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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

Took off larking --- if they golf I feel entitled --- and spent the first part of the afternoon among the Bible-toting crowd, watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ."

It must be impossible to get a film rated NC-17 for violence in the USA. If any film ever qualified, this one does. I would guess that fully half of the screen time here is occupied by endless scenes of scourgings, beatings, and nail poundings, all dwelt on and depicted as graphically as possible.

Now, I've read J. K. Huysmans on the Grünewald crucifixion painting. I think that Mel Gibson was trying to do the same thing on screen. It doesn't work. Violence in cinema works mostly as a subset of suspense. It isn't like you'll be on the edge of your seat in this thing, wondering how the story ends. What startles isn't the scourgings --- that was well advertised in advance --- but the insertion of additional, "symbolic" gore, like the crow that pecks out the dead Gestas's eye.

The Gospels do not dwell on the violence Jesus was dealt as a part of his crucifixion. They emphasize his teachings, in a way this film does not. The filming in Aramaic and Latin --- probably the thing that got me in the theatre in the first place --- seems in retrospect to have been a dubious choice. It made the words of the actors seem murky, distant, and mysterious. We were not meant to concentrate on what they had to say. (Latin pronunciation was barely passable.)

I wouldn't worry about the "anti-Semitism" that has been the subject of so much comment. While the churches have been bussing them in to see a movie about Jesus made by a Christian, most viewers have already read the Bible and been exposed to what it says about the dynamic between Pilate and Caiaphas. In making Pilate more sympathetic than the Sanhedrin, the film is authentic to its source. And frankly, while the churchgoing filmgoers may well have found it moving, I doubt that this will become a big hit on video, or that the churchgoing audiences will want this as their cinematic vision of Jesus.

There's a reason why the Gospels doesn't dwell on the torments of Jesus on the Cross. While the Bible says that Jesus was scourged, suffered, and died, the actual suffering the Bible focuses on is caused by his being betrayed and abandoned by friends; the physical tortures are not dwelt on. In fact, it says that He died unusually quickly. This is the missing point here.

Jesus died for our sins. Human sin was the cause of his death in more ways than one. The sins that specifically caused his death --- betrayal of trust, moral cowardice, self-assured sanctimony --- are sins viler than the thuggery of Roman soldiers or the Jewish mob. At least that's the way I read the Bible text. This is why it is wrong to see "anti-Semitism" in the Gospels. Judas, Pilate, and Caiaphas were all equally guilty.

The focus of the teaching of Jesus was that God's love was not earned, and could not be earned. It is given to us freely. The central truth of Christianity, the thing that makes it different from other religions, is its affirmation of grace and its rejection of the corresponding worldly notion of merit; there is no room for earned, personal merit in authentic Christianity. This is hard for people to get around --- merely natural religion says that it should be possible for humans to please the Creator of the Universe, and that the Creator will reward them for it. Jesus said, over and over again, in parables like the Workers in the Vineyard, or the Prodigal Son, that this is not how it works.

Those who would focus in on Jesus' physical torments have another message entirely. They are saying, instead, that God underwent all this nasty stuff for you --- so you owe big time. They are using the suffering of Jesus to promote a gospel of ritual observance, mechanical sacramentalism, and works-holiness, the exact opposite of the doctrine of grace. I suspected Mel Gibson was approaching this from a theologically suspect viewpoint. Knowing how this movie dwells on physical torture, I think I see what's gone wrong.