Dr. Phyllis Bixler is Professor of English Emeritus at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield. Previous teaching posts include Kansas State University, Bluffton College, and Bethel College.
When I was an English professor, I made it a rule never to make extended public statements (teach, give an oral presentation, or write) about a literary work or movie which I had read or seen only once. As I told my students, one's first "reading" is likely to be very subjective, personal, even in some ways idiosyncratic; it often says as much about what one brings to the work as about the work itself. A second exposure has often changed my opinions considerably, and, depending on the complexity of a work and/or the issues it raises, it may take several more before I feel I can speak with some authority about the work itself.
In writing about Mel Gibson's recent movie, The Passion of the Christ, I am breaking this rule. I found my first viewing so upsetting that I promised myself I would never repeat it; and later, when Mennonite Life editor Jim Juhnke asked me to write about the movie, it was no longer showing in my city and not yet available for rental. I agreed to write, however, because I found in the classroom that a mutual sharing of first responses can lead to fruitful self-reflection as well as, collectively, to a more objective analysis of the work itself. What follows, therefore, is frankly personal, even autobiographical. I welcome and am sure I would learn much from responses very different from as well as similar to my own.
Because of its reported violence, I had decided not to see The Passion of the Christ. However, when on the website Mennolink I expressed dismay about what I had read about the movie, a writer who had seen it challenged me to judge for myself. Filled with intellectual curiosity, I chose an early afternoon showing when my courage and analytic powers typically peak. Nevertheless, about an hour after the movie, I reported on Mennolink the following:
"My resistance to seeing Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was well founded. Indeed, my response was worse than I imagined it would be. So much of the movie is devoted to insulting Jesus and beating him into a bloody pulp while others look on in various degrees of indifference, grief, fascination, and enjoyment. For me, it was pornographic, as in the more general dictionary definition of 'the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick, intense emotional reaction.'
"Unfortunately, my reaction was not 'quick,' but it was certainly 'intense,' 'emotional'--and physical. If one kind of pornography is designed to elicit sexual arousal, this made me feel like I was being constantly kicked in the stomach. And whatever brains I had left found the experience insulting and repulsive.
"Have I so little imagination of my own that I need all this to connect profoundly with the suffering Jesus--and with that of so many others over the course of history and now? Do I need all this corralling of my emotions to believe that yes, Jesus was the Christ? Is this how Jesus himself went about gaining followers? I remember calls but no bludgeons. If this were my only exposure to the Christian story, I would reject it out of hand. Fortunately, I know that there are other ways of telling it. . . . I held myself in the seat until the end [of this movie] only because I had announced on Mennolink that I was going to see it."
This immediate public expression of my response did not exhaust my need to talk about it--to exorcize, as it seemed to me, the movie from my imagination; or to at least better understand its hold upon me. For a week or so afterward, I foisted this process on understanding friends, both orally and in letters; my habit of saving email makes some of these early responses available for paraphrase and quotation below.
"What was so pornographic for me was that for such long stretches of the movie, that seemed to be the whole point, the whole drama: people beating Jesus and other people watching. Blood was splashing everywhere, and I believe there was literally no space larger than a half-dollar on Jesus' body unscarred--and we had plenty of opportunity to look. And then there were added details such as a raven juicily plucking out the eye of one of the thieves hanging helplessly on the cross. I.e., just as in sexual pornography, the plot is there only to get somehow from one sex scene to another, I almost felt like the point here was to get from one violent scene to another."
After Lin Garber on Mennolink related the movie to the tradition of self-flagellation still practiced during some Roman Catholic priests' novitiates as late as the 1960s, (1) I said in a letter to another friend: "I really do feel that what I experienced in the film was a flagellation, that I, like Jesus in the film, was being mercilessly whipped. And that if I went to it again, it would be a form a self-flagellation, which I definitely do not find a helpful form of personal piety.
"I can't help but feel as well that I was being asked to participate in Mel Gibson's own public self-flagellation--just look what my sins (such as all the exploitation of violence in my other films?) did to Jesus! I think this point has come up in some defenses of the film against anti-Semitism. I.e., it wasn't the Jews who killed Jesus, I killed him; he died for MY sins. In which case, I guess, we are to identify not with the suffering Jesus but with all those people who did the whipping, laughing, observing. And I feel even less comfortable about being placed, as a viewer, on this side of what does feel to me like a sado-masochistic dyad.
"If we are to look at this movie from the point of view that I am the one who did it, that I am the guilty one, then I have to wonder: If what the film avers is true, if Christ really did die for my sins in a way that was truly efficacious, why do I have to keep reliving this torture over and over again? And I can't but feel a certain desperation here, a desperation to convince myself of something I don't quite believe. Or, to take it a step further, God through Jesus forgives me, but I don't forgive myself; that's why I have to keep punishing myself . . . . What ever happened to being 'saved,' being 'forgiven,' and then 'taking up Christ's cross as one's own' in one's daily life?"
Yet another way of interpreting the movie's violence was suggested in an early-letter comment that during the film I felt I was watching "an angry God running amok." At the time, I gave no reasons for this reaction; looking back, I find some movie data that may have pointed me in that direction. As I recall, the devil appears mainly to divert Jesus from and taunt him during a mission of suffering which is thus shown to be not only chosen by this Son but also ordained by his Father.
I'm guessing that one reason I felt so violated by this movie was that at some level just below consciousness where I could have examined and refuted it I tuned in to such hints that its violence originated in a punishing Father--perhaps especially threatening to a woman conditioned during her childhood and youth to assume that both human and divine authority are primarily male. Perhaps relevant to my movie response as well is the fact that when I saw it, I was still hurting from a devout young friend's recent revelation that in seeking a divorce she had been told by a male church authority that she had to "bear patiently" the repeated beatings from her husband.
Looking back, I realize that I was primed to view the violence in Gibson's movie through a gendered lens not only by my own personal experience but also by something I read and wrote about on Mennolink just a little over a day before I saw the movie. The New York Times (4/4/04) had just run David Kirkpatrick's review of Glorious Appearing, the latest volume in Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins' apocalyptic novel series. Entitled "The Warrior Jesus," Kirkpatrick's review essay elicited the following from me on Mennolink:
"Alongside the review, you'll find a 2004 painting, 'Undefeated,' by Stephen S. Sawyer, portraying a very blonde, very muscled Jesus who reminds me of a hunk on the cover of a romance novel or some god or demi-god in a Wagnerian opera. At first, this 'undefeated' Jesus seems to be brandishing a silver sword at the viewer. Closer inspection shows that he is a boxer or wrestler in a ring and that the 'sword' is one of the ropes; and this rope is paralleled by another rope just a bit lower and more flesh-colored, projecting up and outward from his boxer shorts.
"According to Kirkpatrick, in the novel Glorious Appearing, 'Jesus appears from the clouds on a white horse with a "conviction like a flame of fire" in his eyes. With all the gruesome detail of a Hollywood horror movie, Jesus eviscerates the flesh of millions of unbelievers merely by speaking. "Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood," Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins write. "It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin."' The authors add, "'Even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.' This of course reminds Kirkpatrick of the apparently unrelenting brutalizing of Jesus in Mel Gibson's movie.
"Personally, whether Jesus is perpetrator or recipient, I find the mixture of religious sentiment with a detailed, graphic portrayal of violence unsettling. . . . And as a woman, I find this mixture of religious sentiment and violence especially threatening when combined with masculine sexuality, as in the painting described above or even in Gibson's movie--although I haven't seen the movie, reviews indicate that it shows Jesus 'can take it like a man.'
"Kirkpatrick and others he cites suggest that the popularity of LaHaye's and Jenkins' apocalyptic novels is in part a reaction against a 'gentle, pacifist Jesus'--a Jesus who, not incidentally in my opinion, is also viewed, negatively, as 'effeminate.'"
A letter I wrote shortly after seeing Gibson's movie articulates a sensitivity to the role of gender in the portrayal of evil as well as the divine: "The devil, while at first androgynous, eventually seems to be a woman, as she appears to taunt Jesus at his flogging holding a young child at her breast. The child is bald and when it turns its face, it has the wizened grin of an old dwarf. The point here for Catholic Gibson, I'm sure, is to show the devil as an anti-Mary (the devil's robe frames the face as Mary's frames hers), and her child is a little anti-Christ, the two of them together in poses often found in religious iconography."
Writing about this little anti-Christ led me to recall that except for one brief flashback between the boy Jesus and his mother, the only other images of children in the movie I could recall were ugly--"the children who come to stone Judas, who by their faces and voices turn into bestial little demons." An emphasis on "original sin," I guessed. These images of the devil as predominantly female and children as predominantly evil reminded me of other, and, for me, related and ugly stereotypes:
"And then there's Herod. We learn that he refuses to condemn Jesus, who is then sent back to Pilate. When we meet him, however, he's portrayed as a depraved debauch. And what does a depraved debauch look like? He's fat, is wearing a wig askew on his head as well as sloppy makeup. Notable in his court are one or two also apparently cross-dressing or gay men as well as one woman who is obese and makes lewd gestures. The one black person in the movie is in this scene, an apparent, probably sex, slave, the only person in the court who looks down in apparent shame/embarrassment/grief at the taunting of Jesus."
Such images as well as the extended torture of Jesus, are likely important reasons why I felt a need to purge my imagination when I left the movie theater.
I am sure that many viewers would say, "This is not The Passion of the Christ I saw." I sincerely hope it is not the movie I would see if I viewed it again. A second time, I hope that the uplifting parts others have noticed would not for me be so eclipsed by the movie's violence and other ugliness. On the other hand, the proportion of positive images is apparently very low, if the estimate of Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review (2/24/04) is accurate: "The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen."
In addition, and unlike during my first viewing, I would now bring to the movie the images of Americans torturing Iraqi prisoners which have been widely distributed and discussed since Gibson's movie opened. And I know that I would be troubled by the connection, albeit somewhat simplistic, between what seems to be the justification of violence for a good, even divine cause in this very popular movie and our nation's having been led into this war by statements casting it as a justified, perhaps even "holy" battle against evil.
If we think just a bit more about this comparison, however, it can lead to some redemptive learning. The movie and the images from Iraq could shock us into recognizing how easily we humans can become exactly like that which we oppose, especially when we give ourselves over to violence as a way of opposing violence. We take over a prison used by the Iraqis to torture prisoners and then use it to torture our own Iraqi prisoners. A movie intends to impress upon us the horror of the violence done against Jesus and in the process becomes an act of violence itself, at least in the experience of some viewers.
This parallel might also remind us that any one of us might under certain circumstances become a Pilate reluctantly deciding that some kind of crucifixion is politically necessary; or a scared young American soldier who, having been told in so many ways that life is cheap, gets caught up in a sado-masochistic group frenzy.
And finally, whatever theology we bring to Gibson's movie or take away from it, if we hold in our minds an image of Jesus hanging on the cross alongside that of a hooded Iraqi prisoner with his arms stretched out awaiting an electrical shock, we might become more sensitive to the violence of all kinds that goes on everywhere about and within us; and we might increase our commitment to finding more effective, more peaceful ways of opposing it.
1. In the 11/18/03 online edition of The Catholic Herald, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, WI, says that when he was "a Jesuit novice (1964-65)," he "used the flagellum and catena with some regularity. Most did in those days." He described the "flagellum" as "a small whip of cords with which one might strike one's back to realize the pain of the suffering of Christ"; from "the Latin word meaning chain," the "catena" "was wrapped around either the thigh or the stomach area, to cause genuine discomfort, again a means of reminding oneself of and sharing in the sufferings of Christ." Bishop Morlino adds that "the use of the flagellum was not meant to draw blood nor was the use of the chain" and that a novice's use of both was carefully monitored by his novice master "so that the whole dynamic of the penance would remain properly ordered and so that no abuse or misunderstanding would creep in." "To insinuate that somehow these penances are inherently masochistic and are some kind of an abuse . . . is outrageous," Bishop Morlino says.