Friday, August 13, 2004

Andrew Sullivan, blog inspirer

This post was originally taking shape under another title, "Andrew Sullivan is Nuts", but the writing stalled, and I decided to start afresh. The means by which Andrew Sullivan has inspired me to write are many, and my original post was actually based on a different article, Sullivan's silly, disingenuous July editorial in Time on same-sex marriage. But, in truth, the article that I'll address here strikes a bit closer to home for me than that one.

As you may have guessed, Sullivan's inspiration for my blog was not a positive one, it was rather the kind of inspiration that Popeye used to cite in the cartoon when he said "That's all I can stands, I can't stand no more!" My general reaction to Sullivan's writing when I've encountered it over the last few months has been growing anger as I watch him write silly thing after silly thing, under the guise of serious editorializing, and engage in wanton misrepresentation of his opponents rather than dealing with positions in a substantive manner. For a great example of that, see the article cited above. So I count Sullivan prominently in my blog inspiration, since I decided it would be better to find an outlet for my annoyance than to stew in silence.

Why am I angry? To answer that question, let's walk together through a brief article from the July 12th Time, where Mr. Sullivan compares Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Of course I'm biased in analyzing these two movies, and I'm handicapped in another way, not having yet seen Fahrenheit , though I've read a large number of reviews of the movie, both positive and negative (I will see the movie, those of you who are graduate students with small children will understand why I haven't made it out there to see it yet). I don't think, however, that these things will undermine my analysis of Sullivan's piece, because I'm not going to focus on his analysis of Fahrenheit.

Since the article is so brief, I'll just reproduce it here, interspersed with my comments.

Sitting in the movie theater watching Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 amid an audience utterly riveted by a movie speaking to its deepest emotions, I kept getting a sense of deja vu. Where had I felt such crowd dynamics before? And then I remembered. What I was sensing was eerily similar to the awestruck devotion I had noticed in another audience — this time of Fundamentalist Christians

OK, gotta jump in here, with a small point. Why did he capitalize "Fundamentalist"? Are we an official denomination? Does it make us more frightening? I assume though I consider myself an evangelical, that my beliefs would put me in the fundamentalist camp for Sullivan. Alvin Plantinga, I believe in his Warranted Christian Belief, has a hilarious (but correct) discussion of how "fundamentalist" is an indexical term, that shifts in its reference depending on who's using it. He take the general meaning of the term to be "benighted SOB somewhere theologically to the right of me", and notes that the term refers very differently when coming out of the mouth of Jerry Falwell than it does from Richard Dawkins. Anyway, back to the article

— as it watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Both movies were appealing to what might be called their cultural bases. They weren't designed to persuade. They were designed to rally the faithful, to use the power of imagery to evoke gut sentiment, to rouse the already committed to various forms of hatred or adoration.

I agree with Sullivan here to a point. As a friend pointed out to me, even though my church and many other evangelical churches used The Passion as an outreach tool, it wasn't primarily intended for a non-Christian audience. Even though Gibson endorsed using it as an outreach, really it was more a person meditation. I won't bother to cite any quotes to this effect from Gibson here, although I'll be happy to find some if anyone wants to contest this point. One way in which I think this can be seen, though, is in all the Catholic imagery embedded in the movie, much of which I initially missed, and which I'm sure the average non-Christian didn't get at all, because they weren't intended for her, but instead for the Catholic faithful. I'm thinking of things like the depictions of the Stations of the Cross throughout the movie, the final shot of the movie which depicts a famous painting from the history of the church, etc. Of course Sullivan being Catholic probably picked up on many more of these things than I did.

I actually think, however, that Michael Moore would disagree with Sullivan on this point, though. I gather that, in addition to rallying the faithful and energizing the base, Moore wanted to convince as many undecided voters that Bush must be cast out of office. I think the "evangelistic" element in Fahrenheit was much more pronounced and intended.

However, I have to take issue with the purposeful ambiguity that Sullivan leaves at the end of this paragraph. While Michael Moore would likely admit the goal of his movie to foment hatred against this administration, Mel Gibson had no such intention for his movie. Adoration, surely. But Sullivan's artful rhetoric here creates an equivalence between the two movies where there is none in reality. One was a worshipful piece of adoration. The other was a political hit piece (this is entirely separate from the question of whether or not Fahrenheit is true or accurate). Presumably Sullivan has bought into the idea that The Passion is anti-semitic. He should at least come out and say what the hatred is that he's implying.

Gibson and Moore — two sides of the same coin? Absolutely. There are times when the far right and the far left are so close in methodology as to be indistinguishable. And both movies are not just terrible as movies — crude, boring, gratuitous; they are also deeply corrosive of the possibility of real debate and reason in our culture. They replace argument with feeling, reasoned persuasion with the rawest of group loyalties.

Of course, this is pure silliness. I can't comment on Fahrentheit, but The Passion was anything but boring, or crude, I can see where the gratuitousness charge comes in, but we'll get to that in a minute. What's more silly about this is the indictment of the movies for being, well, movies. Anyone who thinks that movies which need to sell tickets to survive are or should be turned into mini-dissertations is missing the point. The charge that Sullivan is making is perhaps reasonably directed at Fahrenheit, which as a documentary is more in perhaps more it the category of an argument. But it's really misplaced against The Passion, one doesn't argue with a devotional. That's not what its for. And if Sullivan is saying that there's no place in our culture for devotionals, then I hope he never aspires to any political position.

What's perhaps more important in Sullivan's misunderstanding, especially as a Catholic talking about The Passion, is his reduction of it to a piece of political propoganda, which is what he surely means by associating it with the "far right". Religious people, while they certainly should inform their political views with their faith, ought not reduce the latter to the former. If Mel Gibson had made a movie about politics or for politcal purposes, the comparison would be apt. Here it is just laughable, and offensive to people who see much more in their faith than any political agenda. What's the political agenda of The Passion supposed to be, anyway? Undermining support for Israel?

Compare a few of the techniques. Moore argues that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed only to enrich the Bush family with oil money. For Moore, Sept. 11 wasn't the cause of the war on terrorism. It was a pretext for corruption. He cannot prove this, and so he tries to bludgeon the viewer emotionally to that conclusion. He uses innuendo, sly editing, parody, ridicule and somber voice-overs to give his mere assertions a patina of truth.

OK, I'll take Sullivan's word for this, until I see the movie.

Similarly with Gibson's movie: there is no historical evidence that Jesus endured anything like the sadistic marathon that The Passion lovingly re-creates. But it is portrayed — at fantastical length and in excruciating detail — as historical fact. This is, Gibson wants you to believe, "as it was." Quibble with Moore, and he will accuse you of siding with the devil. Quibble with Gibson, and he will accuse you of opposing God.

Sullivan is a Catholic, and he says on his own blog that he believes that the Gospels are true. So its very strange for him to make the claim that there is no historical evidence for Jesus' suffering, when there is in fact a decent amount, given that it happened almost 2000 years ago. I'm no expert in New Testament apologetics, but there are at least a couple reasons I can think of to believe that the general depiction of Christ's suffering is accurate, if not every specific detail (which no one reasonable would expect, or even really know, it seems to me).

First, Matthew 26 says that the servants of the high priest struck Jesus with their fists and spit on him at the conclusion of his show trial. Matthew 27 speaks of Pilate having him flogged, a common form of Roman punishment, and also mentions the Roman soldiers putting a crown of thorns onto his head, and striking him and mocking him.

These accounts in the gospels accord with most of the main portions of the suffering Jesus goes through in The Passion. The only general portions not mentioned in the gospels that occur in the movie are the treatment by the servants of the high priest that occurs before the trial but after the arrest, and the treatment by the Roman soldiers on the road to Gethsemane. Neither of these strike me as generally implausible. That the servants of the high priest would have mistreated Jesus after arresting him in the middle of the night seems eminently reasonable, and the idea that the Romans would have been gentle to Jesus who had caused so much of an uproar that they surely saw as dangerous to their control of the country is highly unlikely. So it seems that there is ample direct and inferential support for the general depictions in the Passion.

It's likely that Sullivan is bothered by the horrific suffering graphically depicted in Jesus' flogging. If his grievance is with the graphic depiction of the suffering, then, as I've said, this is understandable. The suffering certainly is depicted for a specific purpose, however, and rooted in an actual historical event, unlike Freddy vs. Jason violence. The point is to show the immensity of Jesus' suffering.

If Sullivan sees this as the focus of historical inaccuracy, while I think he's being picky, he may have a point. Reports have floated around that Gibson utilized the book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as the basis for some of his depiction of Jesus' suffering, and that it contains material that is extrabiblical and not necessarily warranted by the Gospels' account. A link to an article by a group of Catholic scholars about The Passion can be found here. If this charge is true, then Gibson might be liable for criticism for using it, especially if it is the case that the author, St. Anne Catherine Emmerich, was anti-Semitic, which I believe I've heard, though I'm not sure.

Whether he's liable for criticism, however, still depends on whether the extra-biblical material is inconsistent with what can be reasonably can be inferred from scripture and history, or not. I think there are two further reasons why the flogging sequence is reasonable on these counts. First, the practice of flogging with a cat-o-nine-tails, a group of leather thongs with rocks and metal embedded in them for ripping and tearing flesh, was a practice of this time. This is what the soldiers are depicting using on Jesus in the latter half of the flogging. Secondly, it is noted by many biblical and historical scholars that, if the Gospel narratives are true, the Jesus dies very quickly for a crucifixion victim. One of the horrors of crucifixion was the slow, extended, horrible death by asphyxiation that most victims suffered, which could go on for days. Jesus was dead in a matter of hours, and this has led some scholars to infer that this was a result of a brutal torturing and loss of blood from his pre-crucifixion ordeals. On this basis, then, there is good reason to Jesus enduring greater suffering than the average crucifixion victim.

None of this proves that Jesus suffered what was generally depicted in the film in any strict sense, but it does show Sullivan's claim that there is no historical evidence for the suffering to be grossly mistaken. Beyond that, his description of the depiction as "sadistic" utterly fails to get the point of the movie. The grotesque suffering is shown to illustrate to the viewer what Jesus suffered on their behalf, and move them to great (or beginning) devotion to him. My own experience and the experience of hundreds of thousands if not millions of other viewers is that this is exactly what it accomplishes.

Both Moore and Gibson use ominous, swelling music. Both give us manipulative scenes of mothers grieving over dead sons as the emotive climaxes of their work. Both clean their narratives of anything that might give them depth or complexity.

I guess I would disagree with Sullivan as to which scene with Mary and Jesus was really the emotive climax of The Passion. Perhaps this is my Protestantism coming through. I thought the emotional climax of the movie came about 2/3 of the way through, when Jesus fell under the weight of the cross, and Mary rushed to his side. He raised his bloodied head, saw her, and said, "Behold, Mother (or was it "woman"?), I make all things new." Nothing in the movie will stick with me longer than that moment, so expressive of Jesus' love, which was, most realize, the whole point of the movie, and the suffering displayed. But I'm not sure exactly how the final scene of the movie was supposed to be manipulative, at least in any morally questionable way. Here my disagreement with Sullivan is really just opinion, though. I would also argue that the simplicity of the narrative in The Passion, which primarily is to allow it to focus clearly on the aforementioned divine love, served to highlight the few central teachings of Jesus that were included in an extremely effective manner.

In Gibson's case, this requires removing any thorough treatment of Jesus' message — the whole point of his suffering.

See my above comment. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan was just turned off by the immense suffering portrayed so graphically. This seems reasonable to me, some people naturally will be. But it doesn't imply that the movie failed to communicate to point of Jesus' suffering.

With Moore, it's accomplished by omitting critical pieces of evidence or context — Bush's success at decimating al-Qaeda's leadership or the vileness of the police state of Saddam Hussein. These facts might add to your understanding. But they would detract from your ability to hate the President.

At least here he's focused on the bad movie of the two.

It is a sign of how far the culture war has gone that almost no one condemns both movies.

No, the truth is, I believe, that its a sign of Sullivan's intense dislike of the cultural right, and his association of Mel Gibson with them (which may be accurate generally, but is irrelevant here) that causes him to so fundamentally misunderstand The Passion on so many levels.

If you're a Fundamentalist red-stater, Gibson is a hero. If you're a leftist blue-stater, Moore is, in the words of the New York Times, "a credit to the Republic." The truth is that both movies are different but equally potent forms of cultural toxin — poisonous to debate, to reason and to civility. And the antidote is in shorter and shorter supply.

The idea that the word "toxin" is in any way applicable to The Passion is just bizarre. While it seems to me, from what I've seen in the media, that Moore's movie does diminish civility by inspiring those who hate the president to greater hatred, I see no similar effect for the Passion. My church helped organize an outreach around The Passion in our city where thousands of pieces of literature about the love of Jesus for all people were handed out, and a few dozen people were led to commit their lives to Christ, to his message of love and eternal life. How this reduces civility, someone will have to explain to me. What the andidote is that Sullivan is referring to, I don't know, but, as far as The Passion goes, I hope it does remain in short supply. And I hope Sullivan stops writing such outlandish columns, so I can bring my blood pressure back down. But I do thank him for the inspiration.