The simultaneous arrival of Lent and the Hollywood awards season reminded me that we had come up on the anniversary of a significant event in the history of the uneasy relationship between Christianity and popular culture: the release of Mel Gibson's watershed movie about the trial and execution of the Son of God.
The film garnered a paltry three Oscar nominations, for cinematography, music, and makeup, without winning in any category. This, too, reminded me that the release of was preceded by an orgy of print-mob prejudgment that upended my own erstwhile skepticism about the concept that anti-Catholicism was the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.
In spite of the controversy and sometimes because of it, Americans flocked to the theaters a year ago. Few moviegoers left the theater unmoved. Many of them left in tears, convinced, like the poet Rilke upon viewing the archaic torso of Apollo, that the movie was viewing them, not vice versa, and that they must change their lives. At least a few of us— cannot think I was alone in this—Christian writers, artists, and filmmakers, left the theater convinced that we must change our art.
Gibson responded, ‘Maybe I am crazy. Or maybe I’m a genius.’ Well, Mel wasn’t crazy.
Why did this movie have such an impact? And why did it scare the bejesus out of our secular brethren? It had little to do, I've come to believe, with the movie's alleged anti-Semitism, and even less with its unexpected "red state" popularity. Not even the fact that Passion exhibited none of the theological bet-hedging and curtseying to political correctness typical of Hollywood renderings of the Gospel could explain it. (I always think with a chuckle of the offend-no-one scene in Zeffirelli's in which Jesus proclaims to Peter, "You are the Rock, and on this Rock I will build what I must call my Church.")
As in-your-face as Passion was in portraying the offend-everyone truth about Jesus' crucifixion, it didn't explain the movie's impact on friend and foe alike; nor the ruckus; nor the peculiarly venomous hissings about violence and pornography with which the movie was greeted by critics not otherwise noted for taking offense at violence and pornography. No, as the dust settled over the course of the last year, and especially after the damning-with-faint-praise Oscar nominations, I became convinced that what, above all, the militant seculars in the arts and entertainment industry cannot abide about this religiously orthodox movie is that it is original, that it is bold, and that it is art.
"When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist," Flannery O'Connor once wrote, addressing the vexing problem that the Christian novelist of our time is writing for a largely hostile audience, "I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist."
Let's be honest here: much, perhaps most of what we Christian writers, artists, and filmmakers have produced in the last few decades has been, at best, workmanlike but conventional, and at worst, confectioned piety laid on with a trowel. With such comfortingly treacly examples to hand, we needn't be surprised that enemies of Christianity, heretofore confident of their cutting-edge sensibilities and artistic superiority, felt suddenly threatened by this independently produced box-office behemoth. Gibson, after all, went about his visionary business as if, although well-versed in Caravaggio, he had never seen a Jesus-movie in his life, let alone one directed by Cecil B. DeMille, or starring Max von Sydow.
The Gospel itself was considered very “strange” when it was first proclaimed. Radical, shocking, blasphemous, mad.
The plenitude of Christian kitsch, after all, adds substance to the argument, a commonplace of both modern and postmodern cultural analysis, that traditional religious faith puts artistic creativity in a hammerlock. As Christians we seem comfortable with expressing ourselves in matters of truth and goodness; but crafting beauty from the culture of death, or even exposing the staggering ugliness of that culture to a populace rendered impervious by a chronic case of sensory overload, is an incarnational art that has largely eluded us.
Mad Mel's religious vision is so shocking, like a slap in the face, so original, and so strange that the moviegoer is not in his seat for five minutes before he realizes that he's not in Kansas anymore.
Of course, he never was in Kansas in the first place. Kansas does not exist; it is an illusion. This wide and universal theater, as Gibson reveals it, is a great and terrible place—Hic sunt dracones—where Heaven and Hell have come to do hand-to-hand combat. Anyone who doubts this need only scan the front page of any major newspaper. And yet we all, even Christian artists, sometimes especially Christian artists, seem eager to perpetuate the illusion of Kansas, with its "if only" promises of a born-again Utopia, or a Social Justice Utopia, or a Traditionalist Catholic Monarchist Utopia, choose your persuasion. As my son John—a college-aged future filmmaker and seen—it-all cinemophile-commented in a shaken voice as he left the theater, "That was like nothing I've ever seen."
Why? Why have we never seen anything like that before?
Even after twelve months and a number of viewings, the sense of Passion's uncanny power lingers. I find myself using the word "strange' about it more and more often; "strange" as in the "arresting strangeness" Tolkien mentioned, in his landmark as the hallmark of good fantasy; and "strange" as Harold Bloom uses the word in his magisterial survey of western literature, . Treating the question of what makes a work of literature "canonical," Bloom claims that, "The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange." I wasn't entirely sure what Tolkien and Bloom meant by their insistence upon the importance of the word; now, after Passion, I think I do.
As Christians, crafting beauty from the culture of death has largely eluded us.
The Gospel story, after all, as Tolkien also pointed out in an argument that went a long way to converting C.S. Lewis from his erstwhile atheism, belongs to the world of "Faery." It is the universal myth of the dying-and-rising god. Except that in the Christian version it is a "myth" that also happens to be historically true. How utterly wonderful of God-the-Storyteller to compose his magnum opus in such a fashion!
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Gospel itself was considered very "strange" when it was first proclaimed. Radical, shocking, blasphemous, mad. The equivalent, to first century pagans, of misanthropic hate-speech: one reason that Christ and many of his subsequent followers were executed by the Romans with as much circus excess as the powers-that-be could manage. It took centuries to domesticate the Gospel-a process that may have done much to contribute to the long fall into drowsy apostasy that we witness in our own age, tragically even among the faithful.
In her essay, "The Fiction Writer & His Country," Flannery O'Connor, herself not infrequently accused of more than a bit of "arresting strangeness," writes: "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." (Appropriately enough, this essay is published in a volume edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, the parents of Passion screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald.)
With Terror on our doorstop, hardcore in our living rooms, and mild-mannered serial-killers stalking our school playgrounds, it is not the art of the cow-eyed Jesus, painted in pastels, nor the social activist Jesus, Birkenstock-shod, nor the sky-glory Jesus, cartoon-zapping the faithless, that is going to wake us from our postmodern stupor. What we need is art "untamed" and "untranslatable," to paraphrase another strange poet, Whitman, sounding Christ's "barbaric Yawp over the roofs of the world."
Maybe believing artists of our time are being called to take big risks, including the risk of giving offense, even among fellow believers.
Maybe the artists of our time who are also believers are being called to do some yawping of our own; to take big risks, including the risk of giving offense, even among fellow believers. Perhaps the time has come when Christian artists must expect to wrestle through a dark night with the Angel of Strangeness before God will bless our work with the kind of power and permanence that changes, not only lives, but entire cultures.
Before The Passion of the Christ was released, many observers, both sympathetic and critical, both religious and secular, proclaimed that Mel Gibson, by making a violent, R-rated Gospel movie filmed in three dead languages, must be crazy. Gibson responded, "Maybe I am crazy. Or maybe I'm a genius."
Well, Mel wasn't crazy.
Like many an ahead-of-its-time movie that Hollywood didn't know what to do with, Passion is destined, I think, to enter the cinematic Canon. May it also serve as a wake-up call for Christian artists, who are struggling (often in isolation) to pursue a vocation in the contemporary swamp of the culture of death.