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Sunday, September 28, 2003

Your one stop Passion News emporium, Part II.

2. Frederica Matthews-Green Weighs in on the Gore Factor.

She says Mel's missing the point.

As is usually the case with FM-G, there's a lot to chew on, and the Eastern perspective-as-corrective is welcome. Well, at least to me.

But in the earliest Christian writings we see a different understanding of the meaning of the Cross, one which, shockingly, didn’t think it was important for us to identify with Jesus’ suffering. For contemporary Christians it’s hard to imagine such a thing. The extremity of Jesus’ sacrifice has been the wellspring of Christian art and devotion for centuries. It has produced great treasures, from late Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion, to the meditations of Dame Julian of Norwich, to Bach’s glorious setting of “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” Mel Gibson’s “Passion” arrives as the newest entrant in a very old tradition.

A funny thing happens, however, if we press further back in time. Before the middle ages, depictions of the Crucifixion show very little blood. Though the event itself was no doubt horrific, artists preferred to render it with restraint (like the Gospels, but unlike Gibson). The visual elements in an ancient icon of the Crucifixion are arranged symmetrically, harmoniously, and the viewer is placed at a respectful distance. The depiction is not without drama: Mary and the disciple John, at the foot of the Cross, reel in grief. But Jesus does not reveal any sense of torment. He is serene, almost regal.

* * *

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” promises to be a landmark expression of the strand of devotion that emphasizes identification with Jesus’ sufferings. It is a strand that has produced powerfully affecting works of art, and moved and inspired Christians for centuries. The Crucifixion was, in fact, bloody and brutal—Gibson is on solid historical ground in wishing to depict them this way—and when he prayerfully reads the Gospels, no doubt these are the pictures that appear in his mind.

But these pictures are not, actually, there in the Gospels. The writers of the Gospels chose to describe Jesus’ Passion a different way. Instead of appealing to our empathy, they invite us to awesome wonder, because they had a different understanding of the meaning of his suffering.

But I don't think her case is ironclad. There's an obvious explanation why the evangelists wouldn't include a lot of detail regarding crucifixion: they wouldn't have to. Everyone in Israel would have instinctively known what it was and what it entailed. As Josephus points out, crucifixion was a favored and horrifyingly common implement of state terror, used by Romans, Greeks, and even one of the Maccabean Kings, Alexander Jannaeus. Little explanation would have been required to the listeners/readers of the time. They would have known it instinctively, a little like the connotations of the word "flogging" reverberating in the ears of American slaves or freedmen. In our time, we've lost the connotations of it.

3. The Jesus War (the New Yorker article).

Peter Boyer's article is now available. Must reading on the subject, especially for the helpful admission from the critics that the film is not anti-Semitic, just that it could incite it. For the people getting worked up about the bad language and "intestines on a stick"/"kill his dog" references--come on. It's called exaggeration. Has Frank Rich hired security since? Started packing a .357? When I say "If I get home late, Heather's going to smother me with a pillow in my sleep", please don't call the authorities.

And Boyer himself understood from the context that those who would "burn my house down" are all of his critics, not just the Jewish ones. depicted in this article, Mel's theology is not without spot or blemish. His strict Feeneyism (only professed Catholics are saved) can be, as the late Boston priest learned, refuted without even sniffing at a Vatican II document. And, there's some evidence of sedevacantism on his part. If he's screwed up on those points, then caution is in order. I don't know that I'd go so far as to call him "not Catholic," though. He's clearly in transition, and by his own admission isn't the same man he was ten years ago. He's also clearly bound by his loyalty to his father--a commandment last time I checked--and not an easy person to distance yourself from in any event. In other words, give him time.

Further, let's also stipulate that flawed Catholics can make great Catholic art. A Canticle for Leibowitz was written by Walter Miller, Jr., a troubled man for all intents and purposes on his way out of the Church at the time--but you'd never know it from the finished product. Which, by the way, is an absolute classic of religious fiction.

4. "Dario's just this guy," Walter explained.

In the face of an enthusiastic review by the Cardinal in charge of the Vatican's office for priest formation,Walter Cardinal Kasper responded, helpfully pointing out that it can't be considered an "official" review. True enough. But the implication that Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos' views are about as important as those of the guy who empties the ashtrays is still pretty funny.

Nothing quite like watching one of these intra-Vatican steel cage matches come to light.

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