In my last post, I discussed the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, a fairly pedestrian movie promoting an idea which is much more prevalent than I knew – the idea that Jesus never existed. I suppose, coming from a fundamentalist background, that I always thought that almost everyone believed that Jesus was a historical character, but that unbelievers thought he was just a good guy, an unorthodox teacher, and Christians worshiped him as the Son of God. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that some intellectuals considered the life of Jesus to be entirely mythical.
That documentary showed a few scenes from another, much more powerful movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming, the narrator and director of the documentary, said that Gibson’s movie is far and away the most popular Christian movie of all time, and he criticizes Christians for their love of blood – if you’ve never seen The Passion, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing these scenes again stirred up a lot of old feelings in me, and I just wanted to think aloud about some of them. I once read a quote, something to the extent that agnostics are atheists with a nostalgia for God – if you know who said it, please drop me a line.
I saw The Passion of the Christ at a movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was living at the time, and I’m sure it was a very different experience from what viewers in the US might have enjoyed. 99% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and many have no understanding whatsoever of our Christian beliefs. I once had a Thai student ask me, at Christmas time, if Christmas was a distinctly American holiday. I replied that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and that most countries with a Christian heritage enjoyed celebrating Christmas. The Thai student smiled and nodded her head, which is the Thai way of saying that I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, but I don’t want to look like an idiot by asking another question. So, I asked whether the student had ever heard of Jesus before. She replied that she had not, but she had read of other famous Americans, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Needless to say, when I arrived at the movie theater to see The Passion, I was surprised to see a full auditorium. I didn’t think all those Buddhists would give one whit about the life of Christ. But Thais love all things American, especially Hollywood movies, so they had come out in droves. They had no idea what the movie was about. I’m sure you think I’m kidding, but the same Thai student who can tell you every single aspect of the story of the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) couldn’t place WWII in the proper century, and couldn’t tell you if Washington, Lincoln, Plato, and Hitler all lived at the same time or in different centuries. Western Civilization is not taught in high school nor is it a mandatory course in college – why would it be? I could never be too critical as a teacher there – most American students couldn’t tell you how many years there are between Plato, Washington, and Hitler either – and wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you said ‘Ramakien”.
Many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they can’t stomach the idea of taking the life of any sentient being, not even a fish or a bird. Imagine watching such a brutal movie with this group of people. They were totally unprepared for what transpired on the screen. I knew that Jesus would be beaten and spit upon, that by the time he reached Golgotha that he’d be nearly unrecognizable as a human being. But the gentle Thais had never heard of such a gory hero as Jesus. They flinched when the Roman soldiers slapped him, moaned when the cat-o-nine-tails dug into his back, shrieked when the crown of thorns was thrust upon his head, and wept as Mary kissed his feet as he hung on the cross.
This was powerful stuff, this passion story. I remember my sister, one year older than me, watching horror films, covering her eyes at the scary parts. The Thais did the same thing – they were so appalled at the gristly nature of the film, that they covered their eyes with their hands, hiding behind one another and the high-rise seats. I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah 53 –
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
Isaiah describes the natural response to such human misery; yet, we are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that we can tell it to our children, perhaps with a smile on our faces. Yet, agnostic that I am, I still can’t watch such a graphic portrayal without choking up.
Isaiah 53 was always a favorite scripture of mine. I thought of it as tragic poetry – real history, but expressed in beautifully painful language. That the Son of God could appear on Earth, and receive such vile treatment – it was finer tragedy than Oedipus Rex. Today, scholars attribute the writing to someone other than the Isaiah who wrote the first 50 chapters of the book named after him, some anonymous prophet who had been carried off by the Assyrian captivity. And Orthodox Jews contend that this scripture in no way, shape or form refers to an individual person, let alone the Christian Messiah. Nevertheless, for Christians, it resonates deep within the heart.
Amy Grant once recorded a rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded that I would listen to over and over again for hours. It seemed at the time to epitomize Christ’s sacrifice for us. Perhaps looming even larger in my childhood was a collection of songs recorded by Jimmy Swaggart; two albums named Worship and Healing. Each track of the albums featured a traditional composition of an old hymn, and Swaggart read a portion of scripture as the music played. With his Bill Clinton-esque ability to convey emotion in his voice, the combination of music and scripture was quite powerful.
My favorite was a song called ‘The Healer’. It was an old hymn that I had grown up hearing in church, one that I can remember my Dad trying to sing, and his mother as well – neither of them had any talent at singing, but they loved the old songs.
On the cross, crucified, in great sorrow he died; the giver of life, was he.
While this beautiful hymn was sung, Swaggart read from Isaiah, with emphasis:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.
The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sad, but there’s no way to know if it’s true or not. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad story too, and O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi will make you well up every time you read it. But the difference is that these stories don’t promise something that they can’t deliver, they don’t give dying people false hope, nor do they try to persuade people that a man died for them a couple thousand years ago. My mother spent her whole life believing in the gospels, but she fought death off until the end – there was no “looking forward to being with Jesus” for her – something inside her knew.
I don’t really have any conclusion. I love the old gospel songs, and they can still move me. I appreciate the poetry and tragedy of some of the scriptures. I wish I could believe in some kind of afterlife where I might be able to meet up with loved ones again. But just because I choke up watching Toy Story 3 doesn’t mean I think it’s a true story; just because a scripture like Isaiah 53 is beautifully tragic doesn’t make it any more real than the movie Somewhere in Time.
I once cried to think that humankind would hide its face from God’s son; if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.