Friday, April 18, 2014

Andrew Sullivan, Good Friday, and "The Passion of the Christ"

When I read Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul in the fall, many sections popped out at me. This is just one of them that I've been saving for Passion week. Sullivan is discussing the necessity of ambiguity and how fundamentalism doesn't leave room for it. In particular he discusses the film The Passion of the Christ and how the depictions of violence go far beyond what any of the evangelistic schools record — and the writers of the gospels include details when they want: the naked boy running away and the names of random people who are never heard from again, for starters. That they were not so detailed about the Passion itself was, I believe, intentional.

Here's Sullivan:
[W]hat was striking about the film as an art form was its abandonment of art. In such matters, what was important was veracity and precision, not interpretation and mystery. And so the movie was a masterwork of explicit, fanatical precision. It emphasized not Jesus’s message of love and compassion and the necessity to live faith through good works. It focused with astonishing zeal on Christ’s suffering as atonement for all human beings for all eternity. Its goal was to insist upon the centrality of Jesus’s self-sacrifice as the only thing necessary for human salvation. Or as one fundamentalist critic explained at the time, “The gulf we place between ourselves and God through sin is bridged only by that intense physical agony Gibson depicts and is taken to task for depicting.  
For a fundamentalist, this requires obsessing with almost macabre detail on the suffering Jesus experienced. While the Gospels often skip over the details of the Passion, Gibson homes in on it with sometimes fanatical zeal. The centerpiece of the movie is a scene of explicit, unrelenting sadism. It shows Jesus being flayed alive—slowly, methodically, and with increasing savagery. We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man’s body. We see pieces of skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers’ faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man’s body. And then they turn him over and do it all again. It goes on for an unrelenting ten minutes. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. What’s noteworthy here is that Gibson goes beyond anything even remotely in the Gospels. And he does so because he is concerned above all to be faithful to the doctrine of the atonement. To allow for Jesus to be merely brutalized, and to see his decision to give himself up as the culmination of a doctrine of nonviolence and love, would not be sufficient for a true fundamentalist. He has to show a level of savagery against Jesus compatible with the fathomless depth of human sin. And he has to do so as literally as he possibly can.  
Great art allows the viewer space to interpret, to ponder, and to think. Its meaning is often elusive, and designed to be so. Fundamentalist art views an elusive meaning as an invitation to error and sin; and so the movie had to remove any autonomy from its viewers. Gibson achieved this by relentless, stunning, unstoppable, graphic violence. It gave the viewer the same artistic leeway as a pornographic movie. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, Gibson had a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man’s eyes out. Why? Because the viewer has to be broken down into submission; there can be no doubt about the violence of Satan—who is, of course, depicted literally in the movie. And so all the richness and subtlety and grace of centuries of Christian art is literally hammered into an inarguable, uncontestable demand that the viewer be emotionally brutalized into the sublime self-surrender of fundamentalist faith.
—Sullivan, Andrew (2009-10-13). The Conservative Soul: The Politics of Human Difference (pp. 35-37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

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