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Does Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” Preach the Gospel?

In a word, Yes.

Would we recommend the film?

Absolutely. (except for young children)

Jeff: As I sit to write a response to the film, I contemplate a third Ash Wednesday Liturgy, and a first set of the Stations of the Cross (tomorrow) and I find it difficult to figure out how God will make those things possible. I am emotionally and spiritually exhausted after seeing this film.

I went with Michael to see the film, because we agreed that it would be important for “Preaching Peace” to respond to it as soon as possible after it opened. I went in as a skeptic, as one sincerely worried about the “gratuitous violence” and potential “anti-Semitism” that others have objected to.

I came out of the film, enormously glad that I went to see it. I have to admit that, aside from the intensity of it, my experience of the film was not a lot different from my response to the Stations of the Cross. (You can experience the version of the Stations that we do at Church of the Advent by clicking here.) I was enormously glad that I’d gone to see it, though, because I have never seen a film deal so well with the Gospel aspects of the Passion as this one did.

Michael: Like Jeff, I went to see this movie burdened with a healthy dose of skepticism. I have little faith in Hollywood’s ability to get anything right (although my faith was somewhat restored after Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy). So much of what has come out of Hollywood that is religious in nature has been schmaltzy or so grossly distorted that I cannot stomach ‘Jesus’ or Bible films anymore. Mel Gibson’s The Passion fit neither of these categories.

I have been occupied with the question of ‘the history of the Gospel tradition’ for well on thirty years and was glad to find that I can say that this is the best movie on Jesus I have seen. Gibson is not slavishly glued to the biblical text (as are most Evangelical films) nor is Jesus presented as a pious or moral figure. Gibson’s Jesus is the opposite of Heston’s Moses. This Jesus will not be head of the NRA!

Jeff: Most importantly, the film avoids entirely the two great pitfalls of most atonement theory. There is no suggestion of “Satisfaction,” where Jesus’ death is demanded by God’s “justice” or “honor.” Jesus dies to deliver us from sin, not from wrath. Similarly, there is no hint of “ransom theory” in the death of Jesus. Indeed, “Satan” in the film constantly seeks to dissuade Jesus from his path of self-sacrifice. I was astonished, too, at the suggestion in the film that Mary too is tempted to use her influence with Jesus to persuade him to abandon his course. (Satan is seen in one scene cradling a “baby” while staring at Mary, as if to say, “I care for my baby, why do you not care more for yours?”)

On the occasion of Jesus’ death, Satan howls in abject defeat, having failed to tempt Jesus to use his divine identity to save himself. This is the moment of Christ’s victory. This is no Theology of Glory, but a theology of self-sacrifice. Elsewhere on our site, Michael has written about the value of this way of understanding atonement, along with the Abelardian idea of the “exemplary” value of the Cross.

 

 

 

 

 

Michael: Quite so. The typical Evangelical cinematic productions about Jesus are little more than elaborate recreations of the ‘Bible Jesus.’ Gibson succeeds where these productions fail precisely in allowing Jesus’ humanity to be the focal point of all that is going on around him. The satanic temptation to retaliation and vengeance is shot throughout the Passion and we are aware as viewers that Jesus could do something, anything to get out of this. But he does not, and thus we have the miracle of revelation.

Furthermore, Gibson used the flashback technique quite marvelously reflecting back on Jesus’ ministry through the lens of memory. And every time this was done, it was the peace preaching, forgiving, non-retaliatory Jesus that was shown. In other words of all of the places one could have gone here (conflict with authorities, morality teacher, divine healer, theos aner), Gibson consistently points us to the Jesus who blesses his persecutors, prays for his enemies and forgives those who hurt him.

This is of no little consequence, for these flashbacks form the essential framework by which we are to understand the resistance to the demonic in the Passion: Jesus overcomes Satan by surrendering to the will of his abba, knowing that perfect love conquers all.

I found the Roman Catholic touches in the film to be not inappropriate and they did not detract from the movie as a whole. Rather, they added a sense of depth to the mystery of the Passion. It has been suggested that Gibson has relied too heavily on the writings of certain Catholic visionaries and that the blood, gore and agony of the torture and crucifixion are exaggerated. Perhaps this is so, but it feels more authentic than the sanitized versions of Jesus we find in far too many Protestant churches or in other cinematic failures.

For me, the most compelling scene and a brilliant jubilary interpretation occurred when Mary comes to Jesus as he stumbles carrying his cross. Jesus says, “Mother, look, I make all things new,” as he clings to this cross, bloodied and beaten. This something new is complete unconditional love and forgiveness. It is an absolutely heart wrenching scene, but it is so gospel! I have wept both times at this point in the movie.

Jeff: As I said above, I wouldn’t recommend this film for young children. I think the violence is too graphic, too explicit for young hearts. However, as gruesome as it often is, I found that Mr. Gibson’s portrayal of the scourging, the journey to Golgotha, and the Crucifixion to be well thought out.

“See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals – so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their moths because of him; for that which they had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” (Isaiah 52:13-15)

Jesus is, by mid way in the film, “beyond human semblance.” Gibson’s portrayal clearly intends this, and he accomplishes it vividly.

As a result of the scourging in the film, Jesus is so disfigured that our ability to relate to him is somewhat inhibited. When he is clothed for the journey to Golgotha, some of that is ameliorated, but the addition of the Crown of Thorns, and the disfigurement of his face continues to create a sense of distance between the suffering Jesus and the viewer. (At least it did for me and the folks I’ve talked to.) This distance makes it possible to view the rest of the events without being overwhelmed by them.

There were moments when I turned my head. Two of them. Moments so horrific that I just couldn’t bear to watch. But the presence of these moments does not detract in any meaningful way from the value of the movie.

What the violence says, over and over again, is that Jesus, the Word Incarnate, suffered brutally at the hands of human beings, and never once thought of responding retributively. In fact, his only response is forgiveness.

Most of us buy this notion on an intellectual level. Many of us, though, many reviewers in particular, seem offended when confronted by the idea on a more visceral level. We’re more comfortable with a prettier Jesus hanging on the Cross, with a scar or two, maybe a welt here and there, but not flayed to within an inch of his life. We are offended at Isaiah’s imagery, but the imagery teaches us about the depth of the love that survives even this torture.

 

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Michael: I remember seeing the powerful film Biko (with Denzel Washington) and there was no outcry that that film was gratuitously violent. Both Jesus and Stephen Biko were political prisoners, both underwent extreme torture and both died at the hands of their countrymen. No one at that time (that I recall) came out and said the producers should have eliminated the torture of Biko from the film. People seem to object to the violence done to Jesus because they are reluctant to see the myriad of ways that they engage ‘violence’ every day, in resentment, bitterness, retaliation, anger, hostility, gossip, slander and the like. They just don’t want to admit that the essential issue revealed by the gospel is our propensity to violence and God’s propensity to love.

Jeff: I was also pleased to have seen how very Jewish Jesus and his friends and family seemed in the film. Truly, no party seems more blameworthy than another for the death of Jesus. Indeed, the film highlights the Johannine notion that Jesus lays down his own life, no one takes it from him. It is his to lay down, and his to take up again. Charges of anti-Semitism ring very false after having seen the movie itself. (I nonetheless honor the historical fear that memories of pogrom following “Passion Plays” of the past evoke.)

Finally, the film incorporates enough of the teachings of Jesus to keep him from being only “the Christ” (a phrase that makes it difficult for many Christians to connect to Jesus’ humanity). Time and again, the non-retributive portions of Jesus’ teaching is highlighted. “Love your enemies,” “Love one another as I have loved you,” “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” (This saying is only suggested, but clearly so.)

Michael: It seems to me that the two major questions that have been raised by the film, it’s historicity and anti-Semitism are two sides of a coin. Ever since the Shoah (the Holocaust), we Christians have had to face the fact that we have been anti-Semitic throughout our history. The Rabbis I have seen interviewed regarding the film have not expressed any concern about the ratcheting up of Muslim anti-Semitism or Buddhist anti-Semitism or Hindi anti-Semitism. What concerns them is the possibility that Christians will do what we have done throughout our history and engage in a blame game that targets Judaism as the enemy (sic) of the gospel.

Jeff and I were very concerned about a Christian anti-Semitic interpretation of the movie prior to seeing it. The fact is Jesus was a Jew and leading Jewish Temple authorities arrested him. You cannot get around that. Nor can one get around Herod’s ‘rejection’ of Jesus, or of the crowd’s seduction by those in power who desired to be rid of Jesus. No historical reconstruction of the Passion can omit these realities. On the other hand, it is not the Jewish people who are to blame. In the film, it seemed to me that Pontius Pilate and the Roman cohort who torture and crucify Jesus bear the lion’s share of responsibility in the execution of Jesus. Our creed has never said that Jesus was crucified ‘under Judaism’ but ‘under Pontius Pilate’ the Non-Jew. (see Ellis Rivkin What Crucified Jesus?)

Furthermore, the explicit forgiveness of Jesus mitigates any potential anti-Semitism. Those who may turn their hearts toward Christian anti-Semitism have not only missed the point of the movie, they have missed the heart and soul of the gospel as well. Jewish authorities are rightly concerned about this misinterpretation of the gospel because it has always meant death and heartache for the Jewish people. We Christians, therefore, have an obligation not to view this film as some sort of medieval passion play.

Finally, I have been almost dismayed at the way certain ‘scholars’ (sic) have criticized the film’s historicity, as though they could have done a better job. Hah! I have read so many scholarly reconstructions of Jesus’ life, no two of which agree. If scholars cannot agree on every jot and tittle why should they expect such from our own Gospels? Or from a movie?

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Jeff: This film is no scholar’s recreation of the Passion, but it is careful enough to offend only those scholars to whom the real power of the Gospel present in the film is meaningless. The inaccuracies here and there do not invalidate the movie’s central message. We did object to one moment in the film, when a crow attacks “Gesmas,” one of the thieves crucified with Jesus. It seemed to make a scapegoat of him. Interestingly, Judas’ death at the same site as the death of the ritual “scapegoat” seems to suggest that the director sees him more as a victim of scapegoating than a villain.

Michael: The Judas sequence was rather well done and thought provoking.
Jeff is right to observe that the only apparent moment of ‘myth’ (in the Girardian sense) occurs when one of the thieves crucified with Jesus is ‘paid back’ after he reviles Jesus. Other than that, I cannot recall any other moment where myth (in the Girardian sense) was engaged.

Jeff and Michael: Looking back, we are thrilled that this film was made. We are elated that it has stirred up so much discussion among believers and non-believers alike. We hope this conversation will generate more light than heat. We are glad that we went to see it, and hope that many, many others will to.

Does the film say anything really new?

No.

Will this film change retributive Christianity into Gospel Christianity?

Probably not, except for those who have ‘ears to hear.’

Will it give those of us who desire to see the Gospel preached authentically an opportunity to teach it as it really is?

Most assuredly yes.

PreachingPeace.org gives two ‘way high’ thumbs up to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.