Can’t let the day go by without blogging at least a little bit, so here’s an especially jumbled post for ya, mixing a bit of film, a bit of religion, a bit of personal anecdote.
I have been attending my wife’s Orthodox church for just a hair over two years now, and last night marked the third Pascha (Easter) service that I have attended there. In fact, the first Pascha service I attended was one of the very first Orthodox services of any kind that I had seen, before my wife and I were “officially” dating, and I was impressed right away; I vividly remember thinking it reminded me of some of the Jewish rituals I had seen and kind of envied in Fiddler on the Roof (my favorite musical of all time), and I vividly remember thinking that this would be a good thing to raise children with. I also happen to like many aspects of Orthodox theology that make a bit more sense to me than, say, the Augustinian and Anselmian attitudes that have dominated both Catholic and Protestant churches for centuries.
So, why am I not yet Orthodox myself? The main reason is that I’m still not sure what place there is for critical thinking in Orthodox thought. I know that there are critical, scholarly types in the Orthodox world — I have interviewed and worshipped with a few of them — but there is so much in Orthodox tradition that seems historically suspect to me that I can’t quite sign on just yet. And while I know that some of the more critically minded Orthodox people I have met have been able to bracket some of these things off and say, in essence, that such-and-such is just a tradition that poetically expresses a theological point, I am not quite there yet. Perhaps it’s my quasi-fundamentalist upbringing, which despite all my efforts is still inclined to look at things literalistically, but it still sounds to me like I would be making dubious assertions of fact if I were to assent without reservation to certain parts of the liturgy.
One example came up during last night’s service. First, some background. Despite some residual evangelical resistance to the idea, I have gotten quite used to the idea that Mary remained a virgin her entire life; to paraphrase an Orthodox e-pal of mine, we have simply forgotten what it was like to live in a culture with a pronounced sensitivity to “holiness”, and there is reason to doubt that a Jewish couple living within such a culture would have followed up the birth of Christ by carrying on like nothing unusual had happened. Think of how people in Jewish tradition removed their shoes when standing on holy ground, or — just to show how widely applicable this impulse can be — of how people sometimes joke that they will never wash their hands again, after they have shaken the hand of one of their heroes. Before I was married, it was easy for me to say that Joseph and Mary would have hopped in the sack some time after Christ was born. But now that I’ve got a more, ahem, experienced frame of reference, I do question whether I could have done that myself, if I had been in Joseph’s place, knowing that God himself had been in my wife’s womb.
So, the “ever-virgin Mary” is something I can accept, historically, at least in theory. But the traditions don’t stop there. And last night’s service in celebration of the Resurrection included a mention of one of these traditions, in this troparion: “Keeping the seals intact, O Christ, you rose from the tomb, you who did not harm the locks of the Virgin’s womb at your birth, and you have opened to us the gates of Paradise.” There was also a reference somewhere to Christ’s “painless birth”.
Now, I can appreciate why someone might want to say that Mary’s labour was no labour at all, to the point where even her hymen remained intact; it would symbolize a reversal of the “curse” of Eve, etc. But do I accept this historically? No. And I have talked to at least one Orthodox priest who does not accept this historically either, and he alluded to some other prominent Orthodox who see this in more symbolic terms, etc. So it is empirically possible to be Orthodox and to think critically about such matters. But I still want to avoid risking the appearance of expressing apparent assertions of fact that I do not, in fact, believe.
Then again — and just to put this in a broader context — the Good Friday service also included a reference to the medieval belief that pelicans feed their young with blood from their breast, as well as a quotation from Psalm 104 which reflects the three-tiered, flat-Earth cosmology of the ancient Hebrews. So if I can think symbolically about scriptural ideas that were once understood literally, then I should be able to do the same here.
I guess the problem is that, following C.S. Lewis, I have always seen the Bible as coming into sharper and sharper focus, with the heavy mythological stuff at the beginning and then becoming more and more historical as we approach the Christian era. And it seems a shame, to me, that things might have gone out of focus again, afterwards.
Anyway, what has all this to do with film? Two things. First, when I was watching a whole bunch of Jesus films last year, more or less in chronological order, as research for my essay in Re-Viewing The Passion, it struck me that Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was probably the first film to depict Mary giving birth. It struck me at the time that this was a very striking and innovative development in the genre, simply because it had never been done before; and now, I wonder if it might be even more revolutionary than I had realized.
Second, the troparion quoted above reminds me of one of Fr. Thomas Hopko‘s complaints about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). I cannot find any reference to this particular point online right now, but when he spoke in Vancouver last year, he said that the resurrection scene in Gibson’s film was flawed because it implies the tomb was opened in order to let Jesus out, when, in fact, as Hopko puts it, the tomb was opened to let us in, so that we could see that Christ had been raised.
I am especially attuned to this subject right now since I have finally gotten around to reading Jesus and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History, in which Mark Goodacre devotes a page to the film’s use of point-of-view shots and then says, in a footnote:
The only review to notice this feature is Peter Chattaway’s, which speaks of the viewer ‘being drawn into the flow of Jesus’ own memories’ and adding, ‘By giving us the feeling of experiencing Jesus’ thoughts, and by making us privy to the prayers Jesus offers up as he submits to the will of his Father, The Passion draws us toward Christ’s full humanity like no film before.’ But Chattaway misses the significance of the view of the resurrection.
That’s a fair point — in my own writing on the film, I must admit I have practically ignored the ultra-brief resurrection sequence, basically because it really is ultra-brief, and little more than a coda to the film. The interesting thing is, whereas Gibson’s use of point-of-view shots throughout the film is a brilliant method by which to express both the humanity and divinity of Christ, his point-of-view shot in the coda may not be so orthodox, as it were.
Total tangent: Elsewhere, Goodacre says The Passion of the Christ marks “the first time that Jesus’ perspective has been shown by the use of aligning it with the camera’s perspective,” but this is not quite true. Jesus of Nazareth and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) both leap to mind as examples of films that had done this before, albeit in much fewer and smaller doses. I kept a journal of sorts devoted to this point here while re-watching several films in this genre last year.
So … how was that for a string of loosely connected thoughts?