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Dan and Mel get religion

It’s a rare year when popular culture gets two booster shots of religion. The jabs this year have come from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ and Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, soon to be a movie directed by Ron Howard. Both works have had the kind of success which is spoken of in millions: copies, viewers, readers and, most of all, dollars.

At first glance, The Passion of the Christ and The Da Vinci Code are chalk and cheese. Gibson’s movie is a work of piety whereas Brown seems to believe that the entire Christian tradition is a fabrication orchestrated to conceal the truth about Jesus. Gibson engages with the story of Jesus from within a conservative part of the church community. Brown, on the other hand, has nothing to prove. Indeed, he has a lot to disprove. Yet for all their differences in terms of church politics, The Passion of the Christ and The Da Vinci Code are similar in at least one important regard.

There are odd things about Mel’s movie. In a scene where Jesus, as a young man, is flirting with his mother, it suggests that Jesus invented the bar stool. The film is also stupidly violent. The most any one of the four gospels gives to the scourging of Jesus is six words. They want you to know that the crucifixion was not a pretty story but they also understand that the most powerful way to depict violence, as to depict sex, is by showing less rather than more. Mel, however, can’t get enough blood. The effect is deadening. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which so appalled some of the very people who flocked to the Gibson movie that they forced its removal from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, was a more poignant and effective portrayal of Christ’s degradation.

Yet The Passion of the Christ is moving, especially in its portrayal of Jesus’ disciples. It is, if anything, less anti-Semitic than scripture. Part of the baggage that Christianity carries is that one of its most beautiful and central texts is also one of its most embarrassing. John’s Gospel does not speak disparagingly of ‘the Jews in the crowd’ or ‘some of the Jews’. The villains are ‘the Jews’.

Gibson avoids a kind of chardonnay fundamentalism common among articulate Christians. This is the belief that each of the four gospels is a distinct literary work which needs to be kept in solemn isolation from the others. Isolation is the hallmark of fundamentalism as, indeed, it is of post-modernism. Scriptural fundamentalism is a blunt form of post-modernism. At the heart of both is the belief that you can understand a text apart from the historical circumstances which created it and which, in turn, it has shaped. Proponents believe a text does not belong to a human community.

The four gospels may well have originated in different corners of an early Christian community, although those parts related to each other, even if awkwardly. But throughout the development of its understanding of Jesus, the Christian community has read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John together. These four gospels have always been part of one Gospel. They aren’t isolates. To complain that Mel Gibson includes in his movie part of Luke’s Gospel (such as Jesus’ dialogue with the thieves on the cross) along with parts of John’s Gospel (such as Jesus entrusting his mother to the disciple he loved) is nuts.

Of course, Gibson had to make choices. Of the two accounts of the death of Judas (suicide in Matthew and probable murder in Luke, Acts), Gibson chooses the one which, for obvious reasons, is more traditional. Judas’ suicide in Matthew, a pre-resurrection story, is a tale of tragedy. Whereas, Luke’s implication that Judas was stabbed (Acts 1.18) raises the spectre of a post-resurrection vendetta which would have been hard to accommodate within a tradition which came to embody ideals of healing and forgiveness. Gibson also chooses to include non-scriptural parts of the Christian tradition, such as Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. But all in all, The Passion of the Christ reflects the Christian belief that Jesus died once, not four times.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code also provides food for thought. It is a little difficult to account for the runaway success of this rather ham-fisted thriller. The Da Vinci Code uses stock characters, such as a stereotypical eccentric Englishman, Leigh Teabing, and many of the narrative devices of pulp fiction. Much of the plot rests on the fact that a sassy young Frenchwoman would be so horrified by the sight of her grandfather engaging in group sex in the privacy of his own sect that she would refuse to talk to him ever after. An old man having costume sex with his buddies is hardly enough to take western civilisation to the brink.

The Da Vinci Code is based mainly around the idea, by no means new, that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus, that they had children and that their bloodline has continued in secret unto today. One of the phrases that recurs throughout the book is ‘the sacred feminine’. It is this which has drawn people to the book and for good reason.

Brown’s readers include many refugees from a male-dominated church which has undermined its own integrity by the way it has written women into the lesser parts of its tradition. Mary Magdalene, disguised as a man, is said to be the 13th disciple in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It is her need to disguise as a man which encapsulates the book’s real concern. The Da Vinci Code is a polemic against boys’ own Christianity.

It is around the figure of Mary Magdalene that The Da Vinci Code shares ground with The Passion of the Christ. In Brown’s book, Magdalene is presented as the wife of Jesus, for which there is no evidence in scripture.

In Gibson’s movie, she is presented as the woman caught in adultery. There is no evidence for this either. In both cases, Mary Magdalene is identified in terms of her sexual identity. She comes into the story because of who she is sleeping with. This does her little justice.

One of the most unfortunate tendencies in Christianity has been to diminish the significance of those women in the Gospel who are presented as leaders. Take Mary of Bethany who, in Luke’s Gospel, is shown sitting at the feet of Jesus, while her sister, Martha, is busy in the kitchen. At one level, the story is about the need for stillness. But to sit at the feet of a teacher is the position of a disciple, of one set to continue the teaching of a master or mistress.

In the story of Lazarus in John’s Gospel, Martha proclaims one of the early core statements of the Christian Community: ‘I believe that you are the messiah, the son of God ...’ (John 11.27). In other words, she is remembered as a teacher and a leader. She has been buried as the woman who knew when to be quiet. In fact, she was one who knew when to speak.

This is even more true of Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel, she is among the last to witness the death of Jesus and the first to witness the resurrection. Indeed, she is the one who breaks the news about Jesus rising from the dead. In other words, Mary Magdalene is the first to celebrate what Christians now call the
paschal mystery.

In the Catholic tradition, the ongoing celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus is called the Eucharist. In the boys’ own version, the Eucharist was instituted in the presence of the ‘twelve’ at the Last Supper. But this overlooks the obvious consideration that, had Jesus not then died on the cross, we would not have the Eucharist. The paschal mystery was first celebrated by a woman, Mary Magdalene.

When the church disallows women to lead the celebration of the Eucharist, it is at odds with scripture. You won’t find that in either The Passion of the Christ or The Da Vinci Code.

Both Gibson and Brown have other agendas. Unfortunately, so does the Catholic Church. 

Michael McGirr’s Bypass: The story of a road is published this month by Picador.



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