Wednesday, November 24, 2004

SBL Passion of the Christ session (1)

So far my narrative has reached Sunday late afternoon. After the Mark session, I went to the first of two sessions I had marked with asterisks on my programme, the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media, combined with the Johannine Literature unit. The theme was The Gospel of John film and The Passion of the Christ. It was a really mixed bag, some of it brilliant, some of it infuriating, all of it engaging. Bernard Brandon Scott gave a so-so general review of The Gospel of John, then Jo-Ann Brant gave a superb paper on the camera as character in The Gospel of John, illustrated with stills from the film. The paper looked at the way in which the camera's perspective often subverts the narrator's perspective to which the film is bound because of its mandate to feature the entire text of John.

Then the transition was made to The Passion of the Christ with an interesting paper about the languages in the film by a character whose name I have forgotten. His essential thesis, if I understood it correctly, was that the Aramaic / Hebrew mix made good sense historically in that first century Jews in Galilee and Judea might well have spoken in Aramaic laced with Hebrew. Unfortunately, the speaker -- who talked rather like Reverend Lovejoy in The Simpsons -- did not speak into the microphone and was difficult to hear. This is one of my pet peeves. If there is a microphone on the podium, then use it. Don't speak 2 feet away from it in a quiet voice. Session chairs too need to be aware of this. Check to see if your audience can actually hear the paper. Look for clues, like people cupping their hands to
their ears, straining to hear or coming forward and standing next to the loud speaker to try to pick it up -- all of these things should have provided clues. Happily, though, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, in the session in question, asked from the audience that the speakers speak into the microphone -- and the rest of the session was much better.

William Sanger Campbell was next up and he offered a disappointing review of The Passion of the Christ, which largely repeated the now familiar polemic and caricature of the film, including standard misrepresentations (e.g. Satan is seen moving with the Jewish leaders -- he is not) and oversimplifications. The use of Emmerich in this paper was particularly disappointing. Campbell spent 5-10 minutes summarizing the contents of Emmerich's Dolorous Passion, noted how much of the book appears in the film, and made the illegitimate inference that this makes the film anti-Semitic. There was little actual analysis about the way in which elements from the book were adapted in the film and I am left wondering once again whether such an approach would be tolerated in Gospel criticism (A paper on Matthew's use of Isaiah, say, would be thought naive in the extreme if all it did was to explicate the contents of Isaiah, to note that Matthew used Isaiah, and infer that Matthew's views were identical to Isaiah's).

After those four papers, there was then what was called a "panel discussion" but which was in fact several more people giving their reactions to either of the films in turn. Charles Hedrick, Alan Segal and Caroline Osiek were all very interesting on their roles as consultants on The Gospel of John film. I was particularly pleased to hear from Segal that the initial screenplay for The Gospel of Mark is ready and that they are hopeful that it will go into production. Another interesting comment related to the costuming of Mary Magdalene, depicted as a prostitute in spite of the fact that the Woman Taken in Adultery was not identified with her. Apparently the costuming for Mary Magdalene was done after the scholars' work on the screenplay had been done, and they were disappointed to discover that that was how she had been costumed. The scholars also discussed how they had been persuaded to use the Good News translation by having scenes mocked up in both the NIV and the Good News translation, and seeing that the Good News worked better. They expressed disappointment over some elements that that choice constrained, e.g. "miracle" for "sign". And they spoke of their success in getting Jesus' address to Mary in the Wedding at Cana changed.

The last two speakers were Amy-Jill Levine and Paula Fredriksen, each of whom did not so much argue that The Passion of the Christ was appalling, anti-Jewish and so on, as take it for granted and then discuss what could be done about this kind of thing in the future. Paula Fredriksen's contribution was in fact a mini-paper and went through the Contra Judaeos tradition in art.

I thought the session as a whole was too ambitious and should really have been split up into at least two sessions. There were too many speakers and there was no room for the "panel discussion" advertised, i.e. none of the participants got the chance to interact with one another. And there was certainly no time left for contributions from the floor. That was particularly disappointing given the controversial nature of several of the contributions, and the single view (a very disparaging one) expressed by almsot all the participants on The Passion of the Christ.

I felt that one issue of substance was ignored and that was the question of the relative artistic merits of the two films. For all the merits of The Gospel of John (e.g. Cusick's depiction of the Johannine Jesus), there is a gulf between this film and The Passion of Christ if one is asking about artistic quality. One is just not comparing like with like.

I will turn next to the evening session on The Passion of the Christ, billed as an interview with the writers of the film, and a real treat.

1 comment:

Christopher Shell said...

Shifting media for a moment - were you aware of the new novel 'Q' by Paul Nigro (River Oak 2004) which speculates on what might happen if Q were really found? (Fiction in more senses than one, of course...)