April 02, 2004

The Passion as Preaching

The first thing to realise is that problems with The Passion don’t spring from a lack of desire to communicate Christ to our dying world. A pressing desire to share Christ through all and any appropriate means is the hallmark of the Christian. In the dark and bleak spiritual wilderness that is the UK, genuine believers must endeavour to be gossipers of the gospel wherever we find ourselves. The Great Commission still stands!

Those who have grave concerns about the film and its message, myself included, find their reservations elsewhere.

In this subsection, the first question we have to ask is this: What is the message of the Passion of the Christ? If people go to see it, what message are they seeing and hearing?

The second question is whether the dramatic medium of film is an acceptable and effective means for preaching Christ at all.

The Message: The Passion as Catholicism

One of the greatest assumptions that the average filmgoer will make about the Passion, is that it is based upon the text of the New Testament and is faithful to one or all of the Gospel accounts. It is not.

The Passion is based upon a book by Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century nun, mystic and stigmatic. The book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is an account of the conversations she had with Christ during her mystical experiences. It is based not upon the Johannine or Synoptic narratives, but centres upon each of the Roman Catholic Stations of the Cross, and is a fundamentally Catholic film, with a fundamentally Catholic message.

Mel Gibson is a devout Roman Catholic who subscribes to a Tridentine understanding of Catholic dogma – a Latin Mass codified by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, and approved by Pope John Paul 2nd in his 1980 letter to the Bishops on the Holy Eucharist as:

“an expression of the unity of the Church and which, through its dignified character, elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic mystery”.

It is spoken entirely in Latin, and even the gestures and hand movements are uniformly prescribed. The Latin text and its translation may be found here.

When interviewed about the film, Mel Gibson was unabashed in stating:

"It reflects my beliefs."

The Passion of the Christ is a Roman Catholic movie, made by a Roman Catholic director, with Roman Catholic theological advisers, and which, if we are to believe certain sources, gained the endorsement of Pope John Paul II who said after viewing it "It is as it was."

One of the major considerations of this film is not whether it will move its viewers, but where it will move them. Mecandes’ blog for Tuesday, March 2nd is very astute in her assessment:

“This film is an unmistakably Catholic view of Jesus' Passion. No Protestant would have ever made Mary such a bold and integral character, or portrayed her in the way that Mel Gibson does. Catholic traditions are used that would be completely unknown to most Protestants, and the unmistakable references to the Mass and Eucharist will, I think, make Protestants scratch their heads a bit.”

Patrick Buchanan of WorldDailyNet had this to say:

Gibson's "Passion" gives us a Lenten masterpiece, a beautiful moving work of art. To cradle Catholics who can recite the lines of each episode before they are uttered, it is faithful to the Gospels, to the Stations of the Cross, to the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.

The American author and columnist Joe Sobran said this:

One reviewer, Richard Corliss of Time, is far closer to the truth when he notes that Gibson is “inspired as much by Renaissance iconography, the Stations of the Cross, and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary as by the Gospels’ terse narratives.”

When we consider the theological motivation of the director and even the actors, we should hardly be surprised. Their stated aim is to bring people into the fold of Mother Church – something that for Protestant Christian people is far from orthodox, far from biblical, and far from true salvation. It denies all that the Reformation stood for. Aside from the nunnish garb of Mary, the extra-biblical presence of Veronica with her ‘miracle relic cloth’, and Rosalinda Celentano’s antitypical role of the Madonna and Child as Satan and her demonic child, there are many aspects of the Passion that should shock and concern evangelical Christians.

Perhaps the most telling interview of all was given by Jim Caviezel, the actor playing Jesus, to Father Mario Knezovic for Radio “Mir” Medjugorje. It is found on this website, and is worth quoting at least in part.

Fr. Mario Knezovic: “The Passion of the Christ” movie, in which you are playing Jesus Christ, is almost finished. What was it like to play Jesus? How did you adjust your body and your soul to the body and the soul of Jesus? How was it to be Jesus?

Jim Caviezel: The catharsis for me to play this role was through Medjugorje, through Gospa. In preparation, I used all that Medjugorje taught me. Mel Gibson and I were going every day for Mass together. Some days I couldn’t go for Mass, but I was receiving the Eucharist. Somewhere along the line, I heard that the Pope was going for confession every day, so I thought that I should go for confession as often as possible. I didn’t want the Lucifer to have any control over the performance. We have sins of commission, but also sons of commission. My sin of omission continuously is that I don’t love enough. So, the confession was the preparation for the Eucharist. Ivan Dragicevic and his wife Lorraine gave me a piece of the true cross. I kept this on me all the time. They made a special pocket in my clothes for it. I also had relics of Padre Pio, St. Anthony of Padoua, Ste Maria Goretti, and saint Denisius, the Patron saint of Actors. Another thing was fasting. I read many of the messages continuously. Every day everyone could see me with the rosary in my hands.

Fr. Mario Knezovic: Mrs Kerri, has your husband changed since he played this role?

Kerri Caviezel: The first time I saw the cross on him, when he had all the make-up, he didn’t look like my husband, he looked like Christ. They have taken a picture of the Shroud of Turin, and they used the make-up to create that, exactly that face. It was so real, that people looked at him in the way that people must have reacted to Christ: some were full of reverence; some were indifferent, and some made fun of him. It struck both of us; we understand in a small way what it must have been like. It was personal in our lives; I think that he realized the weight of this role. There will never be a more important thing that he ever does.

In case you have no idea of the significance of Medjugorje and the messages referred to by Caviezel, you should really visit this website. If you are an evangelical Christian, you should, I suggest be somewhat concerned. Unless you are happy with Mary repeatedly appearing in visions to children or are reading this from the Lourdes Cyber Cafe and Internet Rosary Room...

Perhaps such quotations do fail to concern you. Perhaps you have no problems with unsaved and nominal Catholics having all of their superstitious assumptions and lies reinforced by introducing them to a film like this under the guise of acceptable evangelism. Perhaps you prefer to dismiss the pro-Vatican intentions of all those involved in acting, producing and distributing the film, choosing to believe instead that God can overrule and accomplish his purposes anyway. After all, if the average unbeliever sees it, is it not possible that he or she will miss the pro-catholic message? Surely the fact that they see Christ dying for sins is enough to content us? Surely seeing the graphic portrayal of the Son of God in his dying will positively influence those who see it?

The Message: The Passion as Violence and Atonement

The Passion of the Christ is a violent film. In America it carries an ‘R’ rating, while in the UK it is rated ‘18’. Doubtless many Christians have seen many films with similar censorship warnings. What is different about seeing this one?

Mel Gibson is a seasoned Hollywood actor. Onscreen violence is his stock in trade, and he has starred in some extremely graphic films – the Mad Max Trilogy, the Lethal Weapon franchise, Braveheart, The Patriot, and We Were Soldiers are all satisfactory examples.

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, February 15, 2004 Mr Gibson set out his stall regarding the violence in the film:

“‘The film is very violent, and if you don't like it, don't go, you know? That's it. If you want to leave halfway through, go ahead. You know, there's nothing that says you have to stay there. I wanted it to be shocking. And I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge. And it does that. I think it pushes one over the edge...'"

Many of the reviewers who have seen the film come to similar conclusions. I cite just one comment by a British journalist from the Times:

“For most of the film, Caviezel’s Jesus is a silent, battered creature, staring at humanity through the eye that hasn’t swollen up. Gibson has taken The Greatest Story Ever Told and turned it into The Bloodiest Movie Ever Made. We have to watch sadistic, drunken Roman guards beat Christ with wooden canes. The violence is visceral. Raw. Relentless. You squirm in your seat. Gibson gives us a hard man Jesus who evokes Stallone in Rocky, De Niro in Raging Bull – men turned into battered meat, taking the pain without complaint. “

Sunday Times Culture Magazine review by Cosmo Landesman (March 28th 2004).

Most will find over two hours of pounding violence difficult to stomach, whereas some reviewers and theatre-goers will of course enjoy the violence as a stand-alone form of entertainment. The following is one website review example:

Jesus is, as the song goes, way cool. He takes more punishment than any character I've ever seen in a movie. It turns out that "passion" used to refer to phsyical suffering - if I'd known that, I would have been the first in line to see the film. Jesus seems to have an endless supply of blood, which is awesome because it means he is able to keep bleeding for the whole film.

I can't deny the fact that the crucifixion was awesome. You really hear the bones of his hand crunch as the big spikes - I would call them nails - are driven through them. That is the sort of attention to detail that most gore movies leave out. Between this and the torture scene in Braveheart, I would like to formally anoint Mel Gibson "The Wizard of Gore."

Gore fans, don't let the fact that this film is about Jesus put you off. There is almost no religious content at all. Jesus is too busy getting stabbed, scourged and beaten to do much preaching.

However, if you like realistic torture and execution, I would be stunned if you see a better movie all year.

I give this one four chainsaws (out of four).

I have no doubt that many modern Christians have a sanitized view of crucifixion – it is a barbaric and distant mode of cruel execution that few people today truly understand. Other cinematic representations of the crucifixion have done little to inform the mind about the terrible nature of the torture and pain endured by those crucified. The Passion will bring home to some just how awful the act of crucifixion really was - a death inflicted upon well over 300,000 people in Roman times. For others, it will simply line up alongside many of the other violent films available to the voyeur.

Should we expose ourselves as Christians to such levels of violence - particularly as they purport to represent actual events? It is, at least, a question to ponder.

Atoning sacrifice: Physical or Spiritual?

As to whether the Passion is accurate in its depiction of the violence leading up to the cross, we reserve judgment. Aside from any other considerations, we need to recognise that the Passion is a filmmaker’s portrayal and estimation of the physical sufferings of Christ.

Whereas other cinematic depictions of Jesus’ final hours focus upon the actual cross, and in the case of Ben Hur, the healings of body and soul effected by Christ’s atoning death, the Passion deliberately dwells on the lash, the hammer and the fist. Such an emphasis is completely out of step with the Gospel accounts, and utterly different from an evangelical emphasis and presentation of Gethsemane and Calvary.

In Roman Catholic theology the intense physical suffering of Christ's Crucifixion is the main focus of the Passion, in combination with the emphasis on physical sacrifice.

This is one of the reasons why in Roman Catholic iconography we have so much imagery related to Christ's physical pain and the reason that crucifixes show him perpetually suffering on the cross. This emphasis on Christ's physical agony is repeated in Roman Catholic devotional material and prayers, and of course, in The Passion of the Christ.

The theology of the bible however points out to us that the importance of Christ's crucifixion lay not in his physical suffering, but in his once for all propitiation of God's wrath (1 John 4:10). The greatest torment that Christ experienced on the cross was not caused by the nails driven into his flesh, but in his being made "sin for us" and vicariously suffering the righteous punishment of the Father in our place. Even the worst physical torments inflicted by the Sanhedrin and the Romans upon Jesus were nothing by comparison to the anguish of having the sins of all the elect imputed to Him and making full satisfaction for them. Satisfying the justice of the Romans on a cross was comparatively easy - thousands of condemned men and women including Spartacus and several of the Apostles did that. What Christ did was far greater – he satisfied the justice of God, by bearing the wrath of God as a penal substitute.

The issue of the cross was not so much the outward physical violence, but rather the inner anguish of paying the price for sins and being separated from the Father. The true suffering of Jesus was in the three hours of darkness on the cross when God would not allow the world to see the anguish of Jesus – what the Apostles’ Creed would describe as his descent into hell.

Not only does Mel Gibson seek to uncover what God has deigned should remain hidden, but he ends up majoring on the minor – the physical rather than the spiritual. What is completely absent from the Passion of the Christ is the whole point of the Passion of the Christ! It is glossed and shrouded in the pounding of nails, the spattering of blood, and the gut-wrenching brutality.

As MSNBC reporter Ray Richmond said:

If the intent is to remind both the religious and secular multitudes why Christ had to die for our sins, the film fails on every level since it does virtually no explaining of who He was or what He did.

The visual imagery of Gibson’s film will play upon the emotions and stimulate an audience response, but the ability to evoke an emotional response via imagery or drama is not the same as successfully transmitting the Gospel. There is no clear explanation of why Jesus endured what he did. There is no context for the relentless beating and lacerating. If we are able to push aside the overt Catholic theological agenda in favour of a visual and emotional experience, we are left with a celluloid encounter to be interpreted as we choose.


What message will it leave with its viewers? What fruit can we expect from folk going to see the film? Devoid of explanation, context and application the cinema-goer is left with a deeply emotional experience that may be interpreted and acted upon in any way that he or she feels appropriate. Postmodernism at its best!

What we are denied is a true understanding of this momentous event. We may be inspired by the love of Christ without responding in repentance to the Law of God, we may pity ‘poor old Jesus’ as he faces such terrible suffering, we may even be moved to try harder to be good. What is certain, is that very few will truly understand Calvary as a result of their visit to the cinema.

The very element that makes the crucifixion of Christ unique cannot be portrayed - God forsaking his own Son and pouring wrath upon him - making him sin so that we might become the righteousness of God through his bearing of sin. The sort of crucifixion faced by Christ, was, in its physical dimensions and parameters, no different to other crucifixions in 1st century Palestine. In the same time frame, Alexander Janius crucified 800 Pharisees, while their wives and children were mercilessly slaughtered at the foot of their crosses; in AD 70, Titus Vespasian crucified so many Jews that there were no room for all the crosses, and no more crosses for the bodies. The horrific physical torture of the crucifixion was repeated again and again.

What is unique about this crucifixion is what Gibson ironically fails utterly to demonstrate - because it cannot be demonstrated visually or cinematically. How then, can we hope in visual images, to effectively explain the cross? My contention is that we cannot.

My next post will consider whether the dramatic medium of film is an acceptable and effective means for preaching Christ at all.

Posted by pencils at April 2, 2004 11:37 PM | TrackBack
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