Friday, June 4, 2004

The danger of the "Ideal Time"

Orginally published in June 2004 elsewhere

The ideological eschatology of the Western Left

Eschatology is the theology of last things, the time when history reaches its final fulfillment. Of the world's great religions, only three are eschatological: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity sprang from Judaism and Islam claims to be the true faith of revealed religion that Judaism and Christianity corrupted.

In all three religions the establishment of the end time is the establishment of the ideal time. It is when the present world is either destroyed so that perfect world can take its place, or the present world's corruption is excised and creation is purified and restored. Usually in Jewish thought, the ideal time has been the restoration of a free, independent Israel living righteously within the Sinai covenant. Jesus' disciples persistently asked Jesus when he was going to bring it about, to which Jesus basically replied, "God only knows."

The establishment of modern Israel did not fulfill this vision fully. The dream of the original Zionists was threefold: to establish and Jewish state that was (a) politically free within its borders, (b) independent of foreign control and (c) extant over all the lands of biblical Israel. To date, Israel has never achieved all three simultaneously.

Hence, there have been 12 attempts by Jewish terrorists to destroy the Muslim al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, which sit atop the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple. These Jewish eschatologists believe that there is a prophetic necessity to the rebuilding of the Temple, so the Muslim edifices there must be removed. This restoration dream is shared by many American evangelical Christians.

In Islam and most strains of Christianity, the ideal time is established after judgment of the dead and the living. The Apostles Creed (dating not to the apostles but to the end of the second century) says that Jesus will "return to judge the living and the dead." In Islam, of course, judgment is the sole prerogative of Allah, but many (maybe most) Muslims believe that Jesus will be assigned the task by Allah and will judge humanity as Allah's agent. In both Christianity and Islam, the ideal time includes no sinners, who are either excluded from entering the ideal community of righteousness or are simply destroyed. In either event, it is too late to convert once the judgment has begun.

When all three eschatologies are taken to the extreme, adherents deny the goodness and value of the present world. After all, why work to increase the value, beauty or goodness of the present world and its institutions if everything that now exists will be wiped away or transmuted by God anyway?

In more moderate practice, however, the desire for an ideal time is positive. It affirms what common sense and a glance at this morning's headlines reveal: there is something seriously wrong with the present order. Hence, it can impel adherents to avoid complacency in the face of evil, to work for the improvement of the human condition so better to prepare persons to face the coming judgment. Indeed, most Christians have held through two millennia to the idea that the Kingdom of God, preached by Jesus, is just as much a present spiritual state of community as a coming physical reality. The Kingdom is within us now, although we can never achieve it fully on our own efforts. Nonetheless, we must do the best we can.

In Christian history this understanding has led on the one hand to the monastic movements that sprang up in the early Middle Ages. Monasteries were strict communities of faith, set apart from the world (although not so separatist that their leaders eschewed commerce with the world). On the other hand it led to the 20th century's liberationist theologies, which paradoxically came to eschew eschatology altogether and focused solely on the reform and even overthrow of present political orders. (It can be argued, though, that liberationism was as much a product of The Communist Manifesto as the Bible.)

But eschatology becomes evil when its adherents see only their own purity and others' sin. When they see the present state of affairs - always of others' affairs - as wholly corrupt, godless and faithless, then it is a short step to religious radicalism, what we have come to call religious fascism. Examples given: the mullahcracy of Iran and Taliban Afghanistan, the latter internally cruel to the point of murder, oppressive and ruthlessly class-ridden, a sort of real-world Animal Farm , only infinitely bloodier.

If the eschatologists are both radicalized and evangelistic rather than monastic, then the result is holy war, jihad. Holy war focuses on destroying sinners, not converting them.

That is the state of al Qaeda and a great deal of the Muslim faithful today. Al Qaeda is actively jihadist, while many millions of other Muslims are sympathetically so. They seek to attain the ideal time - the true Islamic society. Never mind that millions of other Muslims have a different understanding of what Islamic society should be. The radicalized eschatologist simply can wrote them off as apostate and make war against them as readily as against infidels.

Non-religious westerners are just as liable to eschatological fervor as religious people anywhere. Marxism is an eschatological ideology (a godless religion in its own right, really). The ideal time is when "the workers control the means of production" after the capitalists have been violently overthrown. Lee Harris explained the basic tenets of Marxism, and its fundamental flaws, in his excellent essay, "The Intellectual Origins of America-Bashing." Suffice it to say here that Marx considered revolution by the oppressed both essential and inevitable for true socialism to be established. This was a political version of Judgment Day, when the wicked capitalists would be judged and destroyed so that the pure in heart (the heavily romanticized working classes) could attain the Ideal Time.

This appealing but basically foolish ideology held power in the USSR for 70 years, abandoned long before its end by almost all the working classes themselves and most of the ruling class. Soviet communism became a shell game in which commissars and higher ranks lived large and the masses merely lived. Its Ideal Time, however, was hammered home by the propagandists as just around the corner. True Communism was always coming soon, a state in which material production was so great that all human needs were met without shortage. Greed would therefore disappear and the inherent but capitalist-suppressed natural nobility of men and women would emerge. They would be transformed into true communists - altruists who worked each day for the good of the people, not for crass, selfish profit.

But, as Soviet army officer Victor Suvorov came to realize, in a True Communist society, who would stoop to volunteer to shovel manure?
But who will be busy in the sewers? Is it possible that there will be anybody who will say, 'Yes, this is my vocation, this is my place, I am not fit for anything better?'
Of course not. Despite this basic, and indeed obvious flaw, the Soviet promise of its Ideal Time enraptured enormous numbers of Western elites who should have known better.

The old USSR has gone the way of the dodo and hardly any die-hard true believers remain in its former states. But they remain in droves in the West, convinced that Western economic-political systems remain irredeemably corrupt. Having shunned Christian faith for some decades, Western ideologues also discarded a key thing that has prevented Christian eschatologists from experimenting with Taliban-style social orders: the New Testament formally denies the possibility of the self-perfectibility of the human person. (Christian oppressions and brutalities done for other reasons were bad enough, but only rarely, and on small scales, did Christians ever attempt to enforce an Idealized community by force or coercion.)

So the philosophical and ideological origin of the modern Left: Rejecting the idea of a divinely shaped world yet to come, but believing, all evidence to the contrary, that human beings are fundamentally good, most Western ideological eschatologists found a natural fit with Marxism-Leninism: the present order must pass away, and we can build something better on our own. The violent destruction of the present order, if necessary, had a natural fit with Marxism from the beginning.

The Left, rejecting as a basic tenet of its faith the major features of Western societies, came to romanticize heavily non-Western, non-capitalist cultures, especially those of the Third World. The village society became idealized, always assumed to be populated by selfless, caring people whose spirits (never souls, which might need saving!) were uninfected by the crass materialism of capitalism. This was their Eden, the Ideal Time from humankind had sprung; Marxism-Leninism provided the framework for transforming Western societies into a New Jerusalem. Over time, and not a very long time, the Left idealized anyone who opposed the West, no matter how cruel, oppressive or personally repulsive he might be: Castro, Che, Mao, Saddam and others. And now Osama.

That such figures murdered by the thousands or millions dismayed some of the Left, to be sure. But again, Marxist theory provided a way to rationalize the deaths: building the Ideal Community might well require bloodshed, and besides, such violence and oppressive structures were understood to be mere temporary expedients en route to the Ideal Time, when the inherent goodness of human beings would finally flower and coercion would no longer be necessary.

It must be pointed out that the Left, especially the Hard Left, was always mostly from the privileged classes of Western societies. In their dreams of an Ideal Time, they always remained in power. They saw as natural allies anyone who wished to overthrow the Western order, even if (especially if?) by hard violence. They were apparently oblivious to the fact that the others never saw them as allies, not even Stalin, who had moved firmly in eastern Europe to kill or imprison the homegrown communists there before they could get the foolish idea that they would have some say in the newly established workers' paradise.

The romantic thrall much of the Left has today with Islamism is little different than its swoon over Stalin, and no more moral. The Left never had the chance to enjoy the benefits of Stalin's rule and so never really understood that he considered them "useful idiots" to be eliminated if the Soviets ever occupied their countries. Likewise today, the Left, convinced of its own moral purity, fails to understand that al Qaeda views them with contempt equal to Stalin's, and considers them nothing more than infidels to be dealt with when the time comes.

Fortunately, though, there are some of the Left (or at least of liberals) who recognize the peril (linklink, for example) and we may pray others will awaken, too.

Update: Also read, "Mephisto," on Belmont Club. Also, I recommend reading "The Ideological War Within the West," by John Fonte, whichn helps illumine these concepts. Fonte "suggests there has arisen a conflict within the democratic world between liberal democracy and transnational progressivism, between democrats and what he calls post-democrats." Well worth the time.

See also, "Six fatal shortcomings of the modern Left," by Paul Berman, an old-style Leftist, Dissent Magazine, Winter 2004.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Passion of the Christ followup

I've said pretty much all about The Passion of the Christ that I want to say, except for this post. The front part of this post is a slightly edited email from Joseph Spiezer. I comment afterward.
A couple of points on the "Passion." Beliefnet has an interesting and well written article by Steven Waldman, the point of which is that Jews and Christians are watching two different movies when seeing the film. Jews see centuries of antiSemitism, Christians see an opportunity to experience God’s love. As a Jew, I really do understand the emotional bond that the movie seeks to convey for Christians. But let me explain my concerns about the movie:

1. Anti-semitism. Mel Gibson belongs to a church which rejects Vatican II. Vatican II said that Jews were not to blamed for the death of Jesus, and that antiSemitism was to be contrary to Catholic teaching. After Vatican II, the Church went so far as to say Jews were not to be targeted for conversion. After centuries of antiSemitism, in which normative Christianity viewed Jews as having murdered and rejected Christ, Vatican II is quite literally a Godsend to my fellow Jews and me. Since Gibson rejects Vatican II and all that followed, the natural concern is that he believes that the ideas that Jews are fundamentally evil and followers of Satan and therefore that is the message of the movie.

2. Anti-Judaism. Nothing is more important to me than my children. They represent the continuity of my life, the passing of my ideals. To the extent that missionaries of any religion try to change the values and religion of my children, they are violated me in the most gruesome and painful way possible. This idea, that Judaism is somehow inauthentic, since it does not accept the truth of the movie, is what I am most afraid of. The notion that missionaries will become reinvigorated not to seek to encourage fellow Christians to develop a more spiritual relationship with God, but to seek to convert my children to their religion. It is not so long ago, in the history of time, that the conversions were not through argument, but through force. The story of Pope Leo XIII, and the kidnaping of Edgardo is well known to Jews.

3. Not a concern, but my hope for the future. The difference between is really much more fundamental than Jesus. The basic difference is Christians believe in Original Sin, which breaks the relationship between man and God, a break which is only mended through the life and death of Jesus. For Jews, there is no break, hence no need for a Messianic Savior in the sense that Jesus is for Christians. Thus, Jews could not have rejected Jesus, because the whole concept of repairing a break doesn’t make any sense. If we can understand that basic concept, that really we have different starting points, that it makes no sense to try and convince each other of the logic of our arguments since we have different axioms, then perhaps we can get to the point where we can appreciate each other’s insights and beauties with being afraid of each other.
Joe, thank you for these thoughtful and indeed collegial points, which I am happy to post for everyone to consider. I'd like to make a few points.

Your observation that Christians and Jews seem to be viewing two different movies on the same screen is a good one. From my conversations with a few other Jews, it is obvious to me that Jews almost instinctively identify many threads of anti-Semitism that pass right by most Christians. I have either posted or linked to identifications of many of these elements in past posts.

I should say that few American Christians will pick up on the latent anti-Semitism. Some Jews have said they are much more concerned about the movie's effects on overseas audiences than domestic ones. The relevant images and dialogs will be much more evident to Euro audiences than American. European Christians have a deeply-rooted anti-Judaism that few Americans can understand.

See, for example, Jared Keller's review (via Bill Hobbs) of The Passion in which Jared writes,
My appreciation for His sacrifice - for His willingness to suffer physical torture, and inconceivable spiritual torment for the sake of my salvation - is now visceral, thanks to Mel Gibson. I put Jesus on that cross. He bore my sin, and lowered Himself for me - for humanity. Had I lived in that place, at that time, I would likely have been one of the throng shouting for his death.
But Jared is entirely blind to the anti-Semitic scenes of the movie:
What about anti-semitism?

There is none to be found. Caiaphas is certainly portrayed as amoral, but his corruption springs from his lust for political power - not his ethnicity, or his religion. During Jesus' first appearance before the Sanhedrin, there is a great deal of disagreement among the priests, with many storming out in protest over Jesus' treatment. The Jews are never portrayed as some sort of monolithic group.
What Jared does not see is the caricaturist portrayal of the High Priest, the overdone robes of the priests, the money-grubbing-on-his-knees Judas (not a biblical scene), how Judas is driven to suicide by demon-children dressed as Jews, the priestly elite bribe the people to denounce Jesus, the near-total absence of Jewish clothing worn by Jesus, and so on. Yet Jared, and I think a large majority of American Christian viewers don't recognize these things and focus less on such aspects of characterizations and dialog, and more on the deep meaning for Christian faith of Jesus' suffering and death.

Hence, the primary reason Christians and Jews see two different movies on the screen is that Christians tend to see the movie as a theological drama while Jews tend to see it as an historical drama. The vast majority of Christians I have discussed the movie with can identify at least a few of the anti-Semitic scenes, but are by far struck much more strongly by the soteriology of the movie. As I have written, the movie's most powerful effect on me was a demand that I examine my life through the lens of the Christ's teachings and their relationship to his death.

As for Original Sin - I don't think that many Christians actually do believe in it, though it remains a doctrinal point of the Roman Catholic and many other churches. The Augustinian theory of O.S. simply is not tenable in this age. Hence, most Christians argue that the reconciling work of God is not really repairing a break due to O.S., but is understood in other ways.

That being said, the earliest proponents of Original Sin were actually Jews, not Christians, especially Paul. What many Jews (IMO) fail to recognize is that the New Testament writings of the apostles are Jewish writings, for all the apostles were Jews before they followed Jesus, and remained Jews until they died. In fact, no kind of decisive break between Judaism and Christianity occurred until after the destruction of the Temple in 70, long after the apostolic letters had been written.

Furthermore, a nascent backing of O.S. is found in the Jewish Scriptures, Psalms 51:5 for example, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."

My point is that I don't think that Jewish and Christian thought about the human condition is quite as far apart as I think Joe is indicating. If the fundamental issue is human sin - as the long line of Hebrew and Jewish prophets all agree, as did Jesus - then only real point of departure of Christianity and Judaism is how sin is overcome.

For Jews, at least throughout the biblical eras (I am not as well acquainted with modern Jewish theology) the answer was Covenant. Beginning with Noah, God had made covenants with human beings. The covenants with Abraham and much later with the children of Israel at Sinai focused divine covenant upon the Hebrew people. By faithfully keeping the covenant the nation would be saved.

Christians also see their salvation as coming through divine covenant, except it is through neither the Sinai covenant or the Mosaic covenant, but the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (see Jer. 31). It is arguable that Jeremiah was trying to invigorate the Sinai covenant rather than foretell a successor or refinement to it. But in either event Jesus specifically tied his death to the new covenant at the Last Supper.

So for the Jews, the covenant of salvation is something akin to an agreement, a sort of meta-contract. But Christians understand the covenant of salvation is a person, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Hence, said the Pharisee Paul, whomever believes in his heart Christ was raised by God from the dead and confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord, shall be saved. For this faith is accounted to us as righteousness.

For Jews, Passover commemorates not merely an historical event but a deeply theological one. The Exodus was the principal way the YHWH identified himself to the children of Israel: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exod 20:2) is how God began the Ten Commandments, which are the very heart of the law. And while Christians understand the importance of the Exodus and deliverance, very few can comprehend the deep meaning of the Passover commemoration that Jews attach to the holy day.

Similarly, even Jews who understand the soteriology and christology of Christian faith really don't grasp the deep meaning to Christians of the person of Christ, whom we profess to be "one and the same" with God, "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form."

Now, having gone through that stemwinder, I have some closing thoughts about the movie again. I find that as more time passes since I saw the movie, I am more disappointed in it. Part of this disappointment no doubt comes from the fact that a lot of the scenes come from Catholic traditions that are rather opaque to me. That's not Gibson's problem, though; it's his movie, not mine.

Rather, there is nothing in the movie that cuts to what I believe is the crux of the unjust execution of the innocent Jesus: that it was Roman law and Jewish religion conspired at some level to deliver Jesus to the cross. For in all the world until that time, the Roman legal code was the best the world had ever seen, and across the entire ancient world Judaism was highly respected even by pagans as the finest of religious faith there was.

Jesus was put to death not by the worst that humanity had to offer, but by the best. The movie, though, concentrates on Christ's suffering without delving into the suffering's broader context. Furthermore, it is Jesus' death, not his suffering, that is the central element of the passion story, yet the movie so overwhelms with scenes of torture that Jesus' death is presented practically as an afterthought.

Yet the movie does seem to edify most Christian believers who see it, including me, so I still assess it as a worthy experience. There are many sequences that are exalting and deeply moving. But there are so many places where the movie is deeply flawed, and some, in fact, where it outright contradicts the Gospels. All this is to say that my disappointment is that The Passion of the Christ could have been a contender for something truly extraordinary, but sadly falls short.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

My review of "Passion of the Christ"

My senior year in college I took a one-month, concentrated English course on movies and movie criticism. We watched four or five movies every day, including mandatory viewing of every Alfred Hitchcock film ever made (except his final one, which he had not yet made) and had to write scholarly papers on two movies. Most of the films were silent, many of them very obscure, including some Eastern European silent flicks.

Despite all this training, I confess that I am not a skilled movie reviewer. Roger Ebert's job is safe from me. So what follows about The Passion of the Christ is less a real review, really, than my impressions and thoughts.

I tried hard to dismiss all the buzz, pro and con, that we've been force fed for months, especially in the last two weeks. Maybe I succeeded. So here goes:

  • Jesus' mother, Mary, is a meta-narrator of the movie. In fact, the events are almost told through her eyes. She is present at every moment of Jesus' suffering. She is also the only character except Jesus who knows, theologically, what is going on. Hence, she alternates between shock and grief at what is happening to her son, and acceptance of its necessity. I found very powerful and moving a scene when Jesus falls while carrying the cross, evoking a flashback memory of Mary. At the end, when Jesus is lowered dead from the cross into her arms, Gibson reproduces Michelangelo's Pieta, one of the most sublime works of sculpture in Western art.

  • Is it anti-Jewish? Well, neither my son nor I (he is 18) left the theater angry at Jews or thinking that "the Jews" were - or are - responsible for Jesus' death. Anger simply is not an emotion I experienced during or after the movie, and I saw and heard no indication that any other viewer did.

    That being said, the Jewish hierarchy is presented almost uniformly flat-charactered. In Jesus' arraignment just after he is arrested, two or three members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, protest vehemently that the proceeding violates both Jewish law and common sense. They are quickly marginalized by the others. After some reflection, I have to agree substantially (not completely) with one of my former professors, Dr. Susan Bond, who told The Tennessean, referring to the visual presentation of Jews in movies,
    Historically, Jesus movies have done a very bad job of this by caricaturing the Jews. One of the ways you know who the bad guys are is that you see the guys with the big hats, guys with too many jewels on their robes. Mel managed to make the religious leaders in this movie even more grandiose than in other movies, which I would interpret as an anti-Jewish spin on it. He made the additional artistic decision of giving them all bad teeth, and making them less physically attractive as a distinct group. ...
    OTOH, these are also stock ways that movie makers help the audience identify the antagonists to the hero; the Jews who sympathize with Jesus or who attempt to show him compassion are visually more appealing than those who oppose him. The Roman soldiers are visually as repulsive as Jesus' Jewish foes - except for one who is compassionate toward Mary. He's a handsome fellow.

    It also needs to be recognized that Jesus himself is not visually presented as a Jewish man - he wears no fringes that I saw (as the Gospels explicitly say he did), no headcovering, has no phylacteries, worn by every male Jew more than 13 years old.

    While I see why critics claim anti-Judaism on Gibson's part, I think it is just as likely that he simply used a stock movie-maker's paradigm to help the audience keep track of the sides, even if a little crudely or insensitively done. Does that mean he thinks the audience is too stupid to keep track on its own? Well, yeah. Directors generally think that. (Alfred Hitchcock said that actors and the audience alike were "cattle.")

    (However, a writer in Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, observes, "... concerns about The Passion stirring anti-Semitic attitudes in the American movie-going public have been largely misplaced, but I do not for a minute hold these fears to be misbegotten or disingenuous." Read the whole thing.)
  • Is the movie accurate to the Gospels? On the whole, yes, in the main events: Jesus was arrested, tried, condemned, probably flogged, condemned and crucified. But the movie conflates the Gospel accounts together and dramatizes them strongly. Gibson tried to make a single, coherent film narrative out of four accounts that don't always match.

    Gibson obviously picked some scenes and not others from the Gospels. The result is a movie that, while generally according with the Gospels, isn't really a movie of the Gospels. Gibson is Catholic, as critics have endlessly reminded us, and Catholic tradition about the passion influences the screenplay quite a bit: the Gospels, for example, do not relate Mary following Jesus along the Via Dolorosa but some Catholic tradition does. Again, it makes for some compelling drama and I have no problem with it, but it is not in the Gospels. Neither do the Gospels relate that Caiaphas the high priest himself went to Golgotha as he does in the movie. The scene where Caiaphas personally accosts Jesus on the cross is not in the Gospels, although Matthew says other priests were there:
    41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.a 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, "I am God’s Son."
    However, one authority of the Jewish practice of the day whom I trust emailed me that the presence of Caiaphas himself at the cross was quite unlikely because the high priest was never to contact corpse uncleanness (even by accident, I might add),

    In addition to including scenes in the movie that aren't in the Bible, Gibson does omit some things that are: Judas does hang himself, but does not fall and burst open upon the rocks, for example, and the centurion at the crucifixion does not proclaim, "Surely, this man was the son of God" (a really curious omission, I think). At Jesus' death we do see the earthquake that splits the veil in the Temple, but the Gospels do not say the Temple itself was wrecked as the movie shows. Nor do see the dead of Jerusalem come forth from their tombs. The crowd around the cross disperses before Jesus cries out to Elohim, but in the Bible the crowd debates the meaning of what Jesus is saying.

    So IMO, the quote attributed to the Pope about the movie, "It is as it was," is problematic because it presumes we know with certainty exactly how it was in the first place.

    I personally did not care for the satanic figure who hovered over many of the scenes, though I know what Mel was trying to do dramatically with it. There are a lot of other invented sequences, a necessity since a movie made strictly according to the Gospels' narrative would be pretty short. Hence, this movie is not a documentary of any kind. It is Mel Gibson's imaginative retelling of the passion story.

    The movie ends with a very brief resurrection scene. While I found the scene very powerful, it is not biblical. So as not to ruin its impact for you, I'll not describe it here. It is a wonderfully imaginative scene, but strays from the book.

  • The flogging scene was overdone and dramatically overshadows even the crucifixion. Three Gospels say Jesus was flogged but provide no details. In the movie, Jesus' beating begins with rods, severe enough in themselves, but they are discarded at a count of 32. Then the Roman flagellum is used, which shreds his flesh. However, the Gospels don't agree on the context of the flogging. If the flogging was done after Jesus was condemned by Pilate, then using the flagellum would have been expected, because the Romans generally wanted prisoners to die quickly on the cross. The scourging alone would half kill a man.

    But if a man was not condemned, just sentenced to be punished, a flagellum would not have been used because it was potentially lethal itself. Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus was flogged before being sentenced to die, but John says he was condemned after being flogged. Gibson's movie goes along with John, but he has to account for the discrepancy of the Gospels. Hence, when the soldiers see that Jesus isn't properly subdued by the rods, they turn to the flagellum. The centurion enters and halts the flogging precisely because Jesus was not condemned. By then, however, Jesus has been flogged to a bloody rag of a human being.

    Luke says, though, that Pilate said he would have Jesus flogged, but the crowd insisted he be crucified. So Pilate caved and sent him straight to die without being flogged.

    A longstanding Christian tradition says Jesus received 39 lashes. The precision of the figure springs from the fact that Jewish law (Deut. 25:3) forbade more than 40 lashes; by stopping the count at 39, the possibility of a missed lash was accounted for. But Jesus was flogged by the Romans, not the Jews. Roman law had no count limit. We do not really know how many lashes Jesus really received; in the movie it is close to 100.

  • David Whidden wrote that this movie badly needs a prequel. I somewhat agree. It does appear to me that Mel presumed that viewers would know Jesus' story before the point his movie begins. Yet this assumption is not justified, I think. Huge numbers of Americans do not.

    What viewers never discover within the movie is just why some Jews were so enraged by Jesus as to call for his death at Roman hands, apart from Jesus claiming he is the son of God - but this happens after he is arrested, not before. Clearly, the Sanhedrin (most of it, anyway) believes he has committed blasphemy, but crucifixion for that? Even Pilate rolls his eyes at that one.

    In fact, Jesus had a substantial record of challenging the Jewish power structure of the day; he called some Pharisees, a socially powerful laity group, children of hell one day, certainly not something that would make them feel kindly toward him. Jesus drew large crowds as well; Pilate had sent cavalry to ride into other leaders' crowds with swords swinging. The details of all that are more than I want to go into in this post, but there is reason to believe there was a fear on the part of the high priest and others that Pilate would see Jesus as an insurgent leader and falsely think he was sponsored by the hierarchy. They seemed to fear that Pilate's well-known bloodthirstiness would fall upon them and the people because of Jesus. (John's Gospel is clear that a large number of ordinary Jewish people, not just the hierarchy, were hostile to Jesus because he claimed divine identity. Luke 4:18-29 relates that even the people of his own synagogue tried to throw him off a cliff - because he promised God's blessings not only for Jews but equally for Gentiles.)

    Again, though, none of this presents in the movie, and I believe that lack is a major shortcoming. Just why do they want Jesus dead? We aren't really told. (Pilate kills him just to placate the Sanhedrin.)

    Remember, though, that Gibson is emphasizing not the historical explanation for Jesus' death but a theological one. Jesus' death is presented more as a self-sacrifice than a murder. He is undergoing his passion deliberately. Arising from the ground along the road to Golgotha he tells Mary, "Behold, I am making all things new." However, this saying of Jesus comes from Revelation 21:5, not the Gospels, and refers to the coming again of Christ into the world. This isn't a criticism per se, just a clue that the historical question is not of primary interest to Gibson. A theological interpretation of Christ's suffering and death is.
  • I found the use of flashbacks very effective. Several times in his suffering, a glimpse of something reminds Jesus of an event in his ministry. A Roman sandal, for example, takes him back in memory to his foot washing of his disciples recorded in John's Gospel. Some of the flashbacks are of Jesus' moral teachings, such as to love one's enemies, not just friends. Others are of his teaching about himself. I thought the sequencing and selection of the flashback scenes were exquisitely well done; they deeply moved me.

  • About the violence: apart from the overdone scourging, there are scenes where Jesus is beaten by Temple police en route to the Sanhedrin, they even throw him off a bridge and Jesus is painfully stopped just short of the ground by his chains. Neither the blows nor the fall are biblical, although it's believable that his captors struck him since Jesus' disciple Peter had offered armed resistance. But the bridge toss isn't credbile at all and serves no purpose other than to bring Jesus face to face with a disciple hiding under the bridge. What's the point? None. Gratuitous violent scene? Unquestionably.

    Jesus is struck and spat upon at the Sanhedrin hearing. That's biblical. Roman soldiers strucks and whipped him along the Via Dolorosa, en route to die. Not specifically biblical but completely credible. These blows are not very graphic. The crucifixion is graphic and indeed illustrates why even Roman political leaders worked for decades to abolish the practice. Said Seneca,
    Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man by found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly wounds on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross (Dialogue 3:2.2).
    What the movie does not show, though, is just why crucifixion was so, well, excruciating. Painful with the nails and all, no doubt, but why were even its ancient advocates agreed it was the worst death a person could suffer?
    The crucified person could not exhale properly and this eventually would lead to painful muscle cramps. Furthermore, adequate exhaling required the crucified to lift his body by pushing up on the feet and rotating his elbows. This, of course, resulted in searing pain in both feet and hands. ... On the cross every breath would be an agonizing affair and finally in combination with exhaustion would lead to asphyxia. This also explains why the legs of the crucified were often broken, as was the case with the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus (John 19:31-33;). ... Without the support of their legs, the crucified were unable to raise up their bodies, which in turn made it impossible for them to exhale properly thus greatly speeding up death, often within minutes. All of this means that the seven sayings of Jesus were uttered with great difficulty, for speaking takes place during exhalation. [link]
    There can be no question that hanging on the cross was the greatest suffering Jesus endured, yet the movie mostly glosses over his cross agony. Yet, as Gibson has said, unblinkingly showing Jesus' suffering is a major dramatic intention of the movie.

    Roger Ebert says that the movie is the most violent film he has ever seen. I simply don't see how. Saving Private Ryan was by far more violent and more graphically, revoltingly violent in my view; Ryan had a far more powerful effect on me emotionally than The Passion. In fact, I think Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) was considerably more violent. Other commentators have mentioned last year's Kill Bill as more gratuitously violent than The Passion, but I have not seen it.

  • Where does the movie leave me? One day in class, Dr. Bond told of a classmate in her undergraduate days who had never been to church, never read the Bible. She loaned him a Bible and advised him to start with the Gospel of Mark, it being the shortest and simplest to read. She said that he told her later that he opened Mark not long before bedtime and became so engrossed in it that he couldn't put it down. He read through the passion with increasing dismay at what was happening to Jesus.

    When he read of Jesus' death on the cross, he said he was too shocked to continue. He put the book down and went to bed.

    But, he said, he discovered the story did not end there. The next morning he learned that death did not conquer Christ.

    Tonight, as the credits rolled (we stayed until they ended) I was filled with a deep sadness - indeed, shame - at the profound deficiency of my own discipleship. Gibson has said that the movie's answer to the question, "Who killed Jesus?" is, "We all did." That is not what I felt at the end. Instead, I felt a deep sense of having betrayed the great trust given me by Christ, a enormous awareness of my own sin and sinfulness and my total reliance on God's gracious mercy.
    Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
    that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
    By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
    O most afflicted!

    Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
    Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
    'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
    I crucified thee.

    Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
    the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
    For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
    God interceded.

    For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
    thy mortal sorrow, and thy life's oblation;
    thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
    for my salvation.

    Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
    I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
    think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
    not my deserving.
    "Ah, Holy Jesus," Johann Heerman, 1630

    Update: I meant to include this little episode: As my son and I entered the theater, we met a classmate of his coming out. She had just seen the movie. She told my son that she had read the Gospels but did consider herself a Christian. But she said the movie made her understand for the first time what Jesus' story meant.

    Update: The United Methodist Church's General Board of Discipleship has published a special web site devoted to issues related to The Passion of the Christ. The GBOD's site is called, "The Passion - Opportunities for Discipleship." A review published by the UMC's communications agency is here.