During our Doctrine class today, the lecturer, Michael Jensen, showed a clip from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It was a clip that had been shown last term in another Doctrine lecture by a different lecturer and at the time I, and others in the class, had found the clip quite confronting. The violence in the film is well known and has caused a fair degree of controversy among Christians (and others). I saw the film when it was released and have watched excerpts a couple of times since then. I think it is a remarkable film, when I first saw it I was moved and provoked – it’s hard to get a better reaction to a work of art. Further, a prominent consideration in my mind was the impact that the film would have on non-christian viewers and the opportunities this would present for conversation. As Michael pointed out today, Gibson’s film is the most significant piece of Christological thinking, at least in terms of reach and breadth of engagement, that has occurred in a very long time.
Yet this time, when the clip was about to be shown, I and few others left the class.
Why? The question has been bugging me ever since.
Here are some thoughts:
First, what was different?
I left because I felt like I didn’t want to watch the brutality of the scene again, I saw others leaving and felt that gave me permission to leave, and I also thought that my leaving might support others who wanted to leave but needed encouragement. These were the spur of the moment reasons. It may be that everything which I’m about to say is simply to justify a gut-reaction.
That said, sometimes you need to trust your feelings, so why was I uncomfortable watching? As anyone who knows me well can testify, I don’t have a weak stomach when it comes to film. I can happily watch Fight Club or Pulp Fiction. So what’s different?
I can take this a step further. I am apparently happy to sing fairly gory songs that celebrate the bloodiness of Jesus’ death. I meet in a building festooned with crosses. I am not often affected the same way by other works of art that depict the crucifixion. In fact, the work of Christ has been a central motif within the Western aesthetic tradition, and most of these works of art I am perfectly comfortable with.
It seems that there may be something going on with the medium of film: It could be forcing me to confront something that has been buried within other artworks through my over-familiarity. (perhaps the barbarity of the crucifixion should confront me whenever I see the top of our steeple); or is it that film transgresses upon territory that other forms of art don’t?
People have often pointed out that film, perhaps more powerfully than any other artistic medium actively invites the viewer into a complicity with the Director and his/her gaze. The people on the screen are completely ‘beings-for-us’ and we enjoy the dark room, the loss of any sense that we are ‘beings-for-others’. We almost entirely surrender our critical, ontological encounter with the world to a set of prefabricated experiences contrived by the Director. Perhaps this is why film seems to achieve levels of catharsis of which Aristotle could only dream.
But what happens when the one dying on the screen is a representation of the One who died for me? He is so completely a being-for-us that the image escapes from the bond of the screen and invades my consciousness. As Bonhoeffer observed (a quote from Michael’s blog), he cannot be ontic (merely ‘there’), he must be ontological (‘there’ as a question for Being). Suddenly, I cannot escape seeing myself as a ‘being-for-him’ and it is nauseating, the film watches me.
Does film walk an overly fine line between proclamation and re-enactment for it to be a suitable vehicle for communicating about the death of Jesus? Maybe these aren’t very useful terms, or maybe even a false dichotomy. What I’m trying to get at is the sense that we want to maintain the particularity and unrepeatable nature of Jesus’ life and death. Film is always militating against this: first, it attempts to make possible the immediate presence of any person into a thoroughly absent world – 1st Century Palestine; second, it is an infinitely repeatable experience.
Are we getting a little bit close to a re-sacrifice of Christ on film, rather than a proclamation of his death (until he comes) in words, deeds, and even artworks that refer back to his singularity?
Throw into this mix the Gospels and the Lord’s Supper – both dramatic, narrative, and aesthetic. Are these the only authorised vehicles for the remembrance of Jesus? Are they unrepeatable works of Art? Confessions rather than architypes? Can a Christian artist represent the crucifixion and what kinds of representations would be appropriate?
It’s getting late and I’ve got more questions than answers.
One things I’m convinced of, we can’t let ourselves be protected from the suffering, rejection, and godforsakenness of Christ. It’s too easy to put ‘roses on the Cross’ and pass quickly on to the glory. In that sense, we should never look away from The Passion of the Christ.
[The Cross] destroys the god, miserable in his pride, which we would like to be, and restores to us our abandoned and despised humanity. (Moltmann, The Crucified God, 71)