Action Alert!

Catholic World News News Feature

The Metaphor of the Physical February 01, 2004

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a difficult but singularly valuable film. Having received an opportunity to view a rough cut in New York City this past November, it comes as little surprise to this reviewer that it has generated the stir it has.

I am not talking about the charges of anti-Semitism, which I find incomprehensible (and about which I have nothing further to say), but rather the less high-profile artistic stir that has its source in what can only be described as the power of the film. The artistic debate about the source and mechanism of that power strikes me as more interesting for being less clear. There can be little doubt that the film delivers a devastating emotional impact; the invited audience of which I was a member exited the screening room dazed and silent, some in tears. But the extent to which the film succeeds as art, I believe, has to depend largely upon the perspective from which one views it: the secular or the religious.


The character Stephen Dedalus outlines his theory of aesthetics in the final chapter of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although to call the theory Stephen's is merely to call it Joyce’s own, as it is well known that Stephen stands in for Joyce in Portrait as he does in the subsequent Ulysses. According to Stephen’s theory, the highest, or truest, art evokes in the audience what might be called a contemplative stasis, a state of mind that constitutes in turn the hallmark of what Stephen holds up as the “aesthetic emotion.” Stephen contrasts the aesthetic emotion generated by the best art with the baser feelings aroused by “improper” art:

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The aesthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing….

The desire and loathing excited by improper aesthetic means are really unaesthetic emotions not only because they are kinetic in character but also because they are not more than physical. Our flesh shrinks from what it dreads and responds to the stimulus of what it desires by a purely reflex action of the nervous system….

Beauty expressed by the artist … awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an aesthetic stasis … a stasis called forth, prolonged and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty.

To summarize Portrait’s theory, true art evokes in its audience an intellectual aesthetic contemplation, improper art merely physical desire or loathing. By application of these criteria, Stephen/Joyce, at least, might well have considered Gibson’s Passion an artistic failure. They would have pointed to the stomach-turning and unrelenting violence that we see visited throughout upon the person of Jesus Christ and quietly rested their cases. They might also have accused Gibson of secondarily exciting our loathing through his film’s manifest visual delight in the physical grotesquerie of the Roman torturers and the prisoner Barrabas, to take just two examples. But the repulsiveness and the filth in this regard function as not more than add-ons to the visceral centrality of the violence. Never in my experience has the sustained physical torture of a single person been more minutely detailed than in the roughly 2-hour span of Gibson’s film. Beautifully intercut flashbacks only periodically break up the violence, but even the flashbacks provide little respite from the severity of the physical and emotional turmoil into which Gibson throws, and then locks, his audience. The poetically understated Resurrection sequence is so brief that we are left still reeling from the violence of the ordeal that preceded it. But then the film is called “The Passion of the Christ,” and not “The Resurrection of the Christ.”

Reasonable people may differ as to whether the aesthetic criteria of Stephen/Joyce need have any purchase on Mel Gibson, although the theory found in Portrait, with its exaltation of appeal to the mind, is coherent and attractive enough so that it should not be lightly dismissed. Appeals to our sense of loathing are as demonstrably bankable as appeals to our sense of desire, and so the theory of Stephen/Joyce may therefore neatly account for much of what is “improper” in the contemporary film and television industries. Film violence, cruelty, and the torrential flow of blood are commonplace to the point of not needing iteration, and we can now even turn on the television and watch a program called Fear Factor, sometimes devoted to acts such as people putting snakes and worms onto their bodies, or into their mouths. Pornography, on the other end of the spectrum of improper arts, infamously amounts to a major world industry in its own right. When we add to this what should be the uncontroversial proposition that our arts owe us something more in the way of nourishment for the mind, it all adds up to telling us that Stephen/Joyce are right about something. The question is whether their attractive theory can properly sweep within its censure Gibson’s Passion.


The sense with which I am left by my experience of Passion is that it cannot. What we need to understand, in order to understand why that is so, is that Gibson’s film is essentially a religious film, and not merely a film about a religious subject. That is, Gibson invites from his audience a religious response, not merely the secular aesthetic response that his other more thematically mainstream films seek to elicit.

Specifically, Passion is a Catholic religious film, the proper understanding and reception of which presupposes some minimum background in Catholic theology beyond the mere fact that, according to that theology, the passion and death of Jesus Christ was infinitely more than the torture and ultimate execution of a just man, and even more, in its full dimensionality, than the torture and execution of God. A viewer of Passion familiar with little more grasp of Catholic theology than an understanding that Jesus is identified as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity may well miss most of what I believe to be the film’s underlying point. I propose that that point is the illustration in film, as vividly as it can be illustrated, of the Catholic theological fact that the passion and death of Jesus Christ constituted once and for all the unique and voluntary redemptive act of atonement for the totality of human sin. Absent an understanding of that theological fact as it relates to sin, the “two thumbs down” of Stephen/Joyce would be a legitimate, or at least understandable, critical evaluation of Gibson’s film.

Metaphor is necessary in a film about sin, especially now, just after the turn of a century fraught both with the most egregious of sins and with the dramatic waning of the capacity to comprehend the gravity of it all. Pope John Paul II, in his 1984 apostolic exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, quoted Pius XII in reminding us that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” If he is right, then contemporary society cannot readily understand either the suffering entailed by the redemptive choice of Jesus, who took that sin upon himself, or the depth of the love and mercy from which that choice sprang. John Paul II explains:

Deceived by the loss of the sense of sin and at times tempted by an illusion of sinlessness that is not at all Christian, the people of today too need to listen again to St. John’s admonition … “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” and indeed, “the whole world is in the power of the evil one….”

When we realize that God’s love for us does not cease in the face of our sin or recoil before our offenses … when we realize that this love went so far as to cause the passion and death of the Word made flesh who consented to redeem us at the price of his own blood, then we exclaim in gratitude: “Yes, the Lord is rich in mercy," and even: “The Lord is mercy.”

We do not know sin and, therefore, cannot know redemption. Gibson’s Passion, looked at aright, succeeds in showing us. I alluded to the necessity of metaphor in the making of a film about sin and redemption in an age of insensitivity to sin, and that is the interpretive stance from which Passion needs to be viewed. The hyperbolic physical violence of the film can properly, perhaps only, be justified as a metaphor for the spiritual violence and burden of sin itself. One might ask whether such an interpretive stance exaggerates the existential status of sin, but I refer back to John Paul II and stress that I am speaking of sin not as it is perceived by contemporary society, but rather as it is perceived in the fullness of Catholic theology.

Cardinal John Henry Newman made the convincing case, in Discourse XVI of his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, that the ultimate sufferings of Jesus Christ in his passion were spiritual rather than physical. Of the physical sufferings Cardinal Newman asserts that spiritual meditation is made easy by the spectacle of the Crucifix—a pre-cinematic claim I have been suggesting is at least not obvious when it is applied to an attempt to keep one’s eyes on the bloody festival of violence depicted in Passion. But Cardinal Newman continues with a profound observation expressed as a sort of artistic challenge:

It is otherwise with the sufferings of His soul, they cannot be painted for us, nor can they even be duly investigated: they are beyond both sense and thought….

This it is very much to the purpose to insist upon; I say, it was not the body that suffered, but the soul in the body; it was the soul and not the body which was the seat of the suffering of the Eternal Word….

The same act of the will which admitted the influence upon His soul of any distress at all, admitted all distresses at once.

All spiritual distresses, all sin in its Catholic theological sense, at once did Jesus Christ permit to flood and overwhelm his soul. And “all” means from all time, with all of the attendant pain and remorse and anxiety that make up the unbearable and yet inescapable baggage of sin. In a memorable Good Friday sermon, the homilist described the weight of sin upon Jesus on the cross as an infinitely heavy inverted pyramid containing the sins of eternity, with its apex pressing squarely down upon his bruised and beaten heart. Cardinal Newman goes on to describe Christ approaching his death as having remained “motionless and still, while the vile and horrible fiend clad His spirit in a robe steeped in all that is hateful and heinous in human crime.” He concludes that none could possibly have been equal to the weight but God:

The Mother of God, for all her sanctity, nay, by reason of it, could not have borne even one brood of that innumerable progeny of Satan which now compasses Thee about. It is the long history of a world, and God alone can bear the load of it. Hopes blighted, vows broken, lights quenched, warnings scorned, opportunities lost; the innocent betrayed, the young hardened, the penitent relapsing, the just overcome, the aged failing; the sophistry of misbelief, the willfulness of passion, the obduracy of pride, the tyranny of habit, the canker of remorse, the wasting fever of care, the anguish of shame, the pining of disappointment, the sickness of despair; such cruel, such pitiable spectacles, such heartrending, revolting, detestable, maddening scenes … they are all before Him now; they are upon Him and in Him…. [T]hey are all but His own; He cries to His Father as if He were the criminal, not the victim…. He is doing penance, He is making confession, He is exercising contrition with a reality and a virtue infinitely greater than that of all Saints and penitents together; for He is the One Victim for us all, the sole Satisfaction, the real Penitent, all but the real sinner.


John Henry Newman brings us back to the critical appraisal of Mel Gibson’s film. This central, foundational issue of sin and redemptive sacrifice is found at the very start of Passion, firmly setting the thematic tone for it, in the garden of Gethsemane. Satan, in a portrayal ever more frightening than the variety we have come to expect from Hollywood (and the Aramaic adds a chilling dimension here), lectures Jesus, probing him on the subject of sin and atonement, quietly taunting him about the weight of sin. He expresses to Jesus what Newman expresses to us who have lost the sense of it: “It is far too heavy; no one man can bear it.” (Satan remains throughout as one of the most compelling presences in the film. The sequence of his keeping pace along the Via Dolorosa, on the other side of the street, wending his way through the crowd opposite Mary and St. John, lingers.)

Later in the film, as Jesus purposefully prolongs his gruesome scourging at the pillar, Mary asks in heartbreaking but unitive prayer: “When will you will yourself to be delivered of all of this?” Later still, en route to Calvary, Jesus suffers ridicule at the hands of his antagonists—understandably blind to the significance of what they are witnessing—for appearing to “embrace” the burden of his cross. And finally, along the Way of the Cross, nearly beaten to death, he barely manages to impart to his mother, who with John’s help has made her way to him through the unruly crowd: “See how I make all things new again!” All of these moments provide us with insight into what Gibson wants us to see and understand as the story behind the story.

Gibson’s artistic choice of intercutting flashback with the main action of the film further helps at critical points to underscore in Passion the thematic centrality of sin and redemptive self-sacrifice. Gibson gives us the Last Supper in flashback, and in juxtaposing it with the agonies (as I have been describing them here) of Jesus’ passion reminds us of the sacrificial element in what used to be called more commonly the “sacrifice” of the Mass. He paints for us graphically, with what I am arguing is his metaphoric palette of brutality and blood, the spiritual reality of what the liturgy of the Eucharist re-presents to us in its bloodless sublimity.

By virtue of the sheer familiarity of the Eucharistic liturgy, we can all too easily tend to lose sight of the underlying nature of the sacrifice it reenacts. This is perhaps especially true for those of us whose formative spiritual years were dominated by the liturgy of the folk Mass in the school gymnasium, dutifully strummed out every Sunday morning under the ubiquitous orange felt banners urging us to “Love One Another.” (Didn’t there even come a point when the folk Mass went electric? I am almost certain I can remember a Hammond organ and a full kit of drums on the altar at one point in my own childhood parish.) But that was a different time; I suppose it’s not altogether fair to judge it completely outside of its own historical context. Suffice it to say that sacrifice and atonement somehow wound up effectively (if not officially) de-emphasized in the Mass, in much the same way that the sacrament of Confession somehow wound up effectively (if not officially) de-emphasized in Catholic religious practice. The reasons behind this mixed theological and cultural phenomenon were complicated and contentious, of course, and are beyond the scope of my discussion. Some would make the reasonable case that the pendulum had previously swung too far in the opposite direction. It cannot be overstressed, moreover, that a healthful balance here is clearly preferable to either extreme. An unfortunate side effect of the subtle shift in emphasis remains that the diminished knowledge of sin, and of the enormity of Christ’s atonement for it, necessarily involves not only a diminished knowledge of redemption, but also the loss of a spiritually mature understanding of the Mass itself.

Passion succeeds as religious art, again, in explicitly paralleling the height of Christ’s struggle with sin—as represented by Gibson through the extremity of Jesus’ physical suffering—with the events of his previous night’s Last Supper with his disciples. The organic nature of the then-unfolding relationship between atonement and Catholic ritual is made all the more powerful by the contrast of the physical beauty in the flashback sequences of the actor Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus, with his near-complete physical disfigurement in the movie’s real time. It is in flashback that Jesus takes the bread and cup, identifies them with his body and blood, and then assures his essentially uncomprehending disciples that his body will be given up and blood shed so that sins may be forgiven. They do not yet understand either the gravity of the undertaking or the theological weight of the stakes, just as I have been arguing we cannot readily, at least, understand them in our own day and age. But Gibson’s Jesus, in his divinity, does understand them—something the Last Supper sequence makes remarkably clear by combining the familiar flashback technique with a sort of species of flash forward: Jesus during the suffering of his passion reflects back upon the supper of the night before, but Gibson, through Caviezel, makes it clear to the viewer that the Jesus of the night before is already anticipating ritually the suffering he will have finally chosen to undergo for the sake of our redemption the following day.

Gibson is able to show us, paradoxically, that Jesus both willed the full extent of his agony and yet, at least in his humanity, must have been prepared for neither the bottomlessness of it on the spiritual level nor the savagery of it on the physical. I think it a triumph of acting, really, that Caviezel can embody the transformation—and not just the horror genre cliché of the physical transformation to the hideous, but rather the more substantial—and difficult to portray—spiritual journey from long-accustomed serenity to struggle and doubt, to terrifying and willed chaos, to ultimate and redemptive unity with the Father.

Cardinal Newman is right; we shouldn’t be able to see that. And yet Gibson shows us, and we see. His art peels away the layers, and we see through renewed eyes of faith the eternity-shaking spiritual drama, which lies behind the physical drama, which lies, in turn, behind the liturgical drama of the Catholic Mass.


In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson documents cataclysmic spiritual struggle and spiritual violence, mediating that struggle and that violence via the metaphor of the physical. His artistic choice is grounded in his subject matter and in the reliable expectation of an audience that, as Pope John Paul II continues to remind us, has lost its sense of sin. Gibson was faced, in essence, with the spiritual analogue of the old Shakespearean problem of how to get moonlight into a chamber: artists have to communicate states of affairs, be they physical, emotional or spiritual, to an audience. The critical evaluation of their art ultimately must take into account not only the content of the communication, but the means chosen to accomplish it.

These artistic choices, finally, provide insight into the worldview of the artist, the connective thread that ties together the artistic ends and means. Gibson appears to set out from a worldview reflecting the consciousness of sin and the passion theology of Cardinal Newman, and he effectively sets himself up, in taking on Newman’s artistic challenge, as a sort of anti-Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce. Stephen/Joyce recoil from the “improper art” of the loathing-inspiring aesthetic in the service of their secular purpose; Mel Gibson embraces it in order that his art achieve its religious purpose. Stephen/Joyce maintain that “[t]he artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Gibson—like, in this limited sense the authentic God of the creation—literally enters into his handiwork; the arms we see restraining the hands of Jesus to receive their nails upon the cross are Gibson’s own.

Ultimately, the intellectual climax of Portrait begins with Stephen’s refusal to accede to his mother’s (and Church’s) desire that he make his Easter Eucharistic duty. When asked why, he says: I will not serve.” Some pages later he/Joyce famously reiterates:

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.

That climactic, Luciferian “Non serviam!” remains, for the Catholic reader, one of the truly unnerving, and, in the audacity of its apostasy, somehow thrilling moments in world literature. To it, Gibson resolutely opposes his eloquent “Serviam.”

[AUTHOR ID] John B. Allen is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the Columbia University School of Law, where he was executive articles editor of the Journal of Law and the Arts. His writing on Catholic themes has been featured on and in This Rock.