Thursday, February 17, 2011

All things to all men

I’m currently listening to a boxed set of CDs of the New Testament, the “Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible,” to review it for Tiber River. So far most of it has been done in a style that seems to prevail in Christian/Catholic dramatizations of the Bible, but which no one that I know actually likes. It’s the kind of souped up, cheesy, over-the-top rendering of Biblical texts where Jesus sounds like He’s perpetually on the verge of breaking out into tears or being transformed into a being of pure light. It has the same emotional melodrama as a Queen anthem or a Judas Priest power ballad, but without the essential element of camp to make it clear that it’s not quite taking itself seriously.
I don’t know who it is that goes in for this sort of thing, but I suspect that the way that I read/hear Jesus would sound equally absurd or uninspiring to some other people. In my head He usually sounds like a very sane and reasonable philosopher, with just enough humour to make Him endearing. Perhaps to others, He sounds like a comforting friend, or a voice of thunder on the mountaintop, or the quiet whispering of conscience in the silence of the heart.
It raises the difficult problem of how to convey the power and personality of a figure who is literally “all things to all men.” The personality of Christ is sort of like a redeemed voice of Saruman. Every person who comes to Him with an honest and open heart, finds a radically appealing, personally compelling figure. It’s just that the exact nature of that personality is chameleonic. There is a relationship established there that is highly personal; just as He was willing to come down to Earth and take on a human form in order to unite Himself to humanity, He is willing and able to take on a form, for each of us, that will speak directly to our inmost selves. To the rationalist, He is reasonable. To the Romantic, sentimental. To the lonely, friendly. To the proud, a stern rebuke. To the self-conscious, a voice of encouragement.
For someone trying to put together a dramatization this presents a considerable obstacle. No matter how well it is done, it is probably going to alienate and disappoint a certain portion of your audience. How is this to be overcome?
I think probably the best approach is to make it as personal as possible, to recognize that I am not Christ, and cannot perfectly address all hearts at once. Mel Gibson’s Passion succeeds precisely because it is Mel Gibson’s. It’s not the Passion as conceived of by anyone else, and it’s not trying to be universal. The same is true of much of the writing of the Saints. There is almost no similarity between Christ as He appears in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, and Christ as He appears in St. Catherine of Sienna, yet it is clear that both are writing about the same God. It’s just that they are writing about Him through the prism of two wildly disparate personalities. (Personally, I find Hildegard’s spirituality compelling and inspiring, and I find Catherine’s alternately dull and neurotic, but I’m sure that there are countless others who have the opposite reaction.) In any case, if it is profoundly personal and honest, the portrayal should succeed.

2 comments:

  1. I think you have to be careful that your claim that Christ's appeal is personal doesn't veer into too much individualism - i.e., God is created by us. What you may be trying to say is that we get the message through whatever medium we are able to accept it. The style may vary, and some writers may be more palatable to us than others, but the Christian message, if it is faithful, is always the same.

    I don't think The Passion succeeded because it's Mel Gibson's version; it succeeded because Gibson told the story in a compelling way. Traditionally, an artist who is able to do this is considered to be tapping into something that is universal. More than that, Gibson offered us a meditation on the Passion that is essentially true to the Christian message. I didn't like all of the scenes - the flogging for example - and that may be where Gibson's "style" interfered with the message. But overall, it was his fidelity to the message that made the film succeed.

    My own experience of reading the saints is that while their individual experiences vary - and their writing style and emotive style - there is a remarkable similarity to their understanding of the Christian message. So while I may have found St. Therese of Lisieux's thinking, clothed in a certain type of 19th century language, difficult to read, perseverance leads to an understanding of the heart of her message of love and fidelity. The same is true of St. Faustina. Over and over again among the saints I find a focus on love, humility, service, fidelity. I simply find it easier to understand when reading some saints than others.

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  2. Melinda,

    I couldn't agree with you more about the Truth and Life New Testament. I got through all of the Gospels, some of Acts, Romans, and Revelation. Like you, I thought it sounded to saccharine and OVER dramatic. I have not listened to the rest of it. I can't, God forgive me, tolerate it. Anyway, keep up the good work. I am a person with same-sex attraction and find your writing very helpful. God Bless You!

    Dan

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