“I am that I am.”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
“It is as it was.”
—The Pope, allegedly
“It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”
—President Bill Clinton, August 17th, 1998
“NPOV [Neutral Point Of View] is absolute and non-negotiable.”
—Jimbo Wales, Designated Agent, Wikipedia
“Isn’t the real message of the Church in the secondary or side-effects of the Incarnation, that is to say, in Christ’s penetration into all of human existence? Then the question is, where are you in relation to this reality? Most people prefer to avoid the question by side-stepping it. The message is there but they want no part of it. So they eliminate it by plugging into another channel. They hypnotize themselves with the figure so as to better ignore the ground.”
—Marshall McLuhan, 1977
n case you were wondering, the Old Testament name for God, which is so sacred that orthodox Jews still don’t, 5764 years later, ever write or speak it, is technically called the tetragrammaton, which is Greek for four-letter word. It is comprised of four Hebrew letters which are often translated from the original right-to-left Hebrew into the left-to-right English construction Yod, Heh, Waw, Heh, which gets written YHWH or JHVH and then pronounced either Yahweh or Jehovah.
The name is so sacred that observant Jews simply refer to it as hashem, which means the name. But what it actually means, when combined, are the three tenses of the verb to be: I was, I am, I will be.
When Moses asks, “Who are you?” to God in the book of Exodus, the response he gets is this: “I am that I am.” It’s sort of like hearing this for an answer: “I am the verb that knows all tenses and no tension, because I am not only the verb that describes being, I am the source and ground and sustainer of being itself.”
Now fast-forward a few thousand years.
When the Pope goes to the movies (or vice-versa, in this case) and reportedly reacts with the most unique one-sentence review in the history of film criticism, the rest of the audience is left wondering, what did he mean?
The Pope’s alleged response, as everyone by now has internalized, was the logic-defying statement: “It is as it was.”
Was John Paul II offering sly hints regarding his abilities at time travel, or omniscience, or a basic know-it-allness that might fall under the rubric of, well, infallibility? Surely the Pope is not declaring that Jim Caviezel, with his makeup and prosthetic facial implants, really does look like the historic Jesus to such a high degree of visual verisimilitude that the difference is hard to detect without some sort of DNA testing for comparison.
Even with the gift of ultimate earthly authority, the Pope could not be suggesting that Mel Gibson’s cinematography, his choice of camera angles, visual cuts, zooms, and close-ups really does capture to an astonishing degree of accuracy (in two hours, no less) the last twelve hours of the drama qua non of first-century Jerusalem—if only because the P.O.V. of the film must necessarily have, within every shot, limited itself to one vantage point by the absolute limits placed on film technology.
And since the film offers you the P.O.V. of several different participants, some real and some metaphysically real, then surely the Pope can’t be saying that he knows what each of those witnesses saw, and that their visual memory of the event is accurately reproduced by a movie produced some 1900-plus years later.
Surely these elements, combined with the emotional cueing of the soundtrack, the intensity of the mood lighting at key theological moments, the intertextual references to other recent films having nothing to do with Christ—surely none of these have actually tricked His Holiness into mistaking the creation of a film for the creature called Christ? One suspects that if he did say this bewildering sentence, the venerable pontiff is just a wee bit more infallible than that.
Why? Well, to begin with, the cultural and technological product called film is a medium, and the mysterious historic figure who claimed to be God incarnate is also a medium. The film is a medium for carrying the message of the filmmaker. But Christ is the medium for carrying the message of himself. As Marshall McLuhan put it, “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”
When asked if that formulation was “a percept or a concept,” McLuhan’s answer was, “It is a percept because, as Christ said over and over again, it is visible to babes, but not to sophisticates. The sophisticated, the conceptualizers, the Scribes and Pharisees—these had too many theories to be able to perceive anything. Concepts are wonderful buffers for preventing people from confronting any form of percept.” To understand what “Scribes and Pharisees” meant back then, just substitute “Critics and Academics” today. Or as McLuhan himself might have said, it’s publish or parish.
Several Jewish leaders (and others) have accused The Passion of the Christ of anti-Semitism—the height (almost) of postmodern political incorrectness. Other critics suggest that this whole debate is a carefully managed publicity stunt. But whether it is the former, the latter, or just the natural result of discussing a pre-Holocaust Jewish messiah in a post-Holocaust world, some of the most obvious things are clearly worth repeating.
For instance, it bears repeating that the theological debate of the first century was not whether Jews could be Christians, but rather whether non-Jews could be Christians. Jesus was a Jew. This is so obvious that it gets forgotten every day. Salvation came for the Jews and the Gentiles, and note who gets named first.
In the first century, and for several thereafter, it was something of a strain for God’s chosen people to accept the idea that their God was, in fact, a real New York liberal. A real multiculturalist. A real proponent of diversity. Remember what the actual words mean: A Jew is a member of God’s chosen people, a specific race of humans from whom and through whom salvation comes (a Jew is also anyone who has a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism in conformity with Halacha, Jewish religious law). Why God chose this particular desert-wandering tribe as his special folk is a question that everyone from Joseph Heller to Kurt Vonnegut has pondered, but that this is the case is a pretty well established fact of history from the old days to the New York Times.
The word Catholic, on the other hand, is just a synonym for the word universal. The monotheistic evolution from Jew to Christian is thus not the seeming culture war that you hear about in the media spectacle. It is a natural-enough philosophic evolution from the people who first understood the nature of the Godhead to the prophet and messiah they brought forth. This prophet, history’s greatest figure, claims that his arrival is the turning point in historical consciousness, that from that moment on all men and women can worship God in spirit and truth. Himself a Jew, he declares, “Salvation isn’t only for the Jews, it is for everyone!”
This is the essential and ultimate meaning of the word diversity, of the word multiculturalism, of the word pluralism. These are things that most liberals—even Jewish liberals—take for granted, right? Gibson’s film (and the Pope’s comment) seems more like a reminder that Jews too believe in a messiah, and that they should perhaps give the movie, and its protagonist, a second consideration.
Whether this latter reading is more or less insulting to those of the Jewish faith probably depends on where one stands in relation to one’s Judaism—which is itself a label about as diverse as a Chinese menu (or Protestant Christianity, which was at last count, depending on what you count, comprised of 3,600 denominations)—are you Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Hasidic, Reform, Humanistic, Reconstructionist, Lubavitcher, Israelite, Zionist, cultural, kinda kosher, or just the kind of mensch who subscribes to Heeb: The New Jew Review? In addition, there are Jews for Jesus as well as Jews for Allah and, as you might imagine, Jews for Judaism. In other words, many of these subcategories of Jews despise each other and don’t want to acknowledge each other as Jews.
Like anything, the phrase “anti-Semitic” (itself not coined until 1879) is a blanket category whose effect, among others, is to obscure the annoying specificity both of history and of the present scandal. More precisely, a Semite is a member of the people in the Middle East and northern Africa that speak one of the Semitic languages, which include Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. The fact that the term “anti-Semitic” gets used exclusively as a synonym for “anti-Jewish” is as unfortunate and imprecise as calling blacks “African Americans”—it does mean something, but it sure leaves out a lot (like the thousands of non-black Americans whose ancestry traces back to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and Egypt).
It’s a curious thing to consider the immediate versus the underlying causes of Christ’s death. On the one hand, according to the story, he had to die, and he came to offer up his life of his own accord. No one group therefore is inherently culpable for his death. All humanity is collectively guilty since it was our sins that he came to deal with. On the other hand, the biblical account gives a fairly accurate rendition of how an innocent man became the pawn in a game played between two competing power structures.
It’s a fascinating piece of case law. The Jewish high priests can’t condemn a man to death for breaking their own Sabbath laws, but they can insinuate the effects if the Roman rulers don’t execute him. Caiaphas accuses Jesus before Pontius Pilate of the political crime of sedition—if he claims to be King of the Jews, then he won’t pay tribute to Caesar. By implication, Pilate will face a usurper if he does not immediately quell the uprising, and will have to answer to Rome for not executing Jesus.
Christ is not killed by either the Jews or the Romans. He is killed because the Jews don’t want him and the Romans can’t have him. For the Jews, to let him live means harboring a false prophet; for the Romans, continuing his life means freeing a known political terrorist. But these accusations are only tossed by each group at the opposing system of power—Jesus is not guilty of either crime, and this is so whether or not he truly is the messiah. As he says to the former charge, “If I have done wrong, then tell me what I have done,” a question to which his accusers are mute. Of the latter charge he tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
The story is so arranged (or so happens) that Christ falls through the cracks of a he-said, she-said argument. In between two competing definitions of justice, Christ falls guilty to neither party, but his death continues to show that true justice is foreign to this world. Guilty of no crime, he is ultimately the “victim” of political necessities much smaller than his own purpose.
And this brings us to a necessary point of clarification. Many of those who call the film anti-Semitic are using this accusation as a cover for their real objection. For the real pinnacle of postmodern incorrectness is not any form of racism. It is the ultimate intolerance of holding the opinion that there is, as Christ himself claimed, only one way to the Father. The scandal, in other words, is not so much in the film itself as in its promotional posters: The Passion of the Christ. It’s that second definite article that irks the Orthodox. And not a few others.
The film opens with Icon Productions’ lightning flash logo and its detail of an icon of the Virgin Mary. It’s an indication that one thing Mel understands is his medieval symbolism. The story starts with a close-up of “the watery star” seen through a bluish haze of mist. The opening shot is of the full blue moon as Christ’s mother looking over her son on his last night in the garden. From this moment, the audience knows to be looking out for both literal and allegorical readings of the story.
The collective unconscious has a fairly prominent role to play in the film. A feminized Satan figure, a Lord of the Flies Judas moment, and demon spawn straight out of Hieronymus Bosch paintings are presented to us as myths made real, as old words made into new flesh. When Satan delivers a snake to Jesus in the garden, and he crushes it with his heel, we know we are on solid textual and metaphysical ground.
His casting a woman as Satan says much about the sophistication of Gibson’s understanding of what images and icons are versus what they are not. The references to the iconic Madonna and child, particularly in the insistent juxtaposition between the real Madonna and the disturbing parody of the female Satan and her baby of death, imply at the least an understanding that these icons can point to the holy, but they can also be subverted so that we miss their true purpose. It may also help explain the film’s appeal to some of the Protestant groups who are traditionally opposed to using images of Christ.
James Caviezel shares much more than the same initials as the messiah. If you saw him in The Thin Red Line, you knew then that this guy was born to play Jesus. Gibson gives him just enough prosthetics to keep us from being annoyed by his facial familiarity. This is not the case with Monica Bellucci, who seems nevertheless fitting in the role of Mary Magdalene, if only to pay penance for her good-at-being-bad roles in Malèna, The Matrix films, and Irréversible.
Peter is played by a nice Jewish boy from the neighborhood, and his stereotypical Jewish physiognomy seems to be Mel’s way of reminding us of the obvious—that all the disciples were Jews, that this is in fact a Jewish story, a piece of Jewish history as much or more than an artifact of Catholic propaganda or piety (Gibson seems, in fact, to respond to every perceivable “anti-Semitic” moment he films with a similar balancing gesture—especially notable is the moment where Simon of Cyrene is derogatorily called “Jew!” by the Roman Centurion, making it clear that Mel doesn’t find any innocence in the Roman Church’s ethnic heritage.)
We see a nice flashback moment with Jesus as carpenter, building a table that turns out, well, perfectly. This is a nice double-homage both to Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, in which Willem Dafoe constructs his own cross, and to the scene in The Patriot in which Mel Gibson builds a structurally unsound chair. As a negation of Scorsese’s spiritual suicide and morbid irony motif (as though even in life all Christ could do was think about death) and as an updating of Christ’s “I am the vine and you are the branches” metaphor, Gibson here tells us that Christ is the table and we are the chairs, albeit not very sturdy ones. It’s one of those scenes that goes by quickly, but it fits in nicely with Gibson’s other allegorical touches.
One striking symbolic moment comes when we focus on the two thieves being crucified on either side of Christ. In a shocking scene, the thief who denies Christ has his eyes pecked out by a black crow. The black crow, also called a raven, is one of the birds of alchemy associated with death, and a great deal of metaphysics is taking place in this one scene. The eyes are the windows of the soul, and the thief’s lack of same is indicated by the removal of his eyes. The eyes being pecked out also make it clear that this particular thief cannot “see” who Christ really is and thus has no need of these physically extraneous organs. Finally, birds that prey on organisms larger than themselves always peck at the eyes first to confirm the mortal status of their victim, and so this scene makes it clear that this thief is already (spiritually) dead.
On the other hand, something about Gibson’s directing seems too Braveheart-ened, too Patriot-ized, too Steven Spielberged ever to let go of the intensity. Maybe this is what happens to directors as they approach fifty: they feel the need to make a film that is close to their heart, but feel a simultaneous desperation to wring every possible tear from the audience.
From shot one, everything in both Schindler’s List and The Passion is drama, drama, drama. And while neither the Holocaust nor the last twelve hours of Christ’s life had a surplus of comic relief, the fact that every single filmed moment is overly dramatic has the effect of Matrix Reloaded’s eleven-minute car-chase scene. The directors of that film said the intended effect was to exhaust the audience. The same seemed to be the effect of Schindler’s List, which is why by the end it was so gratuitous to have Oskar give the “just one more” speech.
In Gibson’s case, the effect is equally unfortunate: to the believer, the story seems true and (for once) not gratuitously violent, just sufficiently violent for the historic narrative to tell its truth. Still, with an R-rating and unprecedented screentime devoted to suffering, it seems almost too heavy-handed to want to bring a non-believing friend. To the non-believer, the violence may seem gratuitous, but even if it doesn’t, you can’t help shake the feeling that it seems heavy-handed in order that it will feel true. The last twelve hours of Christ’s life were indeed the darkest, but Gibson focuses on one specific hour that plays out as close to real-time as possible. Using the fourteen Stations of the Cross, Gibson drags the audience through a grueling ritual of pain and agony in order that we may vicariously feel what Christ went through. As a purgative, it works wonders. As a Friday night’s entertainment, it’s a killer.
And it is perhaps this conflict, Catholicism and capitalism, that is the deepest clash related to this movie. Is it primarily a movie about Christ, or a Christian sermon dressed up as movie? The answer is that it is both and neither.
It is both because it is clearly a movie that is created, produced, and distributed in the secular world of filmgoers and market share and box office receipts, and it is made by a man who clearly believes the transcendent and metaphysical truth of its story. But there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Catholic and the capitalist conception of life in the strictest sense of the term: the Catholic sees religious rules as subjugating economic life, while the true capitalist sees the bottom line dictating all else, including any religious rules.
So when the capitalist product called movie comes along to tell the truth about the universal faith, there is an inherent conflict: If the film succeeds, it’s because of good marketing and good buzz, most likely caused by brilliant timing and such publicity stunts as foreshadowing an “anti-Semitic” controversy. But if the movie performs terribly and/or receives critical condemnation, yet nevertheless results in more people reading the book, this is because the truth of the story was able to overcome the inherent limitations of both the filmed medium and the perverseness of the market system.
It is thus inevitable that, whatever your worldview, such a film—this film—will leave you a little conflicted. If it’s any comfort, Gibson and crew were well aware of this, which is why the producer’s operating mantra for the film was “Jesus Second, Entertainment First.” Notice just how delicately that construction holds together, and in what order the clauses are set. The implication is that the best you can do in this commercialized world is to create under this rubric and trust that the truth of the message will transcend to some extent the clutter of the market.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the film will make Gibson richer, not poorer. This may or may not matter to you personally, but conflating money-making with religion really was the only thing that got the purportedly mild-mannered Jesus seriously pissed off. It was the money-changers in the Temple that led him to scream, “You’ve turned the house of God into a den of thieves!” He made a leather whip and began to beat the merchants in the face, overturning their tables and rampaging through the place.
To this charge, Gibson may reasonably claim that he’s merely turning the cathedral of the cinema back into what it was historically meant to be, but in that case perhaps the tithe of our ticket prices should be made voluntary. On the one hand, you have to give credit to a guy who will risk $30 million of his own money—and his future career—for the sake of his faith. On the other hand, you’ll probably want to hear the follow-up stories of what Gibson does with all the profits. In this regard, Steven Spielberg’s use of profits from Schindler’s List would be an admirable example to follow.
Remember that old bumper sticker that said, “What if they held a war and nobody came?” Here’s a new one: What if the messiah came and nobody wanted him? This is the story playing now at your local multiplex. Consider why this story gets told and retold on film every decade or so. The reason is that this is what happened the first time. The point of this particular movie is to remind you of that. Again.
In the end, Gibson’s film is no more anti-Semitic than Jesus himself was. Both are all-or-nothing propositions: It depends on where you’re standing. If you’re a Jew waiting for your messiah and a Jewish miracle worker shows up, the question you face is whether you or he gets to decide whether he is the true messiah.
If you’re a Roman not waiting for any messiah and somebody tries to tell you that one is here, the response of Pilate’s wife Claudia may be addressed to you: “If you will not hear the truth, then no one can tell you.”
“It is as it was” does not refer to the content of the movie. It refers to the perception of those who reject the movie because of its content. They rejected Christ then. They’ll reject this movie now. As Vico first showed, human history changes; human nature does not.
As McLuhan reminds us, don’t be a cinematic Pharisee: don’t be so much of a conceptualizer that you can’t perceive the stunning simplicity of the message. Don’t be the persona behind the Leonard Cohen lyric, “When they said repent, I wondered what they meant.”
But even if you do become those things, take heart. Even Peter, the Pope’s original godfather, the world’s first Jewish Catholic, found himself caught between a rock and the hard wall of cultural conformity. He ended up screaming out to his accusers, “I never knew him!” This is the guy Jesus uses to start his church. You’ve got to appreciate the irony of that—sort of like Robin Williams’ character in The World According to Garp saying, “We’ll take it” after the plane hits the house. What are the chances it will ever happen again?
If you liked the movie, you’ll probably find that the book really is much better. If you want to read the book but are too lazy to, then The Gospel of John, the three-hour Good News version of Christ’s life that came out last year, is a better “read,” if only because it gives you Jesus’ story in the same scale and proportion that the gospel writer intended it (though the modernized English may make you hanker for Gibson’s use of the original Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew.)
Or you can just go back to the movies next week and forget it ever happened. The Pope’s comment could be a sign of senility. It could be a signifier of the oldest and boldest of claims, that Jesus is now still maintaining the same existential status as he was then, which is to shock, polarize, and unite the world in some as-yet-to-be-imagined way.
It could just be the central truth of all history. It could just be a movie. The choice of interpretation is as it always was: yours.
Amintore Fanfani: Capitalism, Protestantism, and Catholicism
Adolf Holl: The Last Christian
Mortimer Adler: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth
Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Light