Saturday, February 28, 2004

Violence in The Passion

Christians have not adquately addressed the accusations of sadomasochism in the film. Maybe it's because we're unclear of it ourselves. Typology is the lost key in popular interpretations of Scripture. Historicity has replaced it, and how bland it's been ever since. The modern obsession with historicity-as-ultimate-truth keeps us boxed in with red herring questions like, "who really killed Jesus?" or "did the Romans nail Jesus through the palms or through the wrists?" Through the lens of "the historical Jesus," the violence draws too much attention to itself and begs too many distracting questions. Mel doesn't make sufficient provisions for this modern anomaly, but that's not really his job.

However, through the lens of typology, we become more freely disposed to absorb theological meaning from the violent content. Example: Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece of 1515:

This one sent its own shockwave through society for its gruesome depiction of Christ's contorted, diseased, and tormented body. But the issue was NOT over the picture's historicity! Obviously, John the Baptist who flanks Jesus on his left, was long dead by the time of the Crucifixion, yet he's there. Why? Typology. Oh, then the controversy must have been over the exclusion of any reference to the Sermon on the Mount or the Resurrection! Wrong again. A typological and allegorical sense, instead, would have drawn Grunewald's contemporaries to meditate on Christ's intimacy with their sufferings in the midst of plague and political unrest. Liberal critics today can only see a disgustingly inhumane aesthetic. The people of faith saw solace and solidarity with their decaying God on the Cross.

Other works, through this "fuller sense," express judgment (as opposed to solace) which is what I think is the "form" of the film's violent "matter." The nefarious displays of torture reflect back to us moderns our own sadomasochism, which we've rationalized and euphemized under the banners of "freedom of expression" and "human development and progress." Liberal revulsion to the bloodshed derives from a subconscious denial of modern America's bestiality, sugar coated with carmelized rights-language.

Only idiocy would believe that Jesus' blood in the Catholic imagination refers to nothing more than the red juice in his body that spurts when someone whips him really hard. In a day when even Catholics turn the Eucharist into just another self-affirming ritual, I can't expect many to understand that the violence is not about some "outdated atonement soteriology" but about the BLOOD OF CHRIST we encounter and consume in our bodily communion with God. Still, before critiquing Mel's Passion, people would do well to learn a little medieval iconography, eucharistic theology, von Balthasar's theological aesthetics, and Flannery O'Connor's gothic surrealism. Hey, I can dream.

Christians get it wrong when they praise this film as the "most accurate" or "most literal" film about Jesus. The campaign to market it as an evangelistic tool will only engage the left-brain and divert souls away from contemplation of the Paschal Mystery. Liberals are completely in the clouds when they condemn it for not showing more of Jesus' teachings or his Resurrection. Even Mel himself is not the best articulator of all that's going on in his film, since the story and even its visual interpretation aren't really his. The framing and staging of the violence proves to me that the film only makes sense as a work of Eucharistic and Lenten devotion, with its call to confession, penance, and conversion of the heart.