Thursday, April 07, 2005

Nicola Denzey on The Passion book

I referred earlier to the Review of Biblical Literature latest. One of the new reviews is a fine review of Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ by Nicola Denzey:

Kathleen E. Corley and Robert L. Webb (eds.), Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
Review by Nicola Denzey

I think Denzey pitches this just right. She appreciates that the book would make a helpful contribution in classroom discussions, "It will find its greatest utility in the classroom, where students will find it well-geared toward walking them through thoughtful exegeses of the film" and she speaks of the "provocative contraposition" of Crossan's piece with mine, though her use of the term "dampening" might itself seem to contrast somewhat with the apparent appreciation of the contrast:
Goodacre’'s analysis is all sense and sensibility, although I detect beneath his measured approach a rather stern rebuke of those scholars pulled into the film’s media-hyped fray. Placed after Crossan'’s impassioned but beautifully written invective against the film and its theology, reading the two essays together is rather a dampening experience. Crossan’'s fiery, feisty prose provokes— very intentionally— from its title (“"Hymn to a Savage God”") to its closing words: “"If I accepted, as I do not, this film’svision of a savage God, I hope I would have the courage to follow Mrs. Job’s advice, ‘Curse God, and die’"” (27). A few pages later Goodacre’'s “"The Power of the Passion: Reacting and Over-reacting to Gibson'’s Artistic Vision”" thoroughly trounces Crossan’'s “polemical” approach.
Though overall appreciative, Denzey makes some fine points by way of criticism of this book, in particular the following:
Gibson'’s film is, at its most honest, a meditation on and expression of faith, a devotional piece. But our contemporary Western obsession with historical accuracy somehow threatens to delegitimize devotional studies of the gospel, to the point where both Gibson and the academy are placed on the defensive. Accordingly, what this book lacks— and lacks glaringly —is any engagement with the conditions and circumstances that produced The Passion of the Christ not as a piece of pseudo-history but as one man’'s interpretation of what is, in his life, at base most meaningful.
That's an astute point. I think that in the end one of my problems with the book was the focus on the alleged "claims of history" of its subtitle. It is actually surprisingly difficult to find claims of history in publicity for The Passion of the Christ, and there is certainly no more in relation tot his film than there has been in relation to other Jesus films. After a while, the undue concern with "claims of history" becomes an obsession of the book's contributors rather than of the filmmakers.

I wanted to draw attention to this review not just (to be honest) because I was involved with it, but because it is tough to write a review of a collection of essays, but Denzey has done a fine job -- she has read the book carefully, appreciates its strengths and has some useful critique.

Update (Tuesday, 23.47): Bob Webb, co-author of the book discussed here, emails:
I also think that Nicola Denzey's review was well done. I think she "got" the book. Allow me to address the issue of historical accuracy. We were careful in the Introduction to the book to point out that Gibson never made claims of historical accuracy. And I agree you and the Denzey that the film was a devotional/theological piece. We also stated several times that Mel Gibson is free as an artist to portray as he sees fit to accomplish his artistic vision.

Our problems with the issue of history is what other people were claiming for it. In the Introduction we provided two quotations (and we had others we could have used), one from a leading evangelical, and the other from a leading Catholic. They were making claims of historical accuracy. Given the significant impact these prominent leaders could have with their constituencies, the issue needed to be addressed. That is why we wanted to address the issue of history as well. Again, I see no need for Gibson to be historically accurate; he is entirely free as a film-maker in this regard.

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