“Those Christians”

We all have that *one* thing that rubs us the wrong way. You know, that one issue that a friend innocently brings up during a poker game that turns you into Mr. Hyde. Perhaps it’s something that embedded in your shadow, or perhaps it’s a cause you’ve silently taken the call to defend. Either way, you find yourself getting extremely defensive when that *one* thing is brought up.

Perhaps I have several such *one* things (just try engaging me in conversation that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic or whether Disney princesses are terrible role models. Go ahead. I dare you.). I think this is a side effect of being a PhD and a mythologist. This is one take-away I’ve gotten from spending the last several years reading Joseph Campbell: it’s impossible to look at people as anything but different versions of the same thing. Sure, I disagree with many other people’s opinions, but my line is whether those opinions are doing harm (physical, mental) to anyone. For example, I support Obama’s healthcare plan because it’s pathetic that people in this country can’t get the medical attention they need, and I disagree with multi-million dollar companies that claim that they will go bankrupt if they are required to provide healthcare to their employees. (but this is an issue for another day…)

So the *one* thing I’m going to touch on today is something I first observed at a Harry Potter conference a few years ago. In the same breath of asking for tolerance, a Potter peep spoke of hating “those Christians” for making her life difficult. Going to Pacifica, a similar conversation is heard on the sidewalks between classes: Why myth is so bereft in this country is because of “those Christians” (and the Enlightenment). “Those Christians” need to step aside and let a more natural mythology (often linked to the Pagan or New Age movements) develop. And I see similar criticisms frequently cross my Facebook feed.

How can anyone ask for tolerance while also being intolerant towards a particular group of people?

Blaming “those Christians” for everything wrong with the world is like blaming all of Islam for 9/11. Blaming the Bible for faulty faith is like blaming Catcher in the Rye for killing John Lennon.

There is a GIGANTIC difference between a religion and its followers. While there are many deplorable events in history that are done “in the name of religion,” the invocation of religion is a cover to justify the selfish act of conflict. Why, then, is it does it appear the be the MO of religious followers?

Joseph Campbell cites four functions of mythology: 1) a cosmology, a sense of where we came from and why we’re here; 2) a religion (as Bones has been saying lately, “We all need a mythology”); 3) social guidelines; 4) a psychological framework. When any of the four is threatened, we react strongly. We don’t like our sense of personhood, even if others see it as skewed, threatened. Because of the nature of humanity, we may react violently, or we may just weep in a corner. Get enough of us together, the mob mind might develop. Unite us behind a charismatic leader we are supposed to trust, say a Pope or a President, the mob mind will justify to itself that it’s okay to do heinous acts against The Other.

But it’s not–and to say that it is okay runs completely counter to most religious tenants. There are also centuries of documented corruption behind the core of all “religious” conflicts. The only way it seems we can overcome these religious issues is to take them off the table, which is why our Founding Fathers separated church and state, a novel idea at the time. However, because religion plays such an essential part in our identity, it’s difficult to leave those matters off the table.

This is one of those *one* things that has no simple resolution, other than perhaps we finally learn what that call for religious tolerance actually means. It doesn’t mean, “Like me for who I am, although I find you stupid.” It means, “I find you stupid, but I love you anyway, because I don’t know anything about you and shouldn’t judge you by the simple label of your religious values.” Tolerance doesn’t mean, “I’m okay with your religious some of the time, but not all the time.” It means, “Your religion works for me, but it doesn’t for me. And that’s okay.”

And you may not agree with my stance on this. And that’s okay.


A Reading of the Secret Messages of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was conceived as a pinnacle representative for the Christian church. It was built according to the biblical dimensions of Solomon’s Temple and decorated with images from the Old Testament and their parallel in the New, thus justifying the foretelling of the coming of Christ. Additionally, the Pope was seen as the spiritual descendent of Peter the Apostle, inheriting the keys to the kingdom of heaven upon gaining the papacy. It is in this Chapel that the Catholic Church holds its conclaves, debating and finally voting on the next pope. Capping the chapel is one of the grandest frescoes in Western Christian art painted by the Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo. He was commissioned by Julius II to paint the ceiling for various controversial reasons, among which include Julius’s on-going “punishment” for Michelangelo’s flight from Rome after his burial tomb project failed, thus forcing him into a medium for which he had little training and familiarity. Jewish “tradition teaches that Mikha-el ha-Malakh, the angel Michael [Michelangelo], is the defender of the Jewish people from its deadly enemies” (Blech and Doliner 43), suggesting that Michelangelo was divinely called to do this ceiling, to capture both the Jewish elements of the Old Testament and to make a statement on the state of the Christian church at the time post-Schism and Black Plague but pre-Protestant Reformation, a time of tension within the Church. Through this commission Michelangelo has created a critique on the Church through Biblical imagery and metaphor that suggests that the history of the Church is not the great innovation in the West, but, rather, its downfall.

Michelangelo inherited the project after a couple false starts. The Chapel was built on the decaying remnants of the Palantine Chapel beginning in 1475, the year Michelangelo as born, under the reign of Pope Sixtus the IV and the decoration of the chapel was begun shortly thereafter (Blech and Doliner 9-10).

[T]here is good reason to believe that the Chapel was conceived primarily as a background for the frescoes. … Austere simplicity had to be reconciled with plans for impressive pictorial representations of the truths which the Church serves as custodian of in this world. The paintings themselves, as always in religious edifices, would be expected to fulfill a double purpose: to remind the princes of the Church of its glorious past and their own responsibilities to it, and to instruct in an edifying manner the pilgrims and other faithful who would be admitted to this great shrine on feast days. (Salvini 9)

Now this Chapel is open on the Vatican tour, an event the pilgrims and faithful line up for hours to attend. The ceiling was initially frescoed with images of stars and the night sky, but due to the softness of Roman soil, the foundation of the Chapel was unstable and the ceiling quickly suffered from cracking. Julius II, Sixtus’ nephew, saw to the restoration of the Chapel during his papacy, including the reinforcement of the foundation and the redesign of the ceiling. When he gave the project to Michelangelo, Julius envisioned a ceiling that depicted the twelve apostles. Michelangelo successfully talked him out of what he considered a boring design, in part because “there was very little scope for him to explore his interest in the human form,” eventually convincing the Pope to give him a degree of free control in his design, something that was unusual and unheard of during this era of the Renaissance (King 59-60). Michelangelo chose to focus on the stories of the Old Testament, specifically Genesis and the prophets, partially due to the lingering impression the sermons of Fra Savonarola, the fire-and-brimstone Franciscan monk, had on him as a youth, and partially due to the popularity of portraying these stories in sculptural relief (King 64). He hired a team of assistants, built a scaffold and set to work.

There are four thematic groupings of the entire fresco: 1. In the center are scenes from the book of Genesis, comprising the central part, or storie, of the fresco; 2. the center is bordered with alternating images of the Jewish Prophets and Greek Sibyls; 3. the corners, or pendentives, each reflect a different episode of “the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel” (“Sistine Chapel”); and 4. functioning as a sort of border for the entire fresco are lunettes, or webs, which depict the Ancestors of Christ, including female ancestors not named at the beginning of the Book of Matthew. For the purposes of this paper, I am going to concentrate on the central panels of the fresco.

The fresco as a whole is supposed to reflect the continued Christian theme that the stories of the Tanakh were nothing more than predicators for the coming of Christ and what later became the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. The symbology of this Chapel visually communicates these stories to any viewers, while also reflecting the power and grandeur of the Church. Michelangelo was not compelled to concentrate on the New Testament, but chose instead a subject matter that is mostly Jewish and partially Pagan. Regardless of his actual intentions, one result of this choice in subject matter shows sensitivity for remembering the roots of the religion, but also for reflecting on the stability the Jewish faith represents. The Christian church at the time of Michelangelo was marred by continual conflict, often squelching out the opposition through battle and the burning of books. The threats towards the church were slowly coming to a fore as the printing press began to make written texts more accessible outside the scholastic community. Initially, the press facilitated in a revival of Greco-Roman texts, and it became a key factor in the publishing of pamphlets promoting the Protestant position.

The selection of the central panels communicate a timeline for the development of the Christian church, as though Michelangelo was demonstrating how Church politics had corrupted the faith by misappropriating the later books of the Old Testament as the foundations for the life of Christ, using the stories from Genesis to reflect how the relatively young church had corrupted itself into a corner. Michelangelo further enhances this message in his Last Judgment, depicting a skull in the blues of the fresco, glaring down from over the altar at the Pope and congregation. It is possible that he painted the ceiling as he did in order to remind everyone who visits the Chapel of the historical/religious roots of Christianity. “It has been conjectured … that the artist’s image of God reflects his personal feelings, that he translated pagan into Christian iconography, and even that Julius II served as the model for God the Father…” (Camesasca 192-193). To further remind the viewer of his link to Julius II, Michelangelo decorated the ceiling with images of oak leaves and acorns that represent Sixtus IV and Julius II, who “were from the della Rovere clan, whose name means ‘of the oak tree’” (Blech and Doliner 29).

There are nine panels going up the center beginning at the altar comprising the Biblical storie: 1. The Separation of Light from Darkness (Gen. 1:1-5), 2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets (Gen. 1:11-19), 3. The Separation of Land from Sea (Gen. 1:9-10), 4. The Creation of Adam (Gen. 1:26-27), 5. The Creation of Eve (Gen. 12:18-25), 6. The Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-13, 22-24), 7. The Sacrifice of Noah (Gen. 8:15-20), 8. The Flood (Gen. 6:5-8, 20), and one of the first panels painted since its location over the door makes it less obvious should anything go wrong, and 9. The Drunkenness of Noah (Gen. 9:20-27). There are two ways to approach a “reading” of the ceiling, and both result in fundamentally different interpretations of the latent message of the ceiling fresco. Reading it from the altar to the door suggests the failure of the Christian church as an autonomous religion separate from Judaism. Reading it from the door to the altar gives a message of hope for the Christian church. Both readings are equally valid depending on the vantage point of the reader, but I favor the first reading, because that is the direction of the figures.

The first panel of this reading is the Separation of Light from Darkness, taken from Genesis 1:1-5, in which God, after separating heaven from earth, then separates earth from light and dark. Symbolically, this can be interpreted as the separation of Christianity from Judaism, hence its significant location over the altar of the Sistine Chapel. In this way, the painting initiates Michelangelo’s commentary on the politics of the Christian church.

The second panel is the Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets, derived from Genesis 1:11-19. Michelangelo takes some liberty with this passage in order to acknowledge the new astronomical developments of the Renaissance revolving around heliocentrism. This panel shows God from both angles. On the right side of the panel, Michelangelo shows God in the act of creating the sun and the moon, “the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night” (Jewish Study Bible Gen. 1:16). God is looking at and pointing to the sun, with an arm extended behind him pointing to the moon. This suggests the importance of the sun, an image associated with Christ, over the moon, again enhancing the message of the first panel, and the "triumph" of the Christian church over the Jewish. To the left of the panel, Michelangelo shows God reaching over a bush, suggesting the creation of vegetation; however, he shows God’s vulnerability in showing not only his back, but his bare ass as well. Already the ceiling is suggesting that the stability of the church is equally susceptible. “God is already, at this earliest moment in his story, a mix of strength and weakness, resolve and regret” (Miles 29). This could also be a rude insult to Julius, slipped in to help Michelangelo “release his pent-up frustration” (Blech 30).

The third panel is the Separation of Land from Sea, from Genesis 1:9-10. This is the last panel Michelangelo paints relating to the creation of the earth, yet it does not exactly depict the separation of land from sea as much as it shows God imposing his power over the land, which could metaphorically suggest the imposition of power of the Church over the people.

The fourth panel is among the most famous segments from the ceiling fresco, the Creation of Adam from Genesis 1:26-27. This panel shows God, supported by his cherubim, reaching, almost straining, to touch Adam, who appears to be returning the touch with only half interest. He does not fully extend his hand to reach God, and maintains a stiff pose with no real interest in making contact with God. Often, this is interpreted as the lifeless Adam just before God breathes life into him. This is the central panel of the ceiling, and the turning point of the story. With the creation of Adam, God is placing a lot of the task of fulfilling his duties onto his human race. Regardless of whether or not he created Adam to be a friend or to be subservient, he nonetheless created a sentient being capable of making his own decisions. From this point on, humanity faces a downfall. Or, to follow our reading of it, this marks the point when the Christian church puts its faith in the Pope to be its leader. With Adam representing the Pope, this suggests that the papacy has not always functioned with the church’s best interests in heart. Also, with the suggestion that Julius served as a model for God, it could be interpreted as Michelangelo’s own ambivalence toward Julius, possibly stemming from his frustration at not being able to complete the tomb project.

The fifth panel is the Creation of Eve from Genesis 2:18-25. Adam is passed out against a rock, while Eve is conversing with God, who stands in front of her, not floating on a cloud of cherubs as he is depicted in the previous panels. It is as though creating Adam has taken a toll on God’s energies, leaving him diminished and weakened. Eve appears to be begging God for something, as though she has it within her power to restore Christianity to it is original grandeur, working behind the back of Adam, as if to suggest that she knows he would not approve of her actions.

The sixth panel is the Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden, as told in Genesis 3:1-13 and 3:22-24. The concept of original sin is fundamentally Catholic and really makes no sense to this Protestant girl, but because of the event surrounding the apple, the Christian church, as represented by Adam and Eve, only became further corrupted and removed from God. The serpent could be taken as representing the Black Death, the plague that raped Europe of many of its resources. The papal powers needed to maintain a face of leadership, but the actuality of Christianity was that it was weakened almost beyond repair. Notice that God is not depicted in this panel.

The seventh panel begins the trilogy of Noah panels, just as the first three were God’s creation trilogy and the middle three are the trilogy of the follies of Adam and Eve. The Vatican website describes the Noah trilogy as showing “the fall of mankind and its rebirth with Noah, chosen by God as the only man to be saved for repopulating the earth after the Creator had decided to destroy every living creature in it because of human evil” (“Sistine Chapel”). The Sacrifice of Noah depicts the sacrifice Noah makes to God in Genesis 8:15-20 right after everyone gets off the ark. “In short, the Lord has to be seduced out of his rage by the scent of Noah’s offering” (Miles 44). Genesis 8:21 describes God’s satisfaction at Noah’s sacrifice and vows in that moment not to destroy the world again, “’since the devising of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done’” (Jewish Study Bible Gen. 8:21).

Yet, curiously, this panel precedes The Flood (Genesis 6:5-8, 20). The technical reason behind this is that Michelangelo wanted to paint The Flood first because it was a topic he found interesting, following the sermons of Fra Savonarola who preached about unloosing floodwaters on the unfaithful as if predicting the flooding of the Tiber (King 91), and because of its location in the Chapel in a relatively innocuous space over the door. This panel was the first Michelangelo painted and would have become the panel he experimented on as he learned fresco technique. If it did not go well, at least it would be out of the way.

Michelangelo shows the episode of the Flood in all its drama in the foreground there is a hill towards which a great multitude of persons, buried under the weight of their personal effects or their relatives, are heading, so hoping to avoid the wrath of God. On the other side they are crowding onto a small island, stretching out their hands to lend aid to those still in danger. In the centre is a boat, about to sink, while in the background is the ark on which, through the will of God, Noah, his family and pairs of animals will be saved. (“Sistine Chapel”)

The Flood panel depicts Noah’s ark landing on the rock after the main tumult of the flood that God set out onto the earth to cleanse it of sin. It reflects the very nature of God’s wrath. “The Lord acts because of his own feelings, his regret; God acts because a cleansing destruction is what the world needs. … The destruction is not a means, it is an end, an expressive not an instrumental act” (Miles 43).

The Drunkenness of Noah is an odd choice of a theme to paint on the ceiling. The story, told in Genesis 9:20-27, reflects a strong degree of shame on the part of Noah’s three sons for their father’s behavior. Camesasca suggests three interpretations for the drunkenness of Noah. First, derived from Michelangelo’s biographies, interprets the panel as depicting Ham mocking Noah while his brothers cover their father, which can be interpreted as Michelangelo’s mocking of the Pope while the bishops and cardinals, perhaps, cover him. The second interpretation, Camesasca’s own, suggests that Noah is actually sleeping, Ham is deriding him, Japheth is covering him and Shem is “reproving the mocker and trying to restrain him" (193). This interpretation suggests the human tendencies towards evil and original sin, which are further interpreted as foreshadowing the Passion of Christ, symbolized by Noah’s planting of the vine on the extreme left of the panel. The third interpretation is that humanity ignores the gifts from God. "Others pointed out that the contrast between filial piety (Japheth), Platonic thought (Shem), and Aristotelian science (Ham), on the one hand, and, on the other, the spiritual drunkenness preached by Savonarola" (Camesasca 193). Noah represents the pope/Church, and the sons are the various participants in the Church: those who criticize and mock, those who hide or ignore the Truth, and those who act as intermediaries between the two.

Bookending these central stories are two prophets at either end: Jonah over the altar and Zechariah over the door. As a prophet, Jonah’s role is that as a precursor to the coming of Christ, and the three days he spends in the belly of the whale is meant to parallel Christ’s time in the tomb. He is an unwilling prophet, and is, to a degree, angry with God for the missions he is called upon to perform and the suffering that they induce. “His place over the altar is neither for his virtues nor for his mission, but for his unique prefiguration, for he turns to look at God above him while pointing to the figure of Christ which once stood on the wall below” and was removed to make way for the Last Judgment (Murray 71-2). The parallels between the adventures of Jonah into the belly of the whale and of the three days Christ was shut in the tomb would not have remained unrecognized. The belly of the whale or of the tomb both symbolize a period of darkness and regeneration. The figure that went into the belly/tomb was dead, but emerges from it alive and altered by the experience. With the fresco of Christ no longer there, it looks as though Jonah is pointing at the altar and looking up at God, who is in the process of separating light from darkness. The path of faith that Michelangelo has painted down the ceiling begins with the altar and suggests an emerging from the darkness, only to fall into sin and need cleansing before reaching the final state of purity.

The prophet Zechariah over the door is “a prophet of gloom, of punishment for the backslidings of the Jews, but he also prophesies the establishment of the Kingdom, the building of a new Jerusalem and a new Temple, the restoration of peace, justice and prosperity, and the destruction of the enemies of Zion” (Murray 66, 68). Zechariah punishes not only the Jews but also symbolizes Michelangelo’s reproachement of the Christian church, but his position holds hope of a future where all of the religious groups get it right eventually. Underneath the image of Zechariah is the coat of arms of Julius II, completing Michelangelo’s commentary by suggesting the destruction of the enemies that Julius represents and offering the possibility of a new and restored religion/faith as symbolized by Jerusalem.

Regardless of Michelangelo’s motivation for the layout he designed, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel stands as reflecting his own critique of the Church. He was probably not along in his feelings, especially towards the Pope himself, but he used his abilities to express them. With the ceiling, he has not only made one of the greatest pieces of religious art, he has also used the teachings of the Tanakh to demonstrate that the grandeur of the Church is only show, that it is built on unstable and vulnerable foundations that reflect the folly of the separation of Christianity from Judaism.

Works Cited

  • Blech, Benjamin and Roy Doliner. The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in th Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
  • Camesasca, Ettore. "Apprendix". The Sistine Chapel. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1965. Print.
  • The Jewish Study Bible. Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. New York: Oxford U P, 2004. Print.
  • King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
  • Miles, Jack. God A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
  • Murray, Linda. Michelangelo. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980. Print.
  • Salvini, Roberto. The Sistine Chapel. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1965. Print.
  • "Sistine Chapel". Vatican Museums. Vatican Museums Management, 2007. Web. 16 December 2009.

Celluloid Images of Jesus

The image of Jesus shifts with every generation, according to the time period, and symbolizes the image of God the Father as a reminder of humanity’s relationship with the divine, becoming the image needed by the cultural unconscious to communicate a particular archetype. I read the Gospels for the first time for this class, and initially found myself quite angry. Reading the Gospels fully debunked the image of Jesus I had developed through the liturgical teachings of my Episcopal upbringing. Furthermore, modern cinema has given us divergent images of Christ, some faithful to the Biblical tradition, and others not so much, creating a wholly different telling of this myth. This new image of Jesus/God is no longer confined to static images, but, rather, to moving images that give it a new personality. A survey of some of the most noted films/videos reflects the culture’s overall split-position on the nature of Christ as a religious figure.

There was a very clear shift in the art between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and this is reflected in the images of Jesus. Perhaps it might be too easy to suggest that the shift from positive, hopeful images of Christ to the appearance of crucified Jesus as a result of the Black Death is an oversimplification of the issue. Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the endemic plague that spread through Europe, the images of the Christ child or Christ the good shepherd sent a positive message of the Good News to recent converts to the faith. These images helped further the mission of Christ culminating in the conversion of non-Christians. The Black Death reverberated throughout the whole of European culture. The disease knew no boundaries, affecting people of all classes and occupations, leaving very few people disease-free. This affected the overall cultural psyche of the people, as most catastrophes do, shifting the images of Christ as a good shepherd or an innocent to the images of the pieta or crucifixion, graphically showing the death of Christ. In this instance, Christ represented more than just a figurehead for a religion, he became the defining archetypal image of an entire continent, whose life represented the misunderstood life of a pious son who is still forsaken at the very moment when he needs God the father the most.

In modern cinema, we have the Jesus who is satirized (Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Dogma), incarnations of Jesus (Jesus of Montreal), the political radical (Jesus Christ Superstar), the tortured Jesus (The Passion of Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ), and Baby Jesus of various Christmas specials and local Nativity plays, which have been excluded from this paper. The ultimate message that is communicated is that we, as a society, have forgotten exactly who Jesus was.

Satirizing Jesus

The Life of Brian is a film by the Monty Python team spoofing contemporary British issues and the Gospels. Instead of Jesus, the story revolves around a boy named Brian, who, as an infant, is confused for the prophesied Messiah by the three wise men, and later as an adult gains a following of frenzied faithful who are mesmerized by a public comment that he never finished while trying to avoid the Romans. Because of this, he is followed around and all of his deeds are recognized by his followers as being miracles. He is later crucified for escaping the Romans for an earlier incident, and his crucifixion is heralded as heroic, except by his mother who is profoundly disappointed that he is a very naughty boy. In a moment of despair, he is told to “always look on the bright side of life” by a fellow crucified prisoner.

This representation of Jesus affirms the belief of Joseph Campbell, who further writes in the vein of Nietzsche, that Christianity has lost much of its sacred holdings on society. Through this spoof and humor, the Python crew imagines a mistaken Messiah, who lived at the time of the “real” Messiah, but people were disillusioned into following the wrong one. This implies that Christianity may have been established under the wrong auspices, while further implying that the whole of Western Civilization was founded in the name of the wrong person. This political dimension attests to the psychology behind fundamentalism, that the more one doubts a belief then the more one holds fervently onto it. The Pythons show us exactly why that requires more effort than necessary, since it could possibly be for all the wrong reasons anyway.

The Kevin Smith film, Dogma, is a commentary about the state of affairs with the Church, specifically the Catholic Church, and the looming crisis of faith running through American society. It tells of two former angels, banished from Heaven to Wisconsin for questioning God’s authority, who find a loophole that would allow them to be cleansed of their sins and thus return to Heaven. Meanwhile a woman, marked as the Last Scion, or relative of Christ, is called on a mission to stop them from succeeding while the Heavenly Host tries to find the missing God, who takes monthly embodiment trips to earth to play skee-ball on a New Jersey boardwalk. The angels harbor a grudge against God for closing the doors on them, and they are helped by Azriel, a fallen angel who harbors a grudge for having to spend time in Hell. The Last Scion suffers from a crisis of faith because she feels forsaken by God, and only goes to Church as lip-service to her religion. The movie’s ultimate goal is to remind us that Christianity is not about church and whether or not God communicates with us directly, but that it is about feeling God’s love, no matter the circumstance. This movie had to be made as a comedy because otherwise the message would have come across as dogmatic, rather than as a commentary/ reflection on the nature of things.

The overall message that is communicated to me is that it is very difficult to be a Christian in today’s world, in part because we are so far removed from the history and the mythology of the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is not a dominant figure in today’s world, though we use him as an iconic image, as a sign pointing to something greater than himself, rather than view Christ as a martyr who, in the name of God, brought about social change in a peaceable fashion. Rather than staging an all-out war against the Romans, who possessed the greater military power, Jesus encouraged a grass-roots movement of peaceful protest and inaction, one of love and charity, over demonstrating who has the greater strength. Jesus behaved like Athena while the Romans behaved like Ares.

The problem of Jesus in our world is also over-simplified by the Nicene Creed or declaration of faith that has been woven into the canon of the liturgy, though several of the protestant services have taken it out in an attempt to stick to Biblical tradition. From the outset, it declared, " We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,/the only Son of God,/eternally begotten of the Father,/God from God, Light from Light,/true God from true God,/begotten, not made,/of one Being with the Father…" thus equating Jesus with his crucifixion and not with the actuality of his life. At the beginning of Dogma, a New Jersey cardinal announces a campaign to "update" Catholicism and make it more likeable. He unveils the image of Jesus that he called "The Buddy Christ" – a laid back Jesus who looks more like a fun-loving hippy dressed in Hebraic robes than either a good shepherd or a crucified Christ.

Movies like Life of Brian or Dogma highlight all that is wrong with the religion, attempting to make us aware of the larger picture of the social ramifications of decisions made by the Church and clergy over the last 2000 years, and, as a mythology student, this is what makes studying Christianity all the more crucial. Because of dogma, there are misconstrued messages going about the field as to what Christianity actually is. Furthermore, because of various ecumenical councils and translations, the Bible itself is miscommunicating the teachings unless one is able to read all available versions and construct a more complete picture.

Incarnations of Jesus

Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal) is another movie that attempts to revision Jesus without actually being about Jesus. Like Dogma, this film approaches the question of faith. Daniel Colombe is an avant-garde actor who is hired by a church to stage the Stations of the Cross, yet to update them to attract a larger audience. Through his research into recent archaeological discoveries that suggest that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman and that his mother was unwed (two issues that Monty Python plays with in Life of Brian), he creates a show that suggests a radically new way of interpreting the life of Christ. Initially he has the blessing of the church priest, because the Stations have been staged outside the church for over forty years. Daniel and his friends reenact all aspects of the story, including the archaeological findings in the area surrounding the church, calling the show “The Passion on the Mountain,” receiving rave reviews. The show is cancelled by the priest who hired Daniel, because he feels that they are being too radical with their portrayal and that his superiors are unhappy with the production. Daniel and his troupe stage one final performance. While he is on the cross as Jesus, the police interrupt this final performance and a fight breaks out between the audience and the police. Daniel’s cross gets knocked down and he suffers from fatal head injuries. Before dying, he is briefly resurrected and assumes a prophetic Jesus-like behavior in the subway station. No one believes him, and regards him as a crazy person. He finally collapses and this time does not rise again, though his organs restore sight and life to a couple lucky recipients.

The question of faith appears in the movie two times. The first time is during Daniel’s research in the library. A librarian comes up to him and asks him if he is seeking Jesus. When he replies yes, she responds that Jesus will find him, suggesting that faith is not something to be sought after. One cannot simply go on a spiritual quest and find all of the answers, but wait patiently for the right time when the divine will present itself. In the West, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. The society has been based on the concept of quest and seeking enlightenment, to the point that in modern society, patience is a virtue that very few people actually have. The second question of faith is when Daniel confronts the priest about cancelling the play about the “show” that the church already provides parishioners of hope and cheap plastic Jesus figures. The priest insists that this is necessary because cheap plastic Jesus figures are still better than expensive drugs. People need something in which to believe, regardless of the truth or the lies. As Daniel comes to terms with this, he still struggles with the same facets of his own life, never really reconciling the two.

Jesus the Political Radical

The ultimate question Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice pose is, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” Rather than write an entire story around Christ’s passion, Jesus Christ Superstar re-tells the gospels mostly through the eyes of Judas and Mary Magdalene, showing the fullest extent of Judas’s self-torture for turning Jesus over to the Romans. All he wants to know is why Jesus allowed the movement to extend so far beyond the initial plan, to the point that Jesus actually was equating himself with God. Judas feels is that Jesus allowed the movement to get out of control and was reaping the benefits of having unquestioning followers who are willing to anoint him with expensive oils rather than feed the poor. He believes that the only option is to turn Christ into the Romans, as a sort of intervention for his behavior. Jesus is high on the attention he is getting, and keeps imbibing more and more. From this angle, the passion is necessary, not as a sacrifice for the people of Jerusalem, but for the sake of Jesus’ own soul. Shortly after the Last Supper, Jesus, too, begins to question the loyalty of his followers. He watches them eat and realizes that they could care less whether he was there or not. Or at least, that is how he is portrayed in this version, lacking in some self-esteem. Before he is taken by the Romans, Jesus asks God for guidance – then confesses that he is no longer interested in this plan of God’s, but realizes that he has no choice.

What this reflects is the question whether or not Jesus was just a man or if he really was divine, an age-old question that theologians have debated off and on since the Middle Ages. Judas and Mary Magdalene sing a reminder that Jesus is just a man, one that they do not know how to love, but they want to because they know they love him so much.

Python also accomplishes conveying its Jesus figure in the same manner as that of Webber and Rice in that Jesus is more than just a Messiah, but is also a political radical seeking to free his people from the repressive aspects of Roman rule. He gets angry when he enters the temple, less because he is concerned about the profaning of the Lord, but more because he sees the control of the Roman armies have had on the people, to the point that no place is regarded as sacred.

Tortured Jesus

Perhaps it is because I watched this movie for the first time after numerous viewings of Life of Brian and Jesus Christ Superstar, but I really was unimpressed by The Passion of the Christ. Gibson’s recreation of the Passion reflects more of a sensationalist, borderline propaganda piece showing the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. Based on the canonical Gospels and the other movies of Jesus’ crucifixion I have been discussing, Gibson remains faithful to the story. However, unlike the other films in this paper, Gibson ups the gore factor. There are two responses to gore: distancing the audience from the participatory experience because the images are just too horrendous, or complete emotional persuasion because of one’s sympathies towards Christ. The desired effect is the latter, with the hopes that one will be completely moved – also combined with the choice use of music and slow motion images. Gibson also strongly conveys that the Jews condemned Christ, following the tradition that Jews were punished for their action by losing their temple and Jerusalem, being doomed to wander the Earth. This teaching was rejected and forbidden by Vatican II (Blech and Doliner 11).

The creators of South Park commentated on the reaction to Gibson’s film in the episode “The Passion of the Jew.” In this episode, the three main children, Stan (a Jew), Kyle (the level-headed one) and Cartman (the one seeking world domination) watch the movie. Kyle is so annoyed with the time wasted watching it, that he flies to California with his friend Kenny to beg his $2 back because the movie theater does not give refunds. Cartman is moved by the movie into continuing Gibson’s message of ridding the world of Jews and launches his own neo-Nazi movement in South Park. Stan, on the other hand, is convinced that the Jews need to apologize to Jesus. Kyle gets his money back, Cartman’s mission of world domination is foiled and Stan convinces his family that they should apologize to Jesus for condemning him when he did nothing wrong. This reflects the fact that the response to Gibson’s was more of a social response. He was accused of anti-Semitism and simultaneously congratulated for his portrayal of the Passion, which was supposed to be as historically accurate as possible.

Martin Scorsese begins his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ with a quote from the author: “The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God… has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh… and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” This version of a tortured Jesus comes from Kazantzakis’ own struggle with this spiritual conflict, and is only loosely based on the Gospels. The Jesus of Kazantzakis’ novel is both enlightened and a political rebel. He is fighting for a cause, but not against the Romans, but against human nature. His weapon is love, but he has a vision that hands him the axe, leading him to declare that he will baptize everyone with fire. He takes up the mantle to fight a war. His enemies are not just the Romans who oppress the Jewish people, but also the Jewish people who oppress each other or show lack of tolerance for each other. He wants to force everyone into loving each other, which ultimately backfires and he is crucified. This is also the approach of the Western mission: try to convert with love, and when that fails to work, convert by force.

But more importantly, this Jesus reflects Kazantzakis’ own struggle between war and love, evil versus good, temptation versus purity. This is how he reflects that the opposing forces work collectively in the human soul to create tension. When we first meet Jesus, he is suffering from delusions and headaches, and eventually leaves home to go on a spiritual quest that will hopefully cure him of the pain. In a way, Kazantzakis’ suggests that Jesus suffered from some sort of psychosis, which leads to delusions of grandeur as he performed his magic on the people. The “voice of God” was no more than a voice in his head, similar to a voice a schizophrenic would hear.

In a bold, controversial move, this Jesus is rescued from the cross by a guardian angel who arranges for him to marry and have a family. This is the last temptation, the fourth and non-Biblical. Jesus in his old age is reminded by Judas that he did not complete his job. Judas unwillingly turned him over to the Romans, yet Jesus did not fulfill his part of the bargain by dying. Judas also helps unveil the guardian angel as the Devil and Jesus finds restored faith in God. Is this an illusion or does it really transpire? Scorsese leaves that up to us.

How is it that all these movies can tell the exact same story of the Passion yet tell a fundamentally different story? Each of these movies were made at different times with different goals in mind. It is not just about retelling the Passion to remind people of its horrors, though, of course, that is part of the motivation. It is also about being so gripped by the story that the writer and/or director need to retell it to make it their own, one of the fundamental aspects of myth. The story itself does not change, but the meaning and message behind it do as it is altered to fit with the sentiments of the interpreter. The Christian mythos needs to be revisioned periodically and not treated like dogma, with stale, static images. Without this revisioning, the religion falls into the trap of which Joseph Campbell is highly critical: stale religions push people away or create fundamentalist (in the negative sense) behavior, and I suggest that this is the dynamic in which we currently find ourselves in American society. We are experiencing a stretched tension between non-believers and fundamentalists, battling out their opposition around those who genuinely still believe in the faith. This tension was especially felt during the previous administration, which kept blurring the lines between the constitutional separation between church and state. Now, under a different administration and cultural mythos, we are in a different state altogether towards religion. The tension has loosed a bit, but threatens at any time to reemerge, especially with talks of universal healthcare and how much the government should provide for the people.

So what does Jesus symbolize? It is too difficult to separate the myth from the man and find a coherent symbol. It is too easy to confuse the fact that Jesus was crucified as a martyr and overlook the political unrest he was stirring among the Jewish people. The Romans and the Pharisees both wanted to eliminate him from the competition because he posed a threat to their power. Kazantzakis suggests that Jesus’ motivation was power for himself, and he was using the Hebrew oppression as a tool to gain followers. The Monty Python crew suggests that Jesus’ motivation was that there was no motivation at all: he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Mel Gibson suggests that it was crowd actions that destroyed him, that the people wanted him dead, not the Romans. None of the movies really make it clear why Jesus had to die. It seems more like he was too vocal in the oppression, and was killed according to the Roman practices of the time. Similar figures in modern time have been killed according to modern practices. The Roman technique is less humane but not unique to Jesus’ situation. Granted that does not necessarily make it okay, but it seems to be the only reason why Jesus is at the forefront of the holy Christian crusade and not some other messianic figure.

There is something rather interesting about trying to write a paper about Jesus at Christmas time. All over the place, I am encountering reminders that the holiday is really about celebrating Christ’s birth, although he was probably born at a different time a year and that we celebrate Christmas on December 25th has to do in large part with the fact that Constantine converted to Christianity and aligned Christmas with a pagan feast day. The other day on the radio, a woman called in and was telling the DJ that one of her family’s traditions is to have a birthday party for Jesus, complete with cake and singing "Happy Birthday." My father-in-law sent me a Christmas e-mail forward of a letter "written by Jesus" to remind us how to be good Christians on the holidays. Yet, this is the idealized hopeful Jesus, the Jesus who is the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace, the one who died for our sins. This is not the Jesus who staged a movement against the Romans for religious freedom and tolerance, nor the Jesus who transformed the laws of Moses into laws of humanity. This is the Jesus whose interests were in taking care of the people who could not otherwise take care of themselves.

Works Cited

  • Blech, Benjamin and Roy Doliner. The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
  • Dogma. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Linda Fiorentino. Lions Gate Films, 1999. DVD.
  • The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford U P, 1989. Print.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman. Universal, 1973. DVD.
  • Jésus de Montréal. Dir. Denys Arcand. Perf. Lothaire Bluteau, Catherine Wilkening and Johanne-Marie Tremblay. Netflix, 1989. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
  • The Last Temptation of Christ. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey. Netflix, 1988. Web. 15 Dec. 2009.
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle. Anchor Bay, 1979. DVD.
  • The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci and Maia Morgenstern. 20th Century Fox, 2004. DVD
  • “The Passion of the Jew.” South Park. By Trey Parker. Dir. Trey Parker. Comedy Central. 31 Mar. 2004. DVD