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3.4.04 Passion of Christ

Everyone else is doing it, so I might as well weigh in on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ."

I understand that Gibson attributes his personal salvation to meditation on Christ's suffering during those final hours. I respect that. Like they say: Whatever gets you through the night. And I get it that, as an artist, Gibson makes certain choices. Mad Max. Braveheart. And the cop in the "Lethal Weapon" series, whose sorrow made him take deranged physical risks.

But do I want to see "The Passion of Christ"? No. Whatever personal spiritual challenges I might have, I don't think watching someone being slowly put to death will get me through the night.

People keep saying it's not about the bad Jews. Jesus came here to die "for everyone's sins" and "he was going to die anyway" -- the Jews just happened to be there. Some subtle theological points are buried in those statements. But all people will see is the scourging and nailing. This kind of movie envelops you with sensation. It doesn't seem to be geared toward intellectual complexity. And an entertainment mogul once said: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

So the people who worry about anti-Semitic reactions have a good reason. If I watched two hours of someone I loved and admired being slowly tortured to death, as a red-blooded American, I'd more likely be thinking of revenge, not falling on my knees in thanks for his sacrifice. The movie's defendants keep saying that it was Jesus' job to suffer. He was fulfilling his destiny in order to save our sin-corroded souls. Huh?

I think the em-PHA-sis is on the wrong syl-LA-ble. I didn't think being tortured was the point of the Jesus story. It wasn't about "dying for our sins" per se. That is so pagan: let's sacrifice some virgins and the rains will come. Yeah, humans are weak and corrupt. Jesus came to teach a new way of living that shook up the establishment. He showed that it was so important he was willing to die for it. In dying for his beliefs, he became a hero for us. Wasn't his "passion" what he stood for in life? And the agony of his decision to go ahead and die for it?

Focusing on nothing but the torture has a certain creepy eroticism to it. Whips and chains. Bondage and domination. Sado-masochism. There is that dark boundary that no one really likes to admit but that threads its way through both popular arts and the classics. We love our action heroes bruised and bloodied and half naked. When the focus becomes the purely physical and loses its spiritual point, then the quest for redemption slides easily into the quest for release.

Art is not meant to be politically correct. Attacking Mel Gibson for his passionate work is like going after rap singers for their bad influence on adolescent boys. The more interesting questions are about what the movie and reactions to the movie say about our times. My conclusions: We are simpletons. We want to be inflamed and incited. The more complex the world becomes, the less we want to deal with complexity -- can't we get computers to do that? Can't that be outsourced while we ride on the roller coaster of our emotions? We love the distraction of controversial movies, sleazy court cases, and gay marriage -- we fiddle while the world burns.

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See also: revisions to my dad's quotations and the explanation of his father's statement about the lilies. (2.26.04)

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