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Missed Opportunities

Richard B. Hays
George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament

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.”

Photo by Philippe Antonello

 Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci portraying Mary and Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ .

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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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Spring 2004 Volume 3 Number 3 Duke Divinity School