Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Oh, the Passion

So I just watched The Passion, and frankly, I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about. Apart from the violence--which, frankly, struck me as being only a wee bit over the top, historically speaking--Amnesty International didn't exist back then, folks, and the Romans remain one of the least sentimental, most ruthlessly pragmatic regimes in history, so gruesome punitive measures were most definitely the 'stick' to the 'carrot' of the benefits of being part of the Empire--there wasn't much in it you wouldn't see in the average production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies him 3x, Caiaphas and company kangaroo court him over to Pilate, who bounces this hot potato over to Herod, who bounces it back, Pilate wusses out and orders Jesus flogged then crucified in front of John and the two Marys, cue inspirational instrumentals. Really not much there that you're not gonna find in the NT, apart from the inclusion of an albino Satan and having Judas hang himself on Good Friday rather than on the Saturday following. (Oh, and Mel committed the usual error of having the nails go through the palms rather than the wrists. More visually pleasing, of course, but historically a bit of a boo-boo.) All the usual lines were there: "You betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" "I don't know that man!" "What is truth?" "We have no king but Caesar!" "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." "It is finished ('accomplished' in Mel's version--which is a much cooler translation, actually.)" No surprises. If you saw the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth or King of Kings, you pretty much got the same story told the same way--except for the violence, which was, I suppose, the point of the flick--there's a lot to be said for focusing on the pain of being human as the sacrifice made by Jesus. Dying, after all, is quick. One second you're here, the next you're not. It's the ugliness leading up to death that constitutes the real struggle. So, fair enough--and hey, I cried once or twice--not so much at what Jesus suffered, but for what his family and followers went through watching it happen.

Was It Anti-Semitic? Well, of course it was. But then, didn't it have to be? Christianity, folks, is an inherently anti-Semitic religion. Sorry to shock you with this, but it's true. Christianity renders orthodox Judaism an inferior--indeed, blasphemous religion. Because the divinity of Christ (or at least the divinity of Christ's teachings) has to take precedence over the teachings of the Talmud. The essential message of Christianity to Judaism is "Hey, love your thousands of years of tradition and racial community--love the sanctified laws you've managed to hold onto since God cut that deal with Abraham real early in Genesis--love them--you guys are great, really--we couldn't have done it without you! But, um, see, here's the thing--you need to stop doing all that. Yeah, pretty much all of it. New rules. All new. Everything Jesus said? Replaces everything else. Yes, everything. No, really, everything. All that stuff in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy? Yeah, scrap all that. The fundamental understanding of who God is and what He wants and how the Universe really works are all completely different now and, well, if you refuse this invitation--gee, how do we put this? Oh, this is delicate. Ummmm--well--OK, deal is, you're going to Hell. Forever. Sorry about this, but that's how it is. Jesus was the Real Deal and if you don't get that, well, you're kinda sorta siding with the folks who whacked him--and that's just not cool. All clear? Good, good--so if you'll all just line up for the baptism, we'll get this show underway." I know we really want to all get along--and we should, and that's why living in a country which refuses to acknowledge the validity or superiority of any one religion is, oh, such a good thing--but, um, either Jesus is the Christ, or he isn't. This isn't an issue where fence-sitting is possible, since even to refuse to decide puts you in the "he isn't" camp (read Dante's Inferno, where all those who refused to commit themselves are stuck outside the gates of Hell, chased through mud and rain by hornets that sting them horribly throughout eternity--it's traditional, by the way, to read one of these condemned as Pilate, who is otherwise curiously absent from an epic the drags in every other Biblical figure.) So of course The Passion is anti-Semetic. It tells the story of the gospels (mostly the John and Matthew versions, from what I could tell), and in the story of the gospels, the Sanhedrin are a bunch of evil pr--ks. (Joseph of A. and Nicodemus excepted, of course.) Frankly, I think the ADL might have been a little oversensitive on this one (notice the lack of Jew bashing that ensued?)--part of me wants to be cynical and say that, like the NAACP, these people are paid to overreact to such things in order not to be rendered irrelevant and politically impotent. But then, the better part of me--the part that wins out in the internal dialogue--remembers that perhaps, given the events of the late '30s-early '40s last century, it might do to be overly sensitive. Better to jump the gun than miss the boat, to mix metaphors. Though, as a sympathetic word of advice to the ADL, let me add: Don't, for the love of mercy, get a reputation for crying wolf. The stakes are just too high for that to happen. Unless something really big and bad comes along into the public consciousness, I'd go subtle for the next year or two, just so you don't lose your street cred when you really need it. Just a thought.

As for the violence, well--that's tragedy for you, folks. And that's what the story of Christ is, at its core. Tragedy is a religious experience--a heroic figure who represents the collective sin of a community is destroyed for the salvation of that community. Oedipus is great, smart, noble, heroic--and deeply, blasphemously arrogant, presuming to defy fate and the gods in steering his own course in life. And which of us doesn't feel that way sometimes? So Oedipus is destroyed before our eyes (losing his, no less!) so that we learn to reject such arrogance--to recall that fate and the gods trump our peevish wills. Go down the list of tragic heroes, and you find that they're all great--and most of them are even good--and that their flaw, which destroys them, is ours, and one that we learn, by watching, to reject. Only difference here is that Christ is without a sin of his own--he is the purest and most universal form of scapegoat, a tabula rasa upon which all the sins of the community are imposed, his destruction destroying those sins. And keep in mind that in the original form of tragedy (in which the hero was the god Dionysus), the victim was torn to pieces. Makes scourging and crucifixion look comparatively clean, doesn't it? Not to downplay the agony of the film--God knows, it'd be pretty f--king callous to do that--but I wasn't shocked by it because the horror of the sacrifice--the violence required to expunge the sins of the community--is an inescapable part of tragedy.

So, sorry, true believers. I wasn't appalled. I wasn't offended. The story had, as they say, all the defects of its qualities, but those defects are an inescapable part of a faith held by millions (billions?)--and better to remember that these elements exist than to whistle a happy tune while ignoring their potentially explosive presence.


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