Why It's So Bloody

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Let us travel back to a very bad time. Not A.D. 30. That was a fairly bad time. No, to a period roughly 650 years ago. The Black Death was ravaging Europe, killing upwards of 20 million people. The survivors fought in what was known as the 100 Years' War. Add grueling poverty. They called it the Middle Ages. And from it emerged ... Mel Gibson's new movie, The Passion of the Christ.

Those who walk into their multiplexes wondering whether Gibson's film is anti-Semitic will find answers according to their standards. Mine was that it is, in a stock, caricatured way. Romans do the actual torturing, and a handful of "good" Jews seem to defy cliche, but the folks controlling the mob and forcing their overlord's seemingly pliable hand are the same band of swarthy miscreants that have wandered through Passion plays for centuries.

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Yet the film's true shock lies in Gibson's vision of what is most important in the Jesus story, in the relentless, near pornographic feast of flayed flesh. Gibson gives us Christ's blood, not in a Communion cup, but by the gallon. Blood spraying from Jesus' shackled body; blood sluicing to the Cross's foot. This Passion begins just before Jesus' arrest. It ends with a blink-length Resurrection. The bulk of his ministry, miracles and post-Resurrection appearances are absent, and his preaching of love flicked at in telegraphically brief flashbacks. Meanwhile, his scourging, handled in all four Gospels in a total of three sentences, takes up nine full minutes of film.

Western Christianity has seen this treatment before, although not before about A.D. 1000. The stunning concept of divine self-sacrifice--"Jesus Christ and him crucified," as Paul put it — is the faith's heart, bound inextricably with his glorious rising three days later. But the grisly specifics of his mortification before then were of little interest to most Christians until the turn of the second millennium.

It was starting in the 1300s that the Passion truly bloomed. Scholars located details of Jesus' suffering in allegedly prophetic verses in the Old Testament. Mystics built devotions around his scourging after a Cardinal returned from the Holy Land bearing the pillar to which he said Christ had been chained. Flagellant lay groups clogged the streets, seeking bloody identification with the flayed Christ. So dominant grew the Passion, writes Catholic historian Gerard Sloyan, that believers felt "meditation on [it] alone could achieve unity with Christ and yield some share in the work of redemption he accomplished." It came to overshadow not just "the Incarnation, but even the Resurrection."

Sloyan does not regard this as a good thing, but never once does he suggest that it was inexplicable. It derived in part from the everyday misery and terror facing average believers. However badly they suffered, they thought, Jesus must have suffered more. If they dedicated their torments to his, others concluded, it might lend sanctity to the senseless. Little wonder that one mystic reported that Christ had told her, "I was beaten on the body 6,666 times; beaten on the head 110 times; pricks of thorns in the head, 110 ... mortal thorns in the forehead, 3 ... the drops of blood that I lost were 28,430."

As the plagues abated, Passion piety faded. It has never fully disappeared from Catholicism (why should it, as long as there is suffering?), and remains particularly pronounced in the Hispanic church. But observances like the Stations of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary settled into more balanced harmony with Easter.

Why, then, does Mel Gibson feel that America needs the old medieval recipe? One answer is, perhaps he doesn't. He has maintained that the film was never intended to be commercial but reflects a near suicidal period he survived by meditating on Jesus' suffering. "I had to use the Passion of Christ to heal my wounds," he told an Australian newspaper. The Passion is his personal candle lit in thanks.

And yet recently greater claims have been staked on the film's behalf. Gibson's production company has marketed it to church groups as "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years," and conservative Christian luminaries have embraced it as such. The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, compares the work to that of Michelangelo, who captured the spirituality of a more expansive age. Like the Sistine ceiling, Haggard says, The Passion of the Christ will inspire believers for decades or even centuries.

With due respect for his desire that Christ's sacrifice be understood by all and for the gratitude among Christians that a Hollywood deity has finally made an accomplished and utterly unironical Christian film, one can only hope that he has it wrong. The Christian story includes joy, astonishment, prophecy, righteous wrath, mystery and love straightforward as well as love sacrificial. The Passion of the Christ is a one-note threnody about the Son of God being dragged to his death. That may be just the ticket for some times and for some benighted places where understanding human torment in terms of God's love is the only religious insight of any use. But in a culture as rich, as powerful, as lucky and as open-minded as ours — one might even say, as blessed — it is, or should be, a very bad fit indeed.