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Holy Sh*t

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t
the moment, our news is tangled in the wreckage of unintended
consequences. Unrelated matters are so excruciatingly examined
that they start to blend into some nonsequitur mobius strip.
And I have come to believe that the Martha Stewart trial and
the crucifixion of Christ are the same story: Martha is in
Jerusalem,
Jesus is selling well at Kmart, the Jews are demanding the
death penalty for securities fraud, the Christians are being
unfairly persecuted by prosecutors with their own agenda, Jesus
should have plea bargained, Martha should cater the Last Supper,
Jesus was betrayed by his assistant, Martha is betrayed by
a disciple, Jesus should have testified.

     See what I mean? The two stories mix and match pretty well.

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     And I
am quite certain that if Martha Stewart had any idea how it would all turn out,
she never would have sold her ImClone stock. And if the people whose actions
brought about Jesus’ crucifixion had any idea what that transaction
would cost for the next two thousand years, they might have let Jesus
continue
to make messianic claims. They would have adopted the ACLU logic — the cure
for free speech is more free speech — and
just let it go. If the Blood Libel, the Holocaust, Vichy France, current
France — and most likely future France — could have been foreseen, the
high priests of Jerusalem would have let the threat of Jesus run its race. If
they could have
seen The Passion of the Christ, that in itself might have been reason
enough to just let him be. I would like to think that to avoid bad art, a lot
of decisions would have been made differently.

     Forgive me for reducing securities fraud and the
crucifixion to the same level, but in a week in which Mel Gibson’s mere existence — Does
he have a Christ complex? Does he deny the Holocaust? Will he ever eat lunch
in this town again?
— has been granted more gravity than any man who
has appeared in a movie with blue paint on his face deserves, I do think some
levity is in order. After all, I am Jewish. Jesus is not my lord and savior.
I don’t have to speak about him in serious, sententious tones. And
I
am
shocked that Gibson’s film has been granted every manner of thoughtful criticism,
and not enough suggestion that it is the work of a crackpot and ought to have
been dismissed long ago.

     The Passion of the Christ is really just a snuff film. If Mel Gibson had gone to a Chilean prison and filmed a man being tortured to death, he would not have produced a terribly different movie. This is death as pornography. Amazingly, Evangelical Christians are taking their kids to see it, as if the blood and guts are somehow more sanctified than sanguinary — as if children’s nightmares can distinguish between divine punishment and Freddie Krueger.

Something
about this movie is more of a conversation piece than an experience.

     Now, I understand that reveling in Jesus’ suffering
is a Christian thing I will never truly appreciate. But it is fair to ask if
this passion play is appropriate, because it seems impossible to deal with Christ’s
death without confronting the contentious issue of who killed him. If one is
going to accept the Gospels as gospel truth — and not seek out the historical
record — it is impossible not to show the crucifixion as a hate crime, and
hence to use it to inspire further hate crimes. Jesus was, in fact, executed
for political reasons, in the context of a cruel Roman prefect, and in
expectations of imminent insurrection that were finally realized with the Masada
uprising in 66 A.D. In A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson explains
that “men claiming to be the Messiah sooner or later rose in rebellion — Messianic-claimants
were usually packed off to the Roman authorities if they became troublesome enough.” Without
including this information — and there is no reason for a religious fanatic
like Mel Gibson, who does not even believe in the Vatican II reforms, to bother — all
you get are a bunch of hook-nosed Jews with snaggled teeth and bushy beards,
screaming, “Crucify him!” The blame game has been the source of such historical
horror that one would hope Gibson, the son of a writer who claims the Holocaust
is mostly fictional, would
recuse himself from this particular story. He cannot be trusted to be a reliable
narrator.

     And it is entirely appropriate here to speak of reliable narrators, because despite Gibson’s wild attempts at sincerity, he is a victim of his own overdetermination. The Passion of the Christ — right down to its clumsy titling in the guise of academic precision — is a truly postmodern, cynical piece of work. Its meaning is its final flaw: it has none. Gibson’s innovation is his lack thereof; his artlessness extends to the fact that no one in the movie appears to be acting. During filming, star Jim Caviezel sustained a dislocated shoulder, was struck by lightning, obtained a fourteen-inch scar and was apparently left hanging on a cross instead of an effigy — perhaps so he could experience Christ’s crucifixion to the extent that it was humanly possible. Hearing about this, I was reminded of the story of Dustin Hoffman preparing for his role in Marathon Man. For weeks, he starved himself and ran long distances — all
kinds of method masochism. Sir Laurence Olivier observed this and
finally asked, “Why don’t you try acting, young man? It is so much easier.”

You
don’t feel the pain of the crucifixion, but you do get the urge to
study the details.

     But then, everything in Passion appears to be a big
boast,
signifying nothing. I happen to be fluent in Hebrew, and I’m able to understand
Aramaic. (I say understand Aramaic, because at this point in time, no one speaks
it; it’s the written language of the Gemarra, but it is a shock to hear it aloud.)
So for much of the movie, I focused on how well the actors mastered words they
likely could not understand. In case you’re interested, they did it pretty well.
But it adds up to very little: Jesus talks to God in Hebrew, the Jews speak to
each other in Aramaic, the Romans talk in Latin, and as far as I know, none of
this is accurate. Evidently, Gibson’s labor-intensive effort to install these
ancient languages into his film was unnecessary. Except as a plodding detail.

     Something about this movie is more of a conversation piece than an experience, despite the intense immediacy of all that is happening. Because The Passion is so hollow deep down, you don’t feel the pain of the crucifixion, but you do get the urge to study the details. In my case it was linguistic eccentricities, but another person might become enthralled with the wounds, the foliage, the birds flying overhead. The “spiritual experience” many evangelical Christians talked about with Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer might have been their response to seeing any film. These were people who said that they otherwise never went to the movies.

Full disclosure: I do live in a Christian world, and of course I have been exposed
to Jesus’ teachings. While The Passion of The Christ was earning $117
million last weekend, I was busy reading the four Gospels. Yes, I spent Friday
night at home with the Bible.

Somebody
ought to do Jesus the dignity of an honest historical masterpiece.

     And truth be told, I was sold. I was ready to
sign up for whatever. The Good Book really is good. Even before that, I’d always
loved certain fragments — I have had the “love thine enemies” speech, as it is
recorded by Luke, hanging over my desk for several years now, right along side
Portia’s “quality of mercy” monologue from The Merchant of Venice.
Both of them remind us of what we’re all up against, what the best of the good
can be. Jesus was a Jew — most of his teachings from the Sermon
on the Mount were derived from Jewish ideas. He was a student of the great Rabbi
Hillel, and it is obvious that Jesus presented his teacher’s top pop hits to
his followers. But Jesus’ special genius was that he assembled it into one lecture,
one religion, one faith. This brings to mind the cinematic possibilities for
anyone willing to make a movie about Jesus’ real life, his intellectual perambulations,
his true relationships. Somebody ought to do him the dignity of an honest historical
masterpiece.

     The Passion flashes back to bits of Christ’s
life, but at no point does it reveal the humanistic view of Jesus as a revolutionary,
as a man
who saw the harshness of the Old Testament and wanted to respond with mercy,
who
softened the vengeful and jealous God of Moses by greeting hate with love.
He preached charity — material and spiritual. That this message
has been transformed into occasion for so much bloodshed over the centuries
seems divinely improbable.
In fact, I find it heartbreaking: accepting Jesus seems to have offered many
people enlightenment that has been squandered in violent, hateful ways. It’s
hard to make sense of.

    But thanks to films like Gibson’s, I am beginning
to see the light — and it’s the kind that makes you want to squint and
look the other way. In The
Passion of the Christ
, we are presented with a violent situation in which
Jesus becomes the impetus for violence. We don’t hear anything Jesus says
during the Sermon on the Mount (although he is shown standing there, conveniently
enough, on a mount). When Jesus protects the adulteress from those who would
stone her to death, we don’t hear him say, “He who is without sin, cast the
first stone.” Jesus is the star, but he has no good lines — as if that
might adulterate the purity of purpose of the film itself, which is to show
him
as an object of obliteration and nothing more. This is the most nihilistic,
Nietzschean
version of Christianity I have ever encountered: God really is dead. And
all we know is that he died a bloody death, that blood is blood is blood,
the Crusades
are blood, Bloody Sunday is blood, the Blood Libel is blood, wine is blood,
the scarlet letter is blood red, everything that happens in Ireland and Lebanon
and Alabama in the name of Christianity is blood. Jesus might be the one
who turns the other cheek, but his followers seem to be the ones who want
to punch.

     On Ash Wednesday, the day The Passion of the Christ opened,
the misnomered Loving United Pentecostal Church of Denver arranged the letters
on its marquee
sign to read, THE JEWS KILLED OUR LORD AND SAVIOR. I don’t get the feeling
this is meant as a thank-you note.

     It would appear that Mel Gibson agrees
with the Loving congregants. But you’d think, as a decent person, as a good
Christian,
he’d want to refrain from doing further harm.
 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Elizabeth Wurtzel is a lawyer in New York and the author of the books Prozac Nation; Bitch; The Secret of Life; and More, Now, Again. You can follow her at twitter.com/LizzieWurtzel.

©2004 Nerve.com.