Tuesday, March 30, 2004

A Little Passion In My Life

Last night I drank up a couple bottles of intestinal fortitude, shelled out the cash pilfered from K.'s checking account, and saw "THE MOVIE": The Passon of the Christ. For the reasons I outlined here, I did not go in with the best of expectations. Nevertheless, I also figured I'd end up appreciating it as a film and a point (one I find rather distasteful) well made. Two hours later, with another much-needed drink in hand, I realized that I had only been half right. The product of a very simple / literal reading of the Gospel's Passion narratives, which I guess was to be expected, this movie that people are raving or ranting about is -- dying Messiah / prophet, possible anti-Semitism notwithstanding -- pretty simplistic. This is, of course, its stroke of (marketing) genius and its most damning feature. To get all highbrow on you here: it is a tabula rasa, a blank slate: whatever you take from the movie, be it racist or religious fervor, you more than likely took it in with you.

"Is the movie anti-Semitic?" they ask. Yeah, probably. Show me a bomb-strapped anti-Semite, and in this movie he'll find a clarion call for the destruction of Israel. Show me somebody waiting for the Rapture while reading this book, and she'll likely stare at you blankely and say she loves the Jews, and that if it wasn't for them killing her Jesus she'd still be stuck in sin -- they're taking one for the team almost as much as He is. In other words, no no no, the movie isn't anti-Semitic at all.

"Did it affect you spiritually?" they ask. This is the far more interesting aspect of the tabula rasa: the faith experience it solicits is as solipsistic as the religious vision that financed and directed it. The Jesus of Christian salvation wasn't evoked so much as he was simply assumed. If you're looking to identify with a Savior's suffering, then you can have at it righteously. In fact, most of the 'Jesus flashbacks' invoke a snapshot of Jesus teaching his disciples (and faithful moviegoers) about the necessity of their suffering on account of him, and the necessity of emulating his servitude in the face of persecution. If, however, you know more about your own suffering than that of Jesus', well, then you're probably provided ample warrant to wonder: what's the purpose this ass-whooping again? The latter question was, near as I could tell, never really answered. Nor was it meant to be so, it seems. The Passion -- it isn't about you, all of you YOUs out there. It's about ME and MY faith (or non-faith) in Christ.

This is what makes the movie such a strange cultural phenomenon: namely, this solipsistic vision is being relayed in an unintentional critique and example of mob justice, be it for execution ("Crucify him!") or for salvation ("He did that for me!?"). The parallel between Jewish mob and Christian congregation is as unseemly as it is stark. The cinematic Jewish mob, crying out of inspired, religious fervor, leering with white-hot, passionate fever, at the self-described Messiah, the Son of Man. The (Christian) audience, turning a movie theatre into a feverish revival, showing up in buses, gazing at their beaten (and yet victorious!!) Christ with passionate awe.

The only rationale I can come up with to explain this brutal parallel is that the film is stain-glass iconography at its most utterly banal -- more grotesque than sublime. In focusing so intently on the icons of physical suffering (i.e. the whips, the nails, the flesh, the blood, etc.) the purpose obviously is to uncover the reality of such suffering. This is what you most commonly hear from those who love the film: "its violent, sure, but it really shows you how it was." Normally followed by: "How can you now not believe??" The REALITY of Jesus and his suffering, however, seems to miss the more poignant -- though far less polemic -- point of the story of the Cross. Is not the more sublime, unspeakable significance of Christ's life and death the perverse humility of this life and blasphemous injustice of this death? To gaze on the icons of suffering, is but to desire, eternally so, the fullness of God-in/as-Christ (and thus the redemption of humanity). The icon, especially that of suffering (eg. sado-masochism), provokes a gaze that never blinks, and a thirst that never is quenched. This is exemplified, I think, by the fact that this film's Jesus (implicitly) must suffer more physical pain than anyone ever has before. His suffering, and thus his endurance, borders on classic docetism.

The point of the Passion narratives, though, seems something quite the opposite. The God who is burdened, who burdens, who abandons, and is abandoned . . . this is the God who, in fact, dies. When we draw our gaze away from the icons of suffering, and instead dare to think the perversion and the blasphemy of a God burdened by life and death, by sin (by self-abandonment), we maybe begin to glimpse the perverse and blasphemous truth that lay behind the Passion's "reality." Wherein the gap that separates God from man is transposed into God Himself; wherein God, as Christ, discovers the limit of his divine omnipotence.

All of this, then, makes me wonder: is the Passion story told and retold, celebrated yearly at least, to keep this God living -- does he live on in the retelling of his story? Or is it, as with the fate of Lenin, one of the twentieth century's most radical saviours, to keep Him, in a sense, from life itself (and thus also from death)?