by Carey Monserrate

The film is the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life which modern man has to face. Man’s need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him. The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus—changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.1

—Walter Benjamin  “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”  1936

That the origins of art and religion are intertwined is by now a familiar truism. Among the oldest extant artifacts of nearly every culture on earth are those that testify to the inseparability of the artisanal and the ritual in the archaic imagination, reflecting perhaps a universal human impulse to legislate existential meaning both through the creative act—wherein the artist stands in relation to the product of her labor as an envisioned Creator might have stood in relation to us—and through the encounter with the aesthetic byproducts of creative activity: in the case of prehistory, the glyph, the megalith, the Venus figurine.

In the case of recent history, it is tempting to maintain (as a number of critics already have) that with The Passion of the Christ Mel Gibson transported audiences back to this originary domain of aesthetic experience, in which the most primitive impulses of ritualized creation-destruction are powerfully linked to a tribal religious feeling, in this instance through the isolated representation of extreme physical violence and death in a sacralized context (calling to mind René Girard’s mimetic theory and Eric Gans’s complementary notion of generative anthropology).2 To do so would be to risk discounting the heartfelt responses of the millions of Christians around the world who received Gibson’s film in the spirit in which it was apparently intended: as a devotional work designed to elicit reverence, compassion, humility, and a visceral appreciation of the ethic of sacrifice associated with the Biblical Jesus’ divine redemptive mission.

It is worth noting in passing that the movie responsible for ending The Passion of the Christ’s three-week reign atop the ranks of domestic box office receipts was Dawn of the Dead, a remake of George Romero’s 1979 sequel to Night of the Living Dead about zombies run amok and, like The Passion, a film steeped in gore. In certain respects, the criticisms leveled at the remade Dawn by aficionados of the apocalyptic zombie genre were not unlike those voiced by select audiences of The Passion: a preoccupation with the portrayal of violence had come at the expense of the originals’ more nuanced meaning (among other forms of social commentary, Romero’s Dawn carried an anti-consumerist message which the producers of the remake chose to leave out). Despite the very different levels at which these two films operate, in other words, their perceived shortcomings were curiously similar. Each had failed to deliver the gratification associated with the ethical, meaning-making aspect of aesthetic experience—the very aspect that, in one form or another, has accompanied artistic and creative endeavor since the beginning.

It is this core practice of meaning-making with respect to cinema—admittedly occasioned by the Gibson controversy—that informs this issue of CrossCurrents. Whether or not Gibson’s film is considered anti-Semitic, the passionate debate it sparked has served to powerfully re-affirm the underlying relationship between art, religion, and ethics. In these pages, Mary C. Boys offers her perspective on The Passion of the Christ from multiple positions of privilege: as a respected theologian, a Catholic nun, and a noted voice in interfaith dialogue; and as a member of the ad hoc committee assembled to register informed dissent of Gibson’s movie. Björn Krondorfer follows up by embarking on a survey of The Passion, its antecedents, and its effects, parsing Gibson’s violent visual vocabulary in search of something of redemptive value.

Stepping away from Passion-related concerns, Margaret R. Miles and S. Brent Plate, two prominent figures in the field of religion, film, and visual culture, present their case for an ethically grounded approach to seeing film, one that connects the experience of cinema to a religious framework in the broadest sense (and to the world outside the movie theater). Three articles, each by a developing scholar, regard works of American and world cinema through a theological lens, affording a glimpse of the potential richness of this emerging interdisciplinary field. From the other side of the camera, documentary filmmakers Macky Alston, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, and Lucy Walker provide their unique insights into the challenges of making films about religion. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary re- release of Japan’s remarkable, post-atomic creation Godzilla (a monster who, some readers will recall, was awakened from a deep-sea slumber by hydrogen bomb tests), two articles explore various spiritually informed cinematic responses to the advent of the nuclear age, focusing specifically on the bombing of Hiroshima. And from the realm of religious studies unrelated to film, G. Clarke Chapman draws upon the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to examine the problems posed by terrorism for ethics and pastoral theology.

Employing his singular brand of hieratic, Marxist-inflected analysis, the early twentieth-century cultural critic Walter Benjamin averred in the influential essay cited above that a variety of historical forces had found unique expression in the burgeoning medium of cinema. Benjamin conceived of cinema as a manifestation of changing conditions of production; as a complex convergence of mass participation in the experiencing of art on the one hand, and the logical, potentially dangerous assertion of dominion over aesthetic experience by the industrial apparatus of mechanical reproduction on the other; and as a medium with the potential to serve both “revolutionary demands in the politics of art” and the goals of Fascism. He sought to articulate the new art’s relationship to human apperception, by which he presumably meant something akin to intuitive self-consciousness or subconscious self-awareness—our sense of ourselves, to put it simplistically. He also suggested a parallel between the experience of cinema and theological archetypes or modes of religious contemplation.

As a German Jewish intellectual writing in exile, Benjamin stood in a uniquely frightening and authoritative position relative to his own insights, dispatched as they were under the gathering storm cloud of Nazism and the Third Reich (in fear of which he would eventually take his own life). “All efforts to render politics aesthetic,” he wrote prophetically and poignantly, “culminate in one thing: war.”

Many politically minded observers have commented on the unfortunate timing of The Passion of the Christ, arriving at a moment when America is perceived to be prosecuting an unjust religious war by many in the Islamic world; when anti-Semitism is reportedly on the rise, both here and abroad, and other forms of religious polarization and conflict are seemingly at an extreme; and when a generalized anxiety stemming from the threat of terrorist violence spreads like a contagion throughout societies around the globe. A similarly contentious reaction—albeit of a different nature, and from different quarters— attended the recently released The Day After Tomorrow, which depicts a world besieged by the catastrophic meteorological effects of global warming. (One might say, in an inversion of Benjamin’s formulation, that all efforts to render aesthetics political culminate in one thing: dissent).

To be sure, these observers have a point. But films like The Passion of the Christ and The Day After Tomorrow cannot be viewed solely as politically irresponsible, divisive cultural agents. Perhaps they also perform a salutary function within our collective psyche, one that Benjamin detected at the dawn of another, as yet more fearful chapter in world history. Maybe, to paraphrase Benjamin, our need to expose ourselves to shock effects through these films reflects the increased threat to our existence that we modern human beings have to face. Maybe these films correspond to profound changes in our apperceptive apparatus—changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen. . . .


1. This and all subsequent quotations are taken from Benjamin’s essay as it appears in Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, tr., and Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books), 1969.  
2. See Eric Gans, “Introductory Remarks,” and René Girard with Markus Müller, “Interview with René Girard” in Anthropoetics - The Electronic Journal of Generative Anthropology, Vol. II, No. 1 (UCLA: June 1996) available at the following URL: The entirety of this issue of Anthropoetics offers a fascinating examination of the concepts of the “originary scene and the deferral of violence” in Gans and Girard—both of which are relevant to Gibson’s film and to the Passion story generally.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2004, Vol. 54,  No 1.