Grace unexpected

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jim
Jim
2021 years ago

Ken,
The “controversy” surrounding the film has also perplexed me. Particularly the charge of anti-semitism.
I’ve seen a number of films about the Holocaust – most fairly graphic and horrific – but I wouldn’t describe them as anti-German.
Like you,I was raised a Catholic (spent some time in a monastic order in my youth in fact) and the movie accords pretty much with the Church’s teaching of Christ’s sacrifice and immense suffering.
Is the Philip Adams / Andrew Bolt type criticism a reflection of their atheism and hence unfamiliarity with the gospel?
Or is it s grudge against the films financial success?

Sophie
Sophie
2021 years ago

Ken, I thought your piece was very good. i think that The Passion is the best religious film ever made; it shows what the neweset art form is capable of doing in a field that was dominated in the past by music, painting, sculpture and literature. A most extraordinary work because it combines high art and folk and pop culture..
I disagree that it shows overtones of anti-Semitism, though. This is a jewish story–the only thing you could say is that it shows a trace of anti-clericalism, actually. How can a film be anti-Semitic when all its heroes are Jewish and only some of its villains? Unless one only associates Caiphas and the mob with Jews, and not Jesus, his family, disciples, friends, helpers, membes of the Sanhedrin who try to intervene, and so on..There have been excellent articles on the Towards Tradition Organisation website(a conservative Jewish website)written by such as Rabbi Lapin and Michael Medved which make precisely this point.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Sophie,

How can a film be anti-Semitic when all its heroes are Jewish and only some of its villains?

It’s a valid point, but so is mine. The age-old western-Christian attitude towards Jews as having killed “our” Lord is obviously (to you and me) based on an obtuse failure to understand (or take any notice of) your point. However, although based on such a fallacy, that attitude has had far-reaching effects. It seems to me that Gibson, given the power of his film and the extent that it portrayed the mob as hateful and frightening, should have accepted the burden of negating those sorts of attitudes. He could have conveyed the message that everyone is capable of evil/mob hysteria by any number of filmic devices (symbolism, flashback, flashfoward etc). I suppose it’s unfair to label a failure to accept the burden of correcting age-old racist misconceptions as “anti-semitism”, however, and that’s why I simply labelled it a “faint overtone”.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

And fairly or not, a perceived socio-religious agenda is being read into Gibson’s motivation which, whilst perhaps not deliberate on his part, seems to enshrine a conservative/traditionalist “Oberammergau Passsion Play” interpretation. The implications of that in relation to historical perceptions of Jewish “guilt” need no elaboration.

There’s a fairly toxic conflation of apprehension, second-guessing, denial (from Gibson) and critical
review here which hasn’t been assisted by Gibson Senior’s deeply unhelpful two cents worth. Mel’s defence of his father – though entirely understandable on one level – hasn’t helped either.

I’m interested that people who have seen the movie seemingly tend not to read an overt anti-semitic subtext themselves but do perceive a risk of same emerging: presumably for ‘other’ movie viewers, easily persuaded by race guilt arguments. I’m not sure how real that danger is. I haven’t seen it myself but it seems to me much more likely that it would resonate, on that level, more with those who already a Jewish blood guilt fixation. Kind of preaching to the converted rather than proselytising. In the liberal democratic world, do that many viewers – under a certain age – actually
have a clear take on the historical “blood-guilt” positioning of Judaism in relation to Christianity? If not, would this movie actually engender it, without additional context?

Sophie
Sophie
2021 years ago

A recent poll taken in the US(admittedly, a small one)showed that in fact out of people who had seen the film, a significant percentage–9 percent–said they were less likely to have anti-Semitic feelings afterwards than before. Most had no change(ie they did not blame Jews for the death of Christ anyway). I think you’re right, Geoff, there was a really very ugly conflation and second-guessing of not only of Mel’s intentions, but those of his cast and crew–this is a collaborative work, remember, made by people of all faiths, origins, ages and experiences. In fact, re the anti-Semitic thing, I would go so far as to say it actually comes from a post-Holocaust sensibility, and this is flagged several times(most clearly when Simon of Cyrene is brutally ordered by a Roman soldier to carry the cross for Jesus–the soldier spits out the word ‘you Jew!’ with all the contempt and hatred that’s so hideously resounded down the centuries). But also in that at least two actors–including Maia Morgenstern who so movingly plays Mary–are from Jewish families whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.
I was brought up in exactly the same kind of religious background as Mel and I can tell you it didn’t make me anti-Semitic. Far from it. In fact, focussing so much as my parents did on the passion and suffering of Christ made me feel both, inescapably that in human terms anti-Semitism was a vile abomination and that in Christian terms it was a complete and utter betrayal of Jesus, his family, friends, disciples and helpers. It was universal human cruelty that did such things; and watching the film, I was reminded of the torturers and sadists and psychopaths who ran Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia and Saddam’s Iraq and Pol Pot’s Cambodia..the whole vile crew down the centuries. And Jesus’ indomitable spirit is just so extraordinary, there is so much lightness and love in the film, too, as well as darkness and pain. It truly is a masterpiece.

Russell
Russell
2021 years ago

Geoff,

It is also fair to point out that Gibson included the line, from Jesus to his tormentors, “You do not take my life from me, I lay it down that I may take it up again” (or words to that effect) – emphasising that Jesus undertook the sacrifice voluntarily. No blame attaches to those that took his life – they played a necessary part.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Russell, of course blame is attached to them. They played their part in killing an innocent man.

That such a sinful act to save us is quite ironic.

Both Ken and his writwr miss what the punishment christ took and I assume the film. Christ dies and is removed from God. That is the punishment.
it is the reason why you don’t have a great time with your mates in hell).

The ressurection which is lmost missed in the film is central to biblical teaching. It shoed Jesus was without sin and had conquered sin.

Ken implies he doesn’t believe in the deity of christ which would mean that the world’s biggest liar is a great moral teacher.

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

Um, Homer, just a point, the Resurrection IS in the film, right at the end, the last few frames. I think a lot of people must get up and go before the end, so many people say the Resurrection was not there! It’s there all right.You see the stone moving from the tomb, the shroud moving, Jesus’ hand, with a nail mark in it, then pans onto his face, beautiful, unmarked..Then he gets up to go..
But remember, the film is called The Passion; not the Life; or the Resurrection.

Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

I was moved by the film, but not to any admiration. It is not an especially Catholic view of the Passion event. I’d read Fr Andrew Greeley’s review before seeing it and found his comments generally accurate.

The Gospel narratives inculpate Pilate in particular and the Romans in general at least as much as they do the Jews. Rewriting Pilate as a benign colonial bureaucrat is historically inaccurate in terms of both secular history and the Gospels themselves.

The film is not a literal reconstruction. Latin was almost unknown in the Roman East and Greek was the language of government. The crucifixion nails were never driven though the palm because that cannot support the weight of a human body. In fact, the Gospels do not even mention any nails. I doubt Mel set out to make an anti-Semitic film, but he has made a film which misrepresents the role of the Jews in favour of the Romans.

Crucifixion killed by asphyxiation and the Romans seem to have tried to keep down the loss of blood in order to prolong the death. It’s interesting that Mel chose to retain medieval iconography, with all it’s misunderstandings, but still claimed to be making a reconstruction film.

Lastly, while I understand the emotional impact of the film, I’m a little perturbed by the extent to which people are treating going to a movie as some of kind of sacramental act.

In his review, Fr Richard Leonard SJ writes:

Gibson’s film waves its cinematic finger at the secular Western audience and says, “If only you knew how great and how long God has suffered and died for you, you would abandon your wicked ways.” Maybe.

As important as the Christian call to conversion might be, the more imaginative presentations of Jesus’ passion that touch me most deeply are the ones that are told in the context of the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry, have a less hectoring tone, are more faithful to the Gospel sources, and shows us, for longer than one resuscitating minute at the end, that Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates why God had the last word on his Son’s faithful and self-sacrificing love of us, and how it leads all people everywhere to know that that they have the hope of eternal life.

As far as I remember, there is a tad more ethical content to the Christian kerygma than: “See my film’ or even: ‘Feel deeply moved by my film’.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

After reading most of the favourable comments, I have to wonder whether I read the genuine Bible. Based on the versions I read, I’m left with the impression that either Gibson had hold of a quite differnt version than mine, or his editing was done along the same sort of lines I feel his father would have taken.
Then again, I often felt my true believing friends read it far more casually than was appropriate with any bokk supposedly being taken seriously.

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

Norman, I read the Bible all through my childhood–and the Passion in the New Testament was a very well known bit that we read. The only change Gibson’s made is to introduce Pilate’s wife–who’s mentioned very briefly in one of the canonical Gospels, and mentioned more fully in one of the aopcryphal Gospels. He’s leant more heavily on the torture scenes but that is fair enough–though the Gospel accounts are brief about that, what on earth does one think is meant by the brief ‘he was flayed and crucified’?? You’ve only got to think about eyewitness accounts here in Australia about when convicts were flayed to know what the reality was. Apart from that I really can’t see what you mean when you say it was nothing like the Bible. Besides, Mel was making a work of art, not creating a new Gospel as some people seem to indicate. And his Catholic background would indeed influence the imagery, and why not?

Russell
Russell
2021 years ago

NOTE FOR HOMER:

We have established in other blog comment exchanges that you consider Catholics and Anglicans to be something other than true Christians and you feel free to disparage their beliefs. Whatever floats your boat.

The divinity of Christ is usually taken as a fairly central tenet of most forms of Christianity (apart for some pretty wishy-washy New Age types) this is expecially true for Catholics (whether you consider them true Christians or not). “Christ dies and is removed from God” would be viewed as a nonsensical statement by most Christians – Christ can’t be removed from God, he is part of the triune nature of God.

Gibson is Catholic and takes it seriously – despite what you think – he is free to express his faith the way he wants.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

Sophie, if Gibson hadn’t pretended he was making much more than a “work of art”, I’d never have commented. I don’t doubt you’ve read the Bible. You may [unlike most casual readers who “know” everything came inpairs] even realise it suggests there were fourteen sheep, two aardvarks, seven cows, and two dodos, leaving the question of penguins less certain. I’d suggest, however, that a careful reading shows Gibson seems to be trying to make the most negative pssible selection of material, regardless of the original context, add items, including previously “undiscovered” gratuitous violence which suits his apparent anti-semitic impulses, and produce something which may be a masterpiece of postmodern theatre, but is NOT the sort of film he pretended to be working on.
One wonders whether Gibson feels the removal by his church of the crime of Deicide was a terrible “mistake” on their part?
I don’t doubt, now that you mention it Sophie, that the sort of anti-semitic version of his father’s mediaeval pre-Vatican II mentality has been an influence. Others, of course, have managed to overcome such morally debilitating influences, haven’t thry?
While not a Catholic, I feel Russell’s implication that Gibson’s views represent anything like the current core values of that religion is unfair to Catholicism. Even as a youngster, when Deicide had not yet been dropped, and there tended to be a stronger negative feeling [particularly with older practicioners]towards the Jewish religion among Catholics than there was in other religions, there still wasn’t the blind seeking out of ANYTHING which could be manipulated or manufactured in the name of a “good” cause, that I fear must be present in Gibson’s world view.
It’s unfortunate he didn’t present it as merely a “work of art”. The anti-semitic overtones wouldn’t have been as significant then — but neither would the box office receipts?

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

Personally I’m bit worried by the fact that so many followers of a bronze-age sky god religion with belief systems mainly organised around authoritian structures say their faith has reaffirmed by a reenactment of a bloody political killing.

One that also comes with souvenir nails. http://www.sharethepassionofthechrist.com/

John Humphreys
2021 years ago

I saw the movie last night – thought it was quite good.

I can’t take seriously anybody who suggests the movie is ant-semetic. If you are referring to the emphasis on the violence – I would have thought the more obvious reason is that violence sells – and it would hardly make sense to have some Americans, Incas or Bushman show up to attack Jesus! Much of the violence actually comes from the Romans – some of whom are made to look quite bad (quick! scream about the “anti-latinism”).

The biggest deviation from the bible that I could see was the typical catholic emphasis on Mary. While I understand their Mary fixation is a part of catholic folk-lore, it isn’t biblically based.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

I just had a look at the Passion merchandising site. I can’t help wondering why the Passion Nail

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

I checked the site out and was a bit surprised and disappointed to find out that they weren’t flogging floggers.

The extra-large vinyl bible case with nail zip-pull just didn’t do it for me…and they’re completely out of the coffee mugs with “Passion” in Aramaic.

c8to
2021 years ago

divine spark?!

arghh a dualist. (screams in intellectual horror)

wen
wen
2021 years ago

Ken, if you received an e-mail from me – re not being able to post, it seems to have righted itself this morning…at least on this computer…. but maybe my e-mails are going astray – are yours & Geoffs old e-mail addresses still current?

(Sorry to interrupt the thread – but have to wait till after Easter to see the film here….)

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Mine is but my email has been offline a few times over the last couple of months and a few people have reported not making contact.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Sophie, I did say almost.
The cross and the ressurection are interlinked. One doesn’t make sense without the other.

Russel,
Take a bex and firstly read a gospel, Mark is the most pithy and then read Revelation which tells you about what will happen after judgement.

You will notice very little is mentioned about the physical punishment.
Jesus takes our punishment for our sins on the cross. It is not the physical punishment that is judgement because the wages of sin is death.

Without death there could be no resurrection.

Remember the words Jesus says on the cross.

what happens to people outside the Kingdom in Revelation?

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

“Jesus takes our punishment for our sins on the cross. It is not the physical punishment that is judgement because the wages of sin is death.

Homer, from what I’ve seen of you online, you seem like a decent, humane chap with a sense of humour.

So I’ll refrain from pointing out your quote above basically reads like nonsensical claptrap to me.

Instead lets try a lil’ thought experiment here. Assume I’m a six year child (not a great of leap of faith admittedly)and parse the above statement accordingly.

I’d especially like to hear how, as a little kid, I am born guilty but thanks to a state-sanctioned hit on on an inspirational agitator I won’t burn in hell if I repress my natural human desires.

I think there’s a lot of great inspirational and truly life-enhancing stuff in the Christ mythos but I reckon ole Floaty Toes himself would have been the first to point out the whole death, sin, punishment stuff ain’t where it was at.

Also, it is just me, but doesn’t the Book of Revelations sound like it was written by William Blake with a raging hangover?

John Humphreys
2021 years ago

with a hangover? sounds more like somebody tripping on e to me.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

John, the only way that you could create the Book of Revelations on e would be via the medium of interpretive dance.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Nabakov, sorry for being so slow however there were things to do.
Firstly if you email me I can give you a larger answer but the expurgated version is thus:

The Christian message is about God’s grace. The message is not that those who believe in Jesus are rewarded for that, as if it is a decision made by them as a result of their own intelligence at working out God’s cosmic plan and for which He congratulates them. The Bible says that even faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-10), part of the great outworking of His grace towards the human race.

nardo
2021 years ago

Geoff, ROFL. I’d like to see that. (Maybe I have.)

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

Homer, that’s a nice exegesis and one I could certainly live with. But what has grace and intelligence got to do with all this talk of sin, punishment and death?

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

we are all sinful people Nabakov.
Ask any parent whther they had to teach their children the right oe the wrong ( bad) thing to do.

Norman
Norman
2021 years ago

There’s certainly room for a wide ranging debate on its qualities as a movie, per se; but I’d be surprised to find too many who supported Gibson’s assertion that the movie faithfully reflected the contents of the relevant sections of the Bible. I have no truck with beliefs centred on either the Old or New Testaments; but Gibson’s selective choices, misrepresentaions, and additions are a parody.
They may or may not have made it a ‘better’ movie; but Gibson’s distortions make a mockery of what he CLAIMED he was doing.

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