Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Some Depictions of Jesus in the Movies and a Theory About the Man Himself

Almost as soon as cinema was invented people began making movies about Jesus. According to the IMDB the first was The Horitz Passion Play in 1897. Over the years he has turned up in some unlikely places : a controversial anti-war film - Johnny Got His Gun (1971) ; a John Waters movie - Multiple Maniacs (1970) ; a conspiracy theory movie - The Passover Plot (1976) ; a painfully bad burlesque with Bette Midler as the Virgin Mary - The Thorn (1974) ; a biker film - J.C. (1972) ; a couple of musicals - Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Godspell (1973) ; a gay porno movie - Him (1974) (see my last post) ; a blaxploitation film - The Mack (1973) ; a number of horror films - Fear No Evil (1981), Lair of the White Worm (1988) and Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001) ; and, of course, a Monty Python movie - Life of Brian (1979) (where George Lazenby might have played the part if he hadn't been busy on another film).

I've always had a fascination with movies about Jesus. When I was young I had a special fondness for Jesus Christ Superstar which I saw when I was ten years old and it was in its original theatrical run. In that film I particularly liked the sympathetic portrayal of Judas as Jesus' most passionate, if critical, disciple who has to bear the horrendous burden of betraying his friend to death in order that destiny can be fulfilled.

Another film that moved me and can still bring a tear to my eye in its scenes involving Jesus is William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959). Here the brief scenes involving Jesus concentrate on showing what the presence of this man means to those who encounter him and the crucifixion scene, which avoids all the gory details, is devastating, concentrating as it does on the horrible finality with which the base of the cross thumps into its hole.

It's a pity Mel Gibson, with his movie The Passion of the Christ (2004), didn't understand the lesson of Ben-Hur that what we don't see is often more powerful than what we do. Instead Gibson lingers voyeuristically over a whipping so severe no-one could have possibly survived it and a crucifixion scene reminiscent of something from Ilsa She Wolf of the S.S. (1975). So why did Gibson make a movie about Jesus which almost completely avoided any indication of what he stood for (we don't see any of his sermons) but lingers over his torture in a way which simply numbed or sickened sensitive audiences? Discussion board posts on IMDB from around the time of the film's release suggest the reason. The charitable interpretation is that believers wanted to see how much Jesus loved them demonstrated in a depiction of what he went through on their behalf. A less charitable interpretation comes from a belief that this movie would be a very valuable tool for winning new believers. The theory here seems to be that seeing what this man went through (reputedly for their benefit) would make viewers so guilty about not being one of his supporters that they would become one. There are inherent flaws in this argument, not the least of which is that many others throughout history have been tortured and killed for their beliefs. Why support one and not the rest? Without some indication of what Jesus stood for he is just another martyr.

George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is perhaps the epitome of the conservative, mainstream Jesus movie. Stevens' even sought advice from the Pope on how to approach his grand project. It's a very entertaining film, with its spectacle and all-star cast (of whom John Wayne as the Roman soldier is the only embarrassment.) Max Von Sydow gives a fine performance as Jesus. As with most Bible films, non-believers will have to view it as a fairy story to appreciate it, but there is much there to like. A few years earlier Nicholas Ray had directed the more modest King of Kings (1961), a film jokingly referred to as I Was a Teenage Jesus because of the youth and matinee idol looks of star Jeffrey Hunter. It's been a long time since I've seen that film, so I'm not sure how it compares. The same is true of Franco Zeffirelli's mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), though I do remember that it had the visual beauty one expects of Zeffirelli's work and a very intense performance from Robert Powell as Jesus.

The first film to really break the mould in depicting the story of Jesus was Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964). Pasolini was part of the neo-realist movement in Italian cinema and, as such, filmed on real locations in stark black and white and with a cast of non-actors. He first thought of casting Jack Keroac or Allen Ginsberg in the role of Jesus to fit with his view that Jesus was the great revolutionary figure of his time, but eventually settled on Enrique Irazoqui, a nineteen year old economics student who wanted to meet Pasolini after writing an essay about one of his novels. Irazoqui has tremendous presence and his Jesus stays with you after seeing the film. Pasolini was an unlikely person to film the life of Christ. As a communist and unrepentant homosexual he was very much an outsider to the Catholic church whose priests he consulted about such questions as filming locations. Pasolini's stated intention was to make the film from a believer's perspective and he dedicated the film to Pope John XXIII. Later when he viewed it he said that more of his own beliefs filtered through than he had intended. Critics often claim that Pasolini chose Biblical passages in such a way that Jesus would be depicted as a Marxist revolutionary. I don't really see that. The miracles and resurrection are there and the line about giving unto Caesar that which is Caesar's which is hardly the words of a Marxist. Certainly the Catholic Church was delighted with the film which recently appeared at No. 2 on "The Pope's Oscars" list. On the question of religious belief Pasolini said... I do not believe in a metaphysical god. I am religious because I have a natural identification between reality and God. Reality is divine. That is why my films are never naturalistic. The motivation that unites all of my films is to give back to reality its original sacred significance. An idea I will return to below. For me Pasolini's film is the most beautiful and most shocking of the films about Jesus that I've seen. At least partly because of the use of non-actors, many of whom might be considered quite ugly, the film exudes an inclusive love for humanity in all its craggy imperfection. Although Pasolini gave up his initial aim of filming in Israel and/or Jordan, he did film mostly around primitive-looking villages in Italy which give the film a feeling of authenticity lacking in Hollywood films filmed on sets or in the Nevada desert. He makes beautiful use of various kinds of music, including blues and classical. The beauty of the film is perhaps epitomised by the look of rapture on the pregnant Mary's face. No words are needed to communicate her sense of awe at the role she has been given to play and it is unlikely that Pasolini would have been able to get the same effect with a professional actor. Using non-professionals doesn't always work, but when it does you often get a naturalness that no amount of technique can conjure. But Pasolini's film also has its shocking scenes. The actress who plays Salome is only twelve. Seeing a young innocent-looking girl dancing for Herod and then casually asking for the severed head of John the Baptist is surprising to say the least. And the crucifixion scene has to be the most excruciating. Jesus being nailed to the cross is not shown in detail, but the shriek of agony from one of the thieves as the nail goes through his hand is the most convincing depiction of pain I think I've ever seen on film.

Of course the most controversial film inspired by the life of Jesus was Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. According to Wikipedia, The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. By facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface, He struggled to do God's will, without ever giving in to the temptations of the flesh.. Catholicism had a strong influence on the films of Scorcese, who had once studied to be a priest. Scriptwriter Paul Schrader's upbringing was strict Dutch Calvinist. One day when he disobeyed her his mother stabbed him in the hand with a pin and said, "You think that felt bad? Hell is like that, only every second and all over your body". He later became a porn addict and wrote the script for Scorcese's Taxi Driver (1976) while hospitalised for depression. This would seem to make him the perfect person to script a movie about a Christ torn between God and the temptations of the flesh. And it is a truly powerful film highlighted by a tour de force performance by Willem Dafoe in a role that was first offered to Robert De Niro. The scene that caused the most controversy was when the crucified Jesus is offered the chance to step down from the cross and live a normal life, marrying Mary Magdalene and fathering children. This is his last temptation and he resists it, dying on the cross. Given that this is a temptation no different in essence than the ones he had to resist when he met the Devil in the desert it shouldn't have been that controversial. But it contained a very tasteful sex scene and this was too much for those who see sex as essentially profane. As a drama The Last Temptation of Christ is strong stuff, but this bipolar Jesus seems an unlikely figure to become the centre of a movement which would sweep the world.

So who was Jesus really? For those of us who don't believe in the supernatural the question is how a poor carpenter in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire, who spent a few years as an itinerant preacher and then was executed, came to have so much influence over our culture that the cross which has come to represent him hangs around the necks of hundreds of millions of people all over the world, he's been the subject of some of the world's greatest art and even those who don't believe are prone to screaming his name when they orgasm or hit their thumb with a hammer.

What seems to me the most likely theory is that truly psychologically healthy individuals are an extreme rarity in civilised societies. It is very rare that anyone has a truly ideal childhood and youth. And the reverence in which figures like Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Mohammed have come to be held is not an indicator of some magical quality of theirs but an indicator of our own state of neurosis. Let us assume that the unscarred state of the human being is one characterised by unconditional love for all humans. But we are all variously scarred, some much more than others. If you hit your thumb with a hammer you will find that your throbbing thumb becomes the center of your attention. It's the same thing with emotional hurts. When we are self-centred it is because we have been hurt. We may not feel the pain, but our character structure, our personality, takes a form that protects us from feeling that pain. The more hurt we are the less freedom we have in our mind and in our behaviour. Sigmund Freud pointed out that, when we have trouble remembering something, it is because the associations leading to the thing we want to remember have painful associations we are trying to avoid. This shows how being very emotionally hurt can make it difficult to move freely within our mind and can make us close-minded about something. And similarly with behaviour, being very hurt can lead to a situation where people feel the need to be very disciplined in their behaviour. Discipline is the defense against powerful frightening and/or painful, feelings.

I've taken this idea from Australian holistic biologist Jeremy Griffith, but it has its precedence in the ideas of German psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, who did groundbreaking work on the biology of repression and the neurotic character structure and dealt with the non-neurotic nature of Jesus and the threat it posed to the authorities of his time in The Murder of Christ (1953), and Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing who said the following :

We live in a secular world. To adapt to this world the child abdicates its ecstacy.

The fountain has not played itself out, the Flame still shines, the River still flows, the Spring still bubbles forth, the Light has not faded. But between us and It, there is a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete. Deus absconditus. Or we have absconded.

True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the "inner" archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual reestablishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the Divine, no longer its betrayer.

The further one gets from the healthy state the more important it becomes to believe that everything to do with that state is somehow divine and magical as this is the only defense against a realisation of how dire one's own state has become. Hence to try to persuade a fundamentalist Christian of the reality of evolution is to try to force them to confront the reality of how emotionally damaged they are. And this explains also how the myths about miracles would have grown up around Jesus. Someone says, "Jesus came to our wedding. It was a humble affair. We couldn't afford wine, but having Jesus there made us feel like we were drinking wine." Pass that from person to person for a while and it turns into a miracle, especially as the reteller tries in vain to capture the sense of wonder of the original teller who was still infused with Jesus personality. And Jesus message coming alive in the hearts of his apostles in response to his death would have given rise to the myth that he had risen from the dead.

And if it is only our neurotic ego structure that stands between us and the kind of awareness of the "divine" nature of reality that inspired Jesus it becomes easy to understand why a derangement of the mind either through the use of hallucinogenic drugs or mental illness so often leads to visions of God or a person believing they are Jesus. The problem of course is that the insecure ego quickly feels threatened giving way to paranoia, a "bad trip" or depression.

Why did Jesus talk so much about God? We've always had a tendency to cope with the unpredictability of life by personifying things. Before we had any knowledge of how nature works, we populated the world with gods which we thought regulated the weather and the crops, etc. The mono-theistic God is clearly also a personification, but of what? What can be said to be the underlying force of our world? God is said to be the creator of life. And God is also said to be love. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was within us and all around us. If there is something that characterises creation in all its forms it is the coming together of two or more things. Place a seed in some soil and water it. It grows into a tree. Only when you put the three things together can the creation happen, the whole being more than the sum of its parts. And this is what happens throughout nature. Often we get distracted by the competition which forms such an important part of evolution but competition only takes place within the greater cooperative system. And the same is true in human society. We laud the athlete for running faster than everyone else, but most of what we produces grows out of the interaction of many people. Look at the internet. It is what has grown from the efforts of many people, each contributing their part to the whole, that allows you to read these words. According to Griffith God is "integrative meaning", that is a central principle of nature that parts come together to form wholes. With such an interpretation it is easy to see how "God created all life", but it is also true that "God is love" as love is the word we have for the emotion that draws us together to form social wholes. Once again we can see the reason for the varieties of religious belief which range from a belief that God is just another name for love or nature to belief in a God who sits on a mighty throne of gold with throngs of angels all around. The more neurotic we are, the thicker that concrete Laing speaks of, the more distant we feel ourselves to be from the creative principle of the universe and the more we fear it and perhaps need to give it a comforting human face.

So what did Jesus mean when he spoke about "sin"? If we use the term God to refer to the principle of unconditional love for all humans, then "sin" (that which is contrary to God's law) would be anything which is selfish. Hence the seven deadly sins - lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride - are all emotions that would supplant a selfless feeling of love for others. But clearly we all feel these things to differing degrees. Sometimes we live them out, sometimes we repress them. Sometimes living some of the out does less harm than repressing them if part of our strategy for doing so is to channel the frustration of our suppressed desires into attacking others. Historically and today our common neurosis has twisted expressions of religious belief. Very often those who are the most insecure feel the greatest need to dominate others. The inquisitors fought their own internal doubts by torturing those who thought more freely than themselves. And it should be no surprise at all that a born again Christian minister who was particularly vociferous in his criticism of homosexuals got caught having sex with another man. As Carl Jung pointed out, unless we achieve wholeness, we will end up fighting our own shadow. It is also clear why many Islamic fundamentalists insist that women cover most of their bodies. Fundamentalist beliefs are symptomatic of a particularly severe state of neurosis, i.e. emotional scarring. The more neurotic someone is the stronger the "sinful" emotions they are repressing within that unbending, often angry, character structure. A person who is not so hurt, so neurotic, can be a happy nudist. Any feelings of lust he feels are not so unmanageable that he can't interact with an attractive member of the opposite sex naked without embarrassing himself. On the other hand, an Imam who describes women who dress immodestly as "uncovered meat" who shouldn't be surprised if they get raped is giving us insight into just how desperately he is battling a lust for women comparable with that of a junkie for his fix. Just as the need to avoid confrontation with one's own neurotic state leads to the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church that places God far above, so the same need leads to characterising the victim as the evil temptress instead of acknowledging that the driving demon is within. What is needed above all is honesty. With honesty comes understanding, with understanding love.

John Shelby Spong is one member of the clergy who has written about the need to strip away the supernatural elements from the Biblical story of Jesus.

For more on these issues check out my other blog.

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