Sunday, February 25, 2007

In which Michael5000 returns to the task at hand

Gen 9:18 - 11 has a lot of geneology in it. I don't know about you, but I find listings of who begat whom a little weak as sacred text.

There are two ways of looking at the Bible. Well, there are gazillions of ways of looking at the Bible, I suppose, but I think this two-class system is pretty reasonable:

  • religiously -- the Bible is a sacred text, a message from God to his creation, or

  • historically -- the Bible is the collected writings of a society from a place, time, and context far from our own.

Old Testament geneology is easy to explain historically, as it's just a paternity-obsessed culture's method of establishing a legacy for themselves, as a society and as individuals. But in trying to look at the Bible religiously, it's a little harder to see how the geneologies make the cut. To know that, for instance, Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber [10:24] is all fine and good -- I guess -- but how does it help me understand God, or to become a better person? I suppose that, taken in the aggregate, an overall message of "lineage is important" might be drawn, but this seems a little oblique.

I bring this up not only because geneology is so notoriously abundant in Genesis, but because the meatier episodes of today's readings are also easy to interpret historically, but hard to swallow religiously. Take, for instance, the matter of:

Noah's Family Values

The floodwaters having receded, Noah plants a vineyard. Soon, he is making wine, and shortly thereafter he is passed out naked in his tent. (I am not being flip: he became drunk and lay uncovered insdie his tent. [9:21]) Ham, one of his three sons, sees him in this condition and tells his brothers. Here's the full description of the incident: Ham saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. [9:22] The two brothers, good lads both, go inside and cover Dad up.

What happens next is pretty bizarre. Noah wakes up, finds up that Ham saw him naked, and because of this puts a curse on Canaan, Ham's son, condemning him to be a slave to his brothers. With no further commentary offered, we are apparently supposed to think that Noah is righteous in doing this.

The historical interpretation? A slam dunk. The story provides Noah's own blessing of the Israelites' conquest and enslavement of the Canaanites, whom the accompanying geneologies show to be decended from Canaan (Hence the name, yeah?).

The religious interpretation? Troubling for anyone who has ever seen a parent naked. It's awfully hard to see Noah as a representative of Godliness as he condemns his grandson to slavery for his father commiting a gesture of disrespect on the scale of putting his elbows on the dinner table. And, to the extent to which this story has the imprimiteur of God's word, it does not make a strong case for a family-friendly Old Testament God.

The Tower of Babel

Here is another Genesis story, so integral in our culture, that is almost unbelievably compact:

Then they said "come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches
to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered
over the face of the whole earth." But the Lord came down to see the city
and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, If as one people
speaking the same language they have bugun to do this, then nothing they plan to
do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their
language so they will not understand each other."

Historically, no problem. It's a twofur story, explaining both the mystery of diverse languages and the ruined ziggerats you would bump into occasionally out east.

Religiously, we are generally told that this is a story about human arrogance and divine punishment. The people of the city, as I was taught, challenged God or sought to outdo God by building their cities so high, and so naturally set themselves up for a comeupance.

But here's the surprise -- that tale of hubris punished isn't in the text. What you've actually got in the text is a group of people acting with what most of us would consider commendable ambition to build a city that fostered community and commanded respect. God doesn't set out to punish them, he sets out to thwart them. With everyone speaking the same language, he says, "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." This is what parents and teachers say hopefully of promising children. But for God, this is a bad thing, and must be stopped.

I find the notion that God hates the human ambition to build and create very difficult to swallow. And if the yardstick for excessive amibition is building cities with tall buildings, well -- uh oh.

See you next week. I promise.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"Passion": Not Enough Passion

Regular readers will note that this is the first entry in more than five months. Real sorry, man. How's YOUR Bible blog coming?

I gave into a longstanding temptation last week, and watched "Passion of the Christ." You'll recall that there was plenty of hype about this movie a few summers back. Literal busloads of conservative Christians packed theaters in a frank effort to boost the film's box office, the thinking being that a high gross would be equivalent to a high score in the culture wars. Well, whatever.

Having now watched the film, I feel that there was an important point missed in all of the discussion of the time. That point is this: It's bad. To be sure, it has some good elements. The musical score is steller. The photography is exquisite. Props and costuming were slick. But "Passion" manages to transcend its elements of excellence to become a real stinker.

And before we go any further, let me just say that I have no particular problem with Mel Gibson. He has, to be sure, painted a pretty big target on himself with his pathetic personal shenanigans of the past year, but honestly I didn't detect anything like anti-Semitism in "Passion." Nor do I think he is incompetant as a director. I feel his "Hamlet" is the best movie adaptation of that Shakespeare play to date. Gibson put a much-needed dose of physicality into the role, and got amazing performances out of his supporting cast. I expected something of the same might happen with "Passion." No such luck.

"Passion" is a telling on film of the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus Christ. I'm pretty sure that Gibson hoped we would be thinking while we watched about Christ's assumption of the sins of all mankind. What you actually think about, though, is that the guy on the screen gets the crap beat out of him, ceaselessly, for nearly two hours straight. The beatings start in earnest only a few minutes in, and from then on you are watching the continual brutalisation of a man who is, realistically enough, already in shock. And we are talking about the rawest possible sorts of beatings here, flesh and skin torn away from the body in gory chunks. After the cat-o-nine-tails comes out, at about minute 40, the part of Jesus might as well be played by an unusually stoic side of beef. Now, this might be what a particularly brutal Roman execution would actually look like, but the religious passion, as I understand it, is supposed to be a little more than that.

Where religious content is present, it is embarassingly unsubtle. Satan wanders in and out around the events, passively observing, looking for all the world like one of them smooth, cynical secular humanists with too much education, except that worms and vermin occasionally flicker out from his nostrils. He cradles a grotesquely deformed child. He does not wear a name tag that says "Hello, my name is Satan," but we get the point.

Other actors stand in tableaus, watching pensively, until they march forward to deliver a line from scripture. The fact that the movie is in Aramaic and Latin serves to further distance you from any "passion" in the acting. It moves the movie, again, towards realistic historical reenactment of an execution -- which, again, means away from any spiritual depth. (It also turns Pilate's famous pronouncement of "Ecce homo!", which in English would have gone unnoticed -- "Behold, the man!" -- into a real money line.)

I have not mentioned the flashbacks to happier times which continually and artlessly interupt the flow of the beatings. Example: Mary, watching her already half-dead son being whipped where he lies in the street, recalls a time he fell down as a little boy and she was able to run to him and pick him up. Except she can't save him now that he is being savaged by the Roman Legion. This kind of thing is simultaneously maudlin and emotionally implausible, simultaneously absurd and way too obvious, and gets annoying very quickly. There is even a Back-to-the-Future style gag crediting Jesus the carpenter with inventing the dinette set. No, really, there is.

The end of the movie brought two surprises. First, at the moment of Christ's death, there is a big special-effects spectacular, an Earthquake that looks for all the world like something out of "Lord of the Rings." I was appalled and outraged by this cheap cinematic trick, horrified that Gibson would have felt the need to add showy folderal to an event of such religious importance... but I decided to check the text before I opened my big mouth. Sure enough, three out of four gospel writers describe an earthquake at the moment of Christ's death. Did you remember that?

The second surprise at the end of the movie is the end of the movie. We've watched the son of God get tortured for several reels, and we are primed for his glorious resurrection. Get a fresh bowl of popcorn. Ready? We are shown the inside of the tomb. Jesus sits up. The movie ends.

Verdict: It's possible to create a passion play that explores religious issues. "Last Temptation of Christ" was brilliant. Hell, "Jesus Christ Superstar" did pretty well in the format of a pop musical. And, any village in Austria or Quebec can put on a passion play that does not really explore religious issues, but inspires a feeling of religious devotion. Mel Gibson missed both marks, creating something more akin to a documentary about the limits of the human -- not the sacred -- body.