The Culture Wars Revisited

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