Thinking About Religion
Volume 5 (2005)

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“The Passion of the Christ:”
The Mortification of the Body and the Sacred Feminine

Conrad Ostwalt
Appalachian State University

It’s been more than a year since Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ” was released to resounding commercial success, first among church goers, then among teenage boys who enjoy slasher films, and then to a broader popular audience.[1] The film was the third highest grossing film of 2004 (behind “Shrek 2" and “Spider-Man 2"), taking in more than $370 million dollars between its opening on February 25 and its closing on July 23, 2004. International sales reached $600 million.[2] The film created controversy because of the perception by some that it was anti-Semitic or overly violent or unbiblical, embracing as it does Sister Anne Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion, the ritualistic Stations of the Cross, and Gibson’s own creative “vision” or “inspiration.” This alone is not an issue, except for Gibson’s claim that the film adheres strictly to the Gospels. The passions produced by this film have now calmed, and the film has apparently not produced the calamities the criticism implied: there has been no apparent rise in anti-Semitism based on the film; no surge in violence has been noted in connection to the film; and no further damage to biblical scholarship has resulted in response to popular audiences once again getting their biblical education at the theater rather than from the Bible itself.

So the focus of this essay is not the controversy of the film but rather how the film highlights the intersection of popular culture and religion. In particular, I’m interested in what this film tells us about a cultural approach to and appropriation of the body: the body of Christ and the humanity it encapsulates, but also by extension embodiment as a symbol of social power. Gibson’s “The Passion” has something to tell us about how our culture perceives the body and highlights a popular ambiguity about the body, sexuality, and the suppression and celebration of embodiment, particularly as related to the sacred feminine. Mortification of the flesh; violence to the flesh; destruction of the flesh have long held religious significance in the Christian tradition. The visual presentation of these acts in “The Passion” once again highlight a cultural ambiguity and discomfort with the embodiment of Jesus and the Christian struggle with the body in general.

I began to think along these lines after delivering a lecture at Western Carolina University relating mutilation of the flesh to popular religious consciousness. After the lecture, a medievalist, Dr. Brian Gastle, asked me if I had considered any similarities to the medieval practice of public flagellation. His comment suggested that perhaps there existed similar cultural trends during periods when flagellants were active and our own time that celebrates Gibson's film. I'm still working on this, and while I'm not sure yet if there are historical, economic, or sociological similarities existing in the culture, this line of thinking has led me to another conclusion. When looking at "The Passion" with medieval flagellation in mind, I became convinced that part of the appeal of this film has to do with the connection between flesh mutilation, the concept of original sin, misogyny, and suppression of the sacred feminine in the Christian tradition.

Medieval theology from the time of Augustine situated original sin with the female. According to traditional theology, Eve’s actions led to the Fall of humankind. Augustine’s treatment of original sin made it a bodily and sexual issue. Since Augustine, the sexual urge has been equated with sinfulness and has given rise to misogynist tendencies from Jerome to Aquinas to Luther and beyond in Christian theology. In response, chastity has been seen as a higher spiritual state, and often mortification of the flesh, in particular violence to the self or self-flagellation, has been adopted as a form of denial, a form of repression of sexual feelings or thoughts, that overcomes or destroys the flesh in order to focus on the spiritual dimensions of humanness. Such violence to the flesh helped motivate the early martyrs, but even more clearly arose in the fourteenth century when the flagellants traveled across Europe, whipping themselves bloody in public displays of scourging as expiation of sins while witnesses groaned and cried for mercy. Scourging and flagellation were not uniquely tied to sexual guilt and sin, but it was in part as is suggested by evidence that some of the flagellants engaged in sexual orgies that included sado-masochistic rituals followed by flagellation.[3] There are two items to note concerning the flagellants in relation to the reception of Gibson’s “The Passion” by the popular culture. First, flesh mutilation is an expiation for sin with the flagellants and with traditional theologies of the cross. The need for expiation arises from original sin and, thus, sexuality. Pain, in general, whether self-inflicted or externally imposed, is a product of human frailty brought about by sin and the Fall. Second, the populous, the crowds, watched the flagellants and moaned vicariously and empathetically while another endured the mutilation. Flagellants submitted themselves to a scourging in imitation of Christ’s suffering; saints who received the Stigmata felt the pain of the crucifixion wounds of Christ; observers who witnessed such mutilations participated vicariously. In similar fashion, did those moviegoers who wept during the scenes of scourging and mutilations of Christ’s flesh experience vicariously the suffering of their God? To make the connection between the medieval flagellants and the 21st -century movie-goers even more concrete, we can see in many ways, Gibson’s movie is more a medieval vision than anything. Gibson’s self-avowed traditionalist faith, and thus Gibson’s vision, has its roots in medieval Europe.[4]

Such misogynist philosophy in the West is not limited to Christian theology but perhaps extends much deeper into the philosophical tradition. Some feminist philosophers and theologians would see misogyny traceable at least to Plato, who by subordinating the body to the soul, or irrationality to reason, creates a value system and intellectual system that subordinates the feminine principle, which is tied to the body in Plato’s work.[5] In any case, the value prejudice against the feminine represents a long-standing perspective in the West.

My point here is that throughout Christian history, theology has been punctuated by sexual guilt and that mortification of the flesh either through abstinence and chastity or through self-inflicted punishment and flesh mutilation has been a way to atone for sexual guilt or the stain of original sin. And to take this thesis a step further-such denial through mortification is tied to the attempt to suppress the sacred feminine in Christian theology. Christian theology has always attempted to deny the sacred feminine and its power as expressed through sexuality, first through its appropriation of Mary's virginity and later through its condemnation of Magdalene as prostitute. The two icons of the sacred feminine in Christianity are desexualized, the one through stripping her of her sexuality and assigning her perpetual virginity and the other through demonizing her sexuality by making her a prostitute in official and popular Christian theology. Flagellation, repression, and other forms of denial then are all forms in Christian history of suppressing the sacred feminine and the creative power inherent in sexuality.

In saying this, I'm suggesting something about the archetypal, symbolic function of Christian myth, not history, and I'm suggesting that the sacred feminine has been a part of the functional Christian myth from the beginning and has been suppressed throughout Christian history. This has been suggested by many scholars working with the Nag Hammadi texts such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and while I don't want to overemphasize popularizations such as The DaVinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, these and other works point out something that has been missing in much Christian theology-the sacred feminine. We see this clearly in the work of Elaine Pagels on gnosticism and Susan Haskins on Mary Magdalene. With the current interest in rehabilitating Christianity’s most beloved prostitute, some writers claim that evidence suggests that Mary Magdalene was a female goddess and counterpart of Jesus in early Christian mythology and that there is evidence of this in the Gospel of Mary and even the canonical Gospels. One interpretation of the anointing of Jesus by Mary in John's Gospel (Chapter 12) views the event in the context of the pagan sacred marriage ritual by collapsing Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene into one and the same person. (Until the 20th century, the Catholic Church held that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany were one and the same.) The pagan ritual of anointing the sacred king preceded sacred marriage of the divine king and the sacred goddess. In these pagan rituals, the divine priestess united with the sacred king before his sacrificial death and resurrection three days later. Lynn Picknett suggests that Mary in the anointing was the archetypal Magdalene and thereby represents the sacred feminine through participating in this pagan ritual. In any event, the anointing story in John does seem to parallel the mystery religions and the sacred marriage ritual within them and suggests the presence of the sacred feminine in the Jesus tradition.[6] If this is so, the anointing story establishes a sacred goddess in the Jesus tradition who partners with the Messiah in the sacrificial/salvific event in the same way the sacred goddess of the mystery religions partners with the dying and resurrecting god. If there is any connection such as this to the pagan tradition either in history or more likely in the mythology, then the subsequent “harlotization” results in the “disempowered” (terms coined by Jane Schaberg)[7] Mary Magdalene in the Catholic tradition. Such a theological prostitution should rightly be understood as an attempt to suppress the presence of the sacred feminine in the Jesus tradition.[8]

But the archetype of the sacred feminine survives centuries of repression and continues to surface in many ways in the Christian tradition-particularly in the popular culture; in French legends; through flagellation in medieval Europe; and in our own popular culture through movies and books. For example, this archetypal re-enactment gets full-blown expression in Martin Scorsese’s "The Last Temptation of Christ," where the marriage of Jesus to Magdalene and later to Mary of Bethany comes as a dream/vision of sexual/domestic fantasy. (It is interesting to note that Satan in this fantasy convinces Jesus that there is but one woman in all the world, thus Magdalene and Mary are the same, just as in Picknett’s reconstruction of the sacred feminine in the Jesus tradition.) The archetypal urge existing in the subconscious thus surfaces at the moment of the crucifixion and the sacred goddess once again joins the sacrificial god in the context of sacrificial death and resurrection. As another example, we see the archetype surface again in the extraordinary popularity of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. Brown gives the myth full expression through his fictionalized account of Holy Blood, Holy Grail where Magdalene is the Bride of Christ and their sacred marriage and subsequent offspring (the eternal Horus) is safeguarded as the Holy Grail-the symbolic chalice of Magdalene's womb. The persistence and popularity of these legends and fictions provide an outlet for the archetype of the sacred feminine.

This brings us to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Why has there been such fascination with the very graphic depiction of the mortification of Christ's flesh in the scenes of scourging and crucifixion? At least one answer to the question is that at an archetypal level, a subconscious level, it reignites the Isis myth of the sacred goddess whose power lies in sexuality and like the medieval flagellants, it gives expression to what has been suppressed in theology–it suppresses the power of the sexual body through mortification of the flesh. Perhaps "The Passion" is effective among Christians with its stark presentation of flesh mutilation because it taps into a deep effort to suppress the goddess myth as represented by Magdalene’s presence throughout the movie. At the beginning she is with Mary in a home and answers Mary’s question at the moment of Jesus’s arrest, “Why is this night different from every other night?” The question traditionally begins the retelling of the history of Israel at Passover. Does this link Mary, Magdalene, and James as family? She accompanies Mary (and often James) throughout the movie’s tortured march through the Stations of the Cross and assists in lowering the broken body of Jesus from the cross. Is Magdalene Jesus's consort, part of the family, the sacred goddess who with Mary the sacred Mother, holds the broken body of Jesus before it is made whole again? Gibson's "The Passion" and the vision of Emmerich, reinsert the sacred feminine into the story of the Passion, and it taps the archetype that is veiled by the traditional rendering of the Passion through the pronounced presence of Mary Magdalene. Gibson’s extreme depiction of flesh mutilation in this instance is necessary to defeat original sin, magnified throughout the movie by Magdalene’s persona.

The buried proximity of the sacred feminine also explains the presence of what I first thought was an androgynous Satan figure but which later appears as feminine. In Gethsemene, Satan comes as temptress and in the form of a serpent in an obvious reference to Eden. When Jesus stomps the head of the snake, he defeats the temptation to avoid the cross, and since original sin in Catholic theology has traditionally been associated with Eve and sexuality, Satan in this movie and its demon child/antichrist provide stark contrast to the sacred feminine represented by Magdalene and creates tension over sexuality and its result within the Christian tradition. Is the demon child the progeny of an unholy marriage to counter the holy marriage and sacrifice of Christ? Or, are Magdalene and Satan both representatives of the same sacred feminine power?

In addition to whatever else it might be, I think this movie taps into something fundamental-it hits archetypes that lie embedded in the tradition and have been released through this film. The sacred feminine is suppressed throughout Christian history through mortification of the flesh-if original sin is connected to fleshly pleasure (Augustine), then atonement must be connected to fleshly agony-this goes well beyond traditional substitutionary atonement theory that requires sacrificial blood by requiring unimaginable and until Gibson's visual effects, indescribable agony. The tearing of Christ's flesh redeems the tragedy of Eve's sexuality, present throughout in the persona of Magdalene who once again reminds us of the power of the sacred feminine.

This provides insight into Gibson’s need to so graphically represent sadistic torture beyond what most people agree would be survivable. Perhaps it’s a more graphic extension of the eviscerated hero in “Braveheart,” yet there is, I believe, more here than a need to raise the shock value. In our popular culture, there is a fascination (a convoluted fascination) with the body and flesh. We are at once repulsed by flesh (for example the public outcry over Janet Jackson’s breast exposure a few days prior to the release of Gibson’s film) and strangely drawn to it (for example Gibson’s scourging scene and the popularity of television shows like “CSI”). We are uncomfortable with the sexual body, but are fascinated with images of torn, mutilated, and decayed flesh. Ariel Glucklich, and his fascinating book, Sacred Pain, help with this conundrum. Glucklich points out that in postmodern discourse, discussion about pain involves embodiment and necessarily social relations of power and empowerment.[9] So while our culture is enough puritanical to prevent an open presentation of sexual body politics, we have less a problem transferring empowerment issues to body politics involving pain. This is particularly clear when we look at what Glucklich calls “sacred pain,” pain in service to a “telos” or higher end. Such pain provides a “theological glorification of suffering,” is transformative, and strengthens the bond between the divine community and its god.[10] Thus, sacred pain “legitimizes” and empowers a community sociologically[11] while also empowering individuals psychologically. In this sense, religion often invites pain.[12] Extending this notion of pain as empowering provides some clue about the fascination in our popular culture with various forms of invited or inflicted pain–from “CSI”-type dramas to the various trials experienced on reality TV to the graphic depictions of torture and suffering in Gibson’s movie. This also helps to understand the behavior of Christian Saints who sought martyrdom and medieval flagellants who whipped themselves publicly.

In the instance of Gibson’s “The Passion,” flesh mutilation in the extreme functions in at least two ways, perhaps more, given Glucklich’s models of sacred pain. Both of these models function to empower. The first way flesh mutilation in Gibson’s “The Passion” functions reflects a punitive or juridical model of pain. In this model, “pain as punishment” results from a “debt...owed” and removes guilt.[13] In this instance, of course, the “theological glorification” of Christ’s pain in Gibson’s movie demonstrates the traditional, yet extreme, theory of atonement and seems to function to describe human relations to the divine. However, if postmodern discourse about pain and embodiment necessarily functions to describe social relationships, the extreme suffering of Christ juxtaposed to the visual images of the Gethsemene temptation, the constant presence of Magdalene, and the satanic Madonna with child teases out a social dynamic related to the sacred feminine. The extreme suffering is necessary because of the magnitude of the debt, and the debt has been accrued by the feminine consort of the male god. Christ’s body must be broken, the male flesh mutilated beyond recognition to expiate what the female body has wrought, the creative potential of the female body. Eve, Magdalene, the sacred goddess–they require the mutilation of the body of Christ–they crucify god. In a scene from the movie following the scourging, when Magdalene removes her head covering to mop up Jesus’s blood, her long hair is released and remains loose until the moment Jesus’s cross is raised. The cascading hair, the symbol of Magdalene’s sexuality, is loosed by the cloth that absorbs the blood of the Christ. The blood of the Christ saturates that which restrains the symbol of Magdalene’s/Eve’s creative potential. Much has been made about Gibson’s movie pointing blame at the Jews as god-slayers. Much more subtle are the images suggesting that Woman is the real god-slayer. As such, Gibson’s presentation employs traditional theology coupled with historical misogyny in the Christian tradition to describe postmodern social relations.

This becomes even more developed if we remember another controversial movie about Jesus, the 1988 Martin Scorsese film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s book, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Both films, “The Passion” and “The Last Temptation” deal with the same theological problem, the problem of the body of Christ. Both films refer to the same prophecy from Isaiah about the healing wounds. Both feature Christ being tempted by a visitor in the form of a snake with a feminine voice, thus recalling the Edenic motif and superimposing Satan in feminine form. Yet, in “The Last Temptation,” what is implied in “The Passion” receives full treatment. The temptation is clearly sexual and domestic. Jesus’s flesh torments him, his desire to love Magdalene remains until his dying breath, his dream of domestic bliss is the last temptation threatening to derail his mission to save humankind. The problem is Christ’s body–the solution is to break it, kill it. The difference here is that in “The Last Temptation,” it is the body itself that torments Christ; in “The Passion,” the body is tormented. This might explain why conservative Christians boycotted the first and embraced the latter. Or it might explain why there were organized efforts to boycott “The Last Temptation” and organized efforts to fill movie theaters for “The Passion.” It is easier and more theologically expedient to situate the tormenter in the sacred feminine or sadistic guards than in the human frailty of the Savior. But in either case, the cause for torment is based on the sacred power of the feminine.

The second of Glucklich’s models that illuminates “The Passion’s” appeal is the model of “shared pain.” In the words of Glucklich, “the victim of pain may suffer it on behalf of others, while the others are deeply affected by this pain.”[14] “The Passion,” through its graphic visual depiction of scourging and crucifixion, allows the empathetic moviegoer to vicariously experience the pain and suffering of Christ. In the past, this experience has been limited more or less to martyrs, flagellants, mystics, and saints receiving the stigmata. Now this vicarious and visceral experience can be had from a safe distance either as empathetic suffering from the believer’s perspective or as thrill from the sadist’s.[15] When this empathetic experience of pain by moviegoers happens in community, which was the case especially in the early days of the release of the film when church groups rented theaters and went en masse, the experience becomes the experience of shared pain that creates and strengthens community–in Glucklich’s words, a “group of people who share the same language.”[16] In this case, the language is one of traditional theology, but for moviegoers experiencing the film, the stark visual effect gives new vicarious possibility to an old and familiar story.

In this sense, the experience church groups had when sharing the movie in its original release was ritualistic. Robert Pirsig says ritual is “reacquaintance with the familiar.”[17] Ritual then is remembering what was forgotten. In this case, remembering pain for audiences who have been anesthetized (culturally, theologically, and even physically) against pain brings the suffering of Christ into stark visual and perhaps visceral focus. Thus, for many, the movie functions in a ritualistic way. And that ritual is attached to a theology that places the fault for Christ’s suffering in the lap of those experiencing empathetic pain, producing guilt and the need for punishment, bringing the moviegoer full circle back to the juridical model of pain in Glucklich’s treatment. So, the movie functions to create community among those speaking the same theological language–the suffering of Christ is unimaginable and inhuman; it results from sin; it binds the community together. In this sense, the movie is evocative for those already initiated into the language and beliefs of traditional Christianity. Yet, the movie raises the ante by reinforcing traditional misogynist beliefs concerning original sin and the power of the sacred feminine.

Gibson’s movie teases the viewer with the prominent role of Magdalene, the sacred consort of Jesus transposed against Mary, the perpetual virgin. Mary, in turn, is transposed against a feminine Satan, as seen clearly in a scene during Jesus’s march to Golgotha where Mary and Satan, dressed similarly, spy each other across the way, mirroring one another as they make their ways through the crowds. Out of this transposition comes Magdalene through whom the sacred feminine emerges as potentially the consort and at the same time the enemy of Christ, the mother of the Passion in the first place. From Gibson’s introductory Garden scene where the temptation of Christ comes in satanic feminine guise to the end when Satan writhes in agony at the crucifixion,[18] it is the sacred feminine that watches over the proceedings, presented through the Mother of God, the consort of God, and the enemy of God. This is the familiar sacred feminine that our culture has forgotten and that Gibson’s movie so slyly reacquaints us with. The movie raises the problem of the body, the body of Christ, and redefines power and social relations in the context of sacred and shared pain. In this movie, the mutilation, destruction, and rehabilitation of Christ’s body comes about because of that which gives life to human mortality–the sacred feminine.


[1] CNN, March 21, 2004.

[2] American Profile, ed. Charlie Cox, Jan. 23-29, 2005, p. 2.

[3] Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 114.

[4] Margaret M. Mitchell, “ARAMAICA VERITAS and the occluded Orientalism of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ,” in Criterion, vol. 43, no. 2 (Spring 2004): p. 25.

[5] See Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views,” Feminist Studies 8: 1 (Spring 1982): 109-31.

[6] Lynn Picknett, “Sacred Sex and Divine Love: A Radical Reconceptualization of Mary Magdalene,” in Dan Burstein, ed., Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the DaVinci Code (CDS Books: New York, 2004), pp. 15-16.

[7] Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, as quoted by David van Biema, “Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?,” in Burstein, ed. Secrets of the Code, p. 12.

[8] David van Biema, reported by Lisa McLaughlin, “Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?,” in Burstein, ed., Secrets of the Code, p. 12.

[9] Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 14.

[10] Glucklick, pp. 3-6 and 98ff.

[11] See Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

[12] Glucklich, p. 13.

[13] Glucklich, pp. 16-17.

[14] Glucklich, p. 29.

[15] Glucklich, p. 50.

[16] Glucklich, p. 51.

[17] Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (William Morrow: New York, 1974).

[18] The image of Satan at the end of the movie is the first image with Satan’s head covering removed, and the viewer discovers Satan is bald. This image contrasts sharply to Magdalene’s flowing locks. Does the crucifixion defeat the effect of sexual temptation symbolized by Magdalene’s loose hair?

Thinking About Religion, Volume 5
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