Andrew Sullivan: The Passion is “Pornography”

In the comments thread of an earlier post there’s a discussion on whether or not it’s fair to refer to The Passion as “pornography.” I’ve been arguing that, based on all I’ve read so far from writers I trust, I suspect the label is a fair one. After reading Andrew Sullivan tonight, I feel it’s particularly justified.

In a long post of breathtaking power Sullivan condemns the movie as undisguised pornography — and worse. After briefly noting that there are several very moving moments in the film, he lets it all out.

At the same time, the movie was to me deeply disturbing. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh. The center-piece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting and despicable piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive – slowly, methodically and with increasing savagery.

We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man’s body. Just so that we can appreciate the pain, we see the whip first tear chunks out of a wooden table. Then we see pieces of human skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers’ faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man’s body. And then they turn him over and do it all again.

It goes on for ever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely unforgivable, vile, disgusting scene. No human being could survive it. Yet for Gibson, it is the h’ors d’oeuvre for his porn movie. The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino.

There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It doesn’t even evoke emotion in the audience. It is designed to prompt the crudest human pity and emotional blackmail – which it obviously does. But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination. Of over two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless sadism on a level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie before. And you have to ask yourself: why? The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree.

Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was profound and voluntary and the culmination of a life and a teaching that Gibson essentially omits. One more example. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, Gibson has a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man’s eyes out. Why? Because the porn needed yet another money shot.

And that’s for starters. Sullivan also addresses the charge that the movie is antisemetic.

I wouldn’t say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It’s motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable. Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art.

(After all that, it’s rather surprising to see Sullivan refer to it as a “work of art” at all.)

While I can’t state with one-hundred percent certainty that The Passion is pornography (I haven’t seen it, after all), I can now say that I’m pretty sure it is. Across the board, those I respect most (and I do respect Sullivan, on several levels) have come to almost the exact same conclusions about this movie. It strikes me as an exercize in depravity; the more I read about it, the greater my sense of revulsion.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

I too haven’t seen the movie. May never get to living here in China but I just don’t understand. The Gospels do tell about Jesus’ death. Taking it a step farther and researching history, it was a gruesome way to die. How is that porn? Because it was made into a movie that can be visualized. Don’ t we do the same when reading?

The Jewish issue I also don’t understand. How can it be anti when Jesus willing gave His life. I would think that any level-headed Chrisitan would know that. Why would the Catholics, who claim to also believe, be afraid.

Of course I am assuming that most if not all people know who Jesus his?

Just an opinion.

February 26, 2004 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

Jim, go back and read Sullivan’s description carefully.

We see flesh being torn out of a man’s body. Just so that we can appreciate the pain, we see the whip first tear chunks out of a wooden table. Then we see pieces of human skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers’ faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man’s body. And then they turn him over and do it all again.

It goes on for ever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely unforgivable, vile, disgusting scene. No human being could survive it. Yet for Gibson, it is the h’ors d’oeuvre for his porn movie.

This is the definition of pornography. Shock for the sake of shock. We all know the pain Jesus went through but to depict it in such moment by moment gory detail — that’s what teen horror flicks are all about, and even those are usually done more tastefully. To me, it is blatant and pure schlock. As I said to a commenter in an earlier comment (in another thread), if it’s realism you want, shouldn’t it go on for 12 full hours and not just 2 1/2? When is it enough? Is there no limit to such obscenity? The world is rich with great artistic depictions of the Passion. Show me one, just one work of true art that goes anywhere remotely near to this sort of graphic sadomasochism. You can’t, because when it gets to this level of luridness it is no longer art, it’s shit. No true artist would depict the suffering of Christ in such a grotesque, scintillating way. But please don’t take my word for it. While I have seen some mixed reviews, the majority I’ve seen — and nearly all by the writers I know and respect — come to the same conclusion: it’s Jesus Christ meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; an aberration, a work of pure pornography disguised as piety.

[Just to define terms: Sullivan and the many others choosing to describe the movie as pornography don't mean it in the sexual sense, but in the sense of offering cheap thrills with little or no substance beneath it; brute sado-masochism, the kind of lurid gore that keeps our eyeballs fixed to the screen though we don't know why. This is the antithesis of art. Again, show me any truly great work of art that follows such a depraved formula. There isn't any.]

February 26, 2004 @ 10:27 pm | Comment

I don’t respect Sullivan at all – he consistently chooses a tendentious and partisan line and is neither fair or honest when doing so.
To use the word “pornographic” in this context is pure hyperbole. It may well be unpleasant even revolting or whatever to some or many people. Others may see it as deeply moving, challenging, or a form of realism (not me)
I won’t be seeing “Passion” simply because it is fake history. Tendentious fake history at that.

February 27, 2004 @ 8:26 am | Comment

I have very mixed feelings re. Sullivan, but ultimately I do respect him. When he is in GOP attack-dog mode I despise him. So I am particularly impressed to see that he has grown enough to outspokenly criticise Bush and his policies on a regular basis. And he does it very well. When he writes from the heart, as he does on gay marriage, what Bush is doing to the economy, his appreciation of John Edwards, he can be first-rate.

I don’t think there will agreement on the word “pornography” or a lot of other words the critics are using. For me, from all I’ve read, the P word is a legitimate descriptor. If you look up the complete dictionary definition, you should see (depending on the dictionary) that pornography is not necessarily sexual in nature, but anything that titillates for the sake of titillation. Based on the scores of descriptions I’ve now read, I’d have to say it is not hyperbole, and is completely fair.

February 27, 2004 @ 8:33 am | Comment

My first reaction on seeing this post was “oh god, not another one about that movie by a bunch of people who haven’t seen it” and I wasn’t going to contribute. One thing motivated me to do so, however, and that is a point of historical accuracy. I think Andrew Sullivan doesn’t know what a cat-o-nine-tails is. It’s a whip with knotted cords, which would normally in Roman times have pieces of glass metal or stone in them. They were designed to rip into and rip out skin. Thus, while I haven’t seen the movie myself, at least some of his comment about “no basis in the gospels for this kind of violence” seems to me to be somewhat inaccurate. I guess he’s imaging some school master with a cane when he thinks about Jesus being whipped? It was a lot more brutal than that …

February 27, 2004 @ 9:04 am | Comment

Li En, I only made a separate post of this because it dealt with the specific comparison with “pornography,” which some have challenged and which I think from what I read is reasonable.

About the specific whip, I have no idea. But see it from the broader perspecfive Sullivan is seeking to offer, that such there ios a limit to how far you can go in showing a man getting whipped, a point wehre it crosses the line from story telling into….pornography.

February 27, 2004 @ 10:02 am | Comment

I think in today’s context it seems sadistic, but in those days, it may not be, considering that weapons used for torture in those days are pretty scary just looking at them in museums.

I guess violence with guns and modern machinery seem like nothing to us in this day and age because we are so used to it, plus everything is so fast you don’t have time to realise the sadistic nature of it. But violence using ancient weapons of torture can turn our stomachs inside out because they often do not kill the victim instantly.

I may sound religiously flaky here, but Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate. It wouldn’t be surprising that Satan and his demons would want to torture God in the flesh as much as possible wouldn’t it?

So pornographic? It may seem so to the ordinary viewer, but I think one must see the underlying motives. Is it to show that the powers of darkness were at work? Is it to get the viewer thinking “who is this Jesus that people want him dead so much?” Perhaps Gibson is someone who loves to show violence in his movie, or maybe it’s simply just a real passion to his to show his passion. I think he could’ve avoided this bit if he’d shown a bit more of Jesus’ ressurection. At least it might downplay the brutality.

February 27, 2004 @ 10:53 am | Comment

Good points, Idle. I think if he had balanced the brutality with the real message of the Gospels, one of love and forgiveness and mercy — which I am told the film doesn’t do — the uproar would be a lot tamer.

February 27, 2004 @ 11:09 am | Comment

What was that other movie about Jesus that people got all upset about?

The one where he has a sexual fantasy about Mary Magdalene?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that people wanted to ban that movie because it made Jesus too human, but this movie is embraced by the Christians who want to make him human, though they believe he’s god incarnate.

Very confusing. Which makes me think that the protests are much more media hype driven, or even marketing driven for Gibson’s sake than the true message of Christianity. whatever that is.

February 27, 2004 @ 12:34 pm | Comment

And in that other post, I think what I did not successfully point out is that there is a strong history of homo-erotic sadism involved in the study of Jesus and in 16th century anatomy.

It’s a very intriguing study, if you ask me. The poses Jesus is in, the reference to “Passion” in his death and torture.

What’s that all about? Have people been addressing that?

February 27, 2004 @ 12:36 pm | Comment

It was Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ. Must run, back tonight.

February 27, 2004 @ 3:00 pm | Comment

Richard: I assume you’ve already seen David Neiwert’s post about Passion… if not, check it out. It pretty much says it all (and yes, he has seen the movie).

February 27, 2004 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

On my way there right now — thanks Vaara.

February 27, 2004 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

hump hump poof…… ;O))

April 13, 2004 @ 2:18 pm | Comment

i want to be a horse yeah!!!!!!!

July 23, 2005 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

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