A Response


Thomas J. J. Altizer

September, 2004

 Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ is surely unique as a film in terms of its immediate and ecstatic impact upon such a vast audience, and yet it is quite ordinary if not mediocre in its cinematography and direction, and is only truly distinctive in the sheer brutality and comprehensiveness of its violence, a violence that is purely gratuitous, and that goes wholly beyond its textual sources. All too significant are its flashbacks to pre-passion primal events, these are not only extraordinarily brief but banal as well, as though they are wholly without fundamental significance. Nothing is real in this film except the total horror and violence of the Passion, and that extends throughout the film as a whole, a film that is manifestly grounded in a purely orthodox Christianity, and that enacts itself as a contemporary sacred event, and an event embodying a uniquely Christian redemption. Or so it has seemingly been received by the largest immediate audience in film history, one that has already become a major if not a primal event in American church history, and one that is a decisive way into a uniquely contemporary Christianity.
This is a Christianity that at bottom is a reflection of the Passion of God, a passion so horrible that it must be wholly diluted and disguised, resulting in the most banal and shallow expressions of Christianity ever released in history, thereby realizing a seemingly new vitality, but a vitality that is a new and all too comprehensive passivity. Yet that passivity is not a simple passivity, it is only made possible by the repression of a total passion, and it ever threatens to relapse into its source, a source that is a pure and total violence, and one only openly evoked in the uniquely Christian symbol of the cross. Now the cross is not only the symbol of the sacrifice of Christ, but ultimately the symbol of the sacrifice of God, which is just why the cross is an absolute offense, but an offense hidden and suppressed in orthodox Christian dogma, which can only know this sacrificial death as the sacrifice of the humanity and not the divinity of Christ. Is that deep suppression now being loosened, and unveiled as the repression which it is, an unveiling at the center of a uniquely modern world, a world comprehensively embodying the death of God?

 It would be difficult to deny that The Passion of the Christ evokes the Passion of God, which is why this horror is so total and so comprehensive, but this horror has an immediacy that is undeniable, and an immediacy that clearly has had an overwhelming impact upon its audience. Why? Is this at bottom a return of the repressed, and a return of that which has most deeply been repressed, or most deeply been repressed by our world, a world seemingly innocent both of absolute evil and of absolute passion, but only so innocent because of just such a repression? And is this a uniquely Christian repression, one only made possible by the Crucifixion, and a crucifixion which is ultimately the Crucifixion of God, which is just why it demands such a total repression? Already Paul could know the Christianity which he encountered as a suppression of the Crucifixion, just as Luther could know Catholicism itself as just such a suppression, a suppression which Gibson reverses in this film, thereby evoking an ecstatic response, but does that very response demonstrate the power of the repression which is here at hand?

 Does a history lie behind this film which is ultimately a history of the repression of the Crucifixion, and a repression of the Crucifixion of God, a crucifixion of God that is certainly the death of God, which is just why this is an absolutely sacrificial death, and the sole source of what the Christian uniquely knows as redemption? We can sense the depth of this repression by noting that the Crucifixion does not enter Christian iconography until the end of patristic Christianity, does not actually enter Christian thinking until Luther or Christian poetry until Milton, and can only theologically be understood by truly radical forms of Christian theology. Hence the Crucifixion has been virtually suppressed or disguised or diluted in the dominant expressions of Christendom, a suppression which is a repression, and a repression of the depths of Christianity itself, depths which can always return, and return with an explosive power. But it is just the most repressed forms of Christianity which can explode with the greatest power, or the greatest immediate power, a power which is overwhelming, and when loosening its disguise or veil such an explosion can occur as a pure horror, and a pure horror which is all consuming.

 Christians are commonly baffled by the horror which Christianity can now inspire in Islam, but such a horror has occurred in the Christian world itself since the advent of modernity, and the purest horror has occurred in the greatest expressions of modern Christian art. Of course, such art has ever increasingly been banished from our churches, churches which are havens from modernity itself, and if these are havens of a new innocence, such innocence can disappear, and perhaps a paradigmatic occurrence of that disappearance occurs in The Passion of the Christ. Are we here given an enactment of the return of the repressed in Christianity itself? Is this a future that awaits us, a future even now at hand, even now seething about us, arising from a loosening of our new passivity, and a loosening occurring in a new and comprehensive violence? Of course, such violence need not be an overt violence, need not be so brutally literal as in this film, but that all too literal violence could be a symbolic enactment of a new and even interior violence that could consume us, and consume us with a true return of the repressed.

 What this film can teach us if that if Christianity truly has repressed the Crucifixion, truly has repressed its deepest ground, that repression as repression is profoundly pathological, profoundly self-destructive, and the return of the repressed can only be a genuine horror. Such horror is surely evoked in this film, and comprehensively evoked, and so much so that nothing else stands forth or is manifest. Shocking as it certainly is, does it nevertheless evoke a deep and immediate and ecstatic desire, or does so among those who are victims of this repression, victims comprehending far more than we can imagine, and victims whom at this moment of history may well undergo an actual awakening to their condition? Do we now stand in an apocalyptic condition in which our deepest even if most unconscious desire is a desire for pure horror itself, one openly unveiled in this film, and one seemingly leading innumerable contemporary Christians to an ecstatic state?

 For the deepest horror is finally inseparable from the most ecstatic joy, and if Christianity knows crucifixion as the only source of redemption, it thereby knows an ultimate horror as the source of ultimate joy. So it is that Paul knows the crucifixion as apocalypse itself, just as the Fourth Gospel enacts the crucifixion and the resurrection as one event, and if these primal Christian motifs are reversed in orthodox Christian dogma, that is the consequence of a profound repression, a repression that is a uniquely Christian pathology. Is such a pathology now being openly unveiled among us, and unveiled in truly brutal terms, a brutality reflecting this pathology, and even reflecting it as an ecstatic brutality? That ecstasy could only be the consequence of an ultimate repression, and an ultimate repression inseparable from a uniquely Christian repression, which could be nothing less than the repression of the death of God, or the repression of the absolute sacrifice of God in the Crucifixion, a sacrifice which is a uniquely Christian apocalypse.

 Is an opening to that sacrifice as the sacrifice of God a way to a transcendence of our repression, and a transcendence of our deepest repression? Such a transcendence would be the very opposite of the return of the repressed, for it would be an unveiling of our repression itself, and an unveiling that could only be a disenactment of that repression, a disenactment which is its very reversal. Hence it would not be a return of the repressed but far rather a reversal of this repression, and its reversal by its actual affirmation of the death of God, an affirmation which is an absolute affirmation of the Crucifixion, and precisely thereby an affirmation of crucifixion as resurrection, or of absolute death as absolute life. Clearly such an affirmation is wholly absent from The Passion of the Christ, and wholly absent if only because all joy is wholly absent here, an absence which is the absence of a uniquely Christian Crucifixion, and the full and actual presence of a total repression of that crucifixion.

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