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Let’s Start with Something Uncontroversial: “The Passion of Christ”

Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” made me wonder. I’m publishing a new book called Be Happy Now on April 1st, and it’s about some powerful methods I’ve discovered for being happy all the time. You don’t want to offer something like that up without being certain it works, so I’ve been testing and testing the practices in Be Happy Now to make sure they’re as bombproof as I think they are. I wanted to submit myself to one last terrible trial, something that would break my happiness if anything could, and I figured seeing Gibson’s film would be just the thing. Watching an angry mob torture a beloved spiritual teacher, Jesus the Christ, all the way to a painful, horrifying, blood-soaked death, for over two hours: that would make anyone unhappy, wouldn’t it? Well, my methods held up, believe it or not, and “The Passion of the Christ” didn’t make me unhappy. But it sure did make me wonder.

It didn’t make me wonder if it’s historically accurate – it ain’t, an important fact, about which more in a minute. I also didn’t wonder if the movie is too gory – hey, if anybody anywhere has tortured another person, nailed him to a cross, or spat on her as she expired – whether it’s Jesus, Matthew Shepard, or Karla Faye Tucker – we’d be wise to take a close look at it and talk about it. Perhaps we should even take a regular gander, in our daily papers and on the evening news, at some close-up color images of the war wounded and war dead – women and children first among them – and carefully consider that practice as well. That is, if careful consideration is what we’re really about.

Neither did I wonder if “The Passion of Christ” went overboard in portraying the physical and spiritual loathsomeness of its Jews. Gibson went with caricatured hook noses, flying spittle, and bad teeth – very, very bad teeth – not to mention bloodthirsty mob personalities that would really harsh out your party head, as they used to say when I lived in Santa Cruz. Gibson is a very conservative Catholic and he made the choice to portray the Jews in the film this way, and to endorse the theory that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion and Pilate a benign bystander. Similarly, his choice to emphasize Christ’s violent end rather than his transcendent life was his choice: more likely to inspire hatred than love, but still just one man’s choice. If you or I had Mel’s mind and a $30 million soapbox, we might cough up something that would offend somebody, somewhere, one way or the other, too. So while I found some of his choices unilluminating, they didn’t provoke me to wonder.

What I did and do wonder about is this: why do we care about this story anymore? Why are we still shouting at each other about what was done to Jesus, who did it, what he did or didn’t say, what kind of guy he was, or whether the Pope did or did not say about Gibson’s movie, “It is as it was”?

I don’t mean to say that Jesus doesn’t matter, that what happened and how it happened don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t talk about it. All of those things are of interest to me. But not nearly as much as some other things.

Before more shouting begins, allow me to explain what I mean. Jesus was a man, a spiritual teacher, who lived in the Middle East, worked as a carpenter, spoke his mind about some things, and pissed people off badly enough that they murdered him. Of that much we’re pretty reliably certain, and almost all the rest is speculation, inference, imagination, and conjecture, based on the retelling of a retelling of a retelling – times a few billion – of a story told by one fallible, marginally conscious, opinionated person after another: It ain’t the facts, it’s folktales.

I happen to love folktales, but I love them for what they are: stories that have been spun and respun by a huge cast of colorful, sometimes crazy, often ax-grinding storytellers. Jesus the Christ lived and died over 2000 years ago. The oldest living person on earth is barely north of a hundred. So none of us was there. None of our grandpappies was even there. If they had been, they’d tell it just like they tell their memories of the World War or the Great Depression or the first time they made love: from their perspective, deeply colored by whatever state of fear, rage, or whoopee they were in at the time, and irrevocably altered by the weirdness of human memory over time and filtered through personality, religious and political preference, and beer.

In other words, it wouldn’t be what happened, not even close – it’d be a story about what happened. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, take that story, whisper it around in a circle like kids do in school – only do it a few billion times, instead of 13 – and throw in a noisy surrounding mess of holy wars, crusades, tortures, beheadings, genocides, and ceremonial flag-raisings conducted by people bent on using the story to obtain power, wealth, and – ha! – “spiritual prestige”.

Why in the world would we spend our time talking about something as weird and as far removed from the flesh and blood and food of our daily lives as that? Why are we still shouting about it, killing each other over it, even encouraging our children to kill other people’s children over it?

What is commonly referred to as “history” is simply a very strange joke, not a real, true, objectively factual thing. Consider the Holocaust. That happened just 60 years ago, and there are still many people alive today who were actually walking around in Europe at the time, some of whom worked or were incarcerated in concentration camps. Yet staggeringly there’s actual debate going on – very loud debate – about whether or not it even occurred. It most certainly did: there are mountains of photographs, taped interviews, and film; Auschwitz is there to visit; if you care to, you can still meet people with numbers tattooed on their arms and the former Nazis who did the tattooing, and you can read in German the logs of their transport and confinement, and of the destruction of their family members. Nonetheless, only 60 years later, you can hear already a cacophony of different tales competing with each other about what was or wasn’t done, by whom, to whom, and how many times. What is a person to think? What will a person think a century from now, or ten?

And what I am I to think today of the accuracy of the Jesus story? It’s widely agreed among Bible scholars that the Gospels were written 40 to 70 years after Christ’s death, and not by the disciples themselves but by a group of followers relying on both oral and written accounts. If that’s so, is it even possible that Mel Gibson got it right? That Pat Robertson or the New York Times or the King James Bible, composed by 47 men in England 400 years ago who were ordered by an act of Parliament to reduce the “diversities of bibles now extant in the English tongue to one”, gets it right? That the rabbis tell it straight or that some evangelist got it hot off God’s tongue and relayed to us the Truth, no varnish, no spin to fill up the collection platters so he could pimp out his bathroom with gold sinks and fur toilet seats? Sorry, but I’m not in the market to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

What I am in the market for is a world I want to live in, and in which I want my daughter to be able to live – a kind world, a funny world, a sweet world where we go about our business happily, peacefully, lovingly, with intelligence and good humor and

 
 

tolerant, patient, loving regard for each and everyone we’re sharing the pearly blue planet with. So what I think about competing histories of Jesus or the Holocaust or anything else is this: I don’t think about them much, and I don’t suppose that what I do think about them matters much.

What I think matters a lot is this: how I act in this moment right here, the only one I’ve got. (How you act is pretty important, too, but I can’t control that .) Was this not the principal focus of Christ’s teachings? Or any of the other great spiritual teachers who have lived? How to act in this moment, right here, right now, to make a good and positive life for one’s self and others? I respectfully submit to you that it was, and that, as I write in my book Be Happy Now, is almost the only subject in the world ever worth thinking about.

Jesus had some gorgeous ideas about how to live well (if you’re curious about what he actually might have said, in his own language, unspun by legions of priests and rabbis and others, and not processed through Latin and Greek before arriving in English, I highly recommend Neil Douglas-Klotz’s Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus).

Rumi also had some lovely and worthy ideas about living. So did Bob Marley and Lalla and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King and a lot of other folks. So do you, me, our children, our grandmothers (the sweet one, not the one who drinks pruno and throws her shoes at people). Let’s listen to them and talk about them and meditate on them. I’ll keep putting mine and a bunch of other people’s up on my site and in my books. Please send me yours.

And let’s all sing them this time, shall we, and leave the shouting aside? Love and love and love to you all, each and every one.