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Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

btman at grotto11 dot com

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Monday, April 5, 2004
19:14 - I used to not get it either

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By the way, after hemming and hawing for a few days, I guess I should comment on this statement by Andrew Sullivan before it's beyond relevance:

THE PASSION OF THE JEW: If you didn't see South Park last night, my commiserations. Watching a cartoon Mel Gibson in his tighty-whiteys jumping onto his own sado-masochism machine was one of the more sublime sights of the year. Yes, he is clearly bonkers. And yes, Stone and Parker are geniuses.

Uh, yeah, he's bonkers as portrayed in South Park, all right-- hootin' and hollerin', leaping around his mansion in what may as well have been a rotoscoped Daffy Duck routine. However: I don't know what Gibsonian antics Sullivan is thinking of, but I've seen no evidence that Mel deserves the treatment that South Park gave him.

The episode is all about how The Passion supposedly states in no uncertain terms that The Jews™ are collectively to blame for killing Jesus, which naturally inspires Cartman to don full Hitlerian regalia and begin leading marches against synagogues (until it's revealed to him that Mel Gibson is in fact kaka-cuckoo, upon which discovery he retires home in abashment). I guess Parker and Stone must have seen the movie, but it seems to me that they must have deliberately missed the point of it, because the South Park episode in question is founded on a straw-man argument and ultimately ends up being weak and confusing.

I think it's obvious to anyone who's seen the movie without the intent to discover Judenhass in it that the movie never makes any claims that "all Jews are culpable for killing Jesus". That doesn't make any sense, especially considering the Jew who helps Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. Jews in the movie are carefully delineated as to their respective moralities, with many good ones and many bad ones; it's the high priests, fearful of Jesus' influence and pettily eager to defend their own niche of power sandwiched between the common Jews and the Roman occupiers, who are made out clearly to be the villains.

But I'm not exactly qualified to discuss this sort of thing, being almost entirely non-religious myself. Bill Hobbs, however, does a much better job:

I have a confession to make:

I killed Jesus.

And I had many co-conspirators, including you.

Yes, you. All of us. We all killed Jesus. All of us – the Romans, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, the Greeks, the Asians, the Rastafarians, the Egyptians – ancient and modern - the Babylonians, the Russians, the French, the Mexicans, the Canadians, the Americans and even those nice people who live down the street from you and go to church every Sunday.

We're all guilty.

We all killed Jesus because we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and Jesus came to earth, withstood real human temptation, lived a sinless life, was crucified despite His pure innocence, and then rose from the dead, thereby triumphing over evil's ultimate weapon. Because He paid the penalty for our sins, we can live without fear of death because, by accepting what He did, we accept God's free gift of grace: salvation and eternal life with Him rather than eternal life without Him.

The South Park conclusion is that "we should focus on what Jesus taught, not how he died," and that sounds very level-headed and sensible and even-handed in this age of making sure the same language can be used to describe any ideology, so that Christianity can be cast as a religion founded on the principle of "be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes", just like all the other religions-- so that we in our postmodern, non-denominational, secular world can feel comfortable coexisting with all religions and treating them all alike.

Normally I treat Parker and Stone as gods in their own right. But in this case I think they really dropped the ball, because Christianity in fact is first and foremost about how Jesus died. It's all about the fact-- or narrative, as you prefer-- that even though he'd committed no crimes or sins, he willingly endured one of the worst tortures any human has ever gone through, absorbing all the associated pain right up to death-- and even though at any point he could have put a stop to it through divine intervention, or caused himself to not feel any more pain, or even (on the human plane) simply cried out for mercy, he didn't. Instead, he sucked it all up, because he was specifically and explicitly trying to take upon himself all the punishment that all of humanity-- guilty or not, sinful or not-- would otherwise have to endure.

That's what the story of the Crucifixion is all about. Whether you consider it just that-- a story-- or the gospel truth, if you remove the unbelievable gore and the unendurable physical pain from the narrative, the story stops making sense, and certainly loses all its emotional and theological impact.

The magnitude of the suffering is crucial, no pun intended, to understanding why Christianity is different in nature from other religions and from general admonitions simply to "love thy neighbor"-- and that's why Gibson portrayed it with as much graphic detail as he did. So often, the Crucifixion is treated like a cartoon, like a day in the park, like some kind of strange ritual where people sort of got shoved around and carried heavy things, but where genuine physical agony really never entered the picture. (In the Life of Brian rendition and other sanitized modern interpretations, the condemned are tied to the crosses.) In Gibson's movie, the gore is the central element to what's on-screen-- you're not supposed to be able to ignore it or treat it with the detachment that we currently use in talking sterilely about the WTC towers falling, yesterday's news that it is. The Passion is to Christianity what the live video coverage of 9/11 was to the War on Terror.

Besides which, there's the seemingly important argument that the narrative paints Jesus' death as predestined-- that the whole point of his birth and life as a human was to suffer and die for everybody else's sins. (Parker and Stone bring up this point, but don't bother addressing it.) Without that unjust death, that martyrdom, there would be no Christianity-- Jesus, divine or not, would have lived an obscure life of traveling ministry, evidently never to make an impact on theology through the ages. Which makes the question of "who killed Jesus?" rather moot, it seems to me; are the people who blame it on the Jews actually saying they'd prefer it if there had been no Crucifixion, and therefore no Christianity?

Which is why I think Parker and Stone, and in turn Andrew Sullivan, are depressingly and uncharacteristically wrong about this.

I'm an atheist, at least insofar as practice takes me. I once scoffed at religion as the domain of the feeble-minded, a playground in which to absorb oneself to keep from facing the realities of everyday life. I regarded a disdain for religion that was founded purely in scientific facts and logic to be demonstrably superior to any brain cycles wasted on the nature of "faith" or on prayer or on any kind of religious study, because hey, look how much free time it left me with.

But it's become fairly clear to me that faith is a concept that's not something a person can grasp in a moment. It's way deeper than that, and seeking out its true meaning is by no means wasted thought. Sure, it may not actually result in anything concrete, and many people take it way too far. Many people who are religious stop being religious on a daily basis, and many other people shift in the opposite direction just as often. But people who disdain religion because it's ostensibly shallow or imbecilic, and who yet consider themselves to be deep philosophers on the nature of the human condition, are deliberately shielding themselves from what is perhaps the most fundamental form of philosophy that informs any understanding of how human beings work.

Religion isn't for me-- I'm really not wired for it. But I can respect the depth of the concepts behind it, having caught one or two glimpses into how hard it can in fact make the brain work.

I can't claim to understand the meanings of the things depicted in The Passion anywhere near as well as, say, Hobbs does. But I think that both he and Mel Gibson have probably devoted a lot more thought to the matter than Parker and Stone have, and I think you can probably guess whose stance on it I respect more.

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