Monday, March 01, 2004

Jim Cork Replies

To my criticism of his take on the soon-to-be-infamous Crow Episode in The Passion. You can read Jim's reply here. Let me reply as follows. First off, I haven't taken Jim to task for "not liking" the movie. "Not liking the movie" is fine with me, although reasons why it's not liked matter to me and I can disagree with them, as I did with Jim's criticism of the Crow Episode and his inaccurate summary of how the film ends. There are some people who're deciding whether to go see the film, and so I think comments like Jim's might deserve a response from someone who's inclined to defend The Passion, which I am. Of course I didn't call Jim demonic, or a heathen -- although it's indicative to me that Jim thinks I could well have done so given my liking of the film. More on that below, as I turn to Jim's more specific comments.

Umm... well, for starters, the Book of Job is sacred scripture. Mel Gibson's movie is a work of art, and people should be able to critique it as a work of art without being subjected to the Spanish Inquisition.

But the Book of Job is also literature, as is Sophocles' play which I also mentioned. Both of them depict physical suffering imposed by divine will, and the latter specifically uses blindness to symbolize disregard for the moral order. Given that, dismissing the Crow Episode as "just lame" doesn't do the film justice. Nor, frankly, does it do the idea of divine vengeance (which is an artistic, and not only theological, idea) much justice -- it's impossible to distinguish the criticism I've read of the Crow Episode by Bill or Jim Cork from criticism which claims that good Christian drama cannot show God wreaking painful havoc on the life of a sinner. Now, if someone had wanted to advance an argument about how the Crow Episode, inasmuch as it lacks a recognizable depiction of Gesmas' culpable rejection of Jesus' divinity, clumsily drops the ball on the idea of extra ecclesiam nulla salus I'd be all ears. I could even tolerate a little speculation about the connection between that and the way so many Traditionalists drop the same ball. But no one wants to make criticisms like that, preferring instead to pitch fits about the very suggestion that God can be vengeful or that sin can make men blind.

They also, regrettably, prefer to deplore the faithfulness of people who find The Passion edifying. That happens in the patronizing conclusion to Michael Coren's review, which Jim had also quoted: "If the movie works for you, I am happy. For me, it is prayer, Bible and a dwelling in a God-given imagination that this hyped Hollywood product can never rival." Mr. Coren is apparently edified by prayer, the Bible and a God-given imagination, but us stomachs who admire The Passion can only be enlivened by "hyped Hollywood product." It continues to amaze me that such disdainful sentiments can be regularly shoved in our faces by writers who can, whenever a detailed and (if I do say so myself) articulate objection to their own fuzzy criticisms has been given, instantly complain that their faith's being maligned by the moral equivalent of "the Spanish Inquisition." More on that below.

Nobody was fisking me when I complained about our parish singing "Ashes" or "All Are Welcome."

OK. Was someone supposed to? I don't get this point.

When the Los Angeles Cathedral was completed, many Catholic bloggers criticized it without restraint.

Yeah, it's as ugly as a goat's butt. Looks like a set from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

And yet the LA Cathedral contains, in its Tabernacle, not fake movie blood and torn plastic flesh, but the actual Body and Blood of Christ. If people can criticize the architecture of a cathedral containing the Real Presence, why can't people criticize a movie in which an actor pretends to be Jesus?

Ah, I see it now. This is a very good argument. But if Jim could point out where I said Catholics aren't allowed to criticize The Passion I'd be grateful for the opportunity to understand why this complaint is being voiced about my comments. Lots of people are criticizing The Passion, and I've made it clear why I think their criticisms are generally unfounded, sometimes downright silly, and (in Bill Cork's case) not a little motivated by a kind of pious anxiety about people who live Catholicism differently than he does. I don't believe I've ever said people have no right to criticize the film, or that criticism shows a lack of Catholic faith (or, in the case of non-Catholic, and/or non-Christian critics, the lack of whatever faith they hold). That, unfortunately, isn't something we can say for some critics' perspectives on people who they're disagreeing with.

Bill and Jim are presently taking the view that attempts to refute criticisms of The Passion are motivated by a false understanding of Christianity that replaces the Evangelists with Mel Gibson and the Magisterium with Icon Productions. (That's the gist of Mr. Coren's snotty review as well, that while real Christians rely on God, fake ones who like The Passion are disgracing their religion with hyped Hollywood product). I suppose that makes a kind of sense once we've dogmatically concluded that The Passion -- whether as just a film, or a broader cultural phenomenon -- is irreconcilable with an authentic Christian conscience. If one thinks that, then religious arguments for appreciating the film can no longer be voiced from a common tradition but from an antithetical one which venerates "St. Mel" and believes on his "Gospel" -- however that Gospel ends up being described by conflating it with the delusions of UFO-fantasists, Hutton Gibson, and people who think Tenochtitlan ought to be the capital of California. That's how, I think, we end up with Bill's repeated suggestion that Catholics who like The Passion are rejecting Catholicism in favor of anti-Semitism, schismatic theologies, and belief in little green men; Mr. Coren's suggestion that Christians who like The Passion might want to try prayer, God, and the Bible; and Jim's suggestion that people who defend The Passion against criticism can be analogized to "other" inauthentic exemplars of Catholicism like Torquemada.

From what I can tell, the vast majority of people who are trying to declare viewpoints on The Passion "out of bounds" are the film's critics, who generally insist that Christian orthodoxy demands that we think the film sinful or a universal occasion of sin. That's the corner they painted themselves into at the start; rather than tightly focus their criticism on the film's failure to live up to itself, they launched an all-out attack on the film's compatibility with any wholesome understanding of Christianity. With respect to some critics, I think that's because of a belief that Christianity is a toxic religion that can be tolerated only after its central narrative has been sanitized and made to conform with a superior revelation. With respect to other critics, I think that's because of the dominant intellectual failing of our times -- ignorance of the fact that while all sin is error, not all error is sinful. No, I will not name names. I shall let any critic who think he or she's described by these words claim the distinction on their own.

Barb Nicolosi's comments about the "demonic" nature of the criticism can also qualify as examples, as do some of Mel Gibson's own comments about opposition and controversy surrounding the film. I'm sure devils are trying to keep people from seeing the movie, if they've concluded that it might arouse their "patients" to an ardent love of Jesus. I'm sure devils are trying to get people to see the movie, if they've concluded that they can use it to arouse their "patients" to anti-Semitism or paranoid fantasies about the possession of everyone who doesn't think "right." I use Jim's argument here, although the point is more apt with response to Bill's campaign against the film: If someone can praise Scripture even though Satan himself quotes it, why can't someone praise The Passion even though the devil can make use of that as well? If you'll forgive my ambitions toward being a Thomist, I'd prefer we spent our time finding good and bad arguments rather than good and bad souls; the former is something we can do, the latter is something for which God is better qualified.

The bottom line is that I admire The Passion and I've read very few criticisms of it that even qualify as serious, and the few I have read don't end up holding water for a number of reasons which I've talked about at length. I think I can say that -- not only say it, but (if I do say so myself) make a pretty good case for it -- without joining the Spanish Inquisition, venerating "St. Mel," or believing in a different Gospel.

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