Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 8, 2004
Spiritual romanticism reigns
Mel Gibson's Passion depends on a selection of living pictures
By DAVID GOA
Special to the WCR
I had no intention of seeing The Passion of the Christ. Gibson's penchant for heroic violence participates far too much in the culture of death for my taste and I try to avoid such exposure. I treasure the story of Jesus and the Gospel texts. On that ground alone I would pass.
Why expose my mind and heart to the enormous power of film and its ability to provide images that bury my soul's response to the reading of the text in the context of liturgy during Lent? I need Lent and the Passion texts. I do not need a Hollywood producer's fantasy about my and the Church's treasured story and I need it even less if "it is as it was." The revelation in the Passion of Our Lord calls me to glimpse the kingdom of God, not pretend to be on site 2,000 years ago while the Romans execute yet another Jew.
The public debate on the film did get my attention. There seemed to be an attempt to weave together Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant interest. Many Jews expressed concerns I share as does the holy father. A perception seemed to be orchestrated suggesting this film was yet again a battle ground between secular humanists and those who claim the public mantle of faith. I smelled scapegoating.
But this was hardly enough to get me to the film since I pray daily to be free of curiosity. But the call of the editor dovetailed with the debate so I went and was greeted by the words of the fourth song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." Powerful words that along with the whole chapter have lived in my memory as one of the first biblical texts I committed to memory. The film unfolded and my questions grew.
Mel Gibson has made the film some Roman Catholics and some evangelical churches in the 1950s wanted to make but could not afford to. The advent of film and its coming to possess centre stage in popular culture have raised many questions about the teaching of the Gospel and how to represent Jesus Christ, trying and troubling questions Gibson brings to the fore.
But is it really a film? Rather he has given us a carefully crafted and passionately made set of "living pictures," tableaux vivants of the Stations of the Cross. The brilliant cinematography draws from a carefully selected set of historical paintings and sculpture an imitation of Warner Sallman, various members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch and Mathis Grunewald.
In the horrific journey from the Garden of Gethsemane through the trials before Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate, the scourging and mocking, along the road to Calvary and his crucifixion the film demands that we look at the picturesque horror of a human being in the process of being torn apart. Grunewald (d. 1528) and perhaps Romanesque and Spanish and Mexican passion scenes provided the artistic model for this journey to death, while Bruegel (d. 1569) and Bosch (d. 1516) gave Gibson the scenes with soldiers and crowds.
Along the way a brief set of flashbacks in the mind of Jesus, the Virgin Mother and Mary Magdalene, give momentary glimpses from Jesus' earlier life touching on his Gospel of the kingdom of God. For these Gibson seems to have called on Sallman and Holman Hunt for his romantically handsome Jesus. Sallman and Hunt provided the 20th century with millions of images of their Jesus that shaped and reshaped the imagination of Christians. From Grunewald to Sallman, agony to the American idol and back again.
What was I seeing? A testament or a confession, a work of personal piety or a revisiting of "it is as it was." The task of testament is not to point to itself but to point to the kingdom of God, not to return us to the trauma as if it was our trauma and teach us to recite it. Such approaches lead to the culture of victimization and, as Jews know , create the circumstances that occasion pogroms.
The passion cycle as it unfolds in the liturgical life of the Church does so in the context of the Church year. In the Church's wisdom we are drawn to contemplate and pray our way into the landscape of Christ's incarnation, his works and teaching about the kingdom of God before we come to see our life along the road to Calvary. Within the Christian tradition there is wisdom about the dangers of spiritual romanticism, wisdom about how easy it is for sinners to become infatuated with their own suffering and the penchant for turning the suffering of Christ into a idol. It is the Tempter's ultimate cunning.
What was I seeing? The brilliant and powerful cinematography and the use of Aramaic and Latin (Church Latin, of course, for we have no idea how the Latin of Jesus' day was spoken) present the film as a virtual history, cameras on site, an extended public interest broadcast married to the action movie and fantasy genre.
These are tried and true means of providing the public with a diet of fear and fright, the diet of the devil's view of the world. I have learned enough from the Church fathers and spiritual mothers of our faith to know I am to guard my eyes against such invasions of the soul.
What was I seeing? What was I hearing? Gibson noted the problem many will have with the film is not with the film but with the Gospel. It has been an all too popular theological notion that God killed Jesus to redeem human beings, using the Roman Empire and Jesus' own people to accomplish the task. It is a horrendous notion, a horrendous reshaping of the Gospel.
Theologians counter this notion (and have done so since the Apostle Paul set its terms in motion) by saying God snatches life from death, even the death of God in Christ. For human beings who have glimpsed their salvation even their sin may seem to be part of their redemption since through it they have come to glimpse God's grace. "Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid."
The notion God was a Christ-killer as if this teaching stood as some sort of divine plan from before the foundations of the world has the danger of diverting our eyes from the existential reality of experiencing our entrance into death as healed in Christ's dying and rising.
Is this a tool?
Is this a tool for evangelization? A pedagogical tool to deepen the faithful's grasp of the cost of Jesus' incarnation to call us back to the kingdom of God, back to communion? A theological tool to restore the centrality of Passion?
There is a reason why some wings of the Church have prohibited the depiction of Christ except in icons that carefully point to the grace-filled life. There is a reason our Orthodox sister has never had a tradition of Passion plays and that in the Western Church in various periods the acting out of the role of Jesus has been viewed with suspicion. The text is too important for drama, and spiritual romanticism too easily offers a simulacrum, a shadowy likeness, a deceptive substitute.
I came away from the film wondering how it will play in the minds and hearts of the faithful in this season of Lent and what those unfamiliar with the story and its context in Christ' Gospel of love will make of what appears to be a work of personal piety born of a struggle that must be horrendous.
(David Goa is curator emeritus at the Provincial Museum of Alberta. He created the Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries Exhibition for the millennium year and wrote reflections on the Sunday Liturgical readings for the WCR for some years.)
Letter to the Editor - 03/29/04