Song for a Dark Girl by Hughes and McCalla

leyla mccalla

Earlier this year, Leyla McCalla, a blues cellist (and multi-instrumentalist) and singer released Vari-Colored Songs, an album dedicated to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Today at the tail end of National Poetry Month, I’m telling you that she is among the greatest musicians we have. Below the sound file I’ve provided, I’ve copied the Langston Hughes text so you can read along.

Along with my basic message to you to check her music out on her album and on YouTube and on tour, the interpretation she makes of Hughes’ text serves as explanation of why James Cone‘s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is on my reading list for the second half of 2014.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

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Revisiting Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (part ii)

The substantive post with an argument was from yesterday, so read that first. This is a post gathering together a few thoughts that didn’t quite fit in that argument:

1. Yes, the movie is crazy bloody, sometimes gratuitously so. The difference between what the thieves experienced and what Jesus experienced before their crucifixions is again a mark of the devotional tradition to which this film belongs overtaking other theological and historical claims about what happened. (And I still find no understanding for why the bird had to pluck out the Bad Thief’s eye.)

2. This is the first time that I recognized that Gibson told the story as the conversion story of the centurion Abenader. It is a beautiful conversion in which Abenader accompanies Jesus along the entire way through the Passion and sees the witness of Jesus’ life. If you too return to watch the film again, watch it as The Conversion of Abenader and see it if it shifts your perspective.

3. Gibson’s and Caviezel’s Jesus is astonishingly good at depicting C.S. Lewis’ Liar/Lunatic/Lord. Caviezel as Jesus is either an entirely insane cult leader or there is the possibility that he is telling the truth about Himself and the God who sent Him. The depiction of Jesus is writing, directing, acting, and editing all coming together to somehow make an interesting character out of one of the most oft depicted characters in all of literature.

4. I had much less problem with Satan played by a woman, because this time through I saw it as a female actor playing an androgynous, simultaneously beautiful and hideous role. Maybe others don’t buy that, but if “she” were intended to show that something of woman marks Satan, she would have been played as a sex symbol. In fact, she never plays any sort of female temptress to cause Jesus or anyone else to sexual lust. (Now I’m troubled by the “baby” carried by Satan.)

Revisiting Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Passion of the christ poster

Like most other US Christians, in 2004 I saw The Passion of the Christ in the theater. I was dismissive of it, saw its depiction of Christ’s suffering as purely physical, was bored by the storytelling, troubled by the portrayal of Satan by a female actor, and I know I called its violence pornographic. In the ten years since, I’ve avoided several screenings organized by churches during Lent.

Then, a week ago, on Good Friday, I streamed it on Netflix. And I thought it was great.

The Passion of the Christ is a very strange film, because it is one in which you have to know the story beforehand in order to understand what is happening. I cannot think of a another case where I would praise a film adaptation of a book that worked that way. Imagine, for instance, a film adaptation of Macbeth, but only Acts Four and Five are covered, with a few references to past scenes thrown in, which you assume are meaningful to the people who know the story, but which are meaningless to you as the viewer.

Rotten Tomatoes (recording a 49% from All Critics and 80% from Audience) summarizes the critical response: “The graphic details of Jesus’ torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey.” That’s right: the graphic details make a story which is difficult to follow and unclear in its purpose even more difficult to follow and even less clear in its purpose.

Passion scourge

While that represents the mainstream of critical responses, another strong trend of criticism (mainly among Christians who mostly liked the movie) lamented that while the movie was supposedly dedicated to showing every gruesome detail with historical accuracy, it failed at some points. The nails went in Jesus’ hands, some said, when everybody knows they would have actually gone into his wrists, or he would have fallen off the cross from his own weight against weak flesh. My own part in this stream was that I wondered aloud (even as I knew) why Gibson wouldn’t depict a naked Jesus on the cross.

I returned to the 2004 film ten years later prompted by a conversation with my wife in which she said she found the movie meaningful, and in tearing down the movie I found myself tearing down her (and millions of other people). Why is it that 80% of the people who saw The Passion disagreed with me and most established critics? (While a decent question, honestly, I know it’s not for the reason I came to my own change of view.)

My own reason is that (I think) I’ve come to see The Passion of the Christ for what it is rather than what I thought it was or should be. Film critics expected and therefore saw a film that could be judged by the genre conventions of narrative filmmaking and of film adaptations of preexisting works and of other film adaptations of the life of Jesus. Evangelical Christians saw a Passion that brought Hollywood money to bear on telling the most important part of the Most Important Story. Liberal (this is before “progressive” was the preferred term) Christians saw a Passion marred by a right-wing fringe Catholic filmmaker’s bloody misunderstanding of what atonement is and who the God of Jesus is.

Mel-Gibson-and-Jim-Caviez-007

In reality, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a big-budget film continuation of and representation of a hundreds of years’ old tradition of Roman Catholic devotional art focused on the suffering and death of Jesus. This is why so many of the scenes are composed like classical paintings and why parts of the narrative make no sense without a knowledge of the Stations of the Cross and the various extra-Biblical traditions of how the Passion happened. It’s also why Jesus is not shown naked and why the nails go through the palms of his hands rather than through his wrists. The biggest clue, however, to Gibson’s real intention, however, was right in front of our noses the whole time: the movie’s title.

The Passion of the Christ as a phrase is a theological interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth from inside particular theological, devotional, and artistic traditions. “Christ” makes particular claims about who Jesus is, and “Passion” is a much different term than “Death” or “Crucifixion” or even the basic English translation, “Suffering.”

Finally, this doesn’t mean that we cannot judge the Catholic devotional interpretative traditions or the film itself on any merits or against any standards we choose. It is just to say that when we do, we should recognize we are no longer judging the work by its own intentions or on its own terms.

The Crucifixion with St Bridget in Adoration

“Tuesday” Reading Roundup

“Ascetic Aesthetics: How Gerard Manley Hopkins Found Beauty in Dogma” (First Things) by Julia Yost. The author argues against the mainstream of criticism which says GMH’s sonnets took a nosedive as he became older and more dogmatic, reminding us along the way that Hopkins was one-of-a-kind: “The slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted in graceful sprays.”

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton. Maybe lighter and less hilarious than some of Edgerton’s others, but this would be a great one to pack along on any beach vacations you may have coming up.

“How Rwanda’s Paul Kagame Exploits U.S. Guilt” (The Wall Street Journal) by Howard W. French. The popular messages we hear and want to hear of the success of reconciliation are an oversimplification of the rampant corruption and inability to deal with its past that Rwanda is still reckoning with twenty years after genocide. This article is a must-read.

“Is Richard Dawkins Leading People to Jesus?” (The Telegraph) by Damian Thompson. While I don’t seek out arguments with atheists, I do appreciate a good atheist argument. Dawkins indeed disappoints on that count, as those who have “converted” under his teaching have experienced. Thompson writes, “If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might conclude that Prof Dawkins secretly converted to Christianity decades ago, and then asked himself: ‘How can I best win souls? By straightforward argument, or by turning myself from a respected academic into a comic figure fulminating against religion like a fruitcake at Speakers’ Corner, thereby discrediting atheism?'”

The New Testament, Revised Standard Version. This week I finished reading the NT in the RSV, a translation which I enjoyed but thought I might love. One thing wonderful and new about this time through was that day when my reading plan meant I finished Revelation 22 and then flipped back to continue with Genesis 1 in the same sitting.

Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. One of those where the art and the writing fight it out on every page to see which can be the best, everyone who has ever liked any sci-fi anything ever should at least check out this series.

“Why I’m a Pro-Life Liberal” (The Week) by Elizabeth Stoker. The pro-life leftist position maintains that human life is so significant, so inherently valuable, so irreplaceable that it should be the central subject of political concern.” Believe it or not, @e_stoker received some responses on Twitter over this one. Except for a couple bits, I agree with the whole thing.

 


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

The Cross Through a Trinitarian Lens

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

Augustine writes in Bk. IV, Ch. 3 of De Trinitate,

Now there are four things to be considered in every sacrifice: whom it is offered to, whom it is offered by, what it is that is offered, and whom it is offered for. And this one true mediator, in reconciling us to God by his sacrifice of peace, would remain one with him to whom he offered it, and make one in himself those for whom he offered it, and be himself who offered it one and the same as what he offered.

 

I don’t know about which theological conversations are the popular ones in other Christian traditions, but evangelicals and liberal Protestants talk a lot about the relationship between violence and the atonement. The views which at least recognize that this is a problem worth reckoning with are as far-ranging as A.) Insisting we recognize Christ as victim of the evil of violence (versus God as promoter of violence for our salvation) to X.) Decentralizing the Cross as the place where reconciliation is accomplished (see Delores S. Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness). [I leave out Y and Z, because there probably are a Y and a Z out beyond Williams.]

On this Good Friday, what are we thinking about the Cross? What are we hearing in sermons today (and what are we preaching)? What do we believe happened on the Cross in time and in eternity? Finally, how do we make sense of the Cross’ violence?

Scriptures throughout the Old and New Testament undeniably and regularly speak of God’s reconciliation with humankind and all of Creation in the language of sacrifice. However, there are wrong ways and right ways (and worse ways and better ways) to understand that sacrificial language and what it says about the character of God. One route that we cannot take when approaching these texts is this: contrary to some broad brushstrokes takes on human history brought to bear on Biblical criticism (whether by Borg/Crossan or Girard), there is not some monolithic, bloodthirsty, primitive humanity that can be blamed for twisting up the Gospel into an unrecognizable state, marred by humans’ love of violence.

I am convinced that all our arguments are really about one question: Who is God? This is why I quote Augustine. When Christians talk about God at all, we are talking about the Trinity (Gregory Nazianzen, memorably: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). Our talk of the atonement and of the Cross and of sacrifice is just one of many areas in which we tend to forget this and to start talking of a God who is not Trinitarian (that is, a “God’ who is not God).

In our beliefs, in our thinking, in our reading, in our speech, in our arguments, is the Cross a Trinitarian action of God? Does our Jesus “remain one with him to whom he offered” himself? If not, our Cross is not the Cross of Christ, and our atonement is not the one which God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–accomplished. But, if Jesus crucified indeed remains one with the Godhead, then how we must re-understand the nature of our atonement with God and what the Cross has to do with it?


Bonus Link: “Pope Francis, Marc Chagall and the Jews” (RNS)

 

Tuesday Reading Roundup

“A 13-year-old eagle huntress in Mongolia” by William Kremer. I cannot get over the photographs or the life this story contains.

“Avoiding Black Plague Today” by Iulia FilipBiology, history, present day outbreaks.

“Biologists Confirm God Evolved From Chimpanzee Deity” (The Onion)Masterful.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel–Finished! And wow. Final words: “There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”

“The Coats of Edward Gorey” by A.N. Devers. The story of an artist’s love affair with fur coats, and a writer’s attempt to get one of them for herself.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Supposedly a sequel to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it feels more like a high-quality fragment of a sequel, with Varley’s art reminiscent of her work (again with Miller) on Ronin.

“Liberty University’s Provost Was a Senior Moonie Apostle and Collaborator” by James Duncan. Duncan has been detailing connections between leaders of Liberty University, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and Benny Hinn in a number of recent posts. So strange to me that I don’t even understand why such connections would exist.

“My Rocky Time as a Woman Writer on SNL” by Carol Leifer. If SNL’s infamously vicious culture consistently produced great comedy, that would be one thing. However…

The Trinity by Augustine. Yes. Still reading it. Still enjoying it too.

 


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I quoted it yesterday and raved about it last week. Read Wolf Hall, then read this. (Or if someone else already has Wolf Hall checked out from your library, read Bring Up the Bodies then Wolf Hall.)

“Emptying the Bell: An Interview with Peter Matthiessen” by Lawrence Shainberg. In the wake of Matthiessen’s death this past week, Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) tweeted the link to this illuminating piece from the Fall 1993 issue of Tricycle.

“How to read the Bible” by Celia Wolff. Wolff is a Th.D. candidate at Duke, and she has provided with this post a fantastic, brief way for anyone (whether Biblical scholar, theologian, preacher, layperson, or reader of the Bible as literature) to learn to read the Bible better. Seriously, if you are interested in the Bible at any level or in any way, read this, post it to your Facebook wall, tweet it, email it to your church’s preacher(s). (Thanks for serving us all with this one, Celia! However this post relates to bigger projects you’re working on, you are doing it right.)

“Learning guitar licks and other tricks at Afghanistan’s Rock School Kabul” by Larisa Epatko. A burgeoning rock scene in Kabul is being helped along by music educators.

“Life Is Short, Proust Is Long” by James Camp. It’s not so much that I agree with this fairly critical read of what SpritzInc.com is trying to do for the world of reading, but that conversations with friends about this article brought me back around to reassessing the usefulness of speed-reading in my own life.

On the Trinity by AugustineDoesn’t need my recommendation, but if you’re familiar with it, I’m about to begin Book IV. Also, buy the edition I linked to. The footnotes and various introductions written by translator Edmund Hill are fantastic.

“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997” translated by Timothy S. Murphy. A beautiful and natural pairing that I would not have known to wish for, if I had not learned this week that it happened.

“The Praying Habit: Catholic” by Carolyn Browender. Over at Killing the Buddha, Browender has been pursuing a Lenten discipline of praying within various traditions other than her own (and you can see them all here). In this particular post, she talks through her relationship to Catholicism, her favorite saints, and her attempts at learning the rosary, along the way describing how her relationship with all of that is one of both consternation and blessing.

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare. Reading about Henry VIII has me wanting to read more about the other Henrys and about Elizabeth I, which leads me to Shakespeare. From Sonnet III:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.