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Issue 14,  July 20, 2009     —      Wider Screenings, The Jesus Irony

In this issue:   FEATURE: Jon Berghoff, Influencing Others   Sharon Elaine, Affirmations for Career Challenges   Peter Shepherd, The Hierarchy of Needs   Hazel C. Palaché, The Power of Writing   Guy Finley, Choose to Remember the Light   Gabriella Kortsch, Are You in Alignment with the Real You?   Wider Screenings   Events   Reviews   Earlier issues   Submit Article

                                                        with Robert Cettl

The Jesus Irony
Christian/Rationalist Ontology in Two Screen Depictions of Jesus Christ

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There have been films about Jesus Christ since the silent era’s original versions of both Ben-Hur and King of Kings. Casting in these films has often been problematic – Burt Lancaster (an avowed atheist) rejected the lead role in the remake of Ben-Hur (eventually played by Charlton Heston) on the grounds that he did not want to participate in Christian propaganda.  Yet The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Monty Python’s Life of Brian through to The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ have enthralled audiences, giving hope to the faithful and entertaining the non-believer with ontological allegories of human nature, “sinfulness”, divinity, good and evil.  All of these films, with the possible exceptions of the Python crew, endorsed the divinity of Jesus Christ without question, fully accepting of Christian belief – the argument over The Last Temptation of Christ was not about his divinity but the extent to which he retained some vestige of humanity, masculine sexual desire and free will in conflict with what the film eludes to as God’s pre-ordained plan for the salvation of humankind.

To the rationalist, the dilemma is simple – did Jesus Christ have any say in the matter of his destiny?  Could He have said “no” to God’s plan and chosen a life for himself fulfilling at a human rather than divine level?  Did Jesus truly manifest his own destiny or merely acquiesce to one imposed upon him from without?  Consequently, many rationalist film studies of the individual’s capacity to manifest their own destiny involve allegories of Jesus Christ in which He rejects his role as saviour to pursue a life of his own determination, in effect denying God’s plan for a life of his own (including, most problematically to the devout Christian, the embrace of sexual “sin”).  The Last Man on Earth, Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider for instance all feature Christ-like characters rejecting God’s plan but in essence doomed to it – human individuality in conflict with divine pre-ordainment.  Indeed, Jesus figures in rationalist cinematic discourses far from representing the peak of human perfection – the fusion of the human and the divine according to Christian lore – represent the denial of human individuality simply because Jesus had no say in the matter of his pre-ordained cruci-fiction; just as the Virgin Mary – if God’s plan was absolutely and without question destined to be followed through – had no say whatsoever in the matter of Jesus’ conception (arguably thus is the conception of Jesus rape by deity?).  For God’s plan to be supreme, these perfect being have no free will, a fact Christianity has obfuscated in nonsensical doctrines like “the immaculate conception”.

Indeed, the vexed question of Jesus’ supposed divinity (at mythic level, not as truth) and his innate humanity (and corresponding masculine sexuality) have preoccupied filmmakers of no belief, wavering belief and committed belief alike.  Significantly to the Rationalist, as the Christian Jesus is a man of no sin, he is paradoxically not a man at all and therefore of little relevance to humanity except as a token sacrifice.  In the Rationalist view, Jesus only has relevance for his human nature, specifically his human inclination to “sin”, something denied outright by Christian orthodoxy.  The first rallying point thus for the Christian community to protest the burgeoning Rationalist/transgressive representation of Jesus on film (permissible – unlike representations of the Prophet Mohammad on film, strictly forbidden in Islam) came in the late 1920s when Spaniard surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel made L’Age D’Or in which Jesus is seen drunkenly emerging from a brothel (presumably after having had intercourse with Mary Magdalene). Catholics protested the film and the fascist Spanish authority banned it.  The ban enhanced the surrealists’ reputation and the incipient art movement became one of the C20th’s most significant contributions to art / literary / film history, eclipsed only by the growth of Existentialist philosophy in the 1950s (influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement “God is dead”) and the development of post-modernism towards the end of the century.  The sexualized Jesus was a humanized Jesus and blasphemy was the assertion of human nature against God’s Laws, seen as hypocritical in their disavowal of the psycho-sexual complexities of human nature (specifically Jesus’ human masculinity).

What was significant about the early Church pressure to censor “radical” images of Jesus Christ on film was the determination of “blasphemy”.  The advance of secular humanism has ensured that for most civilized countries “blasphemy” is no justification for censorship, although technically it remains on the law books in such Christian-led countries as Ireland and Australia (where such outspoken Christian leaders as Fred Nile petition in the name of “Christian Democracy” for mandatory internet censorship as authoritarian as that of the Chinese Communist Party while opposing the nation’s adoption of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing free speech in the manner of the US Constitution).  “Blasphemy” to the Christian is an offence once punishable by death – an affront to God.  But, by definition, blasphemous expression in rationalist film is one of self-actualization – inherently transgressive, it shows the individual asserting their humanity, their free will, their moral relativism and their ability to manifest their own destiny in defiance of a God-given plan which in its absolutism denies human complexity and human free will.  Today, although resisted with equal vehemence by moral charlatans who would re-impose the death penalty for blasphemy and heresy if they had the power (all sanctioned by God of course), “blasphemy” has emerged as the metaphor of choice in rationalist-atheist-humanist discourses concerning the inter-relationship between divinity and humanity in the screen representation of Jesus Christ.

That of course brings us to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.  Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic whose early film Mean Streets was drenched in Catholic fear, worked from a script by Paul Schrader (himself raised in a strict Calvinist household which did not allow him to watch film as it was of the devil’s party) adapting the novel by Nikos Kazantsakis.  Where every previous American Film depiction of Jesus had been reverential, Scorsese and Schrader took a vastly different approach.  The supposed divinity of Jesus Christ was not the film’s central issue – what preoccupied the filmmakers was the conception of Jesus’ humanity.  For the Rationalist, in complete opposition to the Christian, if Jesus was to be relevant as a teacher of any significance in human history it is his humanity rather than his divinity which is central.  Thus, the character of Jesus in Scorsese’s film (played by Willem Dafoe) is seen conflicted, torn between his intimation of the Divine (in the form of auditory and visual hallucinations – the literal talking snake of the Bible – more akin to psychotic dysfunction than spiritual destiny) and his all-too-human sexual urges.  What the Christians considered blasphemous was the film’s acknowledgement of Jesus’ humanity: Jesus here, in the film’s most controversial scene, rejects his role as the Messiah to step down off the cross and live out what is his human rather than divine ambition.  Jesus, as a man in charge of his own destiny, chooses to reject God’s Law to have a wife (Mary Magdalene) and raise a family.

This humanist re-vision of Jesus as a man is complete when, barely glimpsed but strongly implied, he has sex with Mary Magdalene as a normal man making love with his wife.  The Christians considered this the height of blasphemy and it is intriguing to examine the moral implications behind this.  Firstly, the humanist Jesus in rejecting the Divinity of the Cross asserts what is an essential humanist principle – the exercise of free will.  Jesus here chooses to manifest a destiny in defiance of God: it is a truly human self-assertion.  Although this Jesus reconciles his humanity with God’s plan after all, the humanist core of the message is central – for Jesus to have meaning he must have human urges and the free will to choose how to manifest his destiny.  For Scorsese and Schrader, the weakness in reverential depictions of a Jesus figure in traditional Hollywood narratives is precisely this lack of free will – Jesus as the Son of God has no choice in the matter of his destiny.  Jesus is the one spiritual teacher who, if one accepts his divinity, has no individual free will, nor any ability to manifest a destiny for himself as an individual human being: he is completely subservient to “God’s will” to the point of the loss of his human individuality.  Jesus is a powerless scapegoat in the Christian amalgam: far from a saviour, he is a pathetic victim whose death has been pre-ordained.  Without any free will nor human urges, the Christian vision of Jesus far from perfecting humankind of its sinful weakness presents a victim of circumstance powerless to challenge what fate has in store for him and assert his humanity.  Such a Jesus, to Scorsese and Schrader, has no relevance whatsoever to the complexities of human nature: devoid of his own free will, Jesus Christ is irrelevant as an example to humanity, a myth.

Scorsese and Schrader in presenting a Jesus who is aware of both his humanity and his divinity and capable of making a choice to either accept or reject God’s will expose the fundamental humanist flaw in the Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity – the “saviour” has no free will and is thus of no relevance as a leader or teacher to a humanity in which individual free will is an inviolable freedom and means of self-definition.  Indeed, it is only through following the example of the supposedly divine Jesus Christ that Christians can both claim ideological freedom and justify a censorship regime that is the complete antithesis of the human freedom of expression.  In that way, Christianity rather than a moral solution is a paradox which as a religion is fundamentally hypocritical in its condemnation of an exploratory celebration of essential humanist free will as “blasphemous”.  “Blasphemy” is an absolutist moral imposition on innate human self-expression, essential in the manifestation of an individual destiny in which the self and not God is supreme.  If The Last Temptation of Christ is blasphemous the only conclusion is that the Christian view of a divine Jesus Christ is irrelevant as a human being and hence a mythic figure of little consequence in what such Church-banned books as Charles Haanel’s The Master Key System and its introduction to what is now termed the “Law of Attraction” determine as the inviolable opportunity of every human being to create their own destiny.  A Jesus without a choice as to whether to accept or reject the cross has no significance to humanity – as God supposedly sent his only begotten son, his mission was predetermined and the Son had no say in the matter.

Indeed, the absolutist rhetoric of Christian dogma in historically repressing and punishing any individual self-expression and self-actualization except that condoned by the Church in accordance with God’s Law therefore robs the individual of any free choice in the matter.  The Christian religion in Rationalist cinema is the enemy of humanity in its subordination of humanity to God’s Will and its equation of the complexities of human nature with a “sinfulness” in need of Divine forgiveness: an absurdity the Rationalist rejects as having any philosophical truth.  Christianity thus, as a religion, is fundamentally opposed to the principle of individual self-determination which runs through the Law of Attraction as described in such popular bestsellers as The Secret.  Which now brings us to the acceptable Christian representation of Jesus Christ: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  This is a film which Christians want shown to their children (just as, with typical Christian hypocrisy, they would ban the humanist vision of Jesus having free will in The Last Temptation of Christ from being shown to adults): in Australia it was rated as suitable only for people over 15 years of age and was greeted by a petition to lower the classification so as to permit children as young as 12 to see it.

Gibson is also, like Scorsese, a Catholic.  However, far from a lapsed Catholic, Gibson belongs to a particular sect which holds that the last valid Pope was Pious XII, the Pope who acquiesced with Hitler in the Second World War to ensure that as long as the Church supported Der Fuhrer Catholicism would be the official religion of Third Reich Germany.  The anti-humanist capitulation of Catholicism to Nazism is thus something Gibson – once booked for drunk driving and screaming anti-Semitic profanities – endorses as the last expression of a valid Catholicism.  With the current Pope Benedict a former member of the Hitler Youth who ordered his Bishops to cover up a massive child sex abuse scandal until the statute of limitations had run out and the Vatican would not have to pay compensation (while hypocritically condemning extreme wealth as a mortal sin mind you), one cannot help but wonder just how perverted a denial of humanity Catholicism has become.  Thus, it is no surprise that The Passion of the Christ restores the reverence towards Jesus as a holy figure beyond humanity.  As this Jesus has no humanity, no free will at all in his pre-ordained destiny, his suffering and sacrifice ring hollow.  Beyond sin, Jesus has no choice and the film instead glorifies the horrendous suffering of an irrelevant, mindless scapegoat who, according to the humanist-rationalist tradition in cinema, having no free will in no way can represent humanity.

Yet, the Jesus Gibson presents as admirable, and a conception of Jesus that is endorsed by Christians throughout the world, is a cipher.  Gibson accepts without question the supremacy of God’s Law.  The fulfilment of prophecy in the Messianic gibberish surrounding Christ’s cruci-fiction robs Gibson’s Jesus of any free will.  Also beyond sin, this Jesus has no human weakness, no masculine sexual desire and no comprehension of himself as an individual capable of making his own choices.  Gibson celebrates a Jesus who is merely a vehicle of the Lord.  His human nature does not concern Gibson, only his divinity.  Yet, it is in the expression of divine will in Christ’s suffering that Gibson makes what is an anti-humanist statement.  Where Scorsese and Schrader sought to emphasize Christ’s humanity, Gibson chooses to emphasize his physical suffering.  For some 20 minutes, Jesus is whipped and scourged by the Roman soldiers, shown in explicit, nauseating details: ripped flesh, slow-motion flying blood.  Indeed, the “passion” of the Christ here is, to a Rationalist believer in an individual’s ability to manifest their own destiny, mindless suffering.  Here, Gibson’s Jesus is a fraud – with no humanity, no choice, no free will, the suffering of Jesus is that of a victim and its glorification by Gibson is nothing less than the violent suppression and exploitation of the human body in order to validate the lack of human free will in God’s universe.

Just as Jesus symbolically represents a humanity forgiven for its sins, for Gibson Jesus himself is a man of no sin taking the responsibility for the sinner upon himself (but, as he himself is free of sin, this is not by informed choice but by acquiescence to a higher power).  The suffering of Jesus as depicted in The Passion of the Christ is a vindication of victim-hood and scape-goatery.  It validates an image of a pure “man” completely devoid of masculine humanity and therefore irrelevant as anything except a symbol for a bankrupt Christian ideology favouring divinity over the manifestation of individual human destiny.  Gibson’s Jesus is a powerless figure swept up by God’s plan, significant only for his suffering, his “passion”.  As Jesus thus acquiesces, his “passion” is inherently masochistic: in taking up his suffering to save humanity, Jesus absolves the individual of responsibility for their own actions in the true tradition of the scapegoat.  There is no humanity whatsoever in this conception of Jesus and furthermore, Jesus’ inherent masochism in accepting such physical suffering (a “passion” seen perversely as something holier and more worthy than a sinful Jesus wishing for a wife, sex and family) is rendered so explicitly by Gibson as to become a sado-masochistic spectacle.  Gibson emphasizes the physical ordeal of a powerless saviour of no relevance to humankind and in so doing idealizes suffering and victim-hood as noble – a typically self-defeating Christian ideology.

Christ’s passion is antithetical to human individuality: Gibson intends to show how the sinless son of God (a perfected human) suffered to forgive the rest of humanity their sin. He intends to make the viewer appreciate what Jesus went through to save humanity: the paradox being that this sinless man is by definition hot human at all and thus of no relevance to humanity.  Gibson’s Jesus is a Jesus of Christian myth alone, divorced from any of the complexities of human nature.  Gibson thus stresses as a Christian ideal the sublimation of individual human will (which the Rationalists equate with the indulgence in “sin”) to God.  Humanity here has no independence, no individuality beyond what God wants – the individual is not free at all under this oppressive Christian obfuscation of the complexities of human free will and moral relativism.  Gibson as a Catholic director is left no choice therefore but to vindicate the mindless suffering of an essentially inhuman scapegoat (ironically representing the perfection of humankind as a creation of God) in a sado-masochistic spectacle which, in its reduction of the “divine-human” to the “suffering innocent” perpetuates an aesthetic that can only be described as violent pornography, and homoerotic to boot.  The “passion” of this Christ is the violent exploitation of an individual in celebration of the denial of individual free will.  Presented as entertainment, Gibson’s recreation of Christ’s passion objectifies the male body of Jesus (representative of a human perfection in which individual free will is of no relevance) as a vehicle for pain and suffering in exactly the same way that much hardcore pornography objectifies the female body as an object for sexual penetration.  Gibson’s staged “passion” is structured on the principles of pornographic objectification and thus it is ironic that Christians want children to see it.

In film thus, the Jesus irony is that the depictions of Jesus considered blasphemous by the Church have endeavoured to explore the role of humanity’s relevance to divinity in Jesus as a teacher subject to human frailty whilst the depictions of Jesus considered acceptable by the Christian Church endorse a humanity devoid of free will, individual destiny and the right to self-actualization.  Furthermore, if The Passion of the Christ is truly considered a good Christian film, it validates the divine sacrifice of Jesus in aesthetics which objectify the body of that sacrificial Jesus in terms identical to violent pornography.  Between the blasphemy of The Last Temptation of Christ and the Christian orthodoxy of The Passion of the Christ, the blasphemous endorses human complexity and praises the right to individual self-determination (in the end Jesus chooses to die on the cross after all) while the acceptable negates human complexity as tantamount to sin and praises the sublimation of individual self-determination to the supposedly beneficent will of an omniscient force – an invisible man in the sky as George Carlin would aptly and dismissively describe this Christian God.  In this, The Passion of the Christ is, to the Rationalist, pornographic Christian propaganda in denial of essential humanity: pompous, self-important ideological junk culture.    ###

* * * * *

To Brawl or not to Brawl
(an extract from Robert Cettl’s forthcoming book Australian Film Tales)

Mel Gibson did not go to the audition session for Mad Max for the lead role, but was merely accompanying a friend.  Indeed, Gibson did not think himself in suitable shape for any audition as the night before he had been involved in a party brawl.  Thus, when he attended the audition he looked bandaged, cut-up and bruised.  Nevertheless the casting director was intrigued enough to take his picture.  The picture was shown to the director George Miller who next day called to see Gibson, who was then awarded the title role.  The film and sequel were popular successes and by the time of the third film, Gibson was being groomed for American audiences as Australia’s first genuine “star”.  Thus it was that Gibson found himself cast in The Bounty, a remake of the classic Mutiny on the Bounty.  The 1962 version of the film had starred Australian Chips Rafferty who had passed much of the time on location in Tahiti by getting drunk, returning to his hotel room and howling like a dog.  When in Tahiti some twenty years later, Gibson kept up Rafferty’s noble tradition and after a night of drinking once again got involved in a brawl.  Yet again, his face was bruised.  This time, the filmmakers were distraught and did everything they could to conceal the injuries.     ###

Wider Screenings
columnist Robert Cettl has a B.A (Hons) in Film Study from the Flinders University of South Australia, which included an international scholarship to the University of Southern Illinois in the USA.  He has post-graduate qualifications in Librarianship and Information Management from UniSA.  In addition to popular DVD reviewing, his writing for McFarland (one of the leading American publishers of film non-fiction) has been collected by such as Yale University Library and the British Film Institute.  His forthcoming work for this market (for release in 2010) is Terrorism in American Cinema: a comprehensive analysis of terrorism as a genre from fears of PLO inspired homeland attacks in Black Sunday to the outright denouncement of the Bush War on Terror in W.  His previous work includes the above extracted Film Tales, now on sale and coming soon as an ebook through Inkstone Digital and Amazon Kindle in association with No Limits.  For analysis and commentary on individual films mentioned in this column (and hundreds of others) and for updates on the latest Hollywood hits and choicest DVD releases, Wider Screenings is now on Twitter.  Any @ reply will be duly answered – there are no automated DMs or tweets.  If tweeting, please mention film title in tweet: requests for films/DVDs to be reviewed are welcomed and given priority.  Free print copies of Film Tales can be won in the tweet ‘n win Film Buff Quiz.  First tweet request being incorporated into Wider Screenings is a retrospective of actor Warren Oates beginning with the film Cockfighter, a seldom seen look at cockfighting in the Southern States and a film still banned in England.

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