The Culture Wars Revisited

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I
saw The
Passion of The Christ
last Friday night here in Odessa.
The theater was doing 12 showings a day on three screens. Our 5:30
showing was full, and when we left (we were last out because I waited
to see the whole roll of credits) the lobby was full for the next
screening. I dare say any money worries Mel might have had are over.

But
the critique of the film I expect will go on forever, or next thing
to it. I know a number of people who, like Roger
McCaffrey writing on LRC
, consider the sadistic torturing unacceptable
for a film, and I notice that the New Yorker's reviewer,
David Denby, especially harps on Mel's obsession with violence in
a brilliantly destructive critique of the film and its maker. There
is some justice in the charge of excessive violence; I am uncertain
whether the charge of overindulgence in sheer sadism can stand.
I shut my eyes briefly quite a few times during the film. In any
case, it seems clear that the "talking point" that has
gone out to serve the negative reviewers is, to use an extreme term
I have seen in at least one review, "snuff film."

Then
today at Mass, the reading for the First Sunday of Lent was Matthew
4:1–11, the account of Christ's temptation in the desert. I've
heard and read it many times before, but this time – I'm sure
because Gibson's film is still in mind – I especially noticed
the unchallenged assumption by the devil, speaking to Christ, that
they both know that the kingdoms of this world are his (the devil's)
to give:

Again,
the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and
sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of
them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee,
if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (Matthew 4: 8 and 9)

Hmmmmm.
Could it be that a corollary of the devil's statement is that anyone
who seeks to rule or possess a kingdom of this world must perform
obeisance to the devil, take him for master? I read the Gospel to
be saying that; the words do not add up without that implication.
Christian kings of old were careful to have their crowns and themselves
blessed, and they at least paid lip service to the idea that a spiritual
realm stood over their worldly one. We have since given up that
pretence, so I am content that candidates for high office today
are – how shall I put it? – kicking with the left foot, engaged in
an ungodly proceedings, seeking that which no Christian should seek.

I
find in these thoughts, which I do believe are sanctioned by Holy
Writ, high warrant for the anti-statist, libertarian position. Let
us have done with these great behemoth states and their endless
wars. With their ruinous exactions of treasure, their murderous
levies on our youth. Let us offer them no further support that we
are able to deny them.

Consider
voting. Is that not to contribute to their claims on us, to their
pretense of existing for our good, for the commonweal, the commonwealth?
I really do think so. "Don't vote; it only encourages them"
begins to look like an entirely Christian and logical stance.

How
I yearn for a small government, along Hoppean lines, where I could
see the "man in charge" as I might see an older brother?
Or indeed at my age I might rather say a younger brother, more capable
than I would be of the demands of strenuous leadership, and performing
his services as for the servants of the Lord – not dominating and
exploiting, but functioning like one of the good seigneurs of former
days. Or like one of the good seigneurs of the better days that
must, Lord willing, come.

A
romantic dream, perhaps. But what is not romantic, but a sheer existential
horror is the condition we are in now. Waiting, with hardly any
notion of what is really going to happen, for the dinosauric state
to roll over and die, as die it eventually must. But power, as Haiti
has most recently demonstrated, is never yielded graciously by the
servants of the devil.

It
occurred to me, not while I was watching the Passion but
more than a day later, that if you looked at both the film and the
Bible account from the point of view of getting and maintaining
power, both are all about that and hardly anything else. I mean
worldly power, precisely what the devil was offering Christ on the
mountain. The Sanhedrin was manifestly terrified that Christ would
take their power from them. They played on Pilate's concern that
he might lose his power. Both could see only this worldly power,
which it seems fair to call Mammon; Christ's words about a kingdom
not of this world must have seemed quixotic indeed to them. But
they could recognize that such talk could diminish their hold on
things. They were right.

Anyone
who takes the Christ for teacher is not going to worship the State
and not going to worship religious leaders who are using the State
to prop up their rule over both religious institutions and the faithful.
There was a particularly grisly example of the evil that results
from that symbiosis 600 years ago in the case of Joan of Arc. I
happened to listen not long ago to an audiotape of the whole of
Mark Twain's superb telling of Joan's story. Joan was tried and
condemned by corrupt French churchmen in the control of the English
and Burgundian enemies of France. Church and state worked together
to defeat truth, while the French stood by in a kind of complicity
through inaction. The whole Church pulled itself together 25 years
later, at the Pope's behest, and rehabilitated her, and she is now
honored as a saint; but the wretched story is a classic, in lesser
degree, of the same sort of evil that was on view in Gibson's film.

For
me, at least, The Passion of The Christ is about the present
state of Christ's body, the Church. I don't know that Gibson was
motivated by any such idea either consciously or unconsciously.
But I consider this vivid representation of a 2000-year-old episode
as calling attention – for those who are willing to see it
that way – to the status of Christ NOW (the only dimension,
as I see it, that matters in religion).

The
movie is, therefore, again in my view, about the current wreckage
of Christendom in general and the Catholic Church in particular
– to a Catholic like Mel (or to me) no small matter. Not that
I think this film will necessarily cause any sort of “awakening”
or change in things. Mel’s mood, or at least the somber mood of
the film, matches mine as to our religious and cultural prospects
just now. It does appear that the Mammonites are winning, as they
won for a time in Jerusalem long ago. But no Christian can see a
worldly defeat as anything but temporary; the world of the spirit
is forever superior and always determinative in the end.

I’ll
be watching to see how the wind continues to blow and what view
of the film (good and true vs. the devil’s own work) seems to win
out. But I am content just now to have got thus far in my understanding
of the "Gibson phenomenon."

March
1, 2004

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives


        
        

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