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Thursday, February 26, 2004

That 14th-century religion.

[Editor's note: It won't always be Mel Gibson Week here at Philocrites, but then again one must answer the door when opportunity knocks.]

Time religion writer David Van Biema tries to figure out what has made Mel Gibson "go medieval":

[T]he film's true shock lies in Gibson's vision of what is most important in the Jesus story, in the relentless, near pornographic feast of flayed flesh. . . .

Western Christianity has seen this treatment before, although not before about A.D. 1000. The stunning concept of divine self-sacrifice — "Jesus Christ and him crucified," as Paul put it — is the faith's heart, bound inextricably with his glorious rising three days later. But the grisly specifics of his mortification before then were of little interest to most Christians until the turn of the second millennium.

It was starting in the 1300s that the Passion truly bloomed. Scholars located details of Jesus' suffering in allegedly prophetic verses in the Old Testament. Mystics built devotions around his scourging after a Cardinal returned from the Holy Land bearing the pillar to which he said Christ had been chained. Flagellant lay groups clogged the streets, seeking bloody identification with the flayed Christ. So dominant grew the Passion, writes Catholic historian Gerard Sloyan, that believers felt "meditation on [it] alone could achieve unity with Christ and yield some share in the work of redemption he accomplished." It came to overshadow not just "the Incarnation, but even the Resurrection."

This unprecedented focus on Jesus' suffering makes some sense if you think about life in early 14th-century Europe, where plague, religious war, and grinding poverty — not to mention a crisis of authority in the church — led many people to think they were living in the end-times. Van Biema draws out Sloyan's argument that the new Passion cult "derived in part from the everyday misery and terror facing average believers. However badly they suffered, they thought, Jesus must have suffered more." The Man of Sorrows had been through worse.

But what kind of misery and terror requires a catharsis as excruciating as the one Mel Gibson has created? Who really thinks all the previous versions of the Crucifixion were so, well, timid that no one could adequately imagine Jesus' suffering until this week? I don't need to see the movie in order to be profoundly disturbed by the Crucifixion.

It will be very interesting to see if a contemporary cult springs up around Gibson's movie, treating its brutal depiction of Jesus' suffering as some sort of genuinely religious event. How many people are going to see it a second or third time? Will people make it part of their annual Holy Week vigil? Will the film become the altar-piece in some new multimedia shrine? Just think: The Chapel of the Dolorous Vision of St. Mel could offer four daily showings of the film, an Imax liturgy. (It already has its first martyr.)

And yet I find it hard to imagine that Christians living in 21st-century America need such a scathing spirituality. Is this film a trauma that lots of Christians are willing to subject themselves to once before reverting to modes of reflection on the Passion that are less aggressively cruel?

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 26 February 2004 at 5:40 PM

Previous: Other Jews on Roman crosses.
Next: Bush and the Fred Phelps clones.





February 27, 2004 01:51 PM | Permalink for this comment


This whole schmeer is a pretty cynical martketing ploy to two consumer segments: evangelicals for whom this kind of visual representation is very sensational, and those who love extremely graphic violent films, the kind like Reservoir Dogs which are just short of snuff films. Gibson's clever manipulation of the pre-release hype guarantees that he'll make back his investment. The first couple of days here in Washington have been like the opening of a LOTR, Potter or Star Wars movie, and a lot of evangelicals will see it more than once as a perverse act of devotion.

James R MacLean:

February 28, 2004 05:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

As intensely disturbing as I find Mel "I want his intestines on a stick" Gibson, I do think he takes his opinions very seriously. While Melanie is probably correct that he will recoup all of the $23+ million of his moeny that he spent on the movie, he could have made it easier by having the lines in English; as it is, having the dialogue be in Aramaic and Latin surely imposed difficulties in the performance and viewing of the movie, especially since so many people hate subtitles. I am advised he originally wanted to have no subtitles either.

Entre nous I believe the movie was conceived by MG as a $23 million indulgence. I don't really accept that it's violent pornography ("prostitute art") so much as part of a revenge melodrama. CF. ultra-nationalists in any culture wallowing in the passion of some past wrong they suffered, such as Eisenstein's drama Alexander Nevsky (1938; ironically, the next year the USSR signed a nonaggression pact, and in 1941 actual German atrocities against Russians surpassed those depicted in the movie). For me, being a Christian has always been about compassion and grace; for MG, it seems to have been about a sense of affronted entitlement, in which the isolated faction of rejectionist Catholics (rejected Vatican II) believe they alone have inherited the aggrievement of the Christ.

IOW, rather than Jesus' death on the cross being a universal necessity caused by the fall of man, to MG it was a singular atrocity wreaked on Jesus bar Jehovah by a group which represents cosmopolitanism (both world capitalism and Marxism). Just as ultranationists define humans as members of a nation, and their own nation in confrontation with some other nation[s], so they have a need to believe that antongonism is everlasting. Otto von Bismarck, addressing the Prussian Reichstag in 1870, told them that "every generation of Germans has had to fight France." The clash with France, for Bismarck, was cosmic and therefore eternal. Other Germans (of the Austrian & Hanoverian variety) had fought Pussia just 4 years earlier. But in Bismarck's eyes, that was merely a wholesome growing pain. For MG, his clash with the cosmopolitan forces of capitalism and Communism are merged--they are both the grinning face of the devil, and they are absorbed & subsumed in the person of some ancient deicidal tribe.

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