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February 5, 2014

Sacred Obscenity (Sep-Dec 2004)

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Reflecting on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in extreme times

by Darryl Tippens
September – December, 2004

It always strikes me, and it is very peculiar, that, whenever we see the image of an indescribable and unutterable desolation—loneliness, poverty, and misery, the end and extreme of things—the thought of God comes into one’s mind.
—Vincent Van Gogh

The dust has more or less settled. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, has earned more than $600 million worldwide, and millions of people have been enthralled and offended by it. Perhaps in the present calm, we can assess the meaning of the most successful religious film of all time. Perhaps now we can explain why it has inspired both anger and devotion, fear and reverence. Why have Evangelicals, Catholics, non-believers, and Muslims flocked to see this film, despite the torrent of criticism?

One possibility is that Gibson’s movie succeeds because it speaks powerfully to a culture in crisis. The crucifixion first spoke loudly and clearly to the first-century world, torn by doubt and longing as the old pagan forms dissolved. In the late Middle Ages, great Passion plays communicated something powerful to Medieval citizens living—in extremis — in the shadows of violence and death. And the story speaks to us today, for the Cross makes perfect sense in a time of fearful loss and devastation.

Via DolorosaIn our own apocalyptic, post-9/11 moment, the story of a bleeding God appears. In a setting of palpable darkness a great light shines. Even if one thinks the film is flawed (and surely it is), one must see that it was inevitable, in a way—a testimony to desperate people in extreme times. The point should not be missed that this is a film founded in paradox—that joy arises from darkness, that forgiveness is the proper response to cruelty, that self-sacrificing love produces new life. Despite pervasive evil, the films shows why we dwell in hope. (Who can forget that stunning, momentary glimpse of the risen Savior?) Every bloody scene is redeemed by this singular, final fact: He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The array of responses to Mel Gibson’s Passion tells us something important both about the movie and the movie-goer. Not only does the movie have “issues,” so does its audience. Movie-goers may be on trial as much as Gibson’s movie. This is a work that does not permit a facile aesthetic distance. It is a work from which we cannot easily escape. It tests us.

Last SupperThe movie tests us in part because it is rooted in a devotional and a dramatic tradition that is alien to most of us. Gibson is remarkably versed in the devotional practices associated with Passion plays and devotional art going back to the fourteenth century and earlier. Given the knowledge gap between modern audiences and the traditions upon which Gibson draws, the wonder is that people have responded as favorably as they have.

Without some context, we can easily fall into certain traps. The most common misstep is to judge the film as history or Scripture. We should be clear: no film is Scripture. It is not “as it was.” Rather, the film is an imaginative, personal interpretation of a few passages of Scripture. In all fairness, both the film’s defenders and its critics should agree on this obvious point. (Scripture doesn’t spell out the motivation of Pilate or his wife. It says nothing about Mary’s following Jesus in the crowd or “Veronica” wiping the face of Jesus with a cloth. The Bible tells us nothing of the snake in Gethsemane, or the deformed baby in Satan’s lap.) A list of baroque, Gibsonesque flourishes would in fact be quite long. Whether this fact is a vice or a virtue depends upon one’s tolerance of artistic license — themes, events, and characters perhaps inspired by the Bible, but not found in the Bible.

To state the obvious: This is a movie, and it should be judged accordingly. Who would criticize Michelangelo’s Sistine masterpiece “The Creation of Adam” because one can’t find a book, chapter, and verse telling us that the finger of God touched the finger of Adam? Who would criticize El Greco because the twisted, elongated body of Christ in his most famous painting couldn’t possibly have looked like that? Where is it written? Directors and screenwriters, like other artists, enjoy the liberty of imagining scenes, characters, events, and motivations not reported in the source. They select, highlight, invent, add musical scores, devise sets, costumes, and so forth in order to create impressions, arouse emotions, and make a point.

So Mr. Gibson has done. His work is a freely imagined artistic embellishment of the trial and the crucifixion of Christ. His point is not to turn the literal Gospels into film, but to exploit powerful images in order to impress on our hearts the cost of our salvation. The film is a meditation on the sufferings of Jesus, and through it we are confronted by the staggering cost of redemption. “You were bought with a price,” and this is what it looks like.

Part of the movie’s power lies in its capacity to seize viewers, almost by the throat, and draw them into the work. It is more than some viewers can tolerate, and this may be its greatest challenge. A Medieval theory of interpretation applies here: “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.” “Whatever is received can only be received in the manner of the recipient.” The idea is that we can only take in what we are equipped for.

Applied to The Passion, the principle is that we can only receive what the film offers us according to our preparation and readiness for it. Some who have responded most negatively to the film have done so not because the film is intrinsically bad, but because they seem to have little knowledge of or appreciation for the film’s traditions or purpose. With a different repertoire of aesthetic tools they might experience the film differently.

The Passion of the Christ is art of a particular kind, and it will not be to everyone’s taste. Gibson’s film company is called Icon—and this is a clue to what this film is meant to be. In the words of Leonid Ouspensky, an icon is “the gospel expressed in artistic form.” An icon is a concrete object, a visual image, that bears a spiritual and devotional purpose, expressed through a stylized, symbolic form. Through image and symbol the artisan suggests a spiritual domain hovering beyond, or behind, the visual object. Gibson was seeking to convey a spiritual message through a sequence of images—in this case, moving icons.

Gibson’s competence as a director is partly evident in his understanding of the power of the image over word. While his images may lack the subtlety and the sophistication of a Fellini or a Hitchcock, never mind. Millions of viewers are inhabited by (perhaps haunted by) the spectacular iconic images running through the film. Words are scarcely necessary to the meaning. Hence, Gibson’s choice of dead languages for the dialogue; hence, his early plans not even to offer subtitles. The images would be so pregnant with meaning that words should be superfluous, so Gibson thought.

The iconographic nature of the film is its greatest strength. But this quality also points to the film’s great risk. Symbols are never simple. They are, as the literary theorist says, “polysemous” — that is, capable of expressing multiple, even contradictory, ideas. Whether it be the cross or McDonald’s golden arches—symbols are seldom simple or univocal. The American flag, for example, can suggest love of country, solidarity with the victims of 9/11, or jingoistic imperialism. The cross and the crucifixion do not mean the same thing to my Jewish friends as they do to faithful Catholics. Crucifixes, scenes of the stations of the cross, and Mary at the foot of the cross, do not necessarily mean the same thing to all Christians.

Prayer in GethsemaneBlood is one of the problematic images in the film. I would argue that the blood and the violence are excessive, even “obscene,” if we use the term in its literal, dictionary sense of “repulsive, loathsome, disgusting.” Why so much blood and violence? The New Testament manages to tell the story without lengthy passages which linger upon the morbid details. Why does Gibson dwell on the blood? The answer is that Gibson is not following the biblical narrative slavishly. The fascination with Christ’s pain and humiliation flows from a venerable devotional tradition, largely lost.

For a thousand years devotional and dramatic works have dwelt upon the wounds of Christ in order to excite extraordinary levels of devotion in the pious worshiper. Though we might be inclined to call this focus gratuitous or even obscene, I suspect that Gibson might say “The murder of the Son of God is monstrous and obscene. See it for what it is—beyond comprehension, beyond your ability to stomach it. But the violence is not gratuitous. It is divine grace that is gratuitous.”

There is design in the excess. If Gibson appears overly fascinated by the pains of the crucifixion, then so are countless artists, sculptors, poets, and devotional writers before him: Hieronymous Bosch, Lady Julian of Norwich, Bonaventura, El Greco, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to name a few. Some of the greatest art of the ages grew out of this tradition—the Anglo-Saxon masterpiece “The Dream of the Rood,” Matthias Grunewald’s Altarpiece, Bernard of Clairvaux’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” Michelangelo’s multiple Pietàs, the York Cycle passion plays, the exquisite Good Friday poems of John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw.

Devotional material centered on the Passion is staggering in its quantity and variety, and it is remarkable how deftly Gibson recapitulates the tradition. One cannot fairly judge what Gibson has wrought if one ignores a millenium of art, literature, and theology. If we learn the vocabulary of the Passion tradition, we will see that Gibson is a latter-day St. Bonaventure, stirring our hearts through a pageant of suffering. Centuries before Gibson, Bonaventure took his audience down the Via Dolorosa, where he imagined the brutal scenes of the Son’s humiliation as seen through Mary’s eyes. Using flashbacks to Jesus’ boyhood, Bonaventure addresses Mary directly (in a technique similar to Gibson’s focus on Mary):

This blessed and most holy flesh—which you so chastely conceived, so sweetly nourished and fed with your milk, which you so often held on your lap, and kissed with your lips—you actually gazed upon with your bodily eyes now torn by the blows of the scourges, now pierced by the points of the thorns, now struck by the reed, now beaten by hands and fists, now pierced by nails and fixed to the wood of the cross, and torn by its own weight as it hung there. (Lignum vitae)

Through the ages, writers like Bonaventure cajoled pious worshipers to

imagine yourself present and consider diligently everything done against your Lord and all that is said and done by him and regarding him … With your mind’s eye, see some thrusting the cross into the earth, others equipped with nails and hammers, others with the ladder and other instruments, others giving orders about what should be done, and others stripping him. (Meditations on the Life of Christ)

This was the way to the cross of Christ, which unites one’s soul with the Savior. This was the way to understand and appreciate the love of God for oneself. This is the way to the heart of Jesus.

Gibson’s genius is that he has found a way to renew this tradition and translate it to the contemporary medium of cinema, to challenge—even to negate—the viewer’s horizon of expectation. The work imposes itself upon us. It changes us. It robs us of our innocence as it baptizes us in experience. We are there, and we are guilty.

Stated differently, the work of art puts us on trial. Jesus’ solemn warning might apply here: “The measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Mark 4:24-25). We must take care to consider what we bring to the interpretive enterprise as we sit before this extraordinary film.

Gibson’s work may not be high art, but it is extraordinary popular art. Part of its power lies in its capacity to violate the tidy boundary between us and a world we would not see. It baptizes us in the blood. The violence is disturbing, overwhelming. But through images of torn flesh, Divine Love “gash[es] gold-vermillion,” to borrow G. M. Hopkins’s memorable phrase.

If we are able to gaze upon the terrible, the obscene torture of the man on the Cross and perceive—and receive—the God who hangs there for us, then Love will heal us. Mr. Gibson seems to agree with William Butler Yeats:

But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

The sentiment is not far from Isaiah: “By his stripes we are healed.” In The Passion of the Christ we see “an indescribable and unutterable desolation” so that the thought of God might come to our minds.

Bonaventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ
Matthias Grunewald’s Altarpiece
Bernard of Clairvaux’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
Michelangelo’s multiple Pietàs
York Cycle passion plays
Good Friday poems of John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw

Read William Butler Yeats poem excerpt of “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop”. Do you think Gibson agrees? Do you? Explain.

We see the world through our own eyes. Gibson sees Christ primarily through a suffering servant motif. What do you see when you look at Jesus? What other elements of Jesus’ life complete the biblical picture?

Read Mark 4:24-25. How can this apply to the interpretive process, whether viewing a movie like The Passion or reading a biblical text?New Wineskins


tippensDarryl Tippens is provost of Pepperdine University and a department editor of New Wineskins.

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