Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Passion as Horror Film: St. Mel of the Cross

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

The Passion as Horror Film: St. Mel of the Cross

Article excerpt

Richard Walsh

"I think we have gotten too used to seeing pretty crosses on the wall, and we forget what really happened-. But when you finally see it and understand what he went through, it makes you feel not only compassion, but also debt. You want to repay him for the enormity of his sacrifice."

--Mel Gibson (cited in Wrathall, 10)


The precursors of The Passion's gory torture and crucifixion are action and horror films, not the gospels or Jesus films. Given his previous work, Gibson's use of the suffering, action hero conventions is not unexpected. The more surprising use of horror techniques likely reflects horror's popularity and the spread of its artifice through so much of recent cinema. The Passion so effectively displays crucifixion's gore and violence that its "hidden" providential narrative may be lost on many. Moreover, the successful spectacle also raises questions about the gospels' own relationships to horror.

"Pretty Crosses on the Wall"

[1] Beyond the indisputable charge of anti-Semitism, [1] the two lingering sound bites about The Passion of the Christ are (1) the disputed report that Pope John Paul II said after a viewing of The Passion that "it is as it was"; and (2) Gibson's own claim defending the extreme gore in his film that "we have gotten too used to seeing pretty crosses on the wall -" Many critics have correctly, emphatically, and thoroughly dismantled the first sound bite. [2] The Passion is clearly something more than a replica of the actual death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross and even something more than the earliest Christian narratives about that death, the gospel passion narratives.

[2] The gospels do not claim merely to report the historical fact of Jesus' death. In fact, their passion narratives are remarkably laconic with respect to the details of crucifixion. [3] Instead, they provide a rich theological interpretation of the significance of Jesus' death. [4] Read together, the gospels' basic theological claims are (1) that Jesus' death is providential (a divine spectacle), rather than a Roman imperial spectacle, [5] and, correspondingly, (2) that Jesus is a hero in his death, rather than a criminal. [6] The gospels achieve this transfiguration in two significant ways. [7]

[3] First, the gospels uniformly assert that Jesus' death was divinely predicted. In addition to the fact that the gospels specifically cite scriptures that details of the passion fulfill, the very narratives themselves often seem so much scripture exegesis (see Crossan 1995). Moreover, details of the passion are also predicted by Jesus himself. [8] As a result, the gospel passion narratives are a two-level story. On one level, various officials engineer Jesus' death for their own designs and the death is a "typical," if maliciously unwarranted, Roman crucifixion. On the other level, which is the gospels' raison d'etre, Jesus' death is a divine act, even if that hidden, divine plan is known only to the chosen few.

[4] In this second level, God replaces Rome as the effective actor in Jesus' crucifixion. Not incidentally, the gospels share this literary transfiguring with the Former Prophets, the Latter Prophets, and apocalyptic, all of which replace the nations' action with God's action. [9] Comparative religionists describe such narratives as myths or, more specifically, as theodicies, stories/interpretations squaring the experience of evil with belief in God (or a meaningful order). For the gospels, then, attributing Jesus' death to God's action confers meaning on the event.

[5] Second, the gospels deny the Roman judgment that Jesus is a criminal and the Roman assertion of imperial glory by handling the shame of the cross ironically. For example, in Mark's passion, the one mocked as king and killed as king claimant by the Romans is actually God's king. Assuming the common dating trajectory of the canonical gospels, the gospels also increasingly assert the innocence of the one crucified (Luke) and eventually assert that the passion is an action completely under the apparent victim's control (John). …

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