As The Da Vinci Code continued to dominate book-club discussions across the country, Mel Gibson timed the release of his film The Passion of the Christ for Ash Wednesday.
One of the most controversial and highest-grossing movies of all times, The Passion attracted congregations who reserved entire theaters, as well as individual moviegoers by the millions. By late spring, the film was expected to gross more than $400 million. Some experts predicted the final numbers would swell far beyond that mark.
Below, four Duke Divinity School faculty members share their response to the film, including two who chose not to see it.
To Risk Real Suffering
I was more or less forced to watch the film The Killing Fields by my mother, but she was right.
She overheard me repeatedly trying to explain the concept “pretty” to Chang, a 12-year-old Cambodian refugee. I finally gave up and pointed to the cover of my Seventeen magazine. “That is pretty,” I told her with an exasperated smile.
Our church had sponsored a family of 13 refugees, and most of us knew nothing about the regime they had fled. My mother decided to rectify that, and a group of teenagers from our youth fellowship sat in our living room to watch bloodshed that was foreign, but terrifyingly real.
Chang and Horng and their younger brothers and sisters had run, swum and bled in that land, a mere few months prior. The medium was artificial, but the artifice echoed the nightmares of children we had come haltingly to know. The children’s capacity to speak after living through the unspeakable seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, miraculous.
Our brief association with them was a gift. A youth group that had previously prayed mostly to God about precocious alcoholism, football games, and traveling mercies now had something real to pray. God had liberated these his children out of the depths of hell in Cambodia.
I suspect that I don’t need to see The Passion. It is not that I doubt the ability of a film to evoke the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Killing Fields was such an evocation. I already know that the presence of God is real, living and bloody in churches that risk proximity to real suffering. May we so risk.
Disturbing the Universe
In 1898, Colonel Henry Hadley (converted from being a New York lawyer and a journalist) purchased a film copy of the Passion Play and took it to a wild Atlantic City for revival meetings. “Mark my words,” he prophesied, “these moving pictures are going to be the best teachers and the best preachers in the world.” In Australia, Commander Herbert Booth of the Salvation Army inaugurated the national film industry in the same year, primarily as a means to propagate the faith and minister to the poor through storytelling. The cinematograph was the “missing link” between the stage and the pulpit, adapting drama to religious use in a “safe, possible and sanctified way.”
Above (or below) the buzz created by the New York critics about anti-Semitism, the shock felt in Hollywood that a religious film narrative should outgross all other R-rated films, the embrace given the film by a remarkably diverse demographic audience, and the debate over gratuitous violence and brutality, the film, in words once used by T. S. Eliot, “disturbed the universe.”
As such, it is best viewed as a handmaiden to the ordinary work of theology and preaching, of people of God taking the gripping images and sharing their critical and personal responses. Film, in and of itself, cannot fully evangelize or instruct, but it can open windows to the visions of other people and help us to look outside ourselves. As such, Gibson’s film, a religious epic in the style and theme of his Brave(sacred)heart, stirs the community of faith to share, argue, debate and engage one another about truths that matter. As such, the film does, as old Colonel Hadley envisioned, help us to become better teachers and preachers of the Word made flesh, of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Drawing a Bright Line
What is the difference between cultural engagement and cultural accommodation? For me, this is an increasingly challenging question.
On the one hand, I have felt a certain responsibility to see Mel’s movie—in order to have an informed opinion of it and to offer guidance to others. After all, Christians cannot afford to ignore contemporary culture and its influence. This movie has certainly been what everyone is talking about.
Yet on the other hand, I also think we Christians now take too many of our cues from wider society. Sermons that include illustrations from television shows or professional sports are sacrificing substance on the altar of “relevance.” The Passion of the Christ runs the risk of being the same thing in reverse—“Survivor” posing as a sermon.
In the end, I chose not to see it. I felt the greater need in my own life this Lent was to draw a bright line between the nurture of my faith and the commercialism and violence so prevalent in our culture already. The movie has been billed as a kind of “shock therapy” for comfy Christians, but actually exaggerates the violence of the crucifixion and abstracts it from the context of Jesus’ life. The New Testament does exactly the opposite on both counts.
Instead, I have found myself listening over and over again to Schubert’s Mass in G Major, especially its mournfully transcendent “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.” The more I hear them the more these words seem to sound the entire promise of the gospel: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Why is there not the same sort of enthusiasm at present for slow, contemplative Lenten reflection? Why do we as Christians need “shock therapy” to feel our faith is real?
When I was a child growing up in the Methodist church, I was told pointedly that in our church the cross was empty, in contrast to the crucifixes displayed in Catholic churches.
Why? Because “we worship a living Lord, not a dead Jesus.”
The theology of this statement was dubious; not only was it unfair to Catholic piety but it was also oblivious to Paul’s insistence on preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Nonetheless, it did accurately convey the upbeat tone of the Protestant cultural milieu in which I was raised. The Jesus I heard about in church was mostly Jesus the great teacher and healer, Jesus the good moral example, and Jesus the triumphant Risen Lord. Jesus the Crucified One made only a brief appearance during Holy Week, quickly to be supplanted by trumpets and lilies on Easter morning.
In stark contrast, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is a cinematic icon—or, rather a sequence of iconic tableaux—portraying the Stations of the Cross in gruesome detail. Gibson’s iconography draws upon medieval and post-Tridentine Catholic traditions to render an image of Jesus that seeks to evoke a mystical piety focused on the blood and suffering of Jesus. Why has this portrait exercised such powerful fascination on the popular imagination, particularly the imagination of evangelical Protestants? The reasons are many, but I would suggest that it is partly because Gibson has brought us face-to-face with the scandal of the cross.
Whether we are moved by Jesus’ sacrifice for us or repulsed by the bloody spectacle (some critics have called it “pornographic”), we are confronted by the fact that Christians believe that God’s redemption of a lost world was somehow achieved through the ignominious execution of a flesh-and-blood human being, the Jewish prophet Jesus. It is a good thing for us to face this troubling paradox. Perhaps it could lead us to a more profound faith than the complacent airbrushed Protestantism with which we are so familiar.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that Gibson’s movie represents a missed opportunity on two fronts. First, it represents a missed opportunity to rethink the story of Jesus in light of the last half-century’s historical insights about Jesus in his Jewish context. As many reviewers have noted, the Jewish leaders in the film are given no intelligible motivation for their hostility to Jesus; consequently, they appear merely as caricatures of hatred.
The film might have done much more to place Jesus within the Judaism of his day and to show how his message and movement posed a challenge toward people who were seeking devoutly to worship and obey God. (For example, Gibson omits John 11:47-48 from his script.) This would have created not only a more dramatically interesting story but also a more nuanced and faithful retelling of the Gospels.
In our post-Holocaust context, it is hermeneutically irresponsible to go on restaging medieval stereotypes of “the Jews.” All retellings of the story of Jesus, including each of the four Gospels, implicitly relate the narrative to the teller’s own time and circumstances. Gibson’s failure to represent a Jewish Jesus within a more complex Jewish reality is therefore hermeneutically tone-deaf to the present historical context in which we stand.
The second missed opportunity is that The Passion of the Christ isolates the passion story from the broader narrative context in which it is placed by the canonical Gospels. It is no accident that our canon contains no instance of a freestanding passion narrative. Why? Because we need to know who it is that was crucified. The stories of Jesus’ birth, teaching, healing, and actions are crucial to defining his identity. Further, the meaning of the passion is rightly understood only when it is read retrospectively through the lens of the resurrection.
To be fair to Gibson’s intentions, he does include a few brief flashback scenes of Jesus’ earlier life and a strange fleeting glimpse of the resurrected Jesus. Unfortunately, these touches are simply overwhelmed by the sustained graphic depiction of Jesus’ torture and execution—matters portrayed with much greater artistic restraint in the Gospels.
Precisely because Gibson’s Passion provides such an underdeveloped narrative context for its portrayal of the crucifixion, the viewer must bring his or her own narrative framework to the act of interpretation. Those who already believe that the death of Jesus was an expression of God’s love will find that message in the movie; those who do not know the full story, however, are likely to be baffled and alienated. In that sense, The Passion presents a skewed and unbalanced image of Jesus and misses the opportunity to present the Jesus offered to us in the Gospel narratives.
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