A specter has descended on American culture, and it’s been transforming everything around us. The transformation has taken some time, it’s evolved slowly, cautiously—but it’s there nonetheless. American culture, its politics, its artistic products, and its values have been regressing, sometimes stagnating, rotting. No longer are mouths agape when American politicians evoke the name of God in their speeches or when the most insipid and puerile television shows take millions by storm. It’s surely no blinding insight to say that, as a culture, we have surrendered most forms of rational reflection to the insatiable appetite for immediate experience; for the need to feel, to intuit, rather than to think, to critique.
Although the clamor that was unleashed around Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ has faded to little more than a murmur, its release on DVD is actually a more significant event than its national release in theaters seven months ago, its reach extending as far as the mind can conceive into the future. The very public nature of the movie theater as an institution thrusts controversial films into the spotlight, forcing public debate—one need only recall the outcries over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But also, each time controversy is stirred up it gives us brief glimpses into something deeper and more sinister about American culture and its reorientation toward its present conservatism and provincialism.
In this sense, Gibson’s Passion needs to be seen in a broader light than religious politics. Ultimately, whether or not it is anti-Semitic or whether its interpretation of the Gospels is faithful or accurate is simply irrelevant. What is important is to see that it seemed to satisfy a deep need among so many Americans and that this need itself is what should be our concern.
The Law of the Heart
Gibson’s Passion is a film that evinces a distinctly American brand of religious fundamentalism. Its emphasis on experience over moral values and ideas is particularly disturbing. Religious ideas, moral teachings, and their ethical implications are wholly absent. The viewer is not presented with ethical insight—the very thing that actually swelled the ranks of Christianity for centuries on end—but with a documentary of physical torment scarcely equaled even in our modern age of extreme Hollywood. One thinks the various ways that Jesus as a symbol has been used in Western culture, from the “Grand Inquisitor” sequence in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to Pasolini’s “La Ricotta”—his segment in the larger RoGoPaG that draws parallels between Jesus’ death on the cross and that of a poor, starving film extra—or Kazantzakis’s complex and deeply human figure, and we can see how Gibson’s Jesus is so terribly uninteresting and one dimensional but at the same time, and for so many, so compelling.
So how to explain the swaths of sobbing multitudes in theaters around the country? Gibson’s film ensnares its viewer, casting a sensory net from which one cannot escape. In its endless gore, the verisimilitude of Christ’s crucifixion is not done for the sake of moral teaching or the ethical exposition of the Gospels—that is, for the sake of transmitting religious ideas and values. The purpose of the film is not education, and certainly not the Brechtian notion of awakening the viewer to thought and reflection. It is meant to exploit emotion, and even at its most maudlin, it is difficult to take seriously. And as it unfolds, you are taken with the reality that the film heralds a return to a feudalistic conception of religion: to move the individual to a state ripe for obedience.
One of the most important aspects of modernity is the reformation of religious practice and thought, the insight that religion interacts with reason, that its ethical teachings can find a rational basis in the world and that religious principles can be translated into human conduct through interpretation. The antimodern reaction to this has always been religious fundamentalism: the emphasis on emotional ecstasy and the embracing of the irrational. What The Passion seeks to do is not enlighten or help to develop the moral character of its viewers; rather, it seeks emotional extortion and manipulation and the replacement of thought with feeling, of reflection with blind faith. This is its central message, and what is so staggering about the reality of Gibson’s film is not that it was made in the first place but that its success has been so triumphant, that so many responded to its medieval call.
In fact, it is hard to argue that this is a film that is actually concerned with religion at all. Exhibiting what the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel in his Phenomenology called the “law of the heart,” or the lapse of an entire culture into irrationalism and romanticism, The Passion created thousands of weeping audiences. What The Passion exemplifies is not simply a return to religion in American public and psychic life—something that itself is unquestionably on the rise—but even more a slide toward the irrational and the dogmatic.
Emotional manipulation in religious art is nothing new, but it is the purpose of that art that is important to emphasize. Whereas works such as Michelangelo’s Pietà were meant to evoke emotional response from the viewer, the deeper intention was to highlight a universal humanism, something common to all rational beings. This was the importance of religious art in the centuries after the Renaissance and the Reformation: to integrate within the viewer emotion, ethical reflection, and reason. It was the Dark Ages that had imprisoned human subjectivity in rapture and religious adulation; Gibson’s Passion knows its sources well.
Golgotha or Jerusalem?
But what are the reasons for this phenomenon? All the criticisms of Gibson’s film pointed fingers at Gibson himself. Newspapers and TV news shows went after Gibson the man, his faith, and his intentions. Questions of his anti-Semitism were rampant, and his father’s lunacy on the topic did little to quell the charge. Diane Sawyer probed the dimensions of his neofeudalistic ideas about religion and society; magazines and newspapers aplenty devoted space to Gibson’s struggles with drug addiction and the personal crisis of faith that led to his conversion; and the Pope himself—undoubtedly with jittery finger-pointing to the heavens in a rapturous moment of spiritual sycophancy—had supposedly muttered: “It is as it was.”
But none of this really means anything. The backlash against a liberal, tolerant, secular culture and society has not just begun; rather, it has simply begun to show its power, its pervasiveness, its ability to reorient the course of everyday life and the moral fabric of American society. With the economic and political ascendancy of the South in the early 1970s, the “southernization” of American politics, economics, and culture was officially under way. The flow of capital (and jobs) away from the old industrial centers of the North and the Northeast resulted in the rise of a southern and southwestern sunbelt. The more traditional, folksy ways of southern culture began to take on a new hegemony. With an emphasis on the paradoxical unity of libertarian individualism in economics on the one hand and collectivist, traditional religious values on the other, the bedrock for new social policies and a new, conservative cultural tenor was being put firmly into place. What John Kennedy Toole had openly ridiculed as a backward culture mired in its own traditionalism and provincialism in his novel A Confederacy of Dunces has become over the past decade and a half the seat of considerable political and cultural influence.
Gibson’s Passion did not create this phenomenon, but as a film, as a cultural document, it bathed it in light, rendering it visible in all of its hideousness. Here was a film that united what throughout the history of Christianity were previously ununitable: Protestants of all stripes, Catholics, Baptists, born-again Christians, evangelicals—the entire flock had gathered, and their sheer numbers constituted a wake-up call for the guardians of liberal secularism. Although it is painful to admit, the battle between enlightenment and superstition has taken a decided turn for the worse. The aim of progressive religious thought was always to ennoble human beings and create a society worthy of our supposedly divine status (one thinks of Martin Luther King, Jr. in this regard). It sought to resurrect the greatness of Jerusalem, not glorify the horrors of Golgotha. For Gibson and for so many others as well, this project has been reversed.
If a culture war is at hand, then its battle lines need to be seen in geographic terms. Looking at a color-coded map of ticket sales for The Passion is stunning—not in the way that its heaviest sales were mainly in nonurban and southern counties (with the exception of New York City), which is hardly surprising, but in the way that this map correlates with the voting map for the 2000 presidential election. In both cases, we see a division between cities, urban areas, and metropolitan centers and rural and suburban ones. The culture war that is beginning is not simply one of ideology—it is also one of political geography. The divide between the cities and their liberal, cosmopolitan character and the suburban and rural regions of the country and their contempt for everything the cities represent is the very stuff of this conflict.
Thomas Jefferson once keenly pointed out that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” The reactionary character of religion is the norm rather than the exception throughout history. The great religious turn in American culture has meant nothing less than the onset of blindness—blindness to the progressive, creative activity of human beings and their inherent ability to shape the conditions of their own life and hence their own freedom. A culture that is alienated from these human capacities returns to a state of servitude—mental, cultural and, perhaps in the end, political as well. The Enlightenment values upon which American society, politics, and culture were founded have slowly eroded, eclipsed by the alienation of our culture from rational engagement. Gibson’s Passion is testament to this reality, and the fact that its DVD release will make this that much easier is all the more disturbing.
ContributorMichael J. Thompson
Michael J. Thompson is the founder and editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture (www.logosjournal.com) and is assistant professor of political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey.