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Mel Gibson has laid a cuckoo’s egg in the nest of American Christianity. What he has hatched in US cinemas is a quasi-pagan throwback to the sepulchral old-world cult that the United States was set up to oppose. The US is a by-product of the Protestant Reformation’s purge of pagan elements in Christianity, and the enthusiasm for The Passion of the Christ among Protestant evangelicals suggests that they have forgotten more than they have learned.
Rubbing the filmgoer’s nose into Jesus’ gore, Gibson’s defenders contend, follows established traditions of Christian art. In the March 6 London Spectator, Bruce Anderson compares The Passion of the Christ to Matthias Gruenewald’s 1515 altarpiece at Isenheim. The conservative Christian magazine First Things cites “Niccolo dell’Arca’s Lamentation of the Dead Christ with its terra-cotta figures circling in wild grief over the dead Christ … Mel Gibson adds a work of cinematic art worthy to be mentioned with classics of Christian culture.” Gibson’s Passion is less narrative than pictorial. The high sacred art of the West could be just as lurid, and that is the problem. The road to America was paved with the ashes of religious art, and it could not have been otherwise.
Why does the US remain a Christian nation while Europe has abandoned the faith, along with its will to live? It is not only because Americans are different, but also because American Christianity is different. It derives from rejectionist English Protestantism, whose two defining acts were to translate the Bible and to destroy sacred images. England’s reformation began with John Wycliffe’s 1382 Bible translation. His followers baked their bread on fires fed by portraits of saints. The 16th-century Protestant mobs that ripped sacred images down from church walls in the Bildersturm did more to bring about the American Revolution than the bullyboys who dumped tea into Boston Harbor in 1775.
It is a commonplace that Bible translation was a cornerstone of modern democracy, which sprang from the premise that every man must read and interpret Scripture for himself (Mahathir is right: Jews do rule the world, October 28, 2003). But iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images, was no less essential.
Wycliffe and his spiritual heirs, the Separatists who landed at Plymouth in 1620, set out to create a New Israel. Before the new Israel could arise, the ecclesia called out from amongst all nations, Christians first had to tear down the images of a Savior made in the image of a particular ethnicity.
Every religion addresses death-anxiety in its own way. Christians share the suffering of their incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, and vicariously die and then are reborn with him. So did the devotees of Dionysus, Tammuz, Osiris, Mithra, Adonis, and scores of other pre-Christian death-and-resurrection cults around the Mediterranean. Scoffers point to the undeniable resemblance between the pagan and Christian versions of the dead-and-risen god. During the 2nd century the Christian apologist St. Justin felt compelled to retort that centuries before Christ, “demons” had invented such pagan practices as drinking the “blood” of Dionysus in the form of wine in order to discredit what those demons knew eventually would become Christian practice.
But Christianity offered something greater than the innumerable death-and-resurrection cults of tiny peoples each worshipping a tribal god, as apologist Rodney Stark observes: “In uniting its empire, Rome created economic and political unity at the cost of cultural chaos … Greco-Roman cities were microcosms of this cultural diversity. People of many cultures, speaking many languages, worshipping all manner of gods, had been dumped together helter-skelter … A major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. All were welcome without need to dispense with ethnic ties.”
By its nature, pagan religion springs from ethnicity; the individual’s concept of life beyond his physical existence cannot be separated from the propagation of his race and culture. But Christianity offered a different sort of immortality. I wrote previously (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003):
Its original heartland in the Near East, Asia Minor and Greece fell to Islam, but even while Arabs rode victorious over St Paul’s missionary trail, the Church converted the barbarians of Europe. Christianity made possible the assimilation of thousands of doomed tribes into what became European nations. Something similar is at work in Africa, the only place in the world where Christianity enjoys rapid growth. Yet Christianity’s weakness … lay in the devil’s bargain it made with the old paganism. Christianity’s salvation lay beyond the grave, in the wispy ether of heavenly reward. Humans require something to hang on to this side of the grave. By providing the pagans with a humanized God (and a humanized mother of God and a host of saints), Christianity allowed the pagans to continue to worship their own image. Germans worship a blond Jesus, Spaniards worship a dark-haired Jesus, Mexicans worship the dark Virgin of Guadalupe, and so forth. The result, wrote Franz Rosenzweig, is that Christians “are forever torn between Jesus and [the medieval pagan hero] Siegfried.”
Out of the Roman Empire’s tribal chaos Christianity proposed to form a single people of Christ, an all-embracing “New Israel.” As a Roman state religion and later as a missionary movement in barbarian Europe, however, Christendom merely replicated the Roman welter of contending ethnicities. The Catholic empire failed as a political model for the new people, as I have argued elsewhere (The sacred heart of darkness, February 11, 2003). In Catholic Europe, the anguished soul of the sinner shriveled before the imposing edifice of the Church, and the sinners sought refuge in a quasi-pagan religion in which Jesus and his saints bore the visage of each tribe. Through syncretism, that is, adoption of pagan customs as an aid to conversion, the Church encouraged the practice.
The Protestant reformers – Wycliffe in England, Jan Hus in Bohemia, then Martin Luther in Germany, Huldreich Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva – set out to rid Christianity of the pagan baggage it had carried since the time of Constantine. They banished the worship of saints, the adopted tribal gods in Christian garb; the adoration of the ancient Queen of Heaven in the guise of the Virgin Mary; and the consumption of the blood and body of the sacrificed god taken from the cult of Dionysus. They took to heart the Jewish critique of medieval Christianity, notably Rabbi Moses ben Nachman’s 13th-century argument that Free Will could not be reconciled with Original Sin. The more radical of them, notably Zwingli, fired up mobs to rip down from church walls the representations of God, including his Son. That helps explain why Switzerland is the world’s oldest surviving republic.
Good, bad or indifferent, the bloodied Jesuses and weeping Virgins had to go. The sine qua non of the New Israel is that it must be beyond ethnicity. Christians secure their sense of immortality from the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. But eternal life is never one’s own, rather, it is the life of one’s people and the culture of that people. However strongly we believe that we shall sit beside Jesus singing psalms for eternity, we assume that the psalms will be written in a language we know and that our fellow singers will be able to communicate with us.
That is why the flimsiest of barriers separates the Christian’s rebirth into the People of Christ, the New Israel, from a crypto-pagan revival of the pagan death-and-resurrection cults, with Jesus, Mary and the saints recast as tribal gods. At the extreme of such backsliding, we encounter the “Aryan Christianity” of the 20th century through Hitlerian Christians who denied that Jesus was a Jew to begin with. That is why the Reformers insisted that it is no more possible to depict the Son of God than God the Father, the incorporeal author of Creation whose existence lies outside the physical universe.
The Reformers failed on their home ground; the national constituents of European Christianity came to worship its own ethnicity under the guise of a Savior recast in its own ethnic image. America became the New Israel, the only approximation of a Christian nation, because it called individuals out of the cultures of the Old World, and from them formed a new people. Rather than the atomized, anguished rabble of sinners cringing before the Seat of St Peter, Americans from the outset elected their own pastors and read their own Scripture. That, as I observed previously, explains why New England farmers would fall into line against British regulars at Lexington in 1775. Radical Protestants came to America to create a New Jerusalem. It should surprise no one that they feel a profound sympathy for the Old Jerusalem.
One cannot blame Mel Gibson, the Catholic traditionalist, for dwelling obsessively upon the physical torture of Jesus. Traditionalists like Gibson feel that the American Catholic Church has forsaken Christianity’s spiritual mission, and seek ways to shock their co-religionists. Gibson has explained his intentions with frankness and humility. In the dark night of his soul, he tells interviewers, the Australian actor really is the suicidal detective of the Lethal Weapon films. In his despair, he reached back into the dank places of European convent life and encountered the gory visions of the 18th-century German nun Sister Anne Emmerich. What he places upon the altar is the craft of his hands, namely Hollywood’s full suite of manipulative visual techniques. Lovingly he has given the world “Lethal Religion.” Why wince at the scourging of Jim Caviezel, Gibson’s blue-eyed hunk of a Jesus? In 1987, Gibson did the scene himself in the original Lethal Weapon, with electroshock in place of whips.
Today’s American evangelicals strain at the gnats of popular culture, but have swallowed Gibson’s camel: a throwback to the crypto-pagan Christianity that poisoned Europe. The Passion of the Christ may turn out to be the cultural disaster of the decade.
After writing the above lines I listened to the whole of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” that crown jewel of Christian art. I heartily recommend it as an antidote for allergic reactions to The Passion of the Christ.