These days my dearest companion, who for the purpose of these pages will be called Smiley, arises at about five AM so that she can be at work by six (she works these days at a hospital, doing the sort of thing that suits her best; organizing, creating efficiencies, and somehow motivating lots of people to do her bidding). On this particular day I vaguely heard her grousing a bit as she got dressed; not being an easy rouser, I grunted and rolled over. Nearer to my own getup time, around 6:30, the phone rings: it's the hospital emergency room, calling to let me know that Smiley is there, waiting to be examined by an ER physician. Just thought I'd like to know.
(A bit of history: Back in August she had what turned out to be a rather major TIA, resulting first of all in short-term amnesia: she lost most of a whole day, also spent primarily in the emergency room of a different hospital. Subsequent to that we did the whole every-medical-test-known-to-God-and-man thing, just to get a real diagnosis. So this time around we sort of had an idea what might be going on here.) Back to the story.
Great. It so happened that on schedule for this day was the funeral of a 94-year-old man who was closely involved with the church here for, like, most of that time. I had met with the family the day before and pretty much had the service planned out, but needed to revise the notes slightly, get copies made for participants, make sure the doors were unlocked and the heat and sound system turned on, and coordinate with the family and the funeral director by remote control, if I was going to be able to do the reasonable thing and get up to the ER (about a 35 minute drive) to see what was going on, with a plan to return in time to do my duties for the day, which would involve paying undivided attention to the needs of a large crowd of people.
So: With all the ducks in a row by 7:45, I get to the hospital by 8, stay till about 10:15, by which time she's been settled in a room and well attended by a rotating lineup of co-workers (did I mention she's getting the VIP treatment?) and back to the church before 11:00, late for the start of the two-hour visitation period but an hour ahead of the actual funeral celebration.
By the time we get done with an hour-and-a-quarter service, in which I had little to do but coordinate and a wee bit of preaching (the service was largely a musical tribute; there were three congregational songs, two instrumental numbers, a trio, quartet, quintet, solo, and two eulogies, not necessarily in that order; the man was buried with a harmonica in his hand, most appropriate for all who knew him), the drive (23 miles) to the gravesite, and some more appropriate words there by yours truly, it was after three, and of course I was invited to eat with the family. Having had nothing to eat yet but two doughnuts provided for me at the hospital, I accepted, and finally got back to Smiley's bedside at around half past four. Thank God for cell phones; by means of that I was able to also communicate with my sons, who tend to sleep late, and three of them arrived while I was there to check on the health of their mother, and also to fetch her car from the employee parking lot and take it home.
So I finally get home about half past seven, on the way swinging by the local cinema, because I had the crazy notion to follow up on a plan, conceived much earlier, that we were going to go see The Passion of the Christ (more accurately, Beating Up Jesus, as unclehyena has called it). How better to end an exhausting day, I thought, than to abuse myself with an emotionally exhausting movie? So, recruiting two sons, I swing on back to the cinema for a 9:30 showing. Perhaps it is the events of the day that color my reaction, such as it is.
I know the box office clerk; his grandmother is one of the matriarchs in my little congregation. He confirms to me that, indeed, for this particular show, popcorn is probably not a good idea; he's seen people come out with bags of popcorn still three-quarters full; and with the word spreading around, others go in all prepared with tissue paper to dab the tears they expect to shed.
I was prepared to believe neither the raves nor the pans on this show. Coming away, I find more sympathy with the pans, but not for the reasons I've seen published.
My first complaint: Jesus is not a character in this movie. Except for a few of the flashbacks, in which mostly we find straight biblical quotes fed to us with the apparent expectation that the context will be supplied by the viewer's own preexisting religious training, the man is silent, sullen, nearly comatose for most of the movie, including the opening scene where he seems paralyzed by fear. His suffering, while graphic and gory and nearly endless in its bloody detail (half an hour or more devoted to an expansion of three words "they scourged him") is the suffering of a victim overwhelmed by events. I looked in vain, for example, to the place where he told the weeping women along the Via Dolorosa: "Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children." I don't see that here. In this portrayal he seems like one who, instead, has no chance to rise even for a moment beyond his own pain to see that of anyone else. He's not suffering for anyone's sins, he's just suffering, senselessly. The words "No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of myself; I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again," while provided for us in one of the flashbacks, get no reinforcement in the way these scenes are portrayed.
Which brings me to my second problem (these are in no particular order): besides the omission of what could have been very helpful material, as I just pointed out, there is the addition of huge amounts of material which does not add much to the story, but which helps to frame it in a way that is unfaithful to the biblical story (I speak as a Bible-thumping evangelical, here). Paramount among these are all of the little insertions of what we are to presume to be images of Satan. I understand the attempt to make theological points, but, Mel, that stuff is just made from whole cloth.
Of all the gore and violence, what bit was the most shocking? To me, it was nothing of what happened to Jesus, and nothing of what I have seen mentioned in any review; it was when the birds pecked out the eyes of the thief beside him who had mocked him. To people who think they are Christians but just don't get the message of Christ at all, this may look like Divine justice rightly given; but of all the things I saw, this is what made my stomach turn.
So where is the emotional power in this movie? For the most part, it is likely to be in whatever people brought to it; I don't think, despite the fond hope of many of my fellow Evangelicals, there will be many conversions here. The cinematography, of course, is excellent; and the heavy, relentless mood music fades easily into the background as it blends with the thwacks and groans of physical torture. I think what we have here is the nearest thing to pornography that will ever be approved by a widely conservative Christian audience.
For my final thoughts on this, I'll borrow the words of one pt bridgeport in Salon.com TableTalk's Posts of the Week. The person behind these words is known to me.
There's a huge strain within every sect - and American fundamentalism is no exception - which takes great pleasure in perceiving itself as horribly persecuted. People who identify with that kind of Christianity will go to this film and see the poor suffering evangelicals (who only have control of the White House, the Congress, the Senate, and half the Supreme Court) as the suffering Christ. Like those pogrom raisers of old, they'll exit feeling wounded and put upon and ready to take revenge for what was done to them in the person of Jesus.
I'll be adamant about this. If someone wants to understand, really understand, the sufferings of Christ: then they should visit a hospice, a VA hospital, a prison; take up residence in a third world shantytown; be the sister or the father of a man beaten to a bloody pulp because he's "queer"; sit in the dark with a Baghdad family until the generators come on for the rationed hour; live on the street with the homeless. Today's real human victims are the real image of the suffering of Christ. "If you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me." And here in America, we've been doing it unto Him in capital red letters and full chorus with full orchestra.
I fear that this movie is a way for that majority of Christians in this country, who take no responsibility for following Jesus' teaching about treatment of the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the enemy, to escape from the true face of His suffering today, and congratulate themselves for the depth of their emotion when presented with the fantasized and (for them) price-free face of His suffering two thousand years gone.
Maybe it won't really be like that. But it looks like it so far, and it worries me.
I should have bought the popcorn.