Friday, February 27, 2004

sweet bloody jesus

when I was a child of ten or eleven or so, when television was still in its infancy and there was only one channel - the BBC - which only broadcast between around mid-day and midnight, there emerged a relatively brief, golden age of television playwriting which, it could be argued, began and ended with the career of the late Denis Potter, who died (some will think of it as almost dying on-camera) in 1994, shortly after giving a final interview, most memorably marked by his frequent resorts to a hip-flask of morphine (he was dying of pancreatic cancer), in which was discussed, among many other things, his play 'Son of Man'. first broadcast at Easter, 1969, with that formidable Irishman, Colin Blakely, playing Jesus, this TV drama remains one of the most shocking pieces of drama I have ever seen, and its effect on the agnostic twenty-two-year-old I had by then become remained with me for many years. I had been brought up a Christian - a Methodist - in a family which went to church sometimes twice (morning and evening) every sunday, and I had sunday school in between. we were not 'fundamentalist' by a long stretch, but we were fairly fervent (my father was a lay preacher - a very good one - I inherited my own easy ability to time a rhetorical pause to perfection from him), and I knew my bible back to front and inside out by the time I reached secondary school age. think rod and tod flanders. so it wasn't as if any element of the Easter story was any kind of surprise. what potter's 'Son of Man' demonstrated to me, though, was that if, as we were to believe, Jesus was a man as well as the son of god, then his final suffering - his Passion - had to have been an actual event, not a metaphor, the human horror of which had been transformed by historic process into a series of iconographic images - the Stations of the Cross - which are the visual accompaniment to a set of prayers and meditations intended to keep the Christian congregation mindful of the greater truth contained in the symbology - that He took upon Himself the Sins of the World as a sacrifice, in order that we might be absolved of the Original Sin and thus Saved from the Tortures of Everlasting Hell. phew. 'Son of Man' was a first, in that it shocked little england to the core to be presented, not only with the image of a Christ who was racked by doubts over his own mission and plagued by the fear that he had been forsaken by God, but also, and so nakedly, with something approximating the real brutality and horror and pain of Christ's Passion, albeit in terms which would seem graphically tame now. Christianity was still (isn't it still?) about politely intoned prayers, badly-sung hymns, and recitations of the ten commandments and the Lords Prayer. to have it spiked with blood and violence seemed, at the time, not just shocking, but vaguely sacrilegious. there was a media furore, naturally (par for the course with anything dear old Dennis ever did).
I still recall the feeling of suppressed rage I felt when the camera cut away from the shot of the first nail being adjusted (with clinical historical accuracy, I remember, to pierce between the ulna and the radius at the base of the hand - the Romans having learnt from long experience not to suspend the entire body-weight from the too-easily-torn pierced palm) to the face of Jesus - my Jesus, my doubtful, my sweet existential Irish Jesus - and his full-throated scream at that first sickening thud of the hammer striking that dreadful nine-inch nail home. I had no way of assimilating that rage - how to direct something so supposedly irrelevant? - other than to mentally replay those images, over and over again, and try, yet again, to make sense of those final words - "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." such impossibly challenging words - invented, most probably, by some fourth century priest rewriting the matthew gospel for submission to the third Council of Nicaea for reasons best left unexamined - which unequivocally absolve the transgressor whose transgression emerges from ignorance, and which, under a supposedly Christian administrative system, subsequently necessitated countless man-years of interpretative contortion in order to turn it on its head and make of its opposite - that ignorance of the law is no defence - one of the cornerstones of western jurisprudence.
the atheist I have now become is fully able to share dennis potter's love of Jesus the man - the great teacher who (whether he proposed them or not matters less than that his story embodies them) offered, in the form of the Beatitudes, some of the most concise, appropriate, and elegant instructions in living at peace with ourselves and our neighbours that have ever been codified. the Christian I once was is betrayed, daily, at the way the message of love was subsumed, in the name of political expediency, to the message of hate, and to the historical adoption of images of torture, to the exclusion of all else, as the brand image of an entire religion.
which is why mel gibson is a wanker.
clearly, the man is a traditional hollywood sectual wacko of the travolta ilk. whatever brand of christian catholicism he subscribes to it's evidently a long way removed from the healy-feely sort, and more akin to the kind that mourns the passing of the good old days when taking the family to watch a few dozen heretics burnt alive was the equivalent of a trip to Madame Tussaud's. and he clearly enjoyed the fifteen minutes of graphic disembowelling he achieved in Braveheart so much that his big idea for his next movie was that it should have nothing but torture in it, and, of course, there it was staring him in the face - the Dolorous Passion of His Sweet Jesus.
what does it tell us about the current state of play in the world's champion of democracy that, faced with the supposed constant threat of terrorist attack by dark-skinned folk who are religious fanatics, the mainstream hollywood response should be to mount an evangelical revivalist platform vaguely disguised as a movie whose single, hours-long reiterated, slow-mo lingered, aramaic-inflected message is that They Tortured Our Sweet Jesus to Death. all this discourse about the movie's supposed anti-semitism is a misreading of a much darker subtext (intellectuals always think higher than the frame). the bottom line is that the majority of the pig-ignorant bible-bashing bush-lovers who drag their traumatised kids out of that hysterical auditorium will be busy making the same connection they were duped into making about Saddam - that Evil is dark-skinned and devious and talks arabic, and the guys who attacked the twin towers are the direct descendants of those guys who Tortured Our Sweet Jesus to Death (not the guys who were in uniform - they were just following orders, after all - the other ones), and boy, have they got it coming to them!

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