detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Wednesday, April 14, 2004

: . Word Made Flesh, Part II

    I cannot list all my benefactors, but there are two names I cannot allow myself to omit: Brahms and Schopenhauer. Frequently, I also repaired to poetry; to those names, then, I would add another colossal Germanic name: William Shakespeare....I wish anyone who is held in awe and wonder, quivering with tenderness and gratitude, transfixed by some passage in the work of these blessed men -- anyone so touched -- to know that I too was once transfixed like them -- I the abominable.
    -- Jorge Luis Borges, Deutsches Requiem
If one can't help inhabiting a space where the sacred and secular are always in dynamic tension, then what are we to make of The Passion of the Christ's critics who are also true believers? Consider Jon Meacham, Elaine Pagels, and Garry Wills,1 all of whom are practicing Christians and in one way or another are defenders of faith (though not of The Faith). All three take issue with the film's literalism (although they claim that Gibson also takes artistic license with scripture) and with its lack of critical perspective (a lack that they intend to fill). All three seem to believe that the film reins in the play of Biblical meaning and forces Christ’s message into the straitjacket of Gibson's traditionalism -- as if He didn't suffer enough. Gibson's literalism thus restricts interpretive freedom while his uncritical acceptance of the Word threatens to awaken dormant prejudices or to produce new ones. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be -- pogroms, a holocaust, and now a film that draws inspiration from the same poisoned well as the criminals of the not so recent past. For Meacham, Pagels, and Wills, however, the task of the critic runs counter to Gibson’s aims. Against Gibson, they evoke the historical Jesus and the world in which the evangelists lived. By knowing Him and the motivations of those who wrote of His words and deeds, perhaps viewers will see Gibson’s film and the Bible itself as open texts -- less than Gospel Truth and less an incitement to violence as the passion plays of the past.2

But how effective are these critical strategies? I have to admit that I have long been uneasy with the concept of the historical Jesus. Like the concept of the interfaith community, the concept of the historical Jesus resolves differences too crudely. As the cliché goes both concepts subsume difference under the order of the same, eliding rather than bridging differences between history and religion as well as the differences among religions. In this sense, the concept of the historical Jesus and of uncritical literalism are friends rather than foes. For at a certain abstract level, literalism is an impossible practice. Arguing that a reading of a text is literalist is to fall into the same literalist trap. After all, literal readings are not one, they are as diverse as subjective or critical readings. Hence the disputes among The Passion’s audiences on what the film “really means.” Using literalism as a term of abuse thus sets limits on what a text literally conveys. Explaining Gibson’s literalist readings of scripture by invoking his adherence to a nutty, conservative strain of Catholicism makes matters worse for it literalizes Gibson. For Gibson is hardly one of the elect, he is as contradictory as the rest of us -- one’s motives, let alone one’s readings, are seldom consistent with one’s faith, one’s politics, even one’s personal history. Few of us (always) do as we say; many of us veer away from what we profess. No one, not even those with the most courageous convictions, is immune from ambivalence.

Meacham, Pagels, and Wills are aware of this as well as of how hazardous it is to reconstruct the motives of historical figures. And when Meacham and Pagels try to ascertain what drove the four evangelists to describe Jesus’s last hours the way they did, Meacham and Pagels do so delicately, knowing full well that they are presenting only safe, educated guesses, not the whole truth and nothing but. Yet they do not extend the same courtesy to Gibson and to his film. Nor do they take into account the varying responses that the film could generate among different audiences. For them, the film itself and the intentions of its creator have a relative stability; the play of meaning takes place not within texts but between them. Acting with moral purpose, they put forward the worst possible interpretation of the film, cast that interpretation as what Gibson, despite his (unconvincing) claims to the contrary, truly intended, and challenge that interpretation by presenting alternative critical and historical perspectives on the life of Jesus. Perhaps they are correct in doing so. The trouble with “postmodernity” is that it leaves us unable to determine who to blame and who to hold responsible for whatever it is that ails us and the body politic. Better to fault the work and its author and to strike preemptively before the real damage is done. History and critical thinking are after all on our side. If we are believers, then God’s grace is also with us. But like Borges’ Otto Dietrich zur Lind -- a reader of Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Spengler as well as a subdirector of a concentration camp -- we who are so terrified of contingency can also use history and critical thinking for inhuman ends. In the face of indecision and in the absence of guarantees, blessed are we who act differently.

1To be precise, what truly concerned Garry Wills was Gibson's morbid fascination with the body of Christ. He thus echoes the contention of David Denby that Gibson doesn't do justice to "the astonishing mystery of [Jesus'] transformation into godhood" by lingering too lovingly -- almost homoerotically -- on the manner of His death rather than the meaning of his resurrection. Wills also echoes Andrew Sullivan's claim that Gibson reduces Jesus to "mere flesh." I'm not quite sure what to do with the reprisal of such clicheed oppositions such as mind and matter, flesh and spirit, immanence and transcendence, life and death. I would like to think that the passion is concerned less with the fact but more with the process of moving from one term of the opposition to the other.
2Readers of Reynaldo Ileto's Pasyon and Revolution will be thrilled to discover that the Tagalog peasant mis-reading of the Pasyon coincides with what the evangelists probably intended in their brief accounts of Christ's death. That is what distinguished Jesus from his persecutors was not race or religion but class.

: . Unrelated Readings

An article on a new collection of essays by Teodoro Agoncillo -- History and Culture. Languages and Literature.

Bambi Harper on Nick Joaquin’s “Culture and History”

Patricio Abinales on the sex lives of sparrows (and their fellow travellers). Also see his essay in Southeast Asia over Three Generations: Essays Presented to Benedict R. O. G. Anderson, for a more extended treatment of the subject. More on this later.

Finally, what I should have linked to long ago: Caroline Hau's review (pdf) of Waiting for Mariang Makiling by Resil Mojares -- the first ever pu-pu platter Book of the Month.

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