Thursday, February 19, 2004

The Only Thing I'll Say About The Passion Without Having Seen It

I'm going to start by assuming none of you have been living under a rock recently. The controversy over Mel Gibson's upcoming The Passion appears to center on the issue of how culpable the Jewish people are portrayed in the execution of Christ. Now, Bill Cork has a number of criticisms along the lines of assigning them excessive blame, particularly relative to Pilate and the Romans. The counterargument is that it's obvious in the movie that the Jews didn't kill Jesus, for the sins of humanity were the cause of the Crucifixion. For example, I received via e-mail Paul Harvey's account of seeing the film and then participating in a discussion:

The questions included the one question that seems to follow this film, even though it has not yet even been released. "Why is this film considered by some to be "anti-Semitic?" Frankly, having now experienced (you do not"view" this film) "the Passion" it is a question that is impossible to answer. A law professor whom I admire sat in front of me. He raised his hand and responded "After watching this film, I do not understand how anyone can insinuate that it even remotely presents that the Jews killed Jesus. It doesn't." He continued "It made me realize that my sins killed Jesus" I agree.

I think it's possible both the critics and admirers are right on this count. But language causes terrible confusion, because so many meanings are ascribed to the word "cause". Aristotle had the better idea of examining each event for four different types of causes: the formal cause, the efficient cause, the material cause and the final cause. You can look up more information on these causes, but the primary distinction here is between the final cause and the efficient cause. The final cause of something is its purpose: the final cause of a house being built is to be the home of certain people, the final cause of a painting is to be viewed and admired. The efficient cause is the active agent: the builders are the efficient cause of the house, the painter is the efficient cause of the painting.

So, what are the defenders and detractors saying? Apparently, a viewer with a moderate exposure to Christian exegesis is likely to be supremely moved, to understand that their own sins are the final cause of the Crucifixion, that Jesus died for and because of them. In what I think is a powerful symbolic touch I heard about, this point is literally made with a hammer: Mel appears once in the movie, and then only his hands, driving the nails into Christ's palms.

However, the movie apparently ascribes the efficient cause to three things alone: the will of Christ to accept his Passion, the influence of Satan, and the malicious Jewish people. From accounts I've heard, Pilate and the Romans are portrayed as basically good people forced into a bad situation by a mob. This, if it's the case, is inexcusable, both on the basis of historical-critical analysis, and on the basis of the Gospels themselves. In secular accounts of Pilate's rule over Judea, he was a brutal tyrant who crushed anything he saw as threatening Roman domination of the area, not a soul-searching philosopher. If anything, Pilate's "What is truth?" is no honest question, but a joke, akin to the mockery of sending Jesus to the Seat of Judgment with a crown of thorns and a purple (kingly) robe.

The inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time, both Jews and Romans, shared culpability. To be responsible, this ought to be clear in the film. It also should be made clear that it was the inhabitants of Jerusalem at that time, and that it is ridiculous to accuse a race of deicide. The crowd's statement in the Gospel of Matthew, "His blood be upon us and upon our children" (which was dropped from the script so as not to confront the issue), can and should be made a clear unconscious prophecy of the sufferings in the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, killing that generation and their children. It was that "proleptic parousia" that Matthew took as the meaning, according to mainstream scholarship (consider the importance of Mt 23:37-24:28), and not an indictment of the Jews.

So, I'm aware that I've written way too much, and now I'm quite late for class. But I'll have more to say after I've seen the movie (next weekend). Just for summary of what I take from the debate: criticism centers on a flawed depiction of the efficient cause of the Crucifixion, defense rests on a solid devotional portrayal of its final cause. I think it's quite possible that both are correct.

P.S. So today saw the arrival of the CDs I ordered, Layla by Derek and the Dominos and The Bends by Radiohead. Listening to them was sort of disappointing, though: I'm no longer in the mood for the blues, or for existential angst. You know.

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