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Tuesday, July 29, 2003

That subject again.

I keep coming back to it, but bear with me. I think the Gibson movie is much more important than most films, if for no other reason than it clearly reveals the fault lines in American Christianity generally, and American Catholicism especially. It can also be fun in the table-turning sense. To name but one example, it allows for those of a more traditional/conservative bent to cite the silence (read: typical hibernating inaction) of the American episcopate as support for tolerating the film. "Hey, if the bishops haven't seen fit to condemn it...." Of course, it technically means no such thing--"consent" by silence--but the effect is the same. And it's certainly a joy to wield, instead of having it wielded against you.

Then there's the odd "sola scriptura" arguments of the critics, who claim that reliance on a paper screenplay of indeterminate relevance to the film is more important than the testimonies of those (many of whom have "mainstream" theological training and backgrounds) who have actually seen the mostly-finished product and assert it is not anti-Semitic. I still can't get my head around that one, except to resort to the ancient adage: "a picture is worth a thousand words." More like a hundred thousand in this case, given the unusual amount of critical bloviating... Using similar "logic," one could claim that a draft script for "The Producers," complete with its overt Nazi pagentry, was an endorsement of Hitler.

Which brings me to perhaps the strangest, and most telling, criticism of The Passion--namely that it "inappropriately" focuses on the last twelve hours of Christ's life. In my mind, I keep coming back to this particularly boneheaded observation in the original critical report by those oh-so-"mainstream" scholars:

The report takes issue with director Gibson's decision to focus on Christ's passion rather than presenting a broader vision of "the ministry of Jesus, of his preaching and teaching about God's reign, his distinctive table companionship, his mediation of God's gracious mercy."

Behold, the committee-assembled Jesus of modern criticism. Note the lack of anything really distinctive, let alone supernatural, about Jesus of Nazareth. Honi the Circle-Maker had a better resume'. Instead, it's Jesus, Palestinian social worker and All-Around Nice Guy. Remember what Bismarck said about legislation? The same applies to the creation of the tame Jesus of the Modern Set. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Frigging Borg could sign on to that statement.

Coming from Catholics with a USCCB seal of approval, this criticism is of an order of idiocy almost indistinguishable from clinical brain death. Face it: such comments are a blanket indictment of much of Catholic spirituality. Let's leave aside the Gospels themselves, each of which builds in a crescendo toward the Passion and Resurrection (e.g., Jesus repeatedly pointing to his crucifixion in Matthew). Let's toss aside Paul, who preaches about the scandal of the cross. Let's table, for the moment, Revelation, which describes Christ standing in Heaven as a lamb, slain.

Instead, let's just stick to Catholic distinctives. Consider: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, re-presenting Calvary; the crucifix, mandated in every Catholic church in the world (except, apparently, those in the Diocese of Saginaw); the Sacred Heart devotion, based as it is on the Gospel of John; the Rosary, with its Sorrowful Mysteries; the Divine Mercy chaplet ("for the sake of His sorrowful Passion"), libraries of hymnody ("Who did once upon the Cross/Suffer to Redeem our loss")--the list is almost limitless. To advocate in favor of a sawed-off, inoffensive and timorous Jesus makes no sense in light of our tradition. In what ought to be food for thought, even the twee dittymeisters at OCP have yet to come up with an "Ode to JC: Maitre' D."

Then again, someone in Portland's probably working on it.

[In the style of "Hello Mother, Hello Father:"]

Josh our buddy/
Ate with sinners/
Broke lots of flatbread/
At those dinners....

Nah. Doesn't work. Why? For starters, it mentions sin....

No, it's because it was not the central focus of His mission on earth, that's why. Even the badly-mangled sensus fidei of American Catholicism can tell that. It's why Catholics show up in greater numbers during Holy Week. It's also why, the best efforts of our betters notwithstanding, they will show up at the box office in 2004.

What we are really seeing is the profound discomfort--embarrassment, actually--of many prominent American Catholics with all things distinctively Catholic. Read Garry Wills or James Carroll (with Costco Maalox, of course) and you'll see what I'm talking about: all the blather about democratization, female ordination, Pius XII, celibacy, contraception, modern biblical criticism--the works--stems from a desire to put a hated past behind them ASAP.

And it explains plenty about the state of the Church in America today.

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