In his essay “Divine Epiphany and Spiritual Birth in Ismailian Gnosis,” the great Iranologist Henry Corbin recalls a crucial scene recounted in the Gnostic Acts of John:

On the evening of Good Friday the Angel Christos, while the multitude below, in Jerusalem, imagines that it is crucifying him, causes the apostle John to go up to the Mount of Olives and into the grotto illumined by his presence; and there the angel reveals to John the mystery of the “Cross of Light.”

Here is what the apostle hears:

This is not the cross of wood which thou will see when thou goest down hence: neither am I he who is on the cross, whom thou now seest not, but only hearest his voice…Thou hearest that I suffered, yet I did not suffer; that I suffered not, yet I did suffer…and in a word, what they say of me, that befell me not. But what they say not, that did I suffer.”

Corbin cites these lines in a complex argument that can be seen as part of a search for what he elsewhere called the “Harmonia Abrahamica,” the essential commonalities shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. No bland or wishful ecumenism, this project recognizes that the three faiths will always be separate and distinct voices, yet it posits that if each were properly understood, they would harmonize rather than screeching at each other discordantly and, indeed, dangerously.

Understanding, for Corbin, means seeking the spirit behind the letter, the esoteric concealed within the exoteric. And the purpose of such a search is intentionally transformative. For example, the description of the Crucifixion given above–which accords with the docetic understanding of that event held by Muslims–has one noticeable effect: It obliges us to look up, toward divine Mystery and Meaning, rather than down, toward matter and the limitations of conventional understandings.

As for why anyone would bother seeking “Harmonia Abrahamica,” we need only juxtapose two fiery images: the explosions of Hiroshima and those of 9/11. The first of these announced a capacity for destruction that could conceivably engulf the planet in the 21st century; the second heralded the likelihood that such a cataclysm, if it comes, will erupt along the fault lines separating the three Abrahamic religions.

There is, of course, more than one response to the prospect of a faith-based Doomsday. Perhaps the most deluded is that of secular humanists, who hope that religion will simply dry up and blow away before it has the chance to blow us away, a rather fanciful scenario given recent studies showing that religion is on the increase rather than the downswing.

A second response is that of fundamentalists who eagerly await Armageddon as the realization of their hopes for Rapture, Redemption, Messiah, Final Judgment, etc. While these hopes are not necessarily misplaced, it strikes me that anyone who works–spiritually or otherwise–to realize them inevitably assists the devil who always insinuates the claims of death over life; suicide is hardly less a sin if it is global or species-wide rather than individual.

A third response, I would suggest, involves reenvisioning religion as a vessel for harmony rather than division, understanding rather than blind obedience, and survival rather than suicide. This is a tall order, to be sure. Where most efforts at reform in all Western religions have created greater degrees of factionalism, divisiveness and fundamentalism, the reform indicated here would move in just the opposite direction: toward more mystical, personal and affirmative understandings of religion. It would be, in ways large and small, a movement away from the literal toward the spiritual, from myopic orthodoxy toward sacred vision.

Judged by the latter criterion, Mel Gibson’s celluloid blood feast The Passion of the Christ must be called essentially and profoundly–I would add “comically” were the stakes not so high–retrograde. True, it is a well crafted film with a number of fascinating aspects (especially the use of spoken Aramaic and Latin), a genuinely independent work of a sort that Hollywood would never, ever dare. There’s also no question that it’s the passionately sincere testament of a believer who says it emerged from a spiritual crisis he experienced 12 years ago over his worldly success.

Yet the salient feature of this movie, and the key to its meaning, I think, is its violent brutality. Whether you’ve seen the film or simply heard about it, you’re no doubt aware by now that this is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of Jesus movies. Beyond simply narrow-focusing on Jesus’ last 12 hours, Mel zeroes in on and lavishly evokes the extent of Christ’s physical agonies. Indeed, we see relatively little of Jesus the man and teacher; for most of the movie he’s Jesus the torture victim, an ever-mounting catalogue of contusions, welts and spurting wounds, all of which ends up being weirdly crucial to this Passion. Without the extravagant blood-letting, a friend said, the film would be “nothing.”

Call this brutality realistic if you want. I call it baroquely orgiastic–“violent pornography” a Catholic priest on Nightline dubbed it–and I think its centrality to the movie reflects several factors. First, it continues a streak that’s been in Mel’s movies from the first, an obsession with the mortification of his own flesh that extends from Mad Max through Braveheart and Payback and that even takes a comic form in What Women Want. More than a mere macho defiance of pain, this tic seems to come from a shadowy psychic place where sadomasochism and exhibitionism converge.

Beyond that, the film’s violent tendencies have an unfortunate (if commercially salutary) congruence with the cinema’s ever-escalating dependence on sensory overkill. Watching a news report of people lining up for Passion at a multiplex, I was reminded of a colleague’s remark that movies today merely extend the ambience of excess in such theaters’ loud colors, huge concession stands and omnipresent TV monitors. More than just grossly obese, Americans are addicted to over-stimulation of every sort. Could a subtle, nuanced illustration of Jesus’ message pack ’em into the cinematic Colosseum? Not a chance. That demands major carnage and an eye-popping spilling of blood.

Yet behind these factors, there is something subtle, so subtle that it’s hard for most people to distinguish: Mel’s doctrinal agenda. And indeed it’s more an underlying drift or tendency than a set of clear signifiers. But I would sketch its implications thusly: In fetishizing Christ’s flesh, Mel posits Jesus’ material being as the primary source of meaning, which not only subordinates spiritual realities to the physical but also softly hints that a worldly authority must adjudicate all such meanings.

If that’s too abstract, try this. A few months ago, Mel gave an interview in which he said that he considers his beloved wife, the mother of his seven children, an exemplary woman; but alas, he knows that she is bound for eternal hellfire. Why? Because she’s Episcopalian, not Catholic! In that astonishing statement, you have, I think, the theological heart of Mel Gibson’s box-office smash.

As for why few people seem to grasp this, credit either Mel’s calculated caginess (he invested $25 million in this show, after all) or the vagueness of cinematic meanings as compared to verbal statements. But it’s clear enough in a piece that the New York Times–after sponsoring a months-long Jewish anti-Passion crusade spearheaded by Frank Rich–printed on Ash Wednesday, no doubt in a stab at “balance.” The piece is by Kenneth L. Woodward, who is identified as a Newsweek contributing editor rather than a Catholic. He starts out marveling that Mel has drawn “conservative evangelical clergy” into his corner:

“[W]hat’s so strange about this? Unlike Mr. Gibson’s film, evangelical Protestantism is inherently non-visual. As spiritual descendants of the left wing of the Reformation, evangelicals are the heirs to an iconoclastic tradition that…began in the late 16th century, when radical Protestants removed Christ’s body from the cross. To the Puritans, displays of the body of Jesus represented what they considered the idol worship of the Papists.”

Unquestionably Passion is anti-Semitic (as that term is currently used), not because Mel necessarily is but because the canonical gospels understood literally are. Less obvious but equally true, I think, is that at its core the film is also wholly anti-Protestant, anti-evangelical, anti-Pentecostal, and so on. (If you buy Harold Bloom’s definition of “the American religion,” it might likewise be termed anti-American.) As Mr. Woodward proudly notes,

“[Gibson’s] Jesus does not demand a “born again” experience, as evangelists do … He does not heal the sick or exorcise demons, as Pentecostals emphasize. He doesn’t promote social causes, as liberal denominations do. He certainly doesn’t crusade against gender discrimination, as some feminists believe he did, nor does he teach that we possess an inner divinity, as today’s nouveau Gnostics believe. One cannot imagine this Jesus joining a New Age sunrise Easter service overlooking the Pacific.”

Though it doesn’t explicitly wish that people who would join in such an Easter sunrise service could still be burned at the stake, Woodward’s statement does remind us who sponsored the Inquisition. Ripe with the odor of orthodox intolerance, it inadvertently posits Mel as something of a con artist for disguising the meaning of his film–which a more severe age might have branded rank Papist propaganda–so as to sucker Protestants whose ancestors sagely rid their cultures of bloody-Jesus idols. Yet that leads to another question: Is the film in some ways anti-Catholic as well?

There are reasons to suspect so. Mel belongs to the Catholic “traditionalist” movement which rejects Vatican Council II. His father, who’s even more radically conservative, refers to the present pope as “Karel the Koran kisser.” What we have in Mel, in other words, is a theological oxymoron: an avatar of heterodox orthodoxy! A champion of the One True Universal Church, but only his own personal version of it! (Does he see John Paul II as the anti-Christ? Is that the next movie?)

One reason he’s able sell Passion to conservative non-Catholic Christians is, of course, that “conservatism” is so closely associated with literalism, the great error that has plagued Christianity from its origins. Yet, the film’s initial popularity notwithstanding, Mel’s rejection of Catholic orthodoxy in favor of his own paleo-Catholic cult suggests how literalism leads to sectarian splinterings that are literally endless, even as it hints that the real faith being practiced in Mel’s chapel is not Catholicism but Narcissism (a modern church particularly popular with actors).

Because the object it idolizes can never be reached, narcissism ends up in tantalizing torture. And here we return to the sadomasochistic double bind that seems to propel both Mel’s psyche and his cinema: The flesh, being the source of guilty fascination, must be punished sternly, gruesomely, repeatedly. Yet that only increases its fascinations, leading to more and bloodier punishments–and ultimately to the deification of punishment, the insistence that agony counts more than anything.

That assertion of the physical’s primacy over the spiritual is where this Passion leaves us: ruefully awestruck that a filmmaker could construct a cross of light (literally!) and mistake it for a cross of wood. EndBlock