Thursday, October 23, 2003

From the Religion Department

Tonight, two seperate spectacles from the world of religion. First, there are reports in New Jersey the Virgin Mary's image appearing on a tree stump in a run-down neighborhood. Second, Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of Christ," has found a distributor, according to this story. Of course, the article makes more of the issue of the charges of anti-Semitism surrounding Gibson's film rather than the film itself, so these two articles actually have something in common.

Religion makes people do strange things (I know what you're thinking: yeah, no shit Jason). Just look: in today's political news, the Senate passed a measure banning so-called partial birth abortions (click on the link for an interesting story discussing the misleading terminology of "partial birth"), and yesterday Jeb Bush of Florida ordered that a woman who has been in a zero-brain-activity coma for 13 years not be allowed to die. And, Jerry Falwell made a complete ass of himself by saying this on Crossfire:

FALWELL: Well, if -- if you don't take the Bible seriously, what you and Hussein just said would be true. But the vast majority of believers worldwide, Christian, followers of Christ, believe that God rules in the affairs of men. And history would support that. BEGALA: So God put President Clinton in office? FALWELL: You worked for a long time for Bill Clinton. You worked for a long time for Bill Clinton. BEGALA: So God put him there? FALWELL: I think that we needed Bill Clinton, because we turned our backs on the lord and we needed a bad president to get our attention again to pray for a good president. That's what I believe.

It's a swarm of religion!

Getting over Falwell's fecund stupidity, and the ethics debate involved in ending life and extending it through technology, and the Catholic belief that the Virgin Mary likes to pop up on tree stumps, freezer doors, and on tortillas, I've been thinking a lot about Mel Gibson's film. I typically don't like religious movies - the nature of a movie means that religion and the complexities of the underlying belief-systems and worldviews involved in forming lasting religions beliefs can never be adequately expressed in a motion picture. I'm an equal-opportunity disliker: The Last Temptation of Christ and The Ten Commandments stand side-by-side in my internal reference library as equally awful films, even though their portrayals of Christian belief could not be any more dissimilar.

However, I'm very optimistic about Gibson's film, and the charges of anti-Semitism seem awfully overblown, especially considering the charges seem to be directed from people who have not seen the movie. When I first heard about Gibson's project, I was amazed that anyone would actually conceive of such an undertaking, let alone make it: a twelve-hour movie, entirely in Aramaic and Latin (two dead languages), without subtitles, telling the story of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life. I do not consider myself a Christian, but the thought sent shivers down my spine. Done correctly, it could be one of the most beautiful things ever committed to celluloid.

For those of you who just clenched your asscheeks, hear me out: the story is beautiful. A man who so believes in peace and love that he's willing to give up his life and be killed in one of the most painful ways imaginable, so that he displays to all present what love and sacrifice really mean.

But wait! Didn't Gibson already do this movie? Wasn't it called Braveheart? And didn't he even spread his arms like a Christ figure after his Wallace died after being tortured? Sure. But this is different: this is giving life to the archetype, incarnating the source material if you will. For the same reason that Seamus Heaney's recent translation of Beowulf excited me with its beauty, especially with its focus on the early Christian material mingling with the Saxon belief-structure, so too do I think "The Passion of Jesus Christ" will be a fine work of art. Of course, until I see the film, my opinion counts about as much as those who charge anti-Semitism. But, I plan to see the movie and make up my own mind. If I'm willing to spend twelve hours in a theater for the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy, it would be kind of silly of me to avoid what could possibly be one of the most meaningful pieces of art ever rendered. The Cathedrals in Europe, the statue of David, the Last Supper, Mozart's Requiem - some of the finest examples of Western art wouldn't exist without the story of Jesus as their inspiration, and I'm willing to give Gibson a shot. Hell, I don't think Gibson's politics are something to admire, but I'll be there to watch.

And, since I sat down with the intention of writing about the anti-Semitic charges in the first place: the source material inherantly makes the Jews in the story look bad. It was written that way for a reason. If Gibson doesn't include a Jewish mob, then he's ignoring an important part of the story. Is that anti-Semitism? No. You know what is anti-Semitic? Supporting the state of Israel not because you believe Jews should have a country to call their own, but because you believe it needs to exist to bring about your Second Coming. Using the Jewish people as a means to your selfish Christian end seems far more anti-Semitic to me than making a movie that stays true to the source material. One of these two things was done by a visionary film director and artist. The other, by the fundamentalist Christian wing of the Republican party that currently occupies the White House. Two guesses as to which is which.

What I'm reading: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin.
What I'm listening to: Love Missile F1-11 - Sigue Sigue Sputnik
What I watched tonight: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (thanks, Mom! Get better!)

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