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Jesus Christ Superstud

Denis Solomon • 1,403 words

Do you want people to be good, or do you want them to be obedient? That is the question that all religious authorities have to ask themselves. The Catholic Church, as an institution, has for the greater part of its history opted for the second, on the spurious argument that the first is only achievable through the second. Extra ecclesia nulla salus.

Obedience is achieved through terror. Now that burning at the stake is no longer an option, only the psychological terror remains – the fear of eternal damnation. To exploit this, the Church must cling to its claim to perform or mediate the magical rite of salvation. To this end it holds before the eyes of the faithful a concept of ideal goodness embodied in the myth of a saviour of unexampled purity, especially sexual purity, unattainable by sinful mankind.

Just as the Church’s loss of temporal power blocked its recourse to physical punishment, so the secularisation of thought accompanying the rise of technology has eroded its capacity for psychological coercion. Education, and not only secular education, has intensified scepticism. The Church has reacted doctrinally to this by modification of its claim to absolute spiritual supremacy, most recently, and most notably, in the Second Vatican Council.

Part of this doctrinal shift has been a greater emphasis on individual wisdom, bringing the Church, in the minds of its conservatives, dangerously close to Protestantism. But it has stopped short of rendering itself metaphysically superfluous by retaining the minimum of magical elements – virgin birth, resurrection and the like.

Doctrinal rigidity has varied in space as well as in time. Catholicism has done whatever local conditions have allowed it to get away with. In my boyhood, the Catholic News had a column called the Blessed Martin de Porres column, which every week carried testimony of the following kind from readers: “After failing my School Certificate three times, I made a novena to Blessed Martin de Porres and almost passed”. Now the paper’s contents are less simplistic. But Trinidad and Tobago has not, overall, gone very far beyond that kind of propitiatory superstition, and the Church has done nothing to help it do so.

The latest example of the primitive nature of lay Catholic thinking here is the furore over a film supposedly to be made by a hitherto unknown American company in which Jesus is to be portrayed as a homosexual and the part of Mary Magdalene to be played by a prostitute (which in fact, according to the Gospel of Luke, she may well have been).

Now this project (if indeed it is any more than a rumour, or at best an attempt by a fly-by-night concern to drum up notoriety for its product in advance) is nothing new in the history of cinema. A few years ago the respected American director Martin Scorsese made The Last Temptation of Christ, a film based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It showed Jesus frequenting prostitutes, and evoked violent demonstrations by religious conservatives led by the French “antipope” Archbishop Lefevre. It was, predictably, banned in T&T. Only last week the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban imposed by the British Board of Film Classification on a video called Visions of Ecstasy, based on the life of St. Teresa of Avila. An exploration of the sexual element in religious ecstasy, it is said to show St. Teresa aroused in scenes involving the Crucifixion, and the crucified Jesus in a sexual act (don’t ask).

Sexual hysteria in religion was also the theme of British director Oliver Reed’s The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun. So, even leaving aside Boccaccio, Chaucer, Rabelais, de Sade, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the exploration of sex in religion and the religious is nothing new in the arts.

Except for ignorant Trinidadians. Led by Clive Pantin, head of the inauspiciously named organisation FEEL, a group of Catholics is agitating for the project to be abandoned. A representative of the Banyan film organisation, Christopher Laird, has responded that to judge a film before it is even made is sheer bigotry, and that “controversial films should be used for discussion and debate”. Pantin, in reply, has delivered himself of an unseemly slur on Laird, and of an inept analogy between erotic cinema and a high-cholesterol diet.

What is significant, however, is that the official Church has not supported Pantin’s extreme position. Father Clyde Harvey in a measured response referred to changes in cultural attitudes and the need for them to be in the direction of responsibility rather than licentiousness. Father Gerry Pantin, no doubt busier in Servol than Clive Pantin is in FEEL, declined to comment on something that didn’t yet exist; and Archbishop Anthony Pantin has said nothing at all.

So of the three Pantin brothers, it is the one who is not a priest who is taking the extreme position. Harvey and the Archbishop are no doubt familiar with the official Catholic position embodied in the outcome of the Second Vatican Council. In his opening address to that body, Pope John XXIII said “We see...as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

The Pastoral Constitution “On the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), one of the documents to come out of Vatican 2, includes the following passage:

There are many ties between the message of salvation and human culture. For God, revealing Himself to the people to the extent of a full manifestation of Himself in His incarnate Son, has spoken according to the culture proper to each epoch.

Which is Father Harvey’s point. Gaudium et Spes also says:

...the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realised, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue.

Which is Laird’s. Laird is therefore closer than Clive Pantin to the official position of the Church.

Catholicism is torn in one direction by rationally educated industrial man, disappointed by materialist ideologies and searching for a guiding philosophy free of irrational threats and inducements; by products of Western politico-economic humanism such as female and gay rights; and by Third World preoccupations with material issues of poverty and overpopulation. Hence the increased rationalism, decentralisation and individualism enunciated by Vatican 2. It is torn in the opposite direction by the increasing inroads in the mass of the faithful by rival ecstatic cults such as Pentecostalism; hence its recent Charismatic manifestation.

As religious conservatives fully realise, the further the Church moves in the direction of accommodation of individual wisdom and rationality, the closer it comes to abandoning the magical elements which bind the less rational to it. The arts reflect both trends. There have always been, from Thomas à Kempis to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to Paul Claudel, celebrants of the mystical aspects of the religious life. Now mysticism is on the wane, and with it the belief in divine embodiments of chastity. It is only to be expected that there will be an increase in the interest of artists, good and bad, in Jesus as a historical figure or a fictional vehicle for the exploration of the perennial concerns of humanity, including sex and sexuality. This exploration will be in the light, as Vatican 2 acknowledges, of current cultural attitudes.

It may take a third Vatican Council for the Church to convince itself to accept the first rather than the second of the goals in the opening paragraph of this article. It will mean a transition to the doctrine that mankind is as divine, if not yet as perfect, as it is possible to get. At the price of sacrificing the nonsensical components of resurrection, redemption and divine purity that have been at the root of its authority, it will then be free to become, along with all other faiths that accept the same limitations, no more and no less than the conscience of mankind.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top