Once More, with The Passion


Occasional Reason contributor and Washington Post Book World Deputy Editor Chris Lehmann has written a thoughtful and searing indictment-review of The Passion for The Revealer, a "daily review of religion and the press" published out of NYU's journalism department.

From the piece:

The bad faith of The Passion resides in its handling of the scourging and crucifixion as spectacle. As with violent and pornographic cinema, the accumulation of grisly and painful detail proves deadening to viewers who are asked to do nothing more than compulsively and viscerally re-experience acts they know in advance to be evil and/or illicit. Guiltily, the filmgoer has to wish for Jesus? death, not so much for the resurrection or the redemption of believers, but out of the simple and entirely defensible human desire for the carnage to cease.

I haven't yet seen the movie (may well do so this weekend); as someone who was raised semi-new school Catholic (i.e., post-Vatican II but familiar with all the old stuff via nuns and parents and older relatives used to Latin masses and the backs of priests), I'm especially interested in the by all accounts over-the-top mortification of the flesh that has appalled especially (though by no means exclusively) non-Catholic viewers. MOF is something that is taken for granted among many (maybe most) Catholics but is largely absent from Protestant religious traditions, which not only pointedly eschew asceticism in most or all forms but even banish the bloody Christ from their crosses in church. Given my personal religious baggage, I'm curious to see just how violent (and possibly ill-considered, for the reasons Lehmann lays out) I find the violence in the film.

But for me, the most interesting question the movie's massive success raises is this one: Why are non-Catholic Christians flocking to see the movie? Twenty years ago, it was inconceivable that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would have sat through a Catholic's take on Christ's death any more than they would have read the Latin Vulgate bible or kissed the Pope's ring. They'd have been more likely to decry JP2 as Dagon the Fish God or an Antichrist; Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell were attacked for consorting with Catholics as a form of theological contamination (Falwell himself was never slow to differentiate himself from mackerel-snappers). Some Christians I knew refused to participate with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue because it was run by Catholics.

Ecumenicism was a dirty word among hard-core Christians if it meant sharing the stage with Catholics (and Jews–and you wouldn't have wanted to get them started on Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians). That all seems very different now, with the axis of a contemporary culture split running between secularists and non-secularists. I'm not sure what any of that means, but it surely must mean something.