I don't post much anymore, except for this kind of thing - I think about something for a couple months, then I post about it and retreat back into lurk mode (I still read lj every day).
The following post is going to contain a lot of opinions and controversial facts, and many of them are going to be about religion. Because each individual's experience of their religion is unique, I am speaking only of groups, averages, and trends unless I indicate otherwise. If you feel this will offend you deeply, please, please keep reading, because I don't get any really good flames. This goes double if you're Mormon.
It's this movie I've been thinking about. You might have heard of it. Interesting concept - it documents the last twelve hours of a man's life, as he is tortured brutally until dead. There's even a forty-five minute whipping scene. It's not some nasty kink thing - he's political, it's an art film. Critic David Denby, of the New Yorker, called it "one of the cruelest movies in the history of the cinema", and Newsweek's David Ansen called it "relentlessly savage" and says that "It's the sadism...that is most striking."
You might have also heard that large groups of Christians have been going to see it. They're buying out megaplexes...which, some of them, are playing it on thirteen screens.
I know the proliferation of Christian denominations is probably confusing to a lot of people. It started confusing me when I was six and it still does, but now I've at least got the details down. It's worth knowing, in this day and age, because the differences are once again becoming important, and something is happening in this country which requires a certain background of information to really understand.
You have your Catholics - Roman and Orthodox, which comes in a couple of flavors itself. Then there are Anglicans, known as Episcopalians in the U.S., and the good ol' C. of E. in the UK. The US ones may now be officially separate from the UK ones following the election of an openly gay bishop here, but I'm not sure if that's gone through. (There's long been a division in that area, and this little rift was visible from about twenty years off). Anyway, then you have the teeming mass of Protestants. Your OPs are the Lutherans, named after Martin Luther, who had the balls to not only bitch about what a lousy landlord the Church was, but actually nail a note to its door about it and go paint his apartment purple just to fuck with it. Then you have Methodists,
Baptists both Southern and American, and Presbyterians, which you've probably heard of.
Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, others you may have encountered, are not considered Christian by anyone but themselves - people like to get into arguments about what 'Christian' is, and whether it's just anybody who talks about Christ, but it's generally accepted by theologians and academics that Christians follow one of two basic sets of rules, with some variation but certain agreements. Mormons and JWs are about as Christian as Scientologists according to those guidelines, though both present themselves otherwise to their adherents and discourage comparison with the rest of the world's thinking.
Then you have literally hundreds of Protestant churches you haven't heard of. Some of them, nobody has heard of outside of the town they're based in; others hold court over massive megachurches with millions in the budget book. Many are offshoots of a movement which began around 1900 known as Pentecostalism, of which a few large churches you may not have heard of are part - Church of Christ is the biggest. The Pentecostal movement, also known as charismatic, has a few branches of its own, in Classic to New Improved flavors. Most Pentecostals are also fundamentalists.
There are a few basic reasons why Protestants are Protestants - all these hundreds of churches really come to down to a few simple but crucial disagreements. Of these, two are argued about most - sola scriptura and sola fide. The first means scripture alone - nothin' but the Bible should inform belief. The second means grace alone - salvation through grace, rather than works or both.
Definitions vary somewhat but the basic idea is that since Christ already saved everybody, all we have to do is truly accept the gift, and we can't do anything to earn it because God gives what he gives. For some, emotional, "spiritual" acceptance is what is required. Some charismatic, evangelic Protestants convert people in highly emotionally charged situations - for example, there are pregnancy test clinics which give free tests to teenage girls, and while they wait for the results, give them anti-abortion material and then ask them to accept Christ into their hearts.
The thing about letting emotions make decisions is that once they've done so, the intellect will work overtime to justify them. With split-second conversions, heated spectacles of healing and prayer, and world-simplifying rules, the recipe for intellectual self-dishonesty is enormous. (Charismatic churches which engage the convert, involve him or her in the community, and assist with education on doctrine, history, and practice exist and are not what I'm speaking of).
Now there's one last group to tell you about - so called traditionalist Catholics, who are, and I really cannot emphasize this enough, not Catholics. They reject the changes made in the 60s by Vatican II, and they reject that the current Pope is the right Pope, which makes them, no matter what every damn review of the movie leads you to think, not Catholics. Mel Gibson and his father are both members of this sect, which does not believe in "brotherhood" with other Christians, or outreach to them. One of their big beefs is that the Church stopped calling other Christians heretics and decided they were separate brethren.
Okay, back to the show.
This movie has an innovative marketing machine behind it. Until yesterday, almost no one but the aforementioned Christians - almost entirely evangelical, and largely charismatic Christians - had seen it. Even stills from it were rare. No clips were released. And the country can talk about little else. Lots of companies have pulled this simple stunt before (Nintendo, for example, when it first released its home console, engineered an artificial game cartridge shortage to keep demand and prices up, and thus succeeded where Atari failed and set the stage for the false scarcity of music CDs and DVDs that is so rapidly dissolving today). However, usually the subject matter doesn't allow them to pretend the silence is somehow reverential.
Because this movie - and I don't think I need to go into another primer here to make sure we're all on the same page about what a movie is, and that partly a movie is something that is expensive to make and therefore expected to be sold - is about Jesus Christ, the cynical movie-going public has fallen for tricks so old they make vibrating theatre seats look postmodern. It is not so much a movie we are asked to purchase as an experience - which is right alongside the way all the other shit is being sold to us at the moment, but again, clothed in holy robes.
And so, many people are stepping up to buy their ticket and take their ride, most with very little idea of what they're in for. A movie theatre is a place of vulnerability, where the senses expand and the mind becomes receptive. There in the silver dark, people are played like strings, up and down the emotional scales. There is no denying the sheer, blunt power of the cinema. It's a tool which can be used elegantly to do evil - as with Leni Riefenstahl - or clumsily and roughly to do good, or masterfully to do nothing more nor less than not waste two hours of the audience's life. There's nothing to indicate that The Passion of the Christ is masterful filmmaking, or contains any elegance in its brutality. Nevertheless, this film, held up by its clever marketing machine, is yet a tool, and one which is intended to carve the minds of its audience into a particular shape, with the assistance of their decision-making emotions.
I have come to think, the more I read and hear, that this film is dangerous, as some have said - not just dangerous in its anti-Semitism, to which I can't speak as no consensus has been reached by its many professional and secular reviewers - but dangerous in an even wider and more frightening way.
There are millions of decent, intelligent Christians in all denominations who really aren't interested in your sins, because they're too busy tending to their own. There's a number of Christians in this country who consider themselves born again, but whose understanding of their embraced faith is so slim that the most they can tell you is that they are saved. Their card has been stamped. Yet more understand and cling to one or two basic ideas, and are now far too invested in their choice to shut down from the justification-machine. Then there are the nuts. All of you who think you hate Christians - these are the people you hate. They are fundamentalist, militant, conservative, mostly white, very angry, and growing. They sit at the bottom of modern Christianity, loud and obnoxious, holding up signs about hell at the funerals of gay men and generally being nasty to everyone. They're a minority right now....at least, the loud ones are.
What worries me is the crisis of identity in our culture, and how tumultuous the landscape is around here lately. It's a situation ripe to be harvested, thrown into the machine, and processed. There are a lot of confused middle class white people out there, and there's never been a better banner than righteous hatred to march under, in troubled times. What worries me is all the anger, all the fear, all the confusion, all rising to a terrible pitch...which is then is caught, and magnified, by one of the most obvious and manipulative pieces of propaganda since, well, Triumph of the Will.
All accounts indicate that the Christianity being pushed by this film - underlying its structure and content - is their Christianity, in all its immediacy, emotion, and lack of reflection. It's a religion of pain and rage, not hope and love. In this way it twists one of the greatest (and most often twisted) tenants of Catholicism - that pain is not to be simply ignored or washed away, but is a part of life, even the life of God, and must be understood. Nothing indicates that that message is what Gibson's bloody gorefest intends to convey, and without it, the story's intended impact is very different.
There are lots of glowing, emotional personal reviews of this film. Not because people are all stupid, insane, or sadistic, but because they have been manipulated by very powerful images in a very powerful medium on a very powerful topic. They've been simply overwhelmed, as anyone would be if you subjected them to hours of realistic-looking torture and snuff film, and triply so because the subject is Jesus Christ and not John Cleese. Under that kind of psychological weight, critical abilities tend to fail, and the result is the history of propaganda.
And so this movie rolls on, slowed somewhat by the exposure of its brutality but nowhere near stopped or even peaked. It rolls along over people and makes them feel they've had a meaningful experience, in some cases, or frightens and sickens them in others. It rolls on as atheists and religionists' misunderstanding and distrust of each other grows. It rolls along, as the country gets ready to have a fistfight with itself over gay marriage. It rolls along, as the election approaches, and the country debates which man they don't know will pass laws they don't hear about on topics they don't understand. And the fringes swell with people who feel their existence is threatened, that their tribe is under attack, that something...must...be done.
For some of them, this Christ will become their Christ. Because they have been waiting for him. They've been calling down the bloody sword, the ripped flesh, the agony that purifies the rage. They've been there for a while, this teeming untapped mass of ordinary people, and Gibson's Christ was designed for them. This film was, I have come to think, constructed quite intentionally to solidify, legitimize, and fuel these shadow "anger Christians", and to pull in those on the borderline. It was meant to take the growing rift and make it a canyon. It is not religious, it is political, and its goal is the consolidation of ideological power.
Back in January, the movie was shown to 4500 Christian pastors. All were required to sign a form agreeing that they would make no negative comments about it. Shortly after, when asked about the controversy, Gibson said: "I anticipate the worst is yet to come. I hope I'm wrong."
A movie designed, distributed, and marketed with this level of efficiency and success doesn't have accidental consequences. Gibson is lying when he talks as if he's surprised, he's lying when he suggests that he doesn't know for sure if it will get worse....and he's lying when he says he hopes he's wrong.