Mel Gibson's recent film, "The Passion of the Christ," taps some of the major themes explored in Eleanor Heartney's new book, Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art.
Produced by a Catholic and focused on the physical suffering of Christ, the film has many points in common with the work of leading contemporary artists from Catholic backgrounds that Heartney discusses in her book.
But Heartney also sees key differences, which she discusses in the following interview.
Mel Gibson is a Catholic, and "The Passion" is a product of his imagination. Is he a postmodern heretic in your view?
He is and he isn't. On the one hand, it's clear that he's very Catholic in the sense I talk about in the book. His imagination is very carnal, with its emphasis on Christ's death, on bodily suffering and bodily fluids. All of these things are very much a part of the Catholic imagination. But he lacks that metaphorical quality.
He doesn't transform the story or the traditional images, he just gives them to you extremely literally. So he's not a heretic. I don't get the sense of a great imagination that is taking these deeply embedded images and ways of thinking about the world and transforming them. In that sense, he's closer to the fundamentalist Christians for whom the Bible is a text you take completely literally.
How do you think "The Passion" resembles or differs from the works of other postmodern heretics you discuss in your book?
In certain ways it's related to what I talk about with endurance artists like Burden, Flanagan and Acconci, that through this sympathetic identification with the artist's pain you put a responsibility back on the viewer. Gibson's work also alludes to this notion of a "contract" with the viewer - this kind of human sharing of Christ's suffering is the essence of Catholic tradition.
Again what's different about the film is it's very voyeuristic. I thought the whole film was very emotionally manipulative in the way that it encourages viewers. They don't identify with Christ but see themselves in a superior position to those who are inflicting the pain. The big difference is it doesn't then become a contract between the viewer or believer with the suffering of Christ. Instead it becomes a kind of battle between the righteous and the unrighteous.
How do you account for the film's appeal to Protestants, who traditionally have been uneasy with the Catholic artist's focus on the body and what you call the "carnality of the Catholic imagination"?
That's a very interesting and strange phenomenon. It does run completely counter to the evangelical emphasis on Resurrection and the tendency to eschew graphic bloody images. But I think that the bond I mentioned between conservative Catholic and fundamentalist Christians, based on their mutual focus on the literal reading of the Bible, is what allows Protestants to enter into the film.
There is a whole tradition now of incredibly violent, bloody movies in America. In a sense Gibson has framed this in a way that is familiar to moviegoers, and I really see this as a kind of "Jesus Christ as Braveheart."
Your book explores the erotic and homoerotic dimensions of the Catholic imagination. Do either of these figure in "The Passion?"
To me the film wasn't very erotic or homoerotic because Jesus is so bloody and so broken that he didn't seem like much of a sex object. In fact, it's a very anti-homosexual film. The way Herod is portrayed as a drag queen is very homophobic, using the standard stereotypes of homosexuality, and, of course, Herod is one of the very bad guys.
You write about a political divide between those raised in different Christian traditions. Do you think "The Passion" bridges this divide, and is that a positive thing?
It does but not in a good way. I think there's a lot of merit in the charges about the film's anti-Semitism: It may bring together conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, but it does so by negating and dividing them from Jews.
The film is presented as a very literal take on the Bible, although incorporated also are elements from a 19th-century mystic's version of further degradations of Jesus. And there are some very interesting writings by the early Christian scholar Elaine Pagels, who has investigated what turns out to be a plethora of gospels that were available by the second century A.D.
According to Pagels, the four that we know as the codified versions were, in fact, selected for various political reasons, and the others were suppressed. One of the reasons these particular Gospels were selected is that they helped to codify a sense of identity for the early Christians, which separated them from the Jews and, in many ways, made the Christians more palatable to the Romans.
By taking these four Gospels as literal truth you perpetuate this anti-Semitism that was very much a part of the codification of early Christianity, and you ignore all the scholarship since that reveals it was a more fluid and complex situation.