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An Ignoble Death?

passion-of-the-christ.jpgI get a kick out of top ten lists of various stripes, so I generally take a look when I see one linked somewhere. Today, there was a link from IMDb to a list of “Ten Beloved Characters, Ten Ignoble Deaths” from NYMag.com, so I checked it out. (Yes, there are spoilers, but as far as I can tell, all of them are at least a year old, and most are closer to a decade. I include a few below, as well, and some are a bit more recent.)

As I scrolled down through the list, some of the entries were rather obvious, a few were funny, one or two were odd . . . Then I got to the bottom, and did a double-take. Their #1 pick for Most Ignoble Screen Death was Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. And then there was the explanation:

Has there ever, in TV or film history, been less honorable death than Jesus’s in The Passion of the Christ? Sure, that’s how he met his end in the Bible, but doesn’t our Lord and savior deserve better than being whipped, spat on, scourged, mocked, and flayed in a semi-offensive, possibly anti-Semitic piece of religious torture porn? Mel Gibson financed Passion with his own $50 million — for that sort of money, he could’ve had Jesus die in a light-saber battle with Pontius Pilate, or be eaten by a Transformer or velociraptor. Now that would’ve been a death for our sins.

Huh? I cocked an eyebrow, shook my head and moved on. There obviously wasn’t anything of depth here, just a feeble, kind of lame attempt to get a rise out of some and a chuckle out of others. But the statement stuck with me, and the more I thought about it, the more it struck me as an oddly appropriate selection for such a list. Sure the author’s comments disingenuously miss the point, but in doing so they sort of illuminate it as well.

That bit about anti-Semitic torture porn aside (perhaps), what they say is perfectly true. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a less auspicious end than the cross for someone like Jesus. There is almost nothing more dishonorable or ignoble than death by crucifixion. Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths,” and Cicero described it as “the most cruel and disgusting penalty.” Paul emphasizes this more than once: “. . . he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:8, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . .” 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 (emphasis mine, of course).

The article is quite right when it points out that this makes very little sense from a big-budget blockbuster perspective, and perhaps even from a storytelling perspective. Larger-than-life sacrificial heroes tend to go out fighting in a blaze of glory. They mentioned Boromir playing the pincushion in The Fellowship of the Ring. They could also have mentioned Gandalf, locked in mortal combat with the giant, flaming Balrog as they plunge into the abyss. Then there’s Bruce Willis in Armageddon, who gets nuked on an asteroid to save the world. Similarly, in I Am Legend, Will Smith rushes a group of infected zombies with a live hand grenade so that the surviving humans can get their hands on the cure. That’s movie heroism.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much into the fatal heroic gesture as anyone (Boromir’s death scene makes me cry every time), but Jesus’s death defies the conventions of special-effects-fueled CG mayhem just as his life defied the expectations of those who wanted a messianic conquering king. What’s so heroic about passively allowing yourself to be tortured to death? Apparently plenty. It may not be glamorous, but it was the only way to save the world.

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~ by Jared on March 4, 2008.

2 Responses to “An Ignoble Death?”

  1. Great post. I’ll admit, I’m right there with you on the issue of the heroic gesture (Boromir’s death scene being one of those for me, too), and Christ’s death is a mind-blowing contradiction to our sensabilities. It makes me sad that the original author so missed the point, but it’s a very true idea.

  2. I wonder … The author of the piece could have been trying to say that the “ignoble” part was the exploitation — that is, the fact that the death was exploited by such a questionable film.

    I mean, Mel Gibson made lots of money on this. He got to indulge a brutality fetish that we have seen many times before in his films. And yes, although no evangelical has yet agreed with me when I’ve said this, it tapped into anti-Semitic symbolism. (The Sanhedrin scenes could have come out of a bad 19th-century novel.) Who would wish such a death on Jesus?

    I’m not saying that’s what the author had in mind, though.

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