Saturday, February 28, 2004

Paula Fredriksen article on The Passion of the Christ

Paula Fredriksen has been involved with the controversy over this film from the beginning -- I have mentioned her article Mad Mel here before. Now, after having seen the film, Fredriksen has gathered her thoughts, again in New Republic Online:

Pain Principle
by Paula Fredriksen

I think the article is subscription-only, but you can get a free trial subscription. Some of the article goes over the controversy over the "ad hoc committee" and the script. Although I have commented recently that the allegations of theft should not be made in the absence of a sustained case or an answer to Fredriksen's post, there is still one grey area here. I hadn't noticed it so clearly in the previous article, but there is a question here. How did Fisher get his copy of the script? Fredriksen only talks about his having "received" it and does not explain where it came from:
Later that spring, Gene Fisher, interfaith officer for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) contacted Icon, Gibson's production company, about having the movie's script reviewed by an ad hoc committee of scholars. Gibson was trumpeting the fidelity, historical and scriptural, of his film, and Fisher was offering him some free--and confidential--feedback. Fisher and Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) assembled an ecumenical group of professors, which I was invited to join. Fisher informed William Fulco (the person who had translated the script into Aramaic and Latin and our main contact on the Icon side) on April 17 that he had received a copy of the script; on April 24, Fisher and Gibson spoke. Icon received our report in early May.
Perhaps we will never know. The rest of Fredriksen's review deals with Gibson's amazing achievement in marketing (what she sees as) a medieval Catholic vision of Christianity to many Protestants; and there is some reflection on the relationship of the film to the Gospels:
. . . . . The Christ that Gibson is selling is not the Christ of the first-century scriptures, though elements of his story are drawn from them. The first-century Christ, presented primarily in the four gospels, redeemed not through his suffering, but through his death and resurrection, which promised his return. The evangelists mediated historical traditions about Jesus' life and teachings, interpreting these through their own understanding of Jewish scriptures. Their meditations on ancient sacred texts especially shaped their presentations of the edges of Jesus' life--his birth and his death. The many narrative details of the gospels' passion stories deliberately echo various verses from the prophets and the psalms. Their point: that Jesus died, and was raised, according to the Scriptures. The matching of event to ancient prophecy established, for the evangelists and for their communities, the authority of their stories.

Gibson missed the evangelists' point. His opening screen flashes a verse from Isaiah 53: "He was wounded for our transgressions; by his stripes we are healed." What served as prophetic authorization for the gospels' proclamation, Gibson takes as an invitation to explore, in lurid and lingering detail, how a human body would look if pulped, pummeled, and flayed. Part of this orientation comes from the Catholicism of his childhood. Part of it, as he has repeatedly claimed, comes from the visions of an early nineteenth-century stigmatic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. (Knowing what my catechism classes were like in twentieth-century Rhode Island, I can only imagine what hers were like in eighteenth-century Westphalia.) Part of it, of course, is just Gibson's favorite visual vernacular, on display from Mad Max through Braveheart and beyond.

Thus Gibson's Christ, a theological figure whose origins lie in late medieval Europe, saves not through dying so much as through endless, unspeakable, unbearable suffering. That's the core of Gibson's movie. The rest is window-dressing. The costuming, like the music, is lushly theatrical. The bad guys wear black, their Jewishness coded by prayer shawls, big noses, and bad teeth. The Jewish soldiers who form the arresting party look like visiting Romulan dignitaries, or extras from the chorus of Nabucco. The faces of the two Marys are framed by nun-like veils. (I half expected Monica Belucci to whip out a rosary along the Stations of the Cross.) And Gibson's much-touted use of ancient languages, like the high quality of his celluloid gore, was a nod to verisimilitude, not real history. Pilate chatted in Aramaic; Jesus (at this point in the movie, I confess, I groaned aloud) in perfect Church Latin . . . . .

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