The real ‘culture of death’

The amount of sadistic violence in “Christian” media is shocking – or maybe it really isn’t.

If you want to have a better understanding of the United States’ cultural and political landscape, take a look at Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s wonderfully macabre 1562 painting “The Triumph of Death.”

The imagery in “The Triumph of Death” is grim and hopeless, but it’s also dazzling and loaded up with symbolism. Basically, the painting depicts a marauding army of skeletal ghouls on a killing spree: People are herded into a giant box, where some unspeakable fate awaits them. Meanwhile, the stragglers are hunted down and broken on the wheel, strangled and drowned; they have their heads lopped off and their throats slit.

To some contemporary viewers, “The Triumph of Death” might be viewed as a bleak allegory about the annihilation that awaits each of us and the inevitable extinction of humanity.

To other contemporary viewers – particularly many of those on the religious right – “The Triumph of Death” must have a meaning substantially similar to the one it had for its original viewers more than 440 years ago.

In 1562, serious people believed in sea monsters and published learned treatises on witchcraft, sorcery, astrology, demonology and alchemy. It was a time when the Spanish Inquisition was proceeding along just swimmingly and the Roman Catholic Church was still heavily invested in the execution-by-immolation business. In other words, the mid-16th century in Europe was ripe for the eschatological fantasy Bruegel expressed in “The Triumph of Death.”

Obviously times have changed dramatically, but the antiquated, sado-apocalyptic mentality that manifests itself in “The Triumph of Death” continues to thrive in 2005. We know this because the religious right’s two pop-cultural milestones in 2004 – the finale of the “Left Behind” series and the release of “The Passion of the Christ” – are overflowing with the same sado-apocalyptic frenzy Bruegel portrayed in his painting.

The “Left Behind” series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, is as popular as it is poorly written (the books have sold 60 million copies to date). Consider this perfectly demented passage from “Glorious Appearing,” the final book in “Left Behind,” that features approximately 80 pages of messianic ass-kicking that makes Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films look like “Full House”:

“It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin Ö Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.”

Then, of course, we have the tremendous commercial success of Mel Gibson’s tasteless gay S&M flick “The Passion of the Christ,” featuring the handsome young Jim Caviezel stripped naked and brutally beaten within an inch of his life. Even when viewed in the most charitable light, the movie is nothing but a particularly bloody medieval crucifixion scene set to film; its worldview is wholly pre-Enlightenment. No doubt many of Gibson’s supporters see this as one of his film’s greatest assets.

The violence in “Glorious Appearing” and “The Passion of the Christ” is purposely gratuitous and over the top. Both works are ghastly catalogs of torture, gore and death.

Jesus’ smackdown in “Glorious Appearing” is basically a litany of exploding people and horses, rivers of blood, bloody mud and Ö well, you get the point. In “The Passion,” Jesus is flayed alive and (literally) torn to pieces by a succession of ever-more-horrific torture techniques.

The secular analog of books and movies such as “Glorious Appearing” and “The Passion of the Christ” is almost as repugnant. The careful taxonomy of perversion – child rape, necrophilia, torture, murder – that emerges over hundreds of pages in the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” comes immediately to mind.

But at least de Sade never claimed he was doing the Lord’s work, and his admirers are limited to a few students of avant-garde literature – people took their children to see Gibson’s high-budget snuff film.

I’m not suggesting that every conservative Christian necessarily embraces the sado-apocalyptic worldview that informs “The Triumph of Death,” the “Left Behind” series and “The Passion of the Christ,” but it’s definitely widespread. At the very least, there’s a huge subculture (multiple millions) of people fantasizing about the End Times around the corner.

If the sado-apocalyptic worldview weren’t so dangerous to democracy and an open society, it would be easy to laugh it off as just more irredeemable stupidity from the religious right.

The problem is that sado-apocalypticism is an essentially nihilistic doctrine. The only thing that ultimately matters to these people is the salvation of themselves and (maybe) others. They hold a set of principles that basically say “in the final analysis, this world doesn’t matter.” Life, death and suffering don’t matter. Nuclear proliferation doesn’t matter. Environmental degradation doesn’t matter. Political instability and human-rights abuses don’t matter. These people might raise a fuss here and there about, say, abortion or gay rights, but in the end, the only thing worth caring about is what an invisible man in the sky thinks about them.

The sado-apocalyptic worldview belongs to a bygone era – the only place we should have to encounter it is in centuries-old paintings such as “The Triumph of Death,” which hang in museums.

A lot of conservative Christians like to claim that those of us who support abortion rights and voluntary euthanasia embrace a “culture of death.” Before they start flinging that one around, maybe they should take a look at the brand of contemptible, long-obsolete nihilism they preach, read and watch.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]