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The International Writers Magazine
James Campion's REALITY CHECK

Art Imitates Religion
Film Art, Anti Semitism and Gospel Lore
James Campion

Editor’s Note: The following is part two of a two-part series on the social impact of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of The Christ"

Plus Readers Letters March 22nd 2004

Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" is not a film about Jesus. It is also not a film about history or figures that move through history affecting humanity and the events of history.

It is a film about Christianity. More to the point, it is a clumsily packaged Hollywood depiction of 1,500 years of Catholicism. It is religious propaganda. And I do not use the term pejoratively. Every piece of art with a point of view is more or less propaganda, but let’s call a spade a spade: If Gibson, a devout traditionalist Catholic set forth to espouse his faith and depict the center of his own passion; mission accomplished. But this movie, like Christianity, has nothing to do with any Jesus of Nazareth.

Let me put it this way; "Passion" is not unlike Oliver Stone’s "JFK". Not too much JFK in there, unless we see his head coming apart on his wife’s lap. No PT-109, no Harvard, no senator, no president, or Bay of Pigs, or Cuban Missile Crisis or Marilyn Monroe. His head coming apart. Over and over and over. "JFK" is about assassination theories.

"Passion" is about the Christian obsession with sacrificial blood ritual.

Watching this film took me back to the days of sitting in church as a kid and expecting to see or hear anything about Jesus underneath all the ritualistic dogma. It’s damned frustrating, and hard to argue that the context of which has inspired horror shows like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. But it also doesn’t mean it cannot be revisited as art either. Although, for me, it would have been more compelling had it not been more of the same damn thing.

Beyond the ultra-Hollywood violence - jacked up a notch for the video game generation - we get the usual stuff here. Christ dying for our sins. He comes. He dies. End of story. No back-story. No politics. No spirituality. No philosophy. No revolution. No mission. No life affirming usably enlightened theories about embracing empathy and discovering divinity. Suffering. Death. Good drama. Big box office, but no Jesus. Once again, we get lifeless puppet characters playing their parts in a suicide pact with God, sufficiently answering the question, "Who killed Jesus Christ?" Because when viewed through the lens of Biblical faith - replete with the Lord killing innocents all over the place - and all the evidence in Gibson’s film, the verdict is clear: God killed Christ. Or, more to the point of Gibson’s way of thinking, we forced God to kill him. Kind of like the Jewish authorities forcing Pontius Pilate to kill Christ. (place plaintive sigh here)

Admittedly, the thing is aptly named. After all it is "The Passion of the Christ", although I would have preferred, "Jesus Gets it for Opening His Big Mouth", or "This is What Happens When One Love’s One’s Enemies". But it’s hard to argue that the very essence of the gospel’s enlightened Nazarene, a charismatic healer exalted by an inspiring philosophy leading a penetratingly gorgeous spiritual movement is sucked right out. In its stead we have a pawn for sadomasochistic mayhem; what I like to call the Euro-Christ.
But even two millennium of Christian rhetoric has yet to erase the impact of the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, from the Council of Nicea to "Godspell". Yet this movie manages to do it. I didn’t think it was possible, but Mel Gibson actually succeeds in portraying a completely empty depiction of Jesus Christ.
Not that actor, James Caviezel doesn’t capture the Catholic Christ pretty well; a vessel for torture and death set up as humanity’s sacrificial lamb by the sadistic Lord God of the Israelites. He portrays a great punching dummy and the make-up people did a bang-up job. Lots of pain, but again, no Jesus. Lots of blood and suffering and reams of Catechism, but no Jesus.

So, in a sense, "Passion" is the perfect Christian art, an animated version of Renaissance paintings, (Gibson claims he endeavored to recreate Caravaggio’s gruesome images) but not particularly good art at that; effective, in that it has caused a stir like most viable art, but poor in the literal sense. The way smearing a painting of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung is a sensationalistic artistic statement, but as a gripping, meaningful rendering, it’s lousy.

As a movie, "Passion" is bad. The acting is predictably stiff, the set-design sub par for a Biblical epic, the music surprisingly non-descript and the directing ham-fisted. I usually don’t like religiously themed films, but most give me at least a moment of chills or reflection, an uplifting of heart or a distinct feeling of something. This thing drones from the opening frame and settles into two-dimensional drudgery.

However, I cannot engage in hypocritical blather about "too much violence" here. You want to concentrate compulsively on first century Roman scourging and crucifixion as a means for redemption, fine; but its not going to be pretty. This kind of thing went on all the time in first century Jerusalem. Hundreds upon thousands slaughtered by Roman governors. Take a trip to Golgotha now and see if you don’t feel it. Not unlike, I’m sure, sitting in Auschwitz or Dachau today. But I would forget theological debate and historical content when judging "Passion". It is poor storytelling packaged as a religious tool. Period. This might be great for some, namely fanatical Christians, but as forceful narrative, it is disappointing. And it is certainly no "true depiction" of historical events in any way, shape or form. Gibson picks and chooses his gospel versions like mad scientist forcing a solution. He might have been better off from a theological stand-point to stick with, say, the Gospel of John, which dominates most of the storyline, instead of jumping all over the Biblical map to suit an agenda.

Although, once again, a good framework for religious theory, but hardly accurate. When I heard about this project some two years ago, I was finishing up the manuscript to my last book, a story based on my trip to Israel in search of the historical Jesus. I was excited about the prospect of hearing the gospel characters speak in their original dialect, and the promised "realistic depiction" of the ordinarily sanitized crucifixion scenes of earlier Hollywood efforts. But even I was left feeling I’d just seen the last ten minutes of "Scarface" for two hours. Finally, Gibson nor the actors, or anyone connected to the making of this thing should feel badly. Based on concepts like "Jesus Christ was born to suffer and die for the sins of humankind" and "in suffering there is cleansing" all the participants can be nothing if not merely chess pieces in a fixed game. And that is how the characters in this film go about their business, like marionettes marching in step to a mystical slaying. (place despondent wail here)

It is my fault for expecting to see anything else. The film’s popularity (beyond pure curiosity and pack mentality) speaks to the human condition to be drawn to signature moments that usurp the entirety of an event, or to miss it completely.

We read about a warrior for peace slain in his prime and choose to remember him with a gory effigy of torture and death.

© James Campion March 1st 2004
Passion Part One here

Bigotry & Gay Marriage
James Campion gives a reality check

Due to the overwhelming response to last month’s two part columns on "The Passion of the Christ" (a record for this space - and that’s saying something) we provide ample equal time for as much as we can over the next two weeks to allow for various viewpoints.

I haven't seen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" yet. However, I enjoyed your book, "Trailing Jesus" very much. I also enjoyed your column-Part 1- on the Gibson film.
I don't get the anti-Semitism angle, even when I read about it over and over again in the New York Times and the New York Daily News. I find the discussion of Mel Gibson's father a side show (he's a Billy Carter figure in this story and Gibson is right not to take that piece of bait that the media keep tossing at him), and I believe that the depiction of Gibson's traditional Catholicism as a sect or a cult seems is another ruse. The Latin mass has the approval of Rome, and Mel Gibson and friends are not its only adherents. On Sunday mornings at St. Agnes' Church near Grand Central Station there is standing room only at the Latin Mass. I don't see any other Roman Catholic Churches (except perhaps Minority Churches) in which all the pews are full.
Not too long ago, I saw Al Pacino play King Herod on stage in Oscar Wilde's Salome. He chewed up the scenery with his take on Herod's degeneracy. The New York Times and the anti-defamation groups said nothing. The production was something of a mess, but the press were goo-goo eyed. Richard Strauss put Wilde's words to music and his opera has been staged by the Metropolitan Opera many times. I remember one interesting Met production in which the Herod family wore feathery vulture -like costumes designed by Cecil Beaton and walked amongst iron bars --it had a real S&M look. Again, nothing said about anti-Semitism. Scorcese's Judas (played by Harvey Keitel) in "Last Temptaion of Christ" --sloppy and tattoo-covered--was the type of Jew you'd expect to see in a Spike Lee film. The press adored that movie, and so did Hollywood, nominating Scorcese for a Best Director Oscar.
I know. I'm nit picking here. But I'm not holding a candle to Gibson's critics when it comes to fine combing a person's ideas, beliefs, lifestyle and work.
John's gospel does seem to blame the Jews for a lot. But John says in the same book that salvation is from the Jews. Even Caiphas, always a controversial figure, is credited with having the high priest's gift of prophecy. I'm not a Biblical scholar, but I just don't buy the idea that the gospels are anti-Semitic or give license to anti-Semitism, and I don't believe Gibson had that in mind when he adapted them to the screen. I do believe that the NY Times and the Daily News have an axe to grind, and have convenient, self-serving attitudes about what constitutes freedom of expression and censorship.
Jim O'Neill

Reality Check,
I will say that I was looking forward to this latest version of the supposed life of Jesus. We're cut from a very similar cloth when it comes to deciphering the reality of the honest interpretation of the life of Jesus despite dogma, folklore and popular, conventional wisdom. This is surely the result of being brought up to believe in stain glass depictions and Catholic rhetoric.
We toiled over whether to go a see this film. Being lovers of movies we thought for certain that we would attend a screening but last night our opinion changed. There is a reason: Mel Gibson, less his fame, fortune and previous lifestyle, is very similar to us in so that he is a recovering Catholic. This is a term we have spoke about and one that is accurate for us as I'm sure it is for many.
I believe this film demonstrates one man's journey that brought him back to square one, which is exactly what he was brought up to believe. However, this parable is off base. He obviously enjoyed the booze, the drugs, the girls and the parties that made him act, in reflection for millions to see, as a clearly insane person on Diane Sawyer. But in the end he didn’t, in my opinion, have enough resolve to see Jesus for what he is, or as he was.
I think that Christians by-and-large takes the life of Jesus for granted. But beyond that they miss the point because they try and own his suffering. This is in large part because it is impossible for many to actual identify with his mission and his life all of which has never been properly conveyed in any form of Christianity because they all have developed rules and laws around a man who fought to change rules and laws. Mel Gibson has learned that he can't control his own life so in stead he has cloaked his shortcomings into a film that will certainly set back the spiritual movement. I believe he is trying to set it back to the years before Vatican II.
This is propaganda and a piece of art we may visit one day only to study. I understand why you saw this film and to be honest I'm glad it was you not me. Thanks for your thoughts.
Brad King

Mr. Campion,
Having already read your book, "Trailing Jesus", it is easy to see why you would have a negative viewpoint on Mel Gibson’s depiction of the death of Jesus of Nazareth as an icon of the church and not an historical figure. His first century movement aside, I think the overt political and social rebelliousness of a character so full of life and struggle to engender peace in the world would be antithetical to The Christ as sacrificial lamb theory espoused by modern religious sensibilities. This is well portrayed in your book, and I applaud the bravery of your work and agree that the time to honor this side of "the story" must take a back seat to the teachings and manner with which the historic teacher of ancient times conducted himself for the betterment of his people and whomever chose to be enlightened.
Adam Tedesco

Hey James,
Some day I would like to sit in the summer, debt-free, carefree, and discuss such Catholic issues as transubstantiation, the 'trinity' concept, the Omnipotent vs. 'why then evil in the world', and my particular vein of discomfort with Jesus' philosophy: Cozy, comfy, warm and fuzzy, but, "Who pays for all the altruism?" Certainly not the man in the sheet and worn sandals. Look at one of the subtitles on one of the movie posters: "Dying was his reason for living."

You are my hero.

Readers Responses to February Articles

1: Mr. Campion, Your points on Pete Rose’s mia culpa were unique. ("By Any Other Name" - 1/14) Although he has taken a beating in the press since his gratuitous "coming out" to merely sell books, well documented in your column among others, there is an element of sadness to the whole thing. It is as if he, like so many star athletes, has no sense of real life or the rules therein. It is not dissimilar to your piece awhile back on Kobe Bryant. ("Two-Dimensional Kobe" - 7/30/03). It is this free-ride atmosphere that has lead to the Jason Williams shooting mishap and O.J. Simpson and the like. Things have not changed with the "Big Man On Campus" syndrome. I see it too much in my own community right now. Have talent, will travel outside the bounds of the law.
Allison Miles
2: JC,
You are the only columnist I ever read who could find a use for the word "jackaknapes" in your writing.
Reading your stuff is like watching Olivier in some old Shakespeare play.
Fuck Rose.
Al Q
3: JC -
You're just pissed you can't vote on whether Rose gets in or not. You'd vote him in if you could, then write about the balls it takes for a "sports columnist" to ignore the facts and focus on the game.
Get real Campion. Take a stand. Stop riding the fence.
"Shoeless" Joe Jackson
4: Reality Check,
Please tell me the difference between compromising the integrity of the game in Pete Rose’s case and what Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi or others have done with steroids? Does Bonds and McGuire’s achievements get tossed like Rose’s integrity as a manager? In other words, if Rose can’t manage because - who could trust him to play within the rules again (not something I disagree with) then how can fans or the league trust a Barry Bonds anymore, or, more to my point, trust his records?
5: Mr. Campion,
I enjoyed "Last Word on WMD’s". You are at your best when you call it down the middle. There are certainly circumstances that led to Bush’s decision on invading Iraq which follow form - Daddy’s Revenge, Oil Money-Pit, Excuse for 9/11 - but not many actually thought this guy had NOTHING in the desert. I mean, even the Clinton administration thought that. It is revisionist history to believe otherwise.
I did not support the war, but I also did not waver on it and would not consider it a success or a total failure. It is unfinished business, when considered in a vacuum, but we will all pay for it in blood and money for a long time, as you pointed out over a year ago. Stay on that wall,
6: Thanks,
Your column was real inspirational. I'd shoot myself but I have to wait three days to buy a gun.
7: Hey You Liberal Bastard,
Why are you ignoring the fact that the rest of the world for years thought there were WMDs. Why are you ignoring the fact that they used WMDs? Ask the Kurds. Do you think that these WMDs have a half-life of a few minutes and they miraculously broke down after such a short time frame? Considering they hid their entire air force under the sand, don't you think a large possibility exists that they may have hidden the WMDs? Remember they did have it, so where are they now? Also since Saddam was known to hate the US, and an Al Qeada training camp existed in north Iraq, don't you think that the possibility existed that in the next few years they would work together against the US? Well if it doesn't scare you it scares me.
The policy during the Clinton years was pathetic. The world put an embargo on Iraq for 8 years and allowed Iraq to supposedly trade oil for food. All the money went to Saddam however and 10s of thousands of people died every year because of this. It took Bush to end this ridiculous policy. I guess you prefer 10s of thousands of people dying every year and with the risk of having Al Qaeda having a new country to base all of its training.
Remember it took Bush to go and liberate Afghanistan. Clinton would only send a few cruise missiles because he was afraid to make a decision.
Would you prefer your nephew to grow up in a world where Al Qaeda could operate freely in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq? Well I don't and that’s what it sounds like to me.
If you have a problem with the intelligence, well why don't you give Torricelli and Kerry a call? Didn't they rip apart the intelligence community? Wanting to give all the money to more welfare programs, that don't work. Weren't they the ones that said only intelligence can be gathered from Harvard graduates working in the US and coaching little league? I guess your solution is to kill capitalism, promote socialism and kill the prosperity of this country such that Al Qaeda and crew will no longer envy the US and will no longer go after us.
Roland Cadotte
8: Hey, Every thing is a big waste of time; a billion years from now we will all be particles of dust in space
Mr. Giggles
9: James,
Intellectualizing madness is a tough game. But you’re good at it. I’m not sure this is a positive trait in humans, but a necessary one.
Carrie V.

IOWA Primary
Part One

IOWA Pt 2 - Dogfight
New Hampshire Fallout

Saddam- Not a Nice Man

Why Howard Dean won't be President

Medicare Debacle

California Schemin'
Gay Bishops
Arnietime in CA
Arnie and the GOP
Rush Limbaugh

Anarchy in Bushlandia
Dallas - 40 Years On

Senator Quitter - Ballad of a Gutless Swine
The Legal Persecution of Lenny Bruce
The Birthing of History
In Praise of "Gangs of New York"
The Bill for Rebuilding Iraq
Dan Bern
James Campion talks to thsongwriter
James Campion On 'The War in Truth'
Bear Hunt Madness
James Campion on killing bears

Homeland Security Shuffle
James Campion
TitleTown USA
James on Sports

Mid-Term Madness

Kobe Bryant
Life in the Trenches
All Hail Ann Coulter: Champion of the Dumb

Victory Mandate
ISRAEL - Blinded by the light?

Elton Brand

Feedback to James Campion articles

Battleline America
ABC News
Dick Cheyney
Pete Rose 14 Years Too Late

Parenting in a predatory world
Blamegame - The FB! knew
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God On my Left

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September 02
'Going back to the USSR'

The Toys of Summer
The 2002 Baseball Season

Standoff in Washington
All Together Now - Recession

'You know what the Axis of Evil is?
Money. Money. Money.'

The Road Map To Peace

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