Monday, March 30, 2009

Why the Bible Should be R-Rated

J.D. Walters' explains why we should be grateful the Bible is like an R-rated movie:
"Skeptics' reaction to the Bible very often... resembles very much the reaction Christian ratings groups have to 'unwholesome' movies. How can the Bible be the sublime Word of God, they ask, when it has such unwholesome content as adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague?... The Bible features such content because it is God's message to a fallen world. The only reason it is relevant to so many people is that it rings true to our experience. A G-rated Bible is a Bible that cannot speak to fallen man where he is. No one could take it seriously if it laid out a drama in which nothing bad ever happens to good people, everyone always makes the right choices and God never has to judge those who disobey Him. Like the best movies with explicit content, the Bible tells the truth about the world, but thankfully it also offers hope for a better one even as it takes this one absolutely seriously."
Walters' perspective is Christian, granted, but it's also literary. As a skeptic I'm puzzled by other skeptics' hostility to the bible for its aversive content. It's probably my love for searingly dramatic conflict and deeply flawed protagonists that makes me want sacred texts and their heroes & deities to have the same.

Isn't that what's so precious about, say, The Iliad? It's exceedingly violent and full of wrath, involving shameless deception by the gods. Homer paints a world of bloody anguish, but with enough glimpses of beauty to suggest better things for those who can grasp the heroic ideal. The story is ultimately about the restoration of humanity's civilized values through an act of mercy (Achilles giving the corpse of his enemy Hector to Priam). Ditto for The Passion of the Christ, which many people disliked for its heavy R-rated content and gruesome things it suggests about the Judeo-Christian God. But why be threatened by this? Gibson's film takes us into the eye of that same paradox where wrath and mercy, retribution and forgiveness, become as one. Again we get savagery tied to an act of mercy, a brutally shameful death underscoring the dignity of life tenfold. Secularists can be moved by such themes without endorsing the Christian and pagan myths themselves. But G-Rated (even most PG-Rated) dramas are ill-equipped to mine this stuff.

5 Comments:

Blogger Leon said...

Besides its anti-Jewish tone, what many people did not like about Gibson's film was it's over-the-top violence. Much of it seemed like gore for the sake of gore. You can be a secularist and dislike the same thing about violence in many Hollywood movies. One person described Gibson's film as sado-masochistic porn, which it certainly resembles. Not to mention that violence in many Hollywood movies, including Gibson's, is hardly realistic. The blood is more colorful, spurts more artfully, and the reaction of the victims and torturers is more dramatic than it would be in real life. If any filmmaker made just one film depicting violence as it really is, we would be so sickened by it that we would never want to see violence in a film again. I know a man who went to see a heavyweight bout in person and he was shocked at how awful the sounds of the punches were (that is deliberately not captured on TV). I know of a couple who allowed their daughter to see a Friday the 13th type film, but would not allow her to see "Schindler's List" because it was a little too real.

We have all seen films where something disgusting happens and we say to ourselves, "Did I really have to see that? Was that necessary?" I saw an excellent suspense film once that had one moment of gratuitous violence that was very out of place. For many people, Gibson's film had a lot of moments like that. It's a legitimate criticism. I would defend to the hilt Gibson's right to do it, but some of us do not have the stomach for that kind of thing. There are more poetic ways to capture the tragedy of human violence and its cruelty.

Leon Zitzer

4/04/2009  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Leon,

The film's alleged anti-Semitism has been debated hotly, and I think it's essentially without foundation. Here are a few points to consider:

(1) The film is anti-Semitic only in the very general way most passion dramas are. The cruelty of the Jews (Judean elite) is foreordained, in that they act as the chosen people prepared by their entire history to carry out an ironic rejection of their God, even as they defend his name. They are given over to Satan so that the battle Christ fights can be realized in the most intense way possible -- alone and against his own. In this general sense the film is "anti-Semitic", but again, that's true of most passion dramas, and hardly particular to Gibson.

(2) With respect to Gibson's film in particular, the film is considerably less anti-Semitic than one would expect -- less so than gospel writers Matthew and John. As Mark Goodacre has easily demonstrated, certain anti-Semitisms have been toned down. For example, the only character specifically characterized as a "Jew" is Simon of Cyrene, and he's one of the movie's most sympathetic characters.

(3) Remember that Gibson's film is Catholic myth according to Catherine Emmerich, not history according to Ed Sanders or Paula Fredriksen. (The fact that Gibson can't distinguish myth from history is his problem.) We should be judging it as such, and the Emmerich vision is certainly a bloody one. The medieval outlook derives from the premise that one man's expiation for all humanity's evil has to be about the worst horror one can imagine, and that needs to be stretched out in all its gory detail. In this light, I don't think the violence in Gibson's film is gratuitous.

(4) If anything, Gibson's film is "anti-Italic". One of my favorite reviews for the film is James Digiovann's "The Gore of the Christ" -- largely tongue-in-cheek, of course, but then not entirely:

"[Gibson's film] isn't the anti-Semitic screed people had warned about...Actually, it's the Roman soldiers who come off as the most evil. The Jewish residents of Jerusalem are not univocal in their attitudes toward Jesus, and it's not like there's some homogenous group called 'the Jews' who pick on him. The Italians, on the other hand, all seem like total bastards who really love torturing naked guys. So why aren't Italians all up in arms about how anti-Italic this movie is? As an Italian, I'd like to think that it's because Italians are the one ethnic group who thinks that being a hyper-sensitive whiner is lame. Then again, it's probably because most Italians are Christians, so they just plainly support this pro-Jesus stuff. Oh well."

That's meant to be funny, of course, but still...

Best wishes, Leon.

4/04/2009  
Blogger JD Walters said...

Hi Loren,

I'm glad you liked my post. I read your blog often and it's very challenging in a good way. We can certainly debate the merits of "The Hills Have Eyes" and others if you want. I'd be curious to know what you think makes them good movies, and worthwhile viewing. I always love talking about film, one of my great passions, so feel free to drop me a line.

4/05/2009  
Blogger Leon said...

I agree with you that Gibson's big problem is that he does not distinguish history from myth. How is that different from most historical Jesus scholars who give us nothing but a constantly repeated Passion play? The anti-Jewishness of any Passion play is a problem. There is one simple test to determine whether or not any film or book on Jesus' death is more anti-Jewish than not (there can be degrees): Do you walk away from the film or book with a good feeling or a bad feeling about 1st century Judaism? And also, did you get accurate information about it? If a film or book gives you inaccurate information about Jewish culture that is slanted to make it look deficient or rigid (i.e., more concerned with externals than internals) or inferior in any way, then I think it is fair to say that such a work is somewhat anti-Jewish (and that is putting it mildly).

Gibson's film does this. True, he is not really concerned to impart any information about ancient Judaism, but in so far as he incidentally does, it is a very negative impression he leaves us with. Jewish leaders would never have treated Jesus as they do in his film and would never have conducted a "trial" in that manner. Are the Roman soldiers worse? Of course they are. They have to carry out the execution. But why is Jesus in this predicament in the first place? Gibson lays it squarely on the Jews. (Nicholas Ray's 1961 "King of Kings" does not do this.) The Jewish mob and the Jewish leaders are nasty and brutish. This is a mockery of ancient Jewish culture. No one walks away from this film thinking, "What a great culture Jews had back then!" This is also true of most historical Jesus books (not quite all).

One or two good Jews does not negate what Gibson did. His is that old racist attitude, "These people are inferior, but you'll find one or two good ones among them." Another sign of Gibson's anti-Jewishness is that while he favors the Gospel of John (and I know that he likes later mystical writers even more), he ignores John on two important points: 1) John has Roman soldiers at the arrest, and 2) John depicts the mildest Jewish questioning of Jesus. (The sight of a Jewish woman in his film running up to a Roman officer for help in saving Jesus from Jewish authorities was another bizarre anti-historical moment.) The Gospel of John gave Gibson another way to go and it meant nothing to him. He chose to follow the course that would be least favorable to Jews — something Ray's film did not do.

Leon Zitzer

4/08/2009  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

' How can the Bible be the sublime Word of God, they ask, when it has such unwholesome content as adultery, war, torture, cursing and plague?'

Where do sceptics say that the tales of adultery mean it is not the word of God?

And why does God turn people into pillars of salt, drown babies, send plagues, and harden people's hearts so that there are wars where they can be killed?

Joshua 11:20
For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

How can this be the sublime word of God when it says God wanted a war so that he could totally exterminate people without mercy?

4/13/2009  

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