Does Calvary’s gore offend us?
What a brouhaha erupted when the controversial movie “The Passion of the Christ,” produced by Mel Gibson, premiered on big screens worldwide. Some critics derided it for being anti-Semitic, accusing all Jews for Jesus’ death. Others panned the film for its gore, smearing the crucified Christ’s blood across the screen. Calvary’s gore got to them.Viewing the movie, I looked away when close-ups zoomed in on Jesus’ flayed flesh. Gibson later tempered his enthusiasm for scourging and crucifixion. Originally, he wanted viewers to feel as if they were so close to the cross that Jesus’ blood splattered on them. He told a New Yorker magazine reviewer, “I wanted to bring you there. I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before.” Is he like St. Paul, who wrote, “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Galatians 6:14.Gibson, claiming his portrayal of the crucifixion is biblical, did add blurry vision, shall we say, to Jesus’ horrific suffering. “I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty,” Gibson confessed. “I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.” That statement distorted my vision of his intent to replicate what the Bible describes. I don’t remember any Gospel writer graphically describing Jesus’ mangled eye as he hung on the cross.Consequently, Gibson retreated from his bloody script by releasing another movie edition. He wanted a more family type of rendition where blood didn’t splatter quite so thickly. Then Aunt Maud and Uncle Chester could join their grandkids at the movie without losing their cookies.My college professor of classic European art clued me in to why Gibson preferred the bloodier version of the crucifixion. Gibson is a rabid old-guard Roman Catholic who has never accepted the changes Vatican II introduced in the Latin Mass. He and his father rivet their faith to the medieval Mass, awash in its bloody ritual. Around the late 14th century, artists started going ballistic when painting Jesus’ bloody crucifixion. What Gibson does is work the plot of this medieval bloody Mass, projecting it on the screen in all its gore and agony. The movie is a graphic adaptation of a medieval Mass, my college art professor pointed out to me.Viewers who aren’t steeped in this kind of antiquated Roman Catholicism miss how Gibson sets up the Mass in the movie’s drama. When a priest consecrates the wine as the very blood of Christ, none can be wasted. He must consume the wine that is left over. Flashbacks to this theological necessity occur in the movie when Mother Mary and other believers mop up Jesus’ blood spilled on cobblestones. No blood of Jesus is wasted, either in the Mass or on the Via Dolorosa, the road of suffering.What’s ironic is that Gibson chased away from Calvary viewers he wanted to introduce to the Bible’s grim realism depicting the crucifixion. This intent backfired. Some viewers stormed out of theaters, offended by God demanding a bloody sacrifice. Preaching professor Thomas G. Long once served on the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I studied. He details how Gibson’s gory re-enactment of Jesus’ crucifixion makes some viewers give up on a sadistic God who would demand this suffering of his son. Writing in Christian Century magazine (March 21), Long shows why Gibson’s intent of drawing viewers into the crucifixion, so they felt Jesus’ pain, backfired. “It caused some people to question the very goodness of God. One woman who saw the film said, ‘I left the theater feeling sick. What sort of God would let that kind of violence happen to his own son? I guess I was supposed to be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus; instead I was repulsed by the idea of a God who would will such a thing.'”Occasionally, I attend a church that rejects belief about God demanding a “pound of flesh” at Calvary as a compensation for our sin. This church dismisses such thinking as primitive religion. They are proud of “washing Jesus clean of his gore.” Worshippers want no part of a God who demands his son’s death as a payback for our sin.This church teaches that our shoddy character, not sin, is our major weakness. We need not a Savior but a moral role model to correct us of our foibles. In worship, sin is rarely mentioned. Nor is salvation. God is pleased with both Jesus and us when we correct our mistakes and build a more humane world. The crucifixion with its blood and gore is a sad vestige of primitive religion that featured sacrifices of goats and sheep to appease a miffed deity. That’s how preachers in this church size up Calvary.One of their former pastors considers me a “theological dinosaur.” He kids me about clinging to outdated Christian orthodoxy of the Cross. He dismisses as primitive belief that at Calvary Jesus’ blood was shed for the complete cancellation of sin. We need a teacher who inspires us to do better, not a bloodied Savior, he preaches. Orthodox Christians see the human predicament as a war zone. God desires we be OK, but our not-OK-ness drags us down. Good and evil wrestle for our souls in this world at war. We are prisoners to our not-OK-ness. We are out of sorts with how God intended us to flourish in life. We can’t escape our not-OK-ness, nor can we rescue ourselves by thinking positive thoughts, getting smarter or dealing with our hang-ups by entering into therapy. Such measures help us, but they can’t rid us of sin – our not-OK-ness.We are hostages to our worst selves. Captured prisoners in war desperately need a rescuer. Say a Navy SEAL breaks into a prison, takes some fire from the enemy and bleeds, even gets tortured instead of the hostages. By his bloody rescue he sets hostages free. Similarly, Jesus at Calvary rescued us. We are freed from sin; no longer KO’d by it. Our Savior on a bloody rugged cross has made us OK before God. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Thomas Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95. Vail, Colorado
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