Harvard Divinity School vents its anti-Passion passions

textIt’s good to see that the folks at the Harvard Divinity School know how to stage a media event that offers nuance and balance when dissecting one of the most controversial news stories of the season — the box-office smash “The Passion of the Christ.” Here are some of the viewpoints included in the press release by Beth Potier of the Harvard News Office:

“Deeply sadistic,” said Robert Orsi, Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America. “Disturbing,” he continued. “Militaristic.”

“Pornographic,” added Ellen Aitken, assistant professor of the New Testament, with biting contempt.

“Obscene” and “blasphemous,” panelist and writer James Carroll wrote in an op-ed in The Boston Globe Feb. 24.

“Overwhelmingly bad news,” said Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity. “A celebration of apocalyptic violence.”

There’s a whole lot more, but you get the idea. The James Carroll photo by Stephanie Mitchell at Harvard captures the mood, I am sure, and those who want to listen to the whole forum can do so. The room was packed but there does not seem to have been any dissent. None whatsoever.

Now, anyone who has read this blog knows that my own take on this film is a bit complex. In one of my recent columns, I even provided a forum for Christian traditionalists who have made the decision not to see the film at all. I remain deeply troubled by the numbing literalism of its violence (I kept wanting Alfred Hitchcock to take over for a few minutes) and I didn’t care much for the conflicted-good guy take on the madman Pontius Pilate, either.

But this much I know, as a reporter. There are legions of people out there with highly intelligent and articulate views of this film and they are all over the map, in terms of their praise and condemnation of Mel Gibson’s work. Some people have managed to attack the film and praise it at the same time.

None of which made it into this Harvard event, or so it seems. Perhaps the people who liked the film — or even liked parts of it — were too afraid to speak out. Perhaps it would have taken courage to do so, in such a diverse and tolerant setting. After all, the event was being taped.

Based on the press release alone, it does seem that the panel missed the point of the movie’s defining moment.

Orsi reminded the audience of the film’s inspiration, in the passion plays that re-create Christ’s last days on Earth, performed by religious communities around the world. “I find myself thinking of Palm Sundays in the Bronx,” he said, recalling his own Italian-Catholic heritage. Yet unlike his own experience with passion plays, which involved the church congregation by having them shout, “Crucify him!”, this film distances its viewers from any sense of responsibility.

As I said the other day, there is no doubt in my mind that Gibson clearly stated the thesis of his movie at the end, when Mary is holding the body of her son while gazing out of the frame into the eyes of each and every person in the audience. The impact of the movie is that it distances its viewers from any sense of responsibility?

P.S. Wait! Perhaps the Harvard event was a satire of an academic forum? You know, something like this. That’s the ticket.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen Freeman

    Terry,

    I was struck today in a conversation with one of my catechumenal families who had just returned from seeing the Passion. The question came up, “Did you cry?” The answer was “a little,” but with addendum, “Whenever there was interaction between Jesus and his mother.” I thought this was insightful, also because I thought the film, inter alia, gave a good treament of that relationship. And the comment was correct – the portrayal of that relationship makes you weep. Why? It would be a good discussion starter for protestant/catholic/orthodox on the topic of the Theotokos.