I was out drinking with some friends the other day when the topic of Mel Gibson’s Jesus film came up. Now, I had experienced for myself Gibson’s dim religious wattage in the forgettable Signs, and from what I’d read about the Gibson movie, beyond the anti-jewish bits, it looked to me like the clunkiest Hollywood realism – which consists of an almost fetishistic appreciation of the artifacts peculiar to a historical epoch or situation, vitiated by the emplacement of the most physically unlikely specimen of California health -- the blond, dazzlingly toothed actor or actress -- in the midst of it. There was an article in the NYT about what Jesus looked like, a little froth on the Gibson publicity circuit, and the man who wrote it, who was mounting his own meticulously detailed Jesus bio-pic, was adamant that he must be a wiry peasant, about 5’3” – no Hollywood charmer.

Well, we wonder about the 5’3” – although we do concede the point that a man who wanders on foot the length and breadth of Judea is probably going to be wiry. It is hard to think of a man as fat as, say, Nero, as a messiah. For one thing, he was no pedestrian. Jesus was a pedestrian – how is that for a bumper sticker?

Anyway, my drinking friends were all going out to see the movie. One of them was interested to hear that I did not consider Jesus to be the son of God, and she remarked that she couldn’t imagine living without God. To which I made some conciliatory remarks about how I consider God to be what we are made of, and what everything else is made of. A goofy enough theology to get by when you don’t want to be pressed on the point. Another of my friends told about seeing a special about the movie – everybody seems to have seen a special about the movie – that showed how they manufactured a crucifixion, complete with a nail entering a hand. Hmm. My impulse was to say, how awful – the crucifixion as F/X shocks even me. But then I thought that this was par for the course as far as my reactions are concerned – only someone for whom religion is a matter of beautiful pictures and poetry would be discomforted by such tackiness. Tackiness, as Flannery O’Connor knew, was no bar to religious ecstasy.

For those interested in the portrayal of Christ, there’s an essay on the birth of the paradigmatic connection between image, power, and religion in this season’s American Journal of Philology, written by a Francis James. It is entitled Living Icons: Tracing a motif in verbal and visual representation from the second to the fourth centuries C.E. It is James’ contention that images – as in portraits, descriptions of persons with an emphasis on their visual aspect, instead of a stereotypical reference to the fact that they had a visual aspect – comes into textual play in these centuries. Not coincidentally, they come into play in terms of lives of holy men and Byzantine emperors. And they not only come into play, but they refer to their own quality of visualizing by making reference to painted or sculpted images. So an emperor, like Constantius, can be described entering into a town in triumph by referring to the way he looks like a painted image, and the way he looks like a painted image is referred to, consciously, by the way he is stiff, the way he glances with dignity at the crowds, etc., etc.

Here’s a graf from the article:

Thus it appears that it was the writers of the Second Sophistic who
specifically developed ekphrasis as a description of works of art, and in
so doing they explored and exploited the relation between word and
image for their own literary purposes. The author of the Philostratean
Imagines, arguably the most powerful work of ekphrasis in antiquity,
presents a tour of an entire gallery—possibly real, possibly imaginary12—
signaling a new departure in which viewer and object enter into a complex
reciprocally assimilating relationship. In Imagines the reader becomes
the viewer in the gallery. Preoccupied with “looking” at the pictures
and the learned interpretations of the docent character, the reader is
absorbed into the text and forgets that he or she is a reader. The acts of
reading and viewing are compounded, their boundaries blurred.13 Similarly,
and also from the late second or early third century C.E., Longus’s
novel Daphnis and Chloe purports to be an immense ekphrasis.14 The
distinction and conotation of verbal and visual representation was being
deliberately and artistically pursued at the very cutting edge of Roman
imperial high culture.

Indeed, the face is, as Deleuze puts it in Mille Plateaux, a social machine.

In an odd way, living without TV has cut me off from this machinery in its most frenzied historical phase. I am dying outside history, getting my images filtered through the constraints on the bandwidth of my computer. They are all, essentially, fuzzy. This is probably a good thing.