The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

No, this isn’t about Philip Pullman’s new book by the above title. For that, go read Christopher Hitchens’ review in the Times if you have to. I use the words for something else.

Last night a Londoner friend, appalled by my ignorance of Italian cinema, put on Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew. We watched it together. The friend grew up in a closed, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic community in New England, and the Jesus—really, the Christ—he saw in it was one he wholly recognized: dark, beautiful, distant, the utterer of hard and strange truths, supplanting all human love with a love wholly other. He, like Pasolini when the film was made, is a nonbeliever (and, not coincidentally, a gay man), yet is also inestimably shaped by the religion of his youth. Truth, for him, may not be Christian truth, but his hope seems to be nothing but.

Here is the adult Christ’s first appearance in the film, as he arrives at the Jordan to be baptized by John:

As I watch, I don’t see the Jesus I have come to know at all. This one shouts the Beatitudes in rapid-fire to an audience of the sky. He smiles only around children, and then uses them as weapons to confound Jewish authorities in conical hats. He hardly blinks and always speaks as if he is talking to no one but eternity. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”

My Jesus, the post-Vatican II hippie-meets-philosopher, is a poor man with good news. He interacts with people, among them, as one of them, as a person with fears and pains and concerns. Bordering on cuddly. A bit crazy, but in a way that would be more thrilling than terrifying. If he was mad, even his madness speaks truth to our condition. It’s a vision equally biblical, but one that fills in the Bible’s silences with another kind of stuff.

I’ve often come upon differences of experience like the one that the film put into relief. As an adult convert, the Catholicism I’ve known—the one I’ve been able to assemble by choice, not one I was subjected to by nuns—can be so far from what others experienced growing up in the faith. They don’t understand my reasons for joining up, just as I can only begin to imagine why they left. This is part of the trouble of belonging to such a broad, old, allegedly-universal church: there’s such a messy variety of images one might connect with a given word, person, story, or teaching. The trouble can be instructive; in these guises of God, one finds relics of the human experience that made them and the fears that shaped them. Pasolini’s film, though a literal enough transcription of the text to earn a Vatican imprimatur, is as clear a picture of his generation’s tragic unbelief as I’ve ever seen—an unbelief trapped by belief, trembling in the shadow of a half-human God with His human part malfunctioning.

In any case, I’ve never liked watching Jesus on film in the first place. I didn’t see Mel Gibson’s Passion. I’m terrified of what those images will impress on me and on my Jesus. The images of the imagination have a different constitution, a different certainty, a different kind of detail, than the eyes of the camera and the vision of the screen. Until the Lord returns and appears on Al Jazeera, perhaps it’s best to stick to the contradictory passel of texts and let the clearest images of Christ be in other people.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.