Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Hollywood Shoot-Up or Divine Art?
I will not inconvenience you with details, but I haven’t been well the last couple of days. So to pass the time I have been watching films. I (don’t ask me why) just watched Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’. He obviously had something on his mind when making this. It makes Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ look like something from the Disney Channel. I am not going to give any moral answers about this work of art; rather after my viewing this morning I’d like to ask some questions that may hopefully take us to a point of departure rather than conclusion.
Greenbelt Trustee, journalist and friend Martin Wroe was one of a large number of the media who went to a special screening of the film prior to its release. He described it as ‘the Gospel according to Mel Gibson, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was according to Quentin Tarantino.’ He continued that ‘it is a breathtakingly barbarous ninety minutes of cinema violence’. For anyone who didn’t know the film, co-written, directed, produced and funded in part by a modest $25m of Gibson’s personal fortune, follows the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life – his arrest, trial, torture and death. Martin observed that ‘the brutality is so graphic that in one extended scourging scene Jesus is rendered a lacerated, bloodied frame of flesh even before he was nailed to the cross. He is beaten with a leather strap barbed with metal which, when slapped over a table, sticks in the wood like spikes. His crucified torso is in shreds.’
Strong stuff indeed, but having watched it again I wonder is this just cinematic voyeurism or is Gibson offering celluloid violence in the service of an interpretation of truth? He insists he has set out to inspire, not offend, and even claims Divine assistance. ‘The Holy Ghost was working through me…I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize.’ Herein lies my problem. It’s a trap so many Christians fall into when trying to straddle the twin cultures of a church stuck on pause and a world stuck on fast forward.
When it comes to art (and evangelism) explanations do not add much, they conceivably might diminish the power of the piece. Maybe artists (and Christians) should establish the habit of saying very little about their work. Surely silence is recognition of the influence of the art to speak for itself – a reserve I would find compelling and refreshing were it more evident. I was always taught that art has its own language, and I would propose the same principle applies to faith. I mourn the chronic determination of those Christians who provide a base commentary for every aspect of its observance.
Someone recently described to me their joy of meeting a ‘Christian’ artist. I understood her reasons but found her ‘joy’ infuriating. I will endeavour to explain myself. Writer Mike Riddell suggests that ‘good art arises from the human condition, rendering it translucent. It invites us to see, to overcome our blindness.’ So in that sense we could be forgiven for saying it is evangelical. But it is here, in my opinion, that Christianity predominantly misunderstands art. The scandalon for so much ecclesial meddling is contained in the word ‘message’. There is no such thing as ‘Christian art’. There is just good and bad art created by both those who profess faith and those who do not.
My point? When art is ‘employed’ it becomes a means to an end – so it ceases to be art, and becomes propaganda. Art is not a pronouncement, rather it is an invitation – a key to a locked door even? Am I really pushing the analogy too much if I suggest that faith is too? And so it is, when I recall the churches block-booking multiplexes, heaven bent on converting the heathen through Gibson’s film (evidently one Texan couple spent $42,000 on 6,000 tickets to give away to the ‘lost’) I get ever so slightly concerned. As my friend Riddell says, ‘Artists are the antennae for humankind; they do not create the signals.’
In concluding Martin Wroe said that, ‘in setting out to save the lost, Gibson may end up confirming the worst myths about Christianity as humourless, anti-Semitic, voyeuristic, death cult.’ I agree with him wholeheartedly that Christianity has never been ‘family viewing, it is an undeniable mystery at the heart of the religion that the sacrifice of one man, somehow changes history.’ But I also think we have seen too many re-runs of a handsome, blue-eyed Robert Powell, portraying unconvincingly what many agree is the most unthinkably violent way we ridiculous humans have ever thought up to kill one another. And for the life of me I’m struggling to see how we are expected to get a giggle out of that.
But what do I know? I suggest you see it (if you haven’t already), and make up your own mind. Would be interested to hear what you all think…