Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" shares much in common with the fiction of Flannery O'Conner. O'Connor, a Catholic writer who died an early death in 1964, used grotesque images in her writing. She rarely, if ever, employed overtly Catholic themes or settings. Yet her devout, pre-Vatican II Catholicism shaped every word she wrote.
O'Connor described her approach in an essay written shortly before her death. In "The Fiction Writer and His Country," O'Connor said:
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.
I believe that Gibson wanted to shout to the hard of hearing and draw a large and startling figure for the blind. This is the reason why he chose to portray the Passion in terms of stark historical realism. The film is violent, even grotesque, but so was the crucifixion. It distorts the passive images most of us take for granted.
Gibson cannot assume that the audience shares his values or beliefs. O'Connor said, "when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock." Gibson shocks the viewer into seeing the crucifixion in all its brutality. The vision that drives it is that Christ's death gives life.
The scriptures teach that the believer must pick up their own cross. This is a threatening and dangerous idea in our hedonistic culture. In America we run from all manner of suffering, and one of the places we flee to is entertainment. We amuse ourselves to death, as Neil Postman wrote. "Passion" has turned this upside down.
In 1937, theologian H. Richard Neibuhr wrote in "The Kingdom of God in America" that the religion of modern America was "where a God without wrath brings man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Mel Gibson's film, like Flannery O'Conner's fiction, shouts out out with a clarity that only the deaf and blind can miss.
Presbytera Susan Jacobse is writer.