Sunday, February 15, 2004

Better Things To Do With $10, Isn't There?

Recently I was asked for an opinion on Mel Gibson's sequel to Braveheart (okay, maybe not), The Passion of Christ. More specifically: 'Do you think it will be anti-Semitic?' My reply did not directly answer the question, mostly because I'm a very poor listener; but, in hindsight, I think it might have done so pretty concisely. My basic response was, and is:

Does the world, Christian or otherwise, really need another literal re-telling of Jesus' death, as depicted in the Gospels?

I mean, really, hasn't this story been done to death already?

I've nothing against religious liturgy, or even believing in the salvific or symbolic importance of Jesus' death, but prattling on about the historical details of such a death at some point borders on a weird, kind of sick voyeurism. The obvious objection to this is that artists have for centuries depicted the passion narratives, and yet I've not yet whined about any of them. The difference is, at least for the best art, is that the literal details themselves are not, in the end, the point. One gets the impression, in fact, that they could have been painted, in full faith, without any knowledge of such details at all. They are usually iconic, sometimes ironically, inasmuch as they beckon an infinite gaze that can never nail things down (pun intended).

I do not get the impression this is the intention of Gibson's film, any more than it was for DeMille's King of Kings, Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, or Lean and Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told. There's nothing wrong with something not being 'artistic' (i.e., in the way that I privileged above), but purveyors of historical-minded Christological kitsch should not be too surprised or appalled to find it branded as anti-Semitic. Quite simply, it is difficult to tell the story, as depicted in the Gospels, without putting some Jews in a very bad light. By the time the Johannine community was reading the Gospel of John, they've probably been thrown out of the Temple (and thus out of Judaism as such) and, thus were no longer protected from Roman edicts against unsanctioned religions. One might be a little surprised, I suppose, if a little animosity wasn't harbored and comeuppance foreseen. However, in light of the present situation, with history having reversed the roles on several occasions, in dramatically violent sweeps, one would be even more surprised if many contemporary readers did not anachronistically uncover a fair bit of anti-Semitism. Expecting these latter readers to simply 'return to the original context' is the near equivalent of telling victims of trauma to 'forgive and forget'.

I'm not saying the Passion narratives are necessarily anti-Semitic, but neither am I saying that they ought not be read as such. The burden is on the purveyors and guardians of the narratives to find a way to affirm their value in light of their historical abuse. Which is why I ask again:

Does the world, Christian or otherwise, really need another literal re-telling of Jesus' death, as depicted in the Gospels?

Surely one would do far better by watching its horrific retelling, of a sort, in Lars Van Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. But then again, the adults who will soon be lining up to see The Passion, perhaps even taking their kids, in hopes that the death rattle of Christ will compel them away from sex and evolution, are likely the very same people who signed petitions against The Last Temptation of Christ.