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On Violence and The Passion of the Christ
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Fifty-Six
by Brian S. Wise
02 March 2004

What is it that is supposed to separate the violence in The Passion from Natural Born Killers?

Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed Pulp Fiction; it won the Palme d’Or for best international picture at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and Tarantino accepted an Academy Award for best original screenplay.  Late in that film, the Bruce Willis character fights free from restraints and breaks into a room to save the life of a newly sworn enemy, played by Ving Rhames.  As the door to the room opens, the viewer sees the Rhames character tied up, bent over a table with a gag in his mouth; he’s being raped by one man while another cheers him on.  The Willis character slices one man open with a sword, the Rhames character shoots the other in the crotch with a shotgun, only then to call for more sinister backup.  Pulp Fiction topped dozens of best picture lists in 1994, including mine.
Today, many of those same critics are suggesting The Passion of the Christ is much too violent for consumption.
Okay, but look: What exactly makes the violence in, say, A Nightmare of Elm Street (a film I enjoy, and a legendary piece of work in its genre) more palatable than the violence in The Passion of the Christ?  What can be said to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more digestible than the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan?  What separates Natural Born Killers from Schindler’s List?
It’s that people can get their heads around cartoon violence without having to be forced to consider their biases.  In other words, if someone – oh, let’s say Andy Rooney – is offended by Christianity, and someone else – oh, let’s say Jesse Ventura – thinks religion is a crutch for the weak-willed who like to move in flocks like sheep, what are the odds a graphic depiction of Christ’s suffering is going to create within them miraculous sunbeams of understanding?  Of course there are people who despise Christianity outright; too few of them actually have the courage to say they think the crucifixion means nothing, so instead they fall back on whatever seems safe, that the film is simply much too violent, and no one should be subject to that sort of brutality when they go to the movies.

How much does anyone seeing The Passion of the Christ, including the vast majority of critics and Christians, really know about Roman punishment these days?  Historically speaking, what are the odds Christ was first led away from Pilate and slapped and tickled as opposed to tortured?  We trust and accept that anything more than Jesus of Nazareth with a pillow fight would have been too much for some people so long as that depiction inflamed the passions of believers.  This is one of those instances where one stops briefly to consider the source and gets on with things; if the film is too much for you to handle, imagine what Christ went through, and then maybe you’ll understand why giving up Coke and Twinkies for a month isn’t that big a deal.

I hesitate here to say something about Andy Rooney, who Sunday before last went on 60 Minutes and suggested God had spoken to him.  In that conversation, God was said to have told Rooney that Mel Gibson was a nutcase and that he, God, dropped the ball in allowing Gibson to be created.  To underscore the point, Rooney appeared on the Don Imus program last Thursday to say he wasn’t going to spend nine dollars, the price of a ticket, to see The Passion of the Christ, “just to get a couple of laughs.”

Now this is where one should speak very carefully.  So far I have written a few hundred words and spoken tens of thousands on the topic of this film; I have done so as someone who hasn’t ever walked into a church and seriously worshiped, as someone who has a narrow set of religious beliefs and serious reservations otherwise, as someone who can be called “agnostic” at best.  And I assure you, there is no comfort in agnosticism, in not knowing.

Even at the end of all that, I have never denied Christ’s existence or the crucifixion; the fact of the matter is, the crucifixion is provable.  Misanthropy is Rooney’s act, and I understand it.  But to suggest a graphic depiction of Christ’s last hours can be broken down into “just a couple of laughs” is not only intellectually offensive but historically offensive, just about as offensive as Hutton Gibson’s contention the Holocaust was exaggerated, at which Rooney takes umbrage.

Brian Wise is the lead columnist for Intellectual Conservative.

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