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…


mister tumnus said...

yeh, i'm going to be avoiding the mel gibson i think! i an imagine the horror, that's enough!

think ridell speaks amazing well on art and writing. i've been fortunate enough to see some amazing paintings close up ('guernica' comes to mind) and i'm not sure how anyone looking at something like that could say that it wasn't 'christian'. as the patron saint of christian art, sir cliff richard, once said 'nothing is secular but sin'.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hey mr t - it is quite graphic, and my intention is not to take anything away from the reality of just how horrific crucifixion rather that although the film shows us how he died, it doesn't really teach us how to live

'guernica' is an amazing work - Picasso was a remarkable artist

am not sure if we are slightly at odds over the christian thing or not ( i don't think so, I mean how can we not concure with Saint Cliff?). Martyn Jospeh got quite animated a few years ago when he was introduced as a christian folk singer - he said he was a singer songwriter who just happened to be a christian.

it may be just be semantics if indeed all creativeness is a gift and/or inspired by the almighty. I guess for me it feels as tho art has been hijacked somewhat when we call it 'christian'

hope all is well there in the fast bel

ps, am now singing devil woman in my head!!!!

mister tumnus said...

yeh,we do agree. you can't get much better than a guernica, is all i think i meant. 'every good and perfect gift...' and all that stuff. the quoting sir cliff was tongue in cheek but i think he had a point. when i was growing up it was the common assumption that unless art was trying to make converts it couldn't be considered christian. what bothers me most about that assumption is (not just that it's a load of crap) but that it presumes to know what effect any particular piece of art has on any person at any time. it's so reductionist and insulting (not just to the artist or to art in general, but to humanity in general, i think). so when people say that martyn joseph could not be 'christian' because he said a naughty word at greenbelt last year they are missing the point on so many diferent levels that it makes me want to weep. he's such a great writer and performer.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

that he is....i will pass on your compliments

ps, you write so eloquently

Suzanna said...

part of the contrast for the early church was that the Lord died not only a horrible death but such a shameful death, one meant for the dregs of society, as so the Romans worked it -hardly something that a film could capture.

The power of the gospel seems to me to be the resurrection. Another good prophet died? That happens all the time. But life? Again? After all the torture of watching Jesus' death, I felt so bereft of not experiencing his life.
-which in itself had me drawing closely in prayer for months afterward. Not a bad result for me from a film I felt compelled to see, such as the hype and tide of my community.
Have I ever watched it again? Never.
But poor Mel-he doth speak too much...

Anna said...

I am so NOT eloquent...I am going to try to comment anyway...

I feel much like Suzanna Paul.

I saw this movie once. Once was enough. I felt quite compelled to see it as well and it left me in complete silence....heartbroken. Then my thoughts turned to my Savior and how on that day, he broke his heart willingly so ours would never be completely broken again.

I was so grateful.

I do think that on some levels Paul, the movie is teaching us how to live...and love. Throughout the movie, I did see examples of it when it was clearly not the popular thing to do or the most comfortable. And His sacrifice alone should be a lesson on how I should be...everyday.

I dont even think I am making sense.... :)

mister tumnus said...

hey paul, yes please do pass on my admiration! i am grateful for artists like martyn joseph. and soooo looking forward to seeing billy bragg at gb!! ikon better not be rivalling that gig.

P.S. your encouragement continues to mean an awful lot to me. in all honesty i think i wouldn't have a blog now if you hadn't encouraged me to keep it going a while back. i owe you at least a pint...

Niki said...

I don't think I could watch that film, feeble as it sounds to admit it.

Awareness said...

Hey Niki......I'm with you. Not feeble at all.....just a different opinion....... :)

I had a complete aversion to seeing it when it came out because the hype was so outrageous....perhaps that's the rebel in me. I'm not one to fall in line. I also am not good with graphic details. I'd rather leave it to my imagination. Like Mister Tumnus stated...the horror in my imagination is enough.

I am able to learn and read and discuss His sacrifice and not have to see the movie. The book I'm reading right now, Gospel, is case in point.......learning about the gruesome martyr deaths.....the words are powerful enough. I can't imagine the the stark imagery in front of me.

Your point too Paul about the film showing us how he died rather than live speaks volumes to me.

as well.......labels when one aspect of oneself is so pronounced drive me batty. I may be a female (well actually I am most definately a female) and I may be a writer (well I try to be) but does that mean that I have to state I'm a female writer?

A disabled teacher?

A homosexual singer?

What is that?

Yes, we can get lost in semantics, and far from me to ever jump on any politically correct bandwagon, but I think semantics feeds judgement and bias.....and inbalance.

ps. Billy Bragg? Would love to see Billy Bragg.

Great comments.......LOVE reading this.....

Christianne said...

These are all great thoughts, and I feel completely out of my depth to respond adequately . . . so much in my mind and heart has changed in recent years; whereas I would once have jumped into a conversation like this with aplomb, I don't seem to have the heart for it much anymore.

That said, I still value very much the road you're walking here in this discussion. You are doing it marvelously well, from this onlooker's side of the fence.

I used to want to be a critic and a teacher who would help students get what a piece of literature was supposed to mean. Anymore these days, I'm beginning to finally "get" that art isn't meant to be dissected. This is where I am beginning to agree with your position here. Thanks for articulating it so well for me; I couldn't have done that on my own, so you connected the dots.

One last thought: I wonder if Gibson even intended the Passion film to be considered as a contribution to the artistic form of film . . . or whether he meant it to evangelize or make a message in some way. (I haven't read or heard much on this because, like many others here, he kinda wigged me out at that point in time. But I did go see the film twice.)

My point is this: If someone doesn't mean for something to be art but instead for it to be something with a message, can we fault them for that? Shouldn't we then just take it for what they meant it to be and evaluate it according to those standards?

Your comment on whether it taught us much about how to live was very revealing. I think you pinned my own conceptual, no-words-for-it take on the film right there -- but again, I couldn't have done it myself. You did it for me. Thank you!

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

am loving the dialogue - some profound and interesting points that I will join in with later - running out the door and want to do these comments justice

thank you

paris parfait said...

I haven't seen it, because I don't like Mel Gibson and I heard about the violence seemingly just for violence's sake. Although I suppose I should watch it, to know what all the fuss is about. But I don't need any more depressing sagas at the moment - real life is scary enough.

bluemountainmama said...

i think my thoughts are similar to anna's. i did see the film in the theatre...... and i was heartbroken and wept uncontrollably at what my saviour endured for me.

i think the cross has become such a symbol and we are so apathetic toward it that we forget what it REALLY was.... not just a little charm to grace our neck or hang on our wall.

but i agree that some people don't need to see all the gory details to understand what Jesus endured. and yes, we need to focus on the Resurrection too, because without that, we wouldn't have Christianity as we know it. Jesus would just be another teacher who eventually died.

i don't even pretend to know what mel's intentions were or feel qualified to comment on them. i do agree with your sentiments about art and culture, though. and i detest the fact that we feel everything needs to be categorized and labeled.......

bluemountainmama said...

oh.... and i hope you are feeling better! :)

St. Kevin & the Blackbird said...

Transcendent. Mystery and family viewing are, in my house, synonymous. One degrades the mysteries of faith in making them a matter for affirmation or for negation, when they ought to be matters for contemplation. I try to get my young boys to talk and think on their own about it all the time. Tonight the last rays of sun at dustk caught their faces and that of their mother...The world's a stage, and God plays in ten thousand places, in the features of our faces.
Good to read you. Got to go.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

i like your perspective - i am always ranting on about the power in brokenness - that the fragrance of calvary and gethsemene convince me more than pentecost of a god who not only loves me but likes me. I guess i am caught in a paradox - the one philip yancey talks of when he suggests that we are caught in the cosmic easter saturday....the day with no title

am not sure i ever make sense - do any of us? I agree that the sacrifice made is a daily example - just not sure the film really reveals that fully (yet what can?) - it's out of context with his life and I'm not sure just showing us a shocking ending without some of that wonderful teaching and storytelling is helpful - that's why i think 'the last temptation' is much more helpful

mr t
a pleasure - will pass on to the mad welshman your kind reflections - i doubt very much ikon and billy will be playing the same time. maybe martin wroe could interview mel????

nothing feeble about feeling like that - have never shyed (is that a word?) away from stuff like this but art should have dark and light - and there ain't much light in this....

as ever you hit the mark...
'Yes, we can get lost in semantics, and far from me to ever jump on any politically correct bandwagon, but I think semantics feeds judgement and bias.....and inbalance.'
i can't add anything - just my 'hear hear' or 'amen'

i think you have some very valuable and articulate points here - there is both a mary and a martha in me and they jocky for position from time to time.

you have a very good point concerning ones agenda for putting work 'out there' - and maybe we should just judge them by those standards - i just can't get away from my gut feeling of slight agitation with work like this - i guess it really is a fine line between the two sometimes

i know what you mean - i have slightly gone off old mel and i can't quite put my finger on why - maybe it's, as suzanna says - he talketh too much.

i agree there is too much scary stuff around and i know we as followers of the wood man should be about redeeming that stuff rather than judging it - i just don't know how this film helps us do that....

thanks, am feeling much better thank you - i agree we should know what the cross was - i think martin penned that beautifully in his poem/prayer:
'did you know your lat supper was going to be your last supper,
a very bad friday would go down in history as a good friday.
you were about to create a more effective logo than coca cola,
and the most popular piece of jewellery in history..'
am all for that - just wished (as i think i have said too much now) he'd given us a bigger picture rather thank something far more polarised
Great comment tho, thank you

very wise words my friend - try to do the same with my two - not an easy balance is it?

great conversation everyone - it's given me belief in blogging again....thank you