I’ve never been much impressed by Mel Gibson, either as an actor or a man. Moreover, the manufactured controversy over his Passion of the Christ didn’t exactly fill me with joyful anticipation at the prospect of going to see it. So it was almost a shock to discover that the movie really is worth seeing; indeed for me at least it provided a powerful reaffirmation of a faith that was sorely in need of nurturing.
I went along to the film last night prepared to believe the egregious Philip Adams’ verdict that this was a religious version of Mad Max: “lip-lickingly lurid” “religious pornography”. But I discovered the appalling, relentless violence was absolutely necessary both in a dramatic and religious sense. How do you create and sustain dramatic tension where the entire audience knows the plot outline and most know every detail? Some recent Jesus filmmakers have done it by presenting unorthodox, even shocking, portrayals of Jesus’ persona. But that would hardly have suited Gibson’s dramatic or religious purpose. Gibson sustains dramatic tension through having his audience experience Christ’s dreadful ordeal in an almost visceral sense. Like the two Marys and Jesus himself, we can’t help asking ourselves continually: “When is this suffering going to end and how can it possibly be endured?” But I was anything but bored; it allowed me to understand the passion/suffering of Christ in a way I’ve never before experienced.
Moreover, Gibson’s remorseless depiction of suffering is as important religiously as dramatically. As Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner explains it:
There is Jesus, a human being who loves, who is faithful unto death, in whom all human existence, life, speech and action, is open to the mystery which he calls his Father and to which he surrenders in confidence even when all is lost. For him the immeasurable dark abyss of his life is the Father’s protecting hand. And so he holds fast to love for human beings and also to his one hope even when everything seems to be being destroyed in death, when it no longer seems possible to love God and human beings.
Mel Gibson’s Passion convincingly depicted Christ’s humanity, his moment/s of doubt and ultimate unshakeable faith. Just as importantly, it projected the central Christian message of loving one’s enemies, and the healing force of forgiveness to relieve the corrosive burden of guilt. Events in the Middle East, and the attitudes of “fundamentalists” on both sides suggest that it’s a message that badly needs reinforcing.
The one area where I agree to a limited extent with Phillip Adams (and others) is that there is a faint overtone of anti-semitism in Gibson’s Passion. Not so much in its depiction of the hatefulness of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish mob baying for Jesus’ crucifixion, as in what Gibson omitted to say. It would be impossible to create a ‘truthful’ portrayal of Christ’s passion without depicting the Sanhedrin and the Jewish mob as principal agents of his crucifixion. But Gibson failed clearly to make the point that mob rule and irrational blood lust are not the sole preserve of Jews or any other group. It’s a universal tendency of the dark side of human nature, negated only by love and forgiveness. That message was certainly present for those who cared to look, but given the long, bloody and ongoing history of anti-semitism in western culture, it should have been made much more strongly. Whether that notable omission sprang from the attitudes of Gibson’s father Hutton I just don’t know, and I’m not sure it really matters.
Despite that fairly significant reservation, I came away from The Passion of the Christ awed and somewhat inspired. I even went home and read from Rahner’s The Practice of Faith for a couple of hours (not my usual bedside reading, to say the least). It doesn’t mean I can ever overlook the failure of the Church to deal effectively with priestly child sexual abuse or the current pope’s attitude to birth control, homosexuality and the like. Nor does it mean I believe in the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection in a naive literal sense. But neither do subtle (though anything but “godless”) theologians like Rahner:
This does not mean that we have to have a stylised picture of Jesus as a superman. He had his limitations, even in his teaching and its presentation, because this is an inevitable part of being a real human being. But he was the person he was supposed to be, in life and in death. His disciples, who witnessed his downfall on Good Friday without illusions, discovered in themselves, as something given by him, a certainty that life was not destroyed, that death in reality was his victory, that he was taken into the protection of the mystery of God, that he “rose”. Resurrection here of course does not mean a return into our spacio-temporal and biological reality, but the definitive rescue of the whole human being (“in body and soul”) in God. Because this resurrection is being accepted by the mystery which, in its incomprehensibility, is called God, how it happened is impossible to imagine. However, where our absolute hope and the experience of this life and death meet we can no longer think in terms of Jesus’ destruction without also denying our own absolute hope, without, whether we admit it or not, allowing ourselves to fall in despair into bottomless emptiness and ultimate nullity.
I mostly accept Rahner’s formulation, although not the literal “body and soul” resurrection he (and conventional Christianity in general) describes. I don’t believe that our egoistic personality and individual consciousness survive death, to wander around in some unimaginable Paradise forever. I believe some divine spark or spirit survives and becomes one with “God” and that aspects of our learning, love and actions during life will survive, join and enrich the river of human culture and consciousness that is itself an aspect of God. But my inability to believe that Ken Parish as a conscious individual will survive death, under any circumstances, doesn’t cause me to sink into despair. On the contrary, I find my idiosyncratic version of Christian faith both sustaining and inspiring, however much most conventional Christians might label it as heretical or blasphemous. I’ll take my chances.