My desire is neither to find fault with nor pass judgment on Mel Gibson’s intention or sincerity in producing The Passion of the Christ. In fact, I am thankful he went public with his witness to the Christian faith. Despite the disagreements we may have with his interpretation of the Gospel, he appears to have struck a rather deep chord in the religious sensibilities—both pro and con—of our culture. My concern, however, is the way Christian leaders and congregations are responding.
Many churches in my community of Lexington, Ky., were quick to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the movie’s Ash Wednesday premiere. Some mailed materials offering to introduce curious seekers to the “meaning of the Cross.” Others scheduled sessions to “explain The Passion” or sermon series that promised to help the public “Experience The Passion!”
But the congregation that attracted my attention was the downtown Catholic Cathedral. On the opening day of the film, the bishop led an opening prayer at the theater. After the movie, he led the faithful to their sanctuary to celebrate the Ash Wednesday liturgy, publicly acknowledging their sinfulness and mortality, and their utter dependence on the mercy of God in both life and death. Perhaps, for them, the movie was only a preview of the service, the story they were about to perform as God’s people.
What a novel concept! What a stark contrast to much talk about “explaining” or “experiencing” The Passion. This is quite different from what seems to characterize much of Christianity in North America: a highly individualistic, “spiritual” transaction that takes place with Jesus in the private spaces of one’s heart. Now that we have the cinema version of the Gospel, these Christians might ask, is there any need for the church and its sacraments, Scripture, creed, liturgy, tradition? Or even the clergy? (And what a pity the Apostle Paul did not have access to this film; it would certainly have spared him a lot of grief. He could have simply mailed out the DVD version and saved all the misunderstanding created by his constant talking about the Cross, a crucified Messiah, the “Foolishness of God.”)
I am all for making public the story of Jesus, but my deep desire is for much more than another Hollywood version of the story. What I am looking and longing for, and what I suspect the world might be waiting for, too, is what God has promised through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: a living, breathing community of the Cross that not only tells but lives the whole story of the Gospel; a church that embodies the wisdom of God disclosed in the passion, being conformed to the teaching, faithful obedience, suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Recently, a pastor in our community advised his congregation of the urgent need for Christians to use The Passion as a “tool for evangelism” since cinema is the predominant language of our culture. Yet I question whether we should move so quickly to accommodate the culture and its modes of communication.
As Christian people, we keep time according to the story of Jesus Christ, and by the grace of God, we are empowered to live into the Gospel so as to become its actors and participants, a people who in our Baptism have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection. It is the language or speech of God, rather than the language of culture, that provides our starting point for thinking about these matters. And while it is true that culture speaks powerfully through cinema, God continues to speak a living Word with power to affect what is spoken: “But we preach Christ crucified.”
Perhaps before reaching out to the un-churched, we might begin by contemplating the message of the Cross, listening afresh to the Apostolic witness, discerning where the shape of our congregations are less than cruciform, asking how our corporate life fails to reflect the power and wisdom of the Crucified One.
Might our most faithful witness be to confess and repent of our complicity—past and present—with the power and wisdom of the world that crucified Jesus? Perhaps our most powerful witness would be to acknowledge our place in the story with those who are in need of being saved, rather than with those who are in charge.
St. Paul provides an interesting perspective on the matter of witness in I Corinthians 4. Offering himself as an example, he calls the church to follow his lead as teacher, mentor and guide. “… God has put us apostles at the end of a procession, like those condemned to death in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe … I urge you to imitate me.”
It is not the story of the Gospel that must be displayed for public viewing; rather it is God’s people, we whose identity is being shaped by the power and wisdom displayed in the Cross. We are God’s spectacle, called to proclaim and perform the Gospel story so that the world might not only hear and see; but with us become signs of God’s Good News.
Michael Pasquarello III D’83, is a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky., and a United Methodist who has served congregations in Raleigh, Durham, Grifton, and Wilmington, N.C.