Monday, March 01, 2004

One more post. I know, it's not fair for me to wait so long between posts and then throw three at you. Oh well. You can space out reading them and rest assured I'll check the comments on all three. I just wanted to blog about the Passion of the Christ before I see it, because I want to blog about it afterwards, too. (Classics note: for those of you who don't know already, "Passion" in this context means "Suffering," not "Strong Emotion.")

Against all odds, I'm looking forward to seeing the Passion. I am of course extremely skeptical any time anybody tries to make Christian drama, but I have been mostly won over. Even if I wasn't, though, I'd want to see it just because of the hype, just as I wanted to read the Left Behind books. You never know when somebody's going to say, "Hey, you're a Christian, right? What did you think of ..."

I hear that there are Christians who are pretty excited about the Passion's potential as an evangelical opportunity (Keith among them). I don't know about that; we'll see. It may just be, though. Let me explain why I think that.

To begin with, I don't think that the Passion will somehow cause people to leave the theater in droves singing the praises of God, or vowing to lay down their sovereign control over their own lives in favor of his. This is not a movie that I expect to talk at all about the relevance of the Passion - and rightly so, because the relevance of the Passion is a dogmatic question. To answer it you need a working familiarity with the Judaism of antiquity, and you need to go all the way back to the beginning of the world. Even if you were to somehow manage to cram all of that information into a feature film, you'd need to explain how those facts were applicable to the lives of every member of the audience. That, particularly, is not something I think a movie should do. Movies that try to preach the application of the gospel will inevitably come off as preachy, and there are few things more repulsive to Americans than preachiness. Moreover, it's a practical impossibility: the gospel is applicable to every member of a theater audience in a unique way, and you can't make a movie that speaks deeply to all that variety. What I think the Passion can do, and stands a decent chance of doing, is convey some information and raise some good questions in popular culture.

For one thing, I think it stands a reasonable chance of making it clear to people that the most important thing Jesus did was die and be raised again (Archimedes reminded me last night, with the help of the Blue Letter Bible, that the death and resurrection of Jesus are not, theologically speaking, really discrete events). Granted the Passion focuses heavily on the death of Jesus. I think that was a good choice. Representing the Resurrection would be very hard. We simply don't have anywhere near the sort of detail we want about it; we don't even know what it looked like when it was happening. Trying to represent the Resurrection in art generally ends up feeling trite, I think, and "trite" is counter to the purpose of this film.

But the death of Jesus is something we understand quite well, and can do a very good job of portraying on screen. And it is important to bring the focus onto that event. It is all well and good to be inspired by what Jesus said, or what he did, but if that is the extent of your interaction with Christianity then you are fiddling around with the borders of the religion. Now of course if you aren't part of the religion that's a fairly reasonable thing to do, kind of like Americans treating yoga as an exercise. But at the very least you need to understand that Christianity doesn't care about what Jesus said and did nearly so much as it does about the fact that he died: we didn't need God Incarnate to hear "love your neighbor as yourself," or "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," or to perform miraculous healings, or to raise the dead. Men had said those things before Jesus, and they would have said them afterwards had Jesus never been born. Of course it's nice that he said them, and it's nice that he did things like heal the sick and raise the dead - not that those have any particular bearing on me. But the heart of Christianity, the thing that real Christians think is really important, is that he died. I think the Passion stands a decent chance of making large numbers of people understand that.

And of course, then you're faced with the question of how he died, and why he died in that way. I mean, if Jesus' objective in life was to die, why not hang himself in his bedroom? But Christians think that the way he died was important, and that's a very hard message to get across. America is pretty much a deathless culture: we don't see it, we're not accustomed to it, and we get accutely uncomfortable with the idea of actually killing people. This makes it very hard for us (and I mean me, too; I'm not some repository of secret mysteries in this regard) to understand what it meant for a man to be crucified. You can read scholarly accounts of the Roman execution process, but it doesn't really mean anything to an American to read that Jesus had his back ripped off and had spikes driven through his nerves. Nothing in our experience really allows us to understand the horror of that, let alone the social implications of crucifixion. I have no way of really imagining what it would be like to live in a culture where the fact that my cousin's father's brother was crucified would hang over my head for the rest of my life.

So just from an informational standpoint I think the Passion will be highly useful, since I imagine it will get across an idea of what flogging and crucifixion mean, even if certain details (like what the cross looks like) are wrong. And I think that stands a good chance of raising some good questions too, because Christians think that it's actually important that Jesus died in this way and I think that's probably not something outsiders understand too well. It may also be useful for answering the question of why we get so hung up on the death of someone who doesn't stay dead, and who knew (at least at some point) he wouldn't stay dead. I doubt many people will see the Passion and say, "well, ok, sure, but like that was a real big sacrifice for him" without feeling at least a twinge of shame, which is useful both from an informational and a humanitarian standpoint.

Of course what will come of all this, who knows. Maybe God will use this as an opportunity to draw many Americans to himself, and maybe the American church will rise to the challenge of being Christian. Maybe not, but I hope so.

No comments: