians if they are filled with the guilt, anguish, or loathing that this movie may create in their souls?
“The Passion” opens at night in the Garden of Gethsemane—a hushed, misty grotto bathed in a purplish disco light. Softly chanting female voices float on the soundtrack, accompanied by electronic shrieks and thuds. At first, the movie looks like a graveyard horror flick, and then, as Jewish temple guards show up bearing torches, like a faintly tedious art film. The Jews speak in Aramaic, and the Romans speak in Latin; the movie is subtitled in English. Gibson distances the dialogue from us, as if Jesus’ famous words were only incidental and the visual spectacle—Gibson’s work as a director—were the real point. Then the beatings begin: Jesus is punched and slapped, struck with chains, trussed, and dangled over a wall. In the middle of the night, a hasty trial gets under way before Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and other Jewish priests. Caiaphas, a cynical, devious, petty dictator, interrogates Jesus, and then turns him over to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), who tries again and again to spare Jesus from the crucifixion that the priests demand. From the movie, we get the impression that the priests are either merely envious of Jesus’ spiritual power or inherently and inexplicably vicious. And Pilate is not the bloody governor of history (even Tiberius paused at his crimes against the Jews) but a civilized and humane leader tormented by the burdens of power—he holds a soulful discussion with his wife on the nature of truth.
Gibson and his screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, selected and enhanced incidents from the four Gospels and collated them into a single, surpassingly violent narrative—the scourging, for instance, which is mentioned only in a few phrases in Matthew, Mark, and John, is drawn out to the point of excruciation and beyond. History is also treated selectively. The writer Jon Meacham, in a patient and thorough article in Newsweek, has detailed the many small ways that Gibson disregarded what historians know of the period, with the effect of assigning greater responsibility to the Jews, and less to the Romans, for Jesus’ death. Meacham’s central thesis, which is shared by others, is that the priests may have been willing to sacrifice Jesus—whose mass following may have posed a threat to Roman governance—in order to deter Pilate from crushing the Jewish community altogether. It’s also possible that the temple élite may have wanted to get rid of the leader of a new sect, but only Pilate had the authority to order a crucifixion—a very public event that was designed to be a warning to potential rebels. Gibson ignores most of the dismaying political context, as well as the likelihood that the Gospel writers, still under Roman rule, had very practical reasons to downplay the Romans’ role in the Crucifixion. It’s true that when the Roman soldiers, their faces twisted in glee, go to work on Jesus, they seem even more depraved than the Jews. But, as Gibson knows, history rescued the pagans from eternal blame—eventually, they came to their senses and saw the light. The Emperor Constantine converted in the early fourth century, and Christianized the empire, and the medieval period saw the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. So the Romans’ descendants triumphed, while the Jews were cast into darkness and, one might conclude from this movie, deserved what they got. “The Passion,” in its confused way, confirms the old justifications for persecuting the Jews, and one somehow doubts that Gibson will make a sequel in which he reminds the audience that in later centuries the Church itself used torture and execution to punish not only Jews but heretics, non-believers, and dissidents.
I realize that the mere mention of historical research could exacerbate the awkward breach between medieval and modern minds, between literalist belief and the weighing of empirical evidence. “John was an eyewitness,” Gibson has said. “Matthew was there.” Well, they may have been there, but for decades it’s been a commonplace of Biblical scholarship that the Gospels were written forty to seventy years after the death of Jesus, and not by the disciples but by nameless Christians using both written and oral sources. Gibson can brush aside the work of scholars and historians because he has a powerful weapon at hand—the cinema—with which he can create something greater than argument; he can create faith. As a moviemaker, Gibson is not without skill. The sets, which were built in Italy, where the movie was filmed, are far from perfect, but they convey the beauty of Jerusalem’s courtyards and archways. Gibson, working with the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, gives us the ravaged stone face of Calvary, the gray light at the time of the Crucifixion, the leaden pace of the movie’s spectacular agonies. Felliniesque tormenters gambol and jeer on the sidelines, and, at times, the whirl of figures around Jesus, both hostile and friendly, seems held in place by a kind of magnetic force. The hounding and suicide of the betrayer Judas is accomplished in a few brusque strokes. Here and there, the movie has a dismal, heavy-souled power.
By contrast with the dispatching of Judas, the lashing and flaying of Jesus goes on forever, prolonged by Gibson’s punishing use of slow motion, sometimes with Jesus’ face in the foreground, so that we can see him writhe and howl. In the climb up to Calvary, Caviezel, one eye swollen shut, his mouth open in agony, collapses repeatedly in slow motion under the weight of the Cross. Then comes the Crucifixion itself, dramatized with a curious fixation on the technical details—an arm pulled out of its socket, huge nails hammered into hands, with Caviezel jumping after each whack. At that point, I said to myself, “Mel Gibson has lost it,” and I was reminded of what other writers have pointed out—that Gibson, as an actor, has been beaten, mashed, and disembowelled in many of his movies. His obsession with pain, disguised by religious feelings, has now reached a frightening apotheosis.
Mel Gibson is an extremely conservative Catholic who rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican council. He’s against complacent, feel-good Christianity, and, judging from his movie, he must despise the grandiose old Hollywood kitsch of “The Robe,” “The King of Kings,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “Ben-Hur,” with their Hallmark twinkling skies, their big stars treading across sacred California sands, and their lamblike Jesus, whose simple presence overwhelms Charlton Heston. But saying that Gibson is sincere doesn’t mean he isn’t foolish, or worse. He can rightly claim that there’s a strain of morbidity running through Christian iconography—one thinks of the reliquaries in Roman churches and the bloody and ravaged Christ in Northern Renaissance and German art, culminating in such works as Matthias Grünewald’s 1515 “Isenheim Altarpiece,” with its thorned Christ in full torment on the Cross. But the central tradition of Italian Renaissance painting left Christ relatively unscathed; the artists emphasized not the physical suffering of the man but the sacrificial nature of his death and the astonishing mystery of his transformation into godhood—the Resurrection and the triumph over carnality. Gibson instructed Deschanel to make the movie look like the paintings of Caravaggio, but in Caravaggio’s own “Flagellation of Christ” the body of Jesus is only slightly marked. Even Goya, who hardly shrank from dismemberment and pain in his work, created a “Crucifixion” with a nearly unblemished Jesus. Crucifixion, as the Romans used it, was meant to make a spectacle out of degradation and suffering—to humiliate the victim through the apparatus of torture. By embracing the Roman pageant so openly, using all the emotional resources of cinema, Gibson has cancelled out the redemptive and transfiguring power of art. And by casting James Caviezel, an actor without charisma here, and then feasting on his physical destruction, he has turned Jesus back into a mere body. The depictions in “The Passion,” one of the cruellest movies in the history of the cinema, are akin to the bloody Pop representation of Jesus found in, say, a roadside shrine in Mexico, where the addition of an Aztec sacrificial flourish makes the passion a little more passionate. Such are the traps of literal-mindedness. The great modernist artists, aware of the danger of kitsch and the fascination of sado-masochism, have largely withdrawn into austerity and awed abstraction or into fervent humanism, as in Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), which features an existential Jesus sorely tried by the difficulty of the task before him. There are many ways of putting Jesus at risk and making us feel his suffering.
What is most depressing about “The Passion” is the thought that people
will take their children to see it. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children
to come unto me,” not “Let the little children watch me suffer.” How will
parents deal with the pain, terror, and anger that children will doubtless
feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead? The despair of
the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson’s timing couldn’t be more unfortunate:
another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we
MEL GIBSON'S LETHAL WEAPON. The Worship of Blood by Leon Wieseltier
Post date: 02.26.04 Issue date: 03.08.04
There are still some miracles that movies cannot accomplish. If, in the manner of the bleeding images of the old Christian legends, it were possible for Mel Gibson's film itself to bleed, and the blood with which it soaks its wretched hero to burst through the screen and soak its wretched audience, it would have done so. For The Passion of the Christ is intoxicated by blood, by its beauty and its sanctity. The bloodthirstiness of Gibson's film is startling, and quickly sickening. The fluid is everywhere. It drips, it runs, it spatters, it jumps. It trickles down the post at which Jesus is flagellated and down the cross upon which he is crucified, and the camera only reluctantly tears itself away from the scarlet scenery. The flagellation scene and the crucifixion scene are frenzies of blood. When Jesus is nailed to the wood, the drops of blood that spring from his wound are filmed in slow-motion, with a twisted tenderness. (Ecce slo-mo.) It all concludes in the shower of blood that issues from the corpse of Jesus when it is pierced by the Roman soldier's spear.
This is the greatest story ever told as Dario Argento might have told it, in its lurid style and in its contempt for the moral sensitivities of ordinary people. Gibson's subject is torture, and he treats his subject lovingly. There are no lilies in this field. There is only the relentless destruction and dehumanization of a man, who exists here to have his body punished with an almost unimaginable fury. He falls, he rises, he falls, he rises; he bends beneath the blows, but never mentally; his flesh is ripped, his head is stabbed, his eye is beaten shut, his hair is a wig of dried blood, he is a pulp with a cause. He is what the early church fathers, writing with admiration of their martyrs, called an "athlete" of suffering. Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus, does not act, strictly speaking; he merely rolls his eyes heavenward and accepts more makeup. (He speaks little, as befits a man stupefied by suffering, though his Aramaic, like everybody else's in the film, is grammatically correct and risibly enunciated.)
The only cinematic achievement of The Passion of the Christ is that it breaks new ground in the verisimilitude of filmed violence. The notion that there is something spiritually exalting about the viewing of it is quite horrifying. The viewing of The Passion of the Christ is a profoundly brutalizing experience. Children must be protected from it. (If I were a Christian, I would not raise a Christian child on this.) Torture has been depicted in film many times before, but almost always in a spirit of protest. This film makes no quarrel with the pain that it excitedly inflicts. It is a repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film, and it leaves you with the feeling that the man who made it hates life.
Gibson is under the impression that he has done nothing more than put God's word into film. No Hollywood insider was ever so inside. "Critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with me and this film," he told Diane Sawyer, "they have a problem with the four Gospels." From such a statement it is impossible not to conclude that the man is staggeringly ignorant of his own patrimony. For the Gospels, like all great religious texts, have been interpreted in many different ways, to accommodate the needs and the desires of many different souls; and Gibson's account of these events is, like every other account, a particular construction of them. The Passion of the Christ is the expression of certain theological and artistic preferences. It is, more specifically, a noisy contemporary instance of a tradition of interpretation that came into its own in the late medieval centuries, when (in the words of a distinguished historian of Christian art) "the Passion became the chief concern of the Christian soul." In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as a consequence of persecution and war and pestilence, the image of Christ hovering over the world in gilded majesty was replaced by the image of Jesus nailed in the world to the cross. Passion plays were devised for Holy Week. The lacerated Jesus became a commonplace of religious art, in which the Man of Sorrows plaintively displayed his wounds, which were venerated. This Jesus came to be drawn with a brutal realism, which climaxed in the grisly masterpieces of Grunwald.
So the kindest thing that may be said of Gibson is that he is an extremely late medieval. He contemplates the details of pain ecstatically. But this is still too kind, because the morbidity of the Man of Sorrows, even in its most popular versions, was rarely as crude as what Gibson presents. Does Christian dolorousness, a serious reflection upon the fate of Jesus, really require these special effects, this moral and aesthetic barbarity? The Passion of the Christ is the work of a religious sensibility of remarkable coarseness. It is by turns grossly physical and grossly magical, childishly literalist, gladly credulous, comically masculine. Gibson's faith is finally pre-theological, the kind of conviction that abhors thought, superstitiously fascinated by Satan and "the other realm," a manic variety of Christian folk religion.
It will be objected that I see only pious pornography in The Passion of the Christ because I am not a believer in the Christ. This is certainly so. I do not agree that Jesus is my savior or anybody else's. I confess that I smiled when the credits to The Passion of the Christ listed "stunts."
So I am not at all the person for whom Gibson made this movie. But I do not see how a belief in Jesus strengthens the case for such a film. Quite the contrary. Belief, a theory of meaning, a philosophical convenience, is rarely far away from cruelty. Torture has always been attended by explanations that vindicate it, and justify it, and even hallow it. These explanations, which are really extenuations, have been articulated in religious and in secular terms. Their purpose is to redescribe an act of inhumanity so that it no longer offends, so that it comes to seem necessary, so that it edifies. My victim of torture is your martyr.
There is a small chapter in The City of God in which Augustine denounces torture--"a thing, indeed, to be bewailed, and, if that were possible, watered with fountains of tears"--and then complacently accepts the necessity of it. (He asks only that we "condemn human life as miserable.")
Augustine is speaking not of the duties of the martyr, but of the duties of the wise judge. Introduce God into the grim situation, and you will find fountains of tears shed not only over the success of some individuals in making the ultimate sacrifice, but also over the failure of other individuals to do the same. This is true of all the religious traditions. There is an ideal of holy suicide in all of them. It is important that we know how such extreme deeds were understood by the men and the women who performed them, but we have no obligation to concur in their understanding of what they did. Religious belief may actually interfere with a lucid analysis of religious life. Anyway, is the sanctification of murder really what this country needs now?
There is another problem with the insistence that a movie such as The Passion of the Christ can be intelligible only to a believer. When a non-Christian such as myself reads the Gospels, he is filled with a deep and genuine pity for the man who endured this savagery, and for his mother.
(Jesus' mother is infinitely more affecting than his father.) In its meticulous representation of Jesus' excruciations, Gibson's film is designed to inspire such pity. The spectacle of this man's doom should be unbearable to a good heart. Yet pity is precisely what The Passion of the Christ cannot inspire, because the faith upon which it is based vitiates the sympathetic emotions. Why feel pity, if this suffering is a blessing? Why mourn, if his reward for his torment, and the world's reward, is ordained? If Jesus is not exactly human, then it is not exactly dehumanization that we are watching, and that we are deploring.
Such prior reassurance, the ancient assuagement of theodicy, is found in all the religions when they come to the terrors of mortality; but the confidence in the outcome of Jesus' anguish is especially flamboyant. Gibson's film undoes itself in this way most completely in the crucifixion scene. Just as the hammer is about to drive the nail into Jesus' hand (the hammer is held by the director's own hand, he proudly wishes you to know), the film flashes back to the Last Supper, where the camera catches Jesus' lovely gesticulating hands as he teaches that the bread is his body; and when the cross is raised, another flashback shows him instructing his disciples that his blood is the new covenant. So this passio is not a tragedy; it is a gift. The film ends three days later, when a ray of golden light penetrates the tomb as the stone is rolled away, and the shroud lies empty on the slab, and Jesus is alive again. As he rises to leave, the hole in his hand passes before our eyes. And the sight of the wound is about as moving as the sound of a doctrine. For we know by now that no atrocity has really been committed. All that has taken place is the temporarily discomfiting fulfillment of a divine plan for the redemption of the world. The ending is happy, which has the effect of making the viewer, or at least this viewer, feel like he has been duped. His sympathy was based on a misunderstanding. He had assumed that what was done to this man was outrageous, but he was wrong. He should have been rooting all along, with Gibson, for the whips and the nails.
The Passion of The Christ is an unwitting incitement to secularism, because it leaves you desperate to escape its standpoint, to find another way of regarding the horror that you have just observed. This is unfair to, well, Christianity, since Christianity is not a cult of Gibsonesque gore. But there is a religion toward which Gibson's movie is even more unfair than it is to its own. In its representation of its Jewish characters, The Passion of the Christ is without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film. What is so shocking about Gibson's Jews is how unreconstructed they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic images. In this regard, Gibson is most certainly a traditionalist.
Now that Gibson has made the mistake of allowing people to see The Passion of the Christ--the film was much more interesting before it was released--it is plain that the controversy about its inclusion of Matthew 27:25, the infamous cry of the Jews that "his blood be on us and our children," the imprecation that served through the centuries as the warrant for the Christian assault on the Jews, was a fake, a cynical game. When Jewish groups objected to this passage in the script, Gibson expediently deleted the English translation of it. I say expediently, because decency would have prevented him from including it, from shooting it, at all. But he may as well have kept it in, because it is entirely of a piece with the Jews whom he has invented. The figure of Caiaphas, played with disgusting relish by an actor named Mattia Sbragia, is straight out of Oberammergau. Like his fellow priests, he has a graying rabbinical beard and speaks with a gravelly sneer and moves cunningly beneath a tallit-like shawl streaked with threads the color of money. He is gold and cold. All he does is demand an execution. He and his sinister colleagues manipulate the ethically delicate Pilate into acquiescing to the crucifixion. (You would think that Rome was a colony of Judea.)
Meanwhile the Jewish mob is regularly braying for blood. It is the Romans who torture Jesus, but it is the Jews who conspire to make them do so. The Romans are brutish, but the Jews are evil.
Gibson pleads that these are nothing but the elements of the Gospel narratives, but the Gospels are not clear and reliable historical documents. His notion of authenticity has no time for history. Historiographically speaking, after all, there is no such thing as gospel truth; and so his portrayal of the Jews is based on nothing more than his own imagination of what they looked like and sounded like. And Gibson's imagination has offered no resistance to the iconographical inheritance of Western anti-Semitism. Again, these things are not passively received. They are willingly accepted.
Gibson created this movie; it was not revealed to him. Like his picture of Jesus, his picture of the Jews is the consequence of certain religious and cinematic decisions for which he must be held accountable. He has chosen to give millions of people the impression that Jews are culpable for the death of Jesus. In making this choice, which defies not only the scruples of scholars but also the teaching of the Catholic Church, Gibson has provided a fine illustration of the cafeteria Catholicism of the right. And the American media, which flourish by confusing gullibility with curiosity, go merrily along. A few weeks ago the cover of Newsweek asked, over a closeup of Caviezel crowned with thorns, "WHO REALLY KILLED JESUS?" The article inside the magazine exonerated us, so we are safe. But is this really the question facing America? Up next: Should his blood be upon us and our children or shouldn't it? We'll be back right after this message. Don't go away.
No, go away. And take this low moment with you--but not until a little attention is paid to some of the praise that has been offered for this pernicious film. The apologetics for The Passion of the Christ must represent an intellectual nadir in contemporary American conservatism.
Thoughtful people have been uttering thoughtless words. "Heartbreaking," declared Michael Novak after a screening, as if he had just walked out of Waterloo Bridge. "A meditation," he lazily called it in The Weekly Standard. It is hard to think of anything more unlike a meditation than The Passion of the Christ. But the discussion of the film was immediately and ferociously politicized, as conservatives conflated the defense of Gibson's religion with the defense of religion. If you turned away from Gibson's Jesus, you turned away from Jesus. The Via Dolorosa became the slippery slope.
To criticize the film was to be godless. To suggest that it is not an accurate record of Jerusalem in the first century was to be anti-Christian. To worry that it is anti-Semitic was to be liberal. (The vigilance about anti-Semitism upon which conservatives like to congratulate themselves suddenly vanished.) Come to think of it, Pilate is the liberal in Gibson's film. And Gibson shrewdly encouraged this view of his slasher movie as the bulwark of a civilization: He made cultural warfare into a marketing strategy. Is the film violent? Of course it is, but this is God's violence. This violence is good for America.
Gibson's Jewish defenders have been especially disgraceful. "Jewish organizations must not attempt to take responsibility for deciding what Christians can and cannot believe," wrote Michael Medved in The Christian Science Monitor, as if the Jewish criticism of Gibson's film is anything other than the behavior of American citizens freely expressing an opinion. "If we are empowered to edit their doctrine," David Klinghoffer asked ominously in the Forward, "then why are they not empowered to edit ours?" reminding his readers that once upon a time the Christians censored the Talmud. Is Gibson now doctrine? Is criticism now censorship? And where is the Sanhedrin on the Upper West Side that is poring over Christian texts with a black marker?
Then there was the argument for timidity. "Jewish denunciations of the movie only increase the likelihood that those who hate us will seize on the movie as an excuse for more hatred," Medved declared. I wonder if he feels the same way about Jewish denunciations of Islamic anti-Semitism. In a journal of the American Enterprise Institute, he warned that "sadly, the battle over the The Passion may indeed provoke more hatred of the Jews." Yet the hatred of the Jews is not simply a response to the Jewish response to the hatred of the Jews. Anti-Semitism is not anti-anti-anti-Semitism. It is an old and independent and vital tradition of fear and hallucination, a non-Jewish disorder that has nothing to do with the Jews, as The Passion of the Christ demonstrates.
But the loathing of Jews in Mel Gibson's film is really not its worst
degradation. Kim le bi-deraba mine, as Yeshua might have said: Its loathing
of Jews is subsumed in its loathing of spirituality, in its loathing of
existence. If there is a kingdom of heaven, The Passion of the Christ is
shutting it in men's faces.
LEON WIESELTIER is the literary editor of TNR.
Andy Rooney quipped on 60 Minutes last week:
"My question to Mel Gibson is: 'How many million dollars does it look as if you're going to make off the crucifixion of Christ?""
David Ansen, Newsweek: "Relentlessly savage, 'The Passion' plays like the Gospel according to the Marquis de Sade. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson's movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion."
* "The bloodiest story ever told ... Gibson's fervor belongs as much to the realm of sadomasochism as to Christian piety." (Peter Rainer, New York magazine)