Pascha, ever-virginity, point-of-view shots

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?

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02892679927066330908 Ken

    To further help you reconcile the perpetual virginity of Mary, why not adopt the view that Mary was Joseph’s second wife (at least) and he was an old man already in those years. If that isn’t enough to account for the lack of carnality in their relationship, then simply follow the tradition that Joseph died early on (though I suppose you’d have to accept he survived twelve years to accompany Jesus to the temple). As for the miracle of Jesus’s birth, if you can accept the immaculate conception, why not accept the immaculate birth? Surely, with God, all things are plausible.

    But more to my point in posting, I really have to question the critical thinking behind your belief that the Bible becomes more historical as it approaches the Christian era. That’s simply a cop-out because it almost certainly means the Bible becomes more historical as the historicity of the events become more important to your Faith. Weak logic to be sure. Certainly, I’ll grant that Gen 1-11 is distinct from the literature in books like Samuel-Kings, Chronicles, and the Gospels; I’d regard it as pre-history and Jewish myth. But, either the Bible is ancient literature or it isn’t… despite the fact that the texts were written over a thousand years, there is not suddenly a new modern historical consciousness in the first century that makes the Gospel accounts more “historical” than the historiography of the Hebrew Bible. Take, e.g., the Gospel of Matthew, which seems clearly to be a work of early Christian midrash. Matthew’s genealogies and infancy narratives, its use of Hebrew/Greek Scriptures, and its Mosaic typology and five-part organization point to a narrative as fundamentally anti-modernist as any historiographic counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. This is not to say that I don’t think Jesus is an historical figure and the Gospels aren’t interested in history but only that the literature of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are both clearly written in the conventions of their time and the quality of “history” in them does not immediately become more reliable because the New Testament is further along in the great cosmological process we call time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    As for the miracle of Jesus’s birth, if you can accept the immaculate conception, why not accept the immaculate birth?

    Neither I nor the Orthodox accept the immaculate conception — that is a specifically Catholic doctrine.

    Surely, with God, all things are plausible.

    Possible, yes; plausible, no. So, assuming you meant the virginal conception, yes, I suppose we could say that the existence of one miracle makes the existence of others possible. But each claim has to be assessed on its own merits, whatever those are.

    I really have to question the critical thinking behind your belief that the Bible becomes more historical as it approaches the Christian era. That’s simply a cop-out because it almost certainly means the Bible becomes more historical as the historicity of the events become more important to your Faith. Weak logic to be sure.

    I think it is a pretty obvious fact that, as you yourself grant, the primeval history in Genesis is of a noticeably different character from the Davidic history, which in turn is of a noticeably different character from, say, the Gospels and the Epistles. I don’t think one has to say that the historicity of the Gospels and Epistles are more important to one’s faith than the historicity of those other books in order to state the obvious fact that the historicity of the Gospels and Epistles is, by and large, stronger than that of the other books.

    FWIW, one of the main reasons I insist on the importance of the basic historicity of the New Testament texts is partly because they do so, too, and in a way that the Old Testament texts do not. And indeed, there are some people, such as Tom Harpur, for whom the obvious historicity of the Gospels and Epistles is something of a problem, so they have to go to great and rather ridiculous lengths to assert that Jesus was a purely mythical figure with no basis in history, etc. Those people offer a classic example of weak logic, I would say.

    But, either the Bible is ancient literature or it isn’t… despite the fact that the texts were written over a thousand years, there is not suddenly a new modern historical consciousness in the first century that makes the Gospel accounts more “historical” than the historiography of the Hebrew Bible.

    I hardly think developments over the course of a thousand years or more could ever be described as “sudden”! Granted, there are different sensibilities at work among the different “ancient” books, hence Matthew is written in a Jewish style while Luke is written in a Greek style, etc. But there were different sensibilities at work in the so-called “modern” era, too, and this is, if anything, even more true in our current “post-modern” era.

    the literature of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are both clearly written in the conventions of their time and the quality of “history” in them does not immediately become more reliable because the New Testament is further along in the great cosmological process we call time.

    I heartily agree, as far as that goes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02892679927066330908 Ken

    Yes, yes… you caught me in a slip; a slip I do sadly tend to make quite frequently. As you assumed, I should have written virginal conception not immaculate conception.

    …in order to state the obvious fact that the historicity of the Gospels and Epistles is, by and large, stronger than that of the other books.

    Really. How do you arrive at that conclusion? I’d say that the historicity of the Gospels and Epistles is actually more difficult to evaluate than Samuel-Kings. At least with Samuel-Kings, the events described are often of a sufficient significance that archaeology can contribute to the discussion. With respect to the Gospels and Epistles, however, archaeology provides little more than context and insight on minor details. While I have no doubt that Jesus existed and as a Christian accept the testimony of the Gospels, as a historian I can say no more about Jesus’ or Paul’s life, perhaps even less, than I could about David’s life.

    I hardly think developments over the course of a thousand years or more could ever be described as “sudden”! Granted, there are different sensibilities at work among the different “ancient” books, hence Matthew is written in a Jewish style while Luke is written in a Greek style, etc. But there were different sensibilities at work in the so-called “modern” era, too, and this is, if anything, even more true in our current “post-modern” era.

    While I certainly don’t want to obscure the differences between Jewish biblical historiography and the Gospels (because there are many), there is little difference between them with respect to the quality of historicity. Both are ancient forms of historiography or biography. Though the Gospels are informed by more recent developments in the Greco-Roman world, they are still no less prone to inaccuracy, exaggeration, and theological interpretation than Samuel-Kings or Chronicles. As sources of history, each present significant problems.

    PS. I said “suddenly” because the Gospels would be the “sudden” evidence. Nothing before then exhibits the qualities.

  • Lance McLain

    Nice Post Peter. Don’t really have an answer for you, but I know that salvation comes in the struggle…so keep struggling!

    Is is safe to say that this is all boiling down to “miracles”? That your fear is you will be forced to accept (or be critically associated with those who accept) the historiocity of all or most of the miracles that are documented in all the hagiographic literature associated with Orthodoxy…even the most outrageous of them.

    Or is it more serious than that…that you are wondering perhaps if we Orthodox have made up major elements of our religion wholecloth?

    I can’t help but also wonder if some kind of “miracle” were to occur up close and personal with you, something you yourself experienced, would that change your perception or acceptance of these other more ancient miracles? Something to think on.

    Another thought that comes to mind, and one aspect I take comfort in with Orthodoxy is their emphasis not so much on miracles, but rather on living the ascetic and pure and holy life (and notice how the miracles are always associated with that in the hagiographies). Blessed are the pure in heart..for they shall *see* God.

    regards,
    -Lance

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Pardon the delayed reply, folks.

    How do you arrive at that conclusion? I’d say that the historicity of the Gospels and Epistles is actually more difficult to evaluate than Samuel-Kings.

    Well, for starters, virtually everyone agrees that the bulk of the Pauline epistles were written by Paul himself, and they contain historical and autobiographical information. Whereas Samuel-Kings does not. And there is good reason to believe the Gospels contain, if not quite personal autobiographical material, at least communally self-referential material. Check the reference to Simon of Cyrene’s sons in Mark’s gospel — a reference that only makes sense if Mark’s audience knew these people.

    Is is safe to say that this is all boiling down to “miracles”? . . . Or is it more serious than that…that you are wondering perhaps if we Orthodox have made up major elements of our religion wholecloth?

    Let’s put it this way. The less assertions I have to deal with, the better. And the more stories people tell, the more assertions I have to deal with.

    This is especially so when the Orthodox hold up the lives of the saints as worthy of emulation, or when the Orthodox say something along the lines of, “We believe so-and-so’s testimony because miracles happened around them, and those miracles are a sign of God’s grace,” and yet the only reason we “know” that those miracles happened is because of someone else’s testimony. And then what do we do with, say, the likes of Lonnie Frisbee, who apparently performed miracles despite apparently not having the sort of life that we should emulate?

    And as a film critic, of course, I all too frequently come across films that are supposedly based on the lives of real people, yet they distort the facts in order to present some uplifting message or other. So I see no reason why that couldn’t happen in the lives of the saints passed on by the Church, too.

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