|Christploitation @ the Movies|
(The Truth Seeker October 1, 2016)
Why, oh why, oh why do Christians keep killing Jesus? Why, for nearly two millennia, has the nonviolent Lamb of God and politically framed Son of Man been put to death, imaginatively speaking, in gospel, painting, frieze, sculpture, choral mass—and, of late, in HD movies—not to mention sermons that detail his torturous demise to millions of frightened children and unatoned adults? Indeed, the pageantry of his death has been shown in countless artistic scenes and real-life reenactments: from such flat statements as John 19:23—“Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments”—to Matthias Grunewald’s 1516 “Isenheim Altarpiece,” picturing Christ’s agonal, emaciated, plague-scarred and thorn-nettled body, to the Good Friday crucifixion rite in the Philippines where penitents self-flagellate and are nailed to crosses and hoisted aloft, willingly, the bloodletting posted on YouTube.
It’s not just killing Jesus: it’s also the tribulations that lead up to and carry on after his death that demand telling. Driving his biography is the unstoppableness of the crucifixion (He should die so we might live), his outlaw ministry a preparation for his brutal death. Indeed, except for his divine birth and his sermonizing, how little we know of his early life and time on the cross. With scant biblical description, such is what artists have had to imagine as Joachim Karl once put it, “the sadomasochistic glorification of pain”—the nails puncturing his wrists and feet, the slumping excruciation of his limbs, the torment so pummeling as to provoke the questions, why would his Father forsake him and why, when he’s suspected all his life he’ll be thus arrayed (prophesied in Isaiah), act so shocked as it happens? I’m sure such pain would make anyone delusional. But, conscious or not, his dying is purposeful, a fulfillment, an enactment. Indeed, his end has required a kind of maniacal penance by Christian scribe and priest, novitiate and snake handler, even the religious artist, all of whom have lionized Jesus’s dying millions of times, in unending repetitions, a finger glued to the playback button.
Why does this singular torture—certainly no worse than Twelve Years a Slave, starvation in Auschwitz, sepsis death in the Civil War—continue and continue so viciously in our time? Simple. Filmmakers of recent vintage have re-deployed the “passion of the Christ” out from its tepid literate domain and into graphic panoramas of agony, intended, supposedly, for “mature audiences.” In the last two decades, moviemakers have flooded theaters and homes with a new level of uncensored bestial suffering that exploits the Christ story for ends obvious and unconscious. Perhaps the filmic élan is a hurriedly overdue reminder of the Rapture. Perhaps it’s to keep guilt-tripping humankind with the quintessential murder of the innocent (the more innocent the victim, the more ruthless the carnage). Perhaps it’s a Christian corporate media volley onto viewers who, raised on slasher films and chainsaw massacres, already are primed for self-punishment and welcome the most bowel-vomiting, bloodied Jesus on the big screen they can stand. Apparently, our terrorized generation can stand a lot.
I trace the rage for the Christ-killing film to Nicholas Ray’s 1961 King of Kings, the first of the ubiquitous glassy-eyed, hippy-like Jesuses, with Jeffrey Hunter as Lord, his good-looks transcending his softly filmed crucifixion, dying with robust groans, while the Marys wept, in a compassionate few minutes. Post-King, the gates opened, and a parade of passion-soaked films roared through. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, filmed in black-and-white, features a vibrant fluctuation of objects in light and shadow, a symphonic score that carries the roiling inevitability of the myth, and the “neorealist” faces of non-professional Italians who tell the missionary story, not the scourging or the nailing. George Stevens’ 1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told of which one critic said the character of this four-hour-and-twenty-minute tedium was one of “serene vulgarity,” with Max von Sydow as the austere, imperturbable, and speechifying Jesus. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth in which famous actors (Laurence Olivier on down) are the draw as much as its meditative crucifixion, a quiet, text-quoting, radiant expiration. And Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ, an oddity but not an unbloodied one: the spikes nailed through his palms go all the way through the wood and poke out the other side. The film’s mortem-interruptus dream scene emphasizes the fear, the doubt, and the dislike Christ has for his mission. It all culminates in a final Satanic trick: Christ imagining he has escaped his fate with marriage, sex and a few wives, old age, and easy living but no—he must be torn from his fantasy and hurled back on the cross where he realizes he is the apotheosis of self-deception.
And then—because no one ever thought, whether for aesthetic or moral reasons, to linger on the savagery and gruesomeness of the Nazarene’s final day—came Mel Gibson’s 2004 orgy of exsanguination, The Passion According to Christ. This film set a new high (or low) for holy gore and buckets of spurting, dripping, flowing, and staining blood, often captured in slow motion, not to mention several added cups of Jewish treachery. (Vatican II declared that Jews were not responsible for Christ’s death. Gibson and other anti-Semitic directors disagree.) The Ur-Catholic Gibson attributes his drip-fest to a stigmatic nun who, in the 1840s, was chosen by the Virgin Mary to receive a moment-by-moment, blood-soaked account of the Passion, which, transcribed by adepts, the church eventually labeled unverifiable fantasy. In one of the film’s apocryphal scenes, referencing the Madonna and Child, we see Satan carrying a demonic baby. Gibson explains. “What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old ‘baby’ with hair on his back.” Can there be such a thing in Christianity as just a little bit of the Devil? Need I describe the film’s infatuation with scourging Christ’s chest, back, legs, feet, face, and hands—did the centurions miss any flesh? One reviewer noted that of the film’s 121 minutes, 101 bleed. Another reviewer said that Jesus is beaten “brutally and constantly” for half the movie. Watch it for yourself. Or not.
According to The Guardian, in the last five years there has been twenty-one Christian films, several of which build their melodrama on rumbling music scores and besieged sack-clothed tribes to tell—no, to make spectacular verity in image, sound, music, and special effects—the crucifixion. These exploitations include a predictable narrative sameness—the more the same the better. We can’t beat Gibson but we can stay true to his obsession. Indicative of such adoring violence are two recent films: the 2014 Son of God, a re-standardized life-and-death saga, produced by Mark Burnett and part of the ten-hour miniseries, The Bible, with the Portuguese heartthrob Diogo Morgado as Jesus, and the 2015 Killing Jesus, based on the bestseller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, with the suitably Arab Haaz Sleiman as Lord, its throttle full-bore on the Roman/Jew/Crucifixion (perhaps a Clinton/Obama/Benghazi stand-in) political conspiracy.
Titles aside, both films lengthen, Mel-Gibson-like, the soul-numbing suffering. Along the way come the tropes, brought to us by the Department of Cliché: the well-attended, star-blessed birth; the fake beards, easily spotted in HD; the luxuriant hippy hair; the miracles one-after-another; the orchestrated gasps of the masses; the filthy garments; the disciples riveted by Christ’s words, brow-furrowing then light-smiling; the gaggling crowds frenzied by a few apothegms; the exclamations for Barabbas; the conniving, sarcastic Romans, bare-kneed and lounging on couches vs. the conniving, irony-less Jews, magisterially robed, with staffs, pledging order to Caesar; the veils-free pole-dance of Salome; Jesus’s money-changers-table-fit in the Temple; the Thomas Cromwell-like whispered asides; the two nunnish Marys weeping; the post-tied flogging; the cross lugging; the soldiers mocking; the nails-in-hands pounding; the prolonged screaming; the stomach drooping; the head swiveling; the heavenward ogle from which no forgiveness comes; the dying moment, “It is finished”; the thunder cracking; Golgotha quaking; the tomb emptying; and the shroud, Jesus’s crown-of-thorns’ image purloined away.
My point about the tropes? That these clichés are a kind of violence in themselves, hewing to an unselfconscious post-traumatic stress disorder Christians can never abandon. The PTSD tale lives on, spreads its pox like a revived cancer, Christianity’s core disease.
Why, oh why, are crucifixion myths not found in other cultures? No abject shame or torture worship with the deaths of Gilgamesh or Odysseus or Buddha or Gautama or Mohammed? Why value the sadistic story over the complex, like the Vedas, the trickster, like the Native American, the literary, like the Greeks? Is it something in the foundational psyche of Christians, a perversion, perhaps, that uses his abject murder to disallow other benign treatments or theological interpretations of his life?
Curious that in the latest crucifixion reels we have few instances of the teaching and forgiving Christ as well as negligible bits of the doubtful, all-too-human Christ. Mark one exception: Rodrigo Garcia’s 2015 masterpiece, Last Days in the Desert, with Ewan McGregor playing dual roles, Christ and Satan, that is, the holy man, as he’s called, and the bad son of God who, heaven-fallen and jewelry-laden, bedevils the good son at every turn during his forty days of fasting and wandering. This is a made-up journey that clings to the Christ myth but also awakens as a spiritual mystery, emphasizing not his holiness but his call to disentangle the most difficult human knot: the dynamics of a nuclear family. At the heart of it is a father-son battle the desert-trudging holy man stumbles upon while looking for his “father.” The boy, who implores the sky, “I am not a bad son,” wants to travel to Jerusalem for adventure, which is where the holy man is also headed. The father wants the boy to obey him, and the boy does; he stays to honor his father’s wishes and to nurse his sick and dying mother. But the father can’t help but feel his son’s loathing of their arid home. After much dispute, he sacrifices his life so the boy can go. Few of these family issues the holy man—he’s not one of us, remember—understands. He has zero flair for aiding people in psychological distress. He just stares, keeps out of the way, and says “love God above all things,” which none in the family of three—they are devout disbelievers (one reason they’re in the desert)—buys.
The best part of this film are the dialogues the holy man, alive for the first and last time, has with his Satanic other, who has lived countless lifetimes, is terribly bored, claims to “have heard the last gasp of each thing that has ever lived,” and, a quick-draw with the sarcasm, says of their Father, “What a self-centered, self-indulgent, creature he is. Deaf-mute. Insatiable.” By contrast, the holy man is ruled by doubt and passivity, very un-Jesus-y. Preternaturally inward, he is fragile, near dim-witted, and, like most self-absorbed young men, unable to compare the Oedipal drift this family endures with his own complex. A year or two later, dying on the cross, Satan, fluttering face-close as a hummingbird, as he promised, comes to help him. But the holy man, the self-styled Christ, ravaged by his narcissistic pride, turns away. The movie leaves him and us brooding over what we’re always left with: the enigma of the family we come from, the unlived lives our parents bequeath us, and the confusion we ponder as we expire.
Rodrigo Garcia, a Colombian, is the son of the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the father’s literary daring shows. Garcia’s Christ is not exploited; he’s structurally reimagined. Fracturing the myth, Garcia adds in and stresses the savior’s misgivings, a new twist on Christ-consciousness. An exception, indeed, since Last Days in the Desert offers a critique of nearly all Christian filmmakers who avoid Christ’s existential conundrums. Instead, directors present a stock-in-trade story: Jesus’s one-dimensional “love God” character must end with his one-dimensional “seek me” slaughter. To crucify an innocent and then blame the Romans, the Jews, and the unsaved precludes any agency or will to his character. (He’s what we call in literature flat, uncomplicated, a type, deadly for a leading man.) Which means that any sense of self in Jesus of Nazareth goes untapped and undisclosed. Which may be the true exploitation.
Along the way, filmmakers use this one-dimensionality to their advantage. For multiple reasons. Besides artistic sadism, the motivations include: money, empire, and mission as well as terrifying children into belief, enacting biblical prophecy, and affirming the intrinsic condition that Christians need to give more of their lives—if not their deaths as well—to the faith.
Consider the profits. Gibson’s Passion was made for $30 million and has earned $612 million. Other similar recent movies have been much less successful, though they are profitable: Son of God, whose budget was $13 million. made $69 million. Typically, Christian-themed films quadruple their expenses. Consider the reach. The miniseries produced by Mark Burnet, The Bible, ten one-hour episodes, was seen on the History Channel in 2013 by 100 million viewers. Via DVD, supertitles, and aggressive marketing, The Bible, Burnett claims, is being seen by billions of people worldwide. One in ten who see the series, he says, are inspired to read the Bible more than they have. Consider the gospel mission. According to the Barna group, fifty-eight percent of all Americans don’t know the basic elements of the Christmas story—this in a country where eighty-eight percent own a Bible. Of those owners, twenty-six percent read the Bible regularly while a third of religious teenagers read it once a week. Translation: there’s an exploitable viewership for Old and New Testament movies (Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Young Messiah), in part, because the majority of Christians are non-readers and uneducated in their faith.
Son of God—think back to my list of its violent tropes—is rated PG-13. Imagine parents and grandparents who guide ten-year-olds to the scourging and nailing-up drama of this movie. Surely they realize that such “film reality” stamps a young mind many times more powerfully than the Bible’s nondescription of Christ’s physical death. The majority of religious people come to faith not just because parents “believe” but because parents expose children to some form of the Passion narrative via Sunday School and other church rituals. Once in the faith, parents use film’s scenic and sonorous power—to show and to sound—to firm up their kids’ indoctrination. Christianity has found a new Svengali in film and video. In fact, the literate sermon and the discursive interpretation of Bible stories has been decentered, if not replaced, in our society by pre-packaged Jesus videos on YouTube and hundreds of Christian family films like Heaven Is For Real whose audiences are huge.
There’s a dark heart at work here: Christians exploiting Christians. What do I mean? Sin, original and otherwise, brands the human lot with collective shame—a bizarre idea—and, thus, by commandment, Christians bedevil one another to atone for Eve’s seduction and Christ’s sacrifice. This bedeviling has legs. While evil is readily blamed on others—Mao/Stalin/Hitler, Osama bin Laden, ISIS, Adam Lanza—it is also dispensed, in house, on and by Christians worldwide. Often it’s self-centered on one’s failures. Think of the hell Mother Theresa endured, believing God had abandoned her, a spiritual dryness of crushing sorrow, if we believe her letters. So, too, with the Pope and the atonement of his office. Despite his perch, he must call himself a hopeless sinner and spend much of his day begging for forgiveness or doing good deeds, which he hopes will absolve some of the stain. It’s the mission of this stain to spread, no matter what. The devout Christian insists the impious Christian be ever chastened by the Nazarene’s death. Isn’t that the reason for the crucifix necklace? Such pain inflicted on Christ is re-inflicted on Christians, mild and harsh forms of self-flagellation, as acts of deserved punishment.
One element of that personal deserving, which we seldom talk about, is Christian martyrdom. True, Christians have not embraced suicide bombing as Jihadists have. But many accept martyrdom, when necessary, as one of life’s final choices: to die for the (religious) cause. How else do we understand the deaths of Christ and his disciples and Catholic saints and the millions dead in the Crusades and every other war that has an Abrahamic God on its side? That belief which holds their deaths will not have been in vain.
Not dying in vain has meaning for a nation bent on, bent by, assassination—killing our political and moral leaders. Assassins and their targets are celebrated in death. I wonder whether such bulleted martyrdom isn’t based on the crucifixion’s high profile in our culture. How easily the missionary tack of Christianity finds a companion with political causes. Again, the killer and the victim get equal press. Acting on failed ideologies, assassins (James Earl Ray) sometimes kill the best among us (Martin Luther King Jr.) so that the rest of us feel soiled and guilty and complicit by the deed. Graphically killing Jesus at the movies is no different and may give to the sickest among us the idea that assassination/crucifixion is the best of the worst options available.
The research for this essay is by far the most disturbing I’ve ever done. Watching these Jesus-snuff films acidifies the gut more than the gut can tolerate. I can only conclude that humankind has a sadistic streak as robust as the compassionate traits I believe we also share—unconditional love, planetary stewardship, and social justice. If the reenactment of Christ’s death proves anything, it’s that by playing the tape over and over again, we sentence ourselves (at least, Christians do) to never moving on from its indignity. Why shouldn’t we move on? Why shouldn’t we call a halt? If we can attack religious terrorists in other countries, why isn’t it possible to call out the Jesus-killing mavens among us who bring similar, albeit psychological, terror on the populace? I think these films show us that Christianity justifies its origin solely on the abject suffering of one individual against the altruism of many communities. I have no hope for the latter’s ascension, for a new myth. In fact, I sense because of the power of cinema we are more indelibly stained and cursed by the crucifixion than ever.