Having blogged about religion tonight (something I‘ve determinedly sworn not to do), I’ve decided to touch upon two other films, that together with The Da Vinci Code, make up a trilogy of the most controversial religious movies of the last quarter century..
I’ll probably catch hell for it, but I’m in a mood for critical thought.
Cold weather does this to me.
Sitting back in my comfortable home office, I soften the light from the desk lamp and look outside. A new layer of snow shines white on the desert. I see more snow swirling silently and almost magically down to earth.
This is a night made for writing.
I also apologize in advance for not breaking up this text with photos. This is normally done to help alleviate eye strain and make reading easier. Not tonight though, not with this particular blog. This will almost be a continuous stream of consciousness.
As a child, I grew up watching religious movies that pandered to the audience. We got the lush Technicolor and very soft-focused Hollywood interpretations of Jesus. Like most normal boys back then, I loved my family, loved my friends, loved my clean image of a postcard Jesus who watched over and protected me at night from ominous shadows, most likely of which contained vampires who enjoyed prowling in the dark corners of my bedroom. If the threat was too scary and I needed an extra weapon of defense, I would stretch out with my arms in the form of a cross, the form of which, of course, is like kryptonite to vampires. On the weekends, I went to church, attended Sunday school, and watched all those religious Hollywood movies that were as beautiful to me then as the sleeping Bethlehem of Christmas paintings.
I loved these movies, I really did. They were epic, glorious events.
As a young man in my twenties, I went through all my battles between grace and sin. My intellectual curiosity still studied the scriptures, somehow inheriting my father’s passion for spirituality, but my deeper interests were being steered more towards the history of religion than the actual faith it required to believe in them. I went through my dark night of the soul, like every man, and was torn between my beliefs and my passions.
In 1988, I went to see Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and it’s depiction of Jesus being both fully man and the son of God. The movie was about how he was prey to all the temptations of man and how he ultimately conquered his desires for the greater good. The movie paid Jesus the compliment of taking him and his message seriously.
This was no glossy, Hollywood interpretation. We see vast, hostile expanses of desert soil and struggling vegetation. The sun is merciless. This is Old Testament land, not at all hospitable to the message of love and forgiveness. More importantly, Jesus is shown in the movie as flesh and blood, struggling, questioning, asking himself and his father which is the right way, and finally, after great suffering, earning the right to say, on the cross, “It is accomplished.”
Some of you may remember the film and the temper of the times. It was a target of the fundamental Christian right, which accused the movie of blasphemy and worse. Scorsese was targeted by death threats and the angry sermons of TV evangelists. Protestors gathered outside theaters all across the country, even my local venue in Northern California. They stood on the sidewalk and held posters. They were polite, but firmly disappointed in my choice of entertainment.
The morning after watching the film, I wanted to mention these protestors to my friend at work, an older man whom I respected and looked up to. Expecting wisdom or some kind of calm perspective from him, what I got instead was a vicious tongue lashing for having seen the movie.
I was stunned.
Many times, he and I had both spoke of God, and we fell easily into the language of religion. We had discussed different faiths and interpretation of scripture. He was usually a willing and intelligent debater regarding the seductive labyrinth of logic, ritual, vision and guilt that religion delivers.
Not this time. He revealed himself to be just as fundamental as the rest of the film’s detractors, and he definitely cried foul at the blasphemy of Christ being portrayed on the cross, in great pain, and in a last temptation imagining what his life would have been like had he been free to live as ordinary men were. In his reverie, he marries Mary Magdalene, has children, grows old.
I tried to assure my friend that the film makes it clear that this hallucination is sent to Jesus by Satan, at the time of Jesus’ greatest weakness, to tempt him. Being both God and man, it isn’t unreasonable for us to explore the implications of such a paradox. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway because Jesus ultimately finds the strength to shake off his temptation and return to consciousness where he willingly accepts his suffering, death, and resurrection.
But my friend wasn’t listening anymore. He refused to talk about it. Debate over.
In the 23 years since, we’ve never discussed religion again. In fact, we haven’t discussed much of anything substantial and have drifted hopelessly apart because of it.
But this minor episode, which happened across an office desk in 1988, forever changed the course of my spiritual journey. I had asked a simple existential question: If Christianity teaches us that the union of man and wife is one of the fundamental reasons God created human beings, is it wrong to imagine that the son of God, as being fully man, could not encompass such thoughts within his intelligence.
My friend, a devout Lutheran, said no, and that even asking the question is an insult to his beliefs.
To me, his answer was an insult to Jesus.
Fundamentalism. I understand where it comes from. It grows out of the insecurity that all of us experience, and this insecurity leads us to the desire to have easy answers and simple solutions.
Personally, I don‘t want anyone telling me what to believe. My father didn’t educate me to be uninformed. So, I‘ll risk thinking for myself, thank you. But fundamentalists don‘t want you to think for yourself. You might get it wrong and spend eternity in hell.
I can’t subscribe to any religion that perceives God to be so judgmental that he saves a special minority of his children, then punishes the rest of us for eternity.
I can’t believe in any religion that refuses me to grow, to ask questions, to have doubts, and who then compounds their error by mistaking those qualities as evidence of my backsliding into sin. Blind certainty is not the ultimate standard for the faith. Struggle is necessary for spiritual advancement.
Yes, I defied fundamentalism and watched The Last Temptation of Christ.
The movie engaged me on the subject of Jesus’ duel nature and caused me to think about the mystery of a being who could be both God and man. I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully.
Doing so, essentially cost me a friend.
The film offended him and others because it did not reflect their ideas about God and man.
But guess what?
So did Jesus. He was a threat to both the Romans and the Jews.
How many of you attend church? I’ve long since abandoned the ritual, but I remember the attitudes contained within its solemn walls. It didn’t seem to be a deep spiritual experience for most. Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ rose again, we were redeemed, and let’s hope this gets over in time to get home and watch the big game on TV.
Which brings me to my third film.
The word passion has become mixed up with romance, but that’s not the meaning. Its Latin origins refer to suffering and pain. Christian theology later broadened that to include Christ’s love for mankind, which made him willing to suffer and die for us.
Watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ a few years ago, provided for me, for the first time in my life, a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of.
The movie is superficial in terms of that we only get a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus. This is not a sermon. It’s not meant to be.
It is simply a visualization of the last 12 hours of Jesus‘ life.
Whether seeing it in a theater or on home video, a normal devout Christian in a spiritual mood will emerge from the experience deeply disturbed. For two hours, you will see the most violent movie ever made. You will witness whippings, beatings, the crunch of bones, the agony of screams, the cruelty of sadistic centurions, the rivulets of blood that crisscross every inch of Jesus’ body.
This was definitely not like my old Hollywood biblical epics.
Most films back then didn’t show Jesus’ face, preferring to do shots of his hands or over-the-shoulder views as a means of being reverent. King of Kings in 1961 was the first large-budget major studio sound film in English to actually show Christ’s face. He was played by Jeffrey Hunter, who would later become Captain Kirk’s predecessor on Star Trek. Admittedly, I’m a nerd for knowing that, but such was the mindset in King of Kings, that the Crucifixion scene had to be re-shot because preview audiences objected to Jeffrey Hunter’s hairy chest. The actor was forced to shave it all off, including his armpits.
I can only imagine what those audiences would have thought of the brutal treatment of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. I know what my childhood reaction would have been.
The film’s controversy, besides the violence, is that many feel the movie is anti-Semitic and blames Jews for killing Christ. Technically, the Romans did it, but the Jews did champion the execution. There’s no denying that. But I think claims of anti-Semitism involves a willful misreading of testament. Jesus was made human and came to Earth specifically in order to suffer and die in reparation for our sins.
No race, no man, no priest, no governor, no executioner killed Jesus. He died by God’s will to fulfill his purpose. Our sins killed him.
As a lifelong student of classical art, I am well aware of the Pieta, of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. I’ve attached this clip of the Crucifixion scene from The Passion of the Christ. I found all of the film deeply emotional, but this shot of the Pieta caused me to openly weep. In a slow pull back, Mary stares directly and accusingly at the camera, at us, as if challenging us to do something, to make her son’s suffering meaningful.
Acceptance of our role in this sacrifice explains Mel Gibson’s only appearance in the film. The close-up of hands nailing Jesus to the cross (proceeding the action in this clip) are his hands. As director of the film and a devout Christian, Gibson is taking spiritual responsibility for Jesus’ death.
Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s behavior in the last few years, you’ve got to give him credit for taking the greatest artistic risk ever taken by a superstar. He was committed to a personal message of the most radical and personal urgency. Jesus died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. He suffered in the most heartbreaking and bloody way you can imagine. It was real and we should see it so that it hits home. Mel decided it was time to get back to that basic message.
So with no outside funding or distribution, Mel Gibson put his bankable reputation and nearly fifty million dollars of his own fortune at the service of his conviction and belief.
And that never happens in Hollywood.
In an entertainment age of giant alien robots and superheroes, he dismissed the idea of making something more commercial that would appeal to the status quo, and went out and made a film about something none of the studios wanted to touch, and he filmed it exclusively in two dead languages.
The Passion of the Christ became one of the most successful movies in cinema history, and stands alone as the most successful non-English film ever made.
Not bad, Mel.
Remembering myself as a child, with my arms out in the form of a protective cross, it seemed so easy and comforting, but by the time puberty hit, I would lay awake at night and think about infinity and wonder how I can pray for faith to a God I can’t believe in without faith. Those kinds of puzzles generated spontaneously within my young mind. My struggles began early.
So where do I stand today?
I believe in the basic teachings of Christ because I think they are correct, not because God wants me to. I was taught these lessons early, I’ve interpreted them over the years, and I still live by them today. Not by the rules and regulations, but by the principles.
I’ve walked the empty streets of Craco, the abandoned hill town in southern Italy where The Passion of the Christ was filmed. Of course that was many years ago, long before film crews turned it into ancient Judea. It is a haunted place. And although I haven’t done so since being much younger, I’ve spent hours and hours in churches all over Europe. I sat in them not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and history. I am aware of the generations there before me. I enjoy the reassurance of tradition.
This does not mean that I have an interest in attending any church. I do not. Too many of them cling to the belief of eternal damnation, the main dynamic of which being control. They set themselves up as the exclusive conduit for salvation and I simply don’t believe that they are. Beyond having a basic educational value to beginners, they are not necessary in my relationship with God. I do not need a church.
That temple is within.
Nor do I have any interest in being evangelized or instructed in what I must do to be saved. Prayers are meant to be vertical. They go upward toward Heaven, not directed sideways toward me.
Fundamentalism chased me away from all that. It was the unbreakable certainty in one’s own correctness, the blind faith that prevented spiritual growth, but even worse, it harbored the ability to dehumanize others as being ungodly. This kind of thinking makes atrocities possible.
To my view, it really boils down to a simple test:
When a religion is confronted with a conflict between love and compassion, and that of conformity to doctrine, it should never choose doctrine. This is obscene to me and signifies a religion that is against the teachings of Christ. Doctrinal conformity should never take higher priority than love and compassion.
If in doubt, go back and watch the Pieta again.