March 6, 2004
In as much as many have taken it upon themselves to compose reviews concerning "The Passion of the Christ," as it has been conveyed to us through cinematographic dramatization by Mel Gibson, it seemed fitting for me also to offer an account of what my eyes saw and my ears heard when I viewed the much criticized, even maligned film. I offer this account as a Protestant Evangelical, as a professor of New Testament, as an amateur film critic, but most of all as one who cherishes the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and who believes in him whom the gospel presents as the one on whom God poured out his wrath for our redemption.
Will not many who view Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" already know how the story ends? Will not many also know many of the details of the episodic climax of the four New Testament Gospel accounts concerning Jesus, the Christ, even if their memories fail them on sequential order? Are any viewers watching "The Passion" with bated breath, wondering how the brutal story will climax? Because almost everyone knows both the course and the outcome of the story, before viewing the film, Mel Gibson's movie stands apart from most others. Consequently, though this review discusses details of the film, it will hardly ruin the movie for anyone who has not yet viewed it.
"The Passion of the Christ" is Mel Gibson's extraordinary retelling of the greatest story ever told but also the most widely told story. Gibson masterfully projects onto the big screen what takes place in his imagination as he meditates upon Christ's Passion. The story unfolds in a manner that the power of the Christ's Passion will touch all who view the film. This is true for viewers whether they share Gibson's Catholic traditional beliefs or whether they are unfamiliar with those beliefs as are most Evangelicals. Evangelicals will view a familiar story that contains several unfamiliar events even protracted episodes, but for Roman Catholics those unfamiliar scenes and extended episodes will likely be not only familiar but deeply religious moments. This is so because the film is a medieval-like dramatization of a "Stations of the Cross" contemplative prayer meditation that is to be experienced in one's imagination. Mel Gibson, devout in the old Roman Catholic tradition who favors the Tridentine Latin Mass, describes his film: "I think of it as contemplative in the sense that one is compelled to remember ... in a spiritual way, which cannot be articulated, only experienced." Gibson explains the genesis of his film:
The past three years forced me to focus heavily on the Passion... . I went to the wounds of Christ in order to cure my wounds. And when I did that, through reading and studying and meditating and praying, I began to see in my own mind what he [Jesus] really went through... . It was like giving birth: the story, the way I envisioned the suffering of Christ, got inside me and started to grow, and it reached a point where I just had to tell it, to get it out.1
During an interview with Raymond Arroyo of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Mel Gibson, who attends only the Latin Mass, explains, "I wanted it to transcend language... . I didn't want to have to depend upon the spoken word. It is a visual art film. And I wanted to take the verb away from it, a little bit, have it there ... but to restrict the spoken word."2 Gibson's "choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message."3 Like the pre-Vatican II Catholic Mass that was spoken in Latin, Gibson presents his dramatized contemplative prayer meditation in Aramaic and Latin but with a concession-he includes English subtitles.4 Use of two languages no longer spoken for the dialogue has a touch of genius about it. Subtitles transfix attention upon the screen.5
"The Passion of the Christ" reflects a contemplative meditation upon Christ's Passion that originates in medieval times, including both "The Five Sorrowful Mysteries" and the "Stations of the Cross."6 The Five Sorrowful Mysteries, all derived from the Gospels, provide the narrative structure for the film which also features the fourteen Stations of the Cross, including the extra-biblical character, Veronica, who wipes Jesus' bloody face with her veil which retains the image of his face imprinted upon it, left as a gift for her and for Christians to contemplate forever.7 This evident medieval Roman Catholic shaping of Mel Gibson's telling of Christ's Passion is not overly obtrusive for Protestants. Protestants will tend to think that the storyline of the film resembles a harmonization of the Four Gospels that allows John's Gospel to dominate, particularly because of the extended exchange between Pilate and Jesus (John 19:1-16).
Why, then, since the story is so familiar, does the movie attract so many viewers? What holds the attention of viewers for 126 minutes? What makes Gibson's version of this well-known drama so riveting? Simply put, it is his imaginative and realistic representation of the story that draws our eyes through his camera lens to view the story as he tells it. His lens transports us across the ages to witness his telling of the tyranny of religious leaders incited by jealousy of a peasant teacher whose popularity exceeds theirs. He directs us to witness his account of the political rulers who turn to rivalry and intrigue as they stand caught on the stage of history between Jewish religious leaders bent on preserving their place of privilege, protected by Roman concessions, and Rome's Caesar who is eager to suppress Jewish rebellion so routinely stirred by insurrectionists. He compels us to witness close-up his dramatization of the sporting brutality of soldiers as they flog Jesus, first with sticks designed to inflict burning stripes of pain and then with cat-o-nine-tails devised to shred human flesh with lion-like claw strokes tearing the body open, exposing veins and muscles, leaving puddles of blood on the stone pavement.
Several reviewers criticize the movie for its graphic portrayals, especially of the flogging. Some even call it pornographic.8 David Ansen says,
I have no doubt that Mel Gibson loves Jesus. From the evidence of "The Passion of the Christ," however, what he seems to love as much is the cinematic depiction of flayed, severed, swollen, scarred flesh and rivulets of spilled blood, the crack of bashed bones and the groans of someone enduring the ultimate physical agony.9
Evidently, finding that the film does not inflame anti-Semitic emotions as many claimed it would, several film critics have turned to criticize an easy target, the brutality portrayed by the movie. They fail to recognize two interests that moved Gibson to portray brutality with such realism. First, throughout the past year with increased frequency leading up to his film's release, Gibson has been promoting his film as an attempt to portray Christ's passion realistically to challenge conventional sanitizing of the flogging and of the crucifixion that characterizes other films that regrettably forge popular opinion concerning ancient Rome's brutal practice of flogging and crucifixion. Gibson's portrayal is agonizing, brutal, bloody, bone-crunching, clamorous, messy, noisy, offensive to human sensibilities, protracted, but convincingly realistic. Second, in order to understand what moved Gibson, one has to understand the nature of medieval contemplative theology of the cross with its Five Sorrowful Mysteries and the development of the fourteen Stations of the Cross for meditation upon the agonies of the Christ. The agony and sorrow that Gibson splashes upon the screen does not derive from some irreligious and sadomasochistic fascination with gore. David Ansen is puzzled: "This peculiar, deeply personal expression of the filmmaker's faith is a far cry from the sentimental, pious depictions of Christ that popular culture has often served up."10 He concludes,
Instead of being moved by Christ's suffering, or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins. Others may well find a strong spirituality in "The Passion"-I can't pretend to know what this movie looks like to a believer-but it was Gibson's fury, not his faith, that left a deep, abiding aftertaste.11
Roger Ebert comes much closer to understanding the film's design: "What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of." Ebert correctly notes that Gibson achieves an evident purpose: "This is not a Passion like any other ever filmed. Perhaps that is the best reason for it. I grew up on those pious Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s, which looked like holy cards brought to life." Yet, all is watched from a distance through the camera lens which never gets splattered with blood, even for the brief seconds when camera looks through the one open eye of Jesus as he is dragged across stone pavement, following his flogging, or when the camera becomes the eye of Judas whose vision contorts the faces of taunting children into demonic visages.
The fact that the story of the Christ's Passion is so well-known is ironically the source of both valid and invalid criticism of Mel Gibson's film. What do people expect? Do not movie producers take certain liberties with virtually all story scripts when they endeavor to convey those stories through the film medium? Why should we not have expected the same with this movie? Does not the film medium invariably transform text-based stories to some degree? Have non-Christian film critics who chastise Gibson for including features that appear nowhere in the Four Gospels of the New Testament now become devoted defenders of the authenticity, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture? Disingenuousness on this significantly diminishes the credibility of their reviews.
Precisely because Mel Gibson intended to challenge the sentimental and surreal portrayals of Jesus' suffering and crucifixion with his own visionary iconography and images conceived in his Catholic schooling, he might have devoted closer attention to historical research on a few matters. Had he done so, he may have given his challenge greater historical if not biblical credibility. A few examples will suffice.
Purists, who expect that film scripts should adhere strictly to the texts of the books upon which they are based, will likely quibble over several elements of the film, including the following, if they know the biblical accounts well.
Despite these few deficiencies, "The Passion of the Christ" includes many adaptations that stubbornly refuse anyone to claim that the gospel message died at the flogging post, was brutalized by a penchant for gore, got upstaged by a flair for drama, or became obscured by Catholic medieval and mystic contemplative icons and images of Christ's Passion. While "The Passion" graphically portrays the physical suffering of Jesus, it also reminds everyone who has eyes to see that the greater story that unfolds is the spiritual battle that Jesus wages on behalf of God the Father against the Devil. This battle is engaged from the beginning of the movie when Satan appears in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is praying to his Father, knowing that his hour of agony has arrived. Satan, appearing with androgynous features that disguise the embodiment of evil and veiled with a black shawl, taunts Jesus and releases a serpent that slithers to Jesus who kneels praying with his face virtually touching the ground.12 After Jesus rises to his feet, with resolve to do his Father's will, he momentarily gazes at the Devil and then, with violent action crushes the head of the serpent under his sandal, an obvious foreshadow of his conquest over Satan that will soon come (cf. Genesis 3:15). The Satan figure appears several times throughout the movie, as a figure in the crowd, unnoticed by the crowd which is mostly in league with him in their opposition to the Christ. One intriguing scene shows the androgynous figure as a mother holding what initially appears to be a plump baby that strokes Satan's almost beautiful face but turns to reveal a medieval cherubic figure with an impish grin. The image recalls a prominent subject of medieval art but its evil inverse as an "anti-Madonna and Child." A maggot, easily mistaken for a ring, in Satan's nose in one scene subtly links to another scene. Tormented Judas stumbles and kneels near the carcass of a mule that crawls with maggots and around whose neck is the rope that awaits the betrayer's use to end his own life by hanging from a tree, a tree far less gruesome but also less noble than the tree upon which his master hangs bearing the wrath of his Father.
Mel Gibson makes it clear that Jesus Christ's Passion was carried out not for himself but for others. All Christians should rejoice at the clarity of the presentation of Christ's substitutionary death. Gibson does this from the beginning with the quotation from Isaiah 53. Gibson masterfully includes a dimension in his telling of the story that reveals the fact that he understands that the real and effectual drama that takes place is in the unseen spiritual realm.13 From the opening scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane the Devil attempts to impede Jesus' resolve to go to the cross. Twice the camera takes viewers to offer God's view of the crucifixion. One view entails a divine teardrop that triggers the earthquake that accompanies the crucifixion. The other view entails Satan's frustrated defeat in failing to prevent Jesus' crucifixion.
From high above Golgotha, these two views make it evident that the death of Jesus is to satisfy the Heavenly Father's purposes, not ultimately to satisfy the interests of Satan or of mere humans on the stage in Jerusalem. Jewish religious authorities, whose petty interests move them to protect their place of influence both with Rome and with the Judeans, render them important earthly players who, unknown to them, fulfill God's purposes on the earthly stage of the heavenly drama of Christ's Passion. Likewise, Roman governing officials and soldiers, who seek to suppress Jewish insurrections so that their time in unpleasant Judea may pass without incident, unknowingly do God's bidding as well as they attempt to placate Jewish authorities who find a Galilean peasant rivaling their authority as religious leaders of the people. Similarly, pathetic Judas, whose avarice hatches a plot with the Jewish priests to betray his master, finds himself caught up in the drama of God's own making that far transcends his selfish interests but sadly brings him to his own tormented demise. Thus, as the movie begins with the text of Isaiah 53:5-"He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."-so the film closes with a clear message for those with eyes to see that the story is that of God's provision of redemption by the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, on behalf of others.
Because viewers, including movie critics, know the progression of the drama of "The Passion of the Christ" before it unfolds on the screen, we do not await the next scene with expectancy to learn how Jesus, the protagonist, will get on with all his antagonists-the Jewish religious authorities, the Temple guards, Pilate, Herod, the Roman soldiers, the crowds crying "Let him be crucified!" as they are prompted by the Priests, the jeering onlookers throughout the death-march to the place of crucifixion, and the mockers and soldiers who extend their jeering to the end. Each viewer will approach the film differently depending upon one's own milieu, whether Catholic or Protestant, believer or unbeliever, pastor or pew-sitter, biblical scholar or not. All who view the film will be exposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ with powerful images and biblically derived dialogue. It is evident that Gibson's film has taken and continues to take severe criticism because of its high profile. While "The Passion of the Christ" receives harsh abuse "The Gospel of John" receives only rare comment.14 Surely the gospel's clarity in Gibson's high profile film incites severe criticism, signaling how effective the film is in conveying the gospel that so deeply offends human pride and self-sufficiency.
Scripture authorizes four narratives that tell the story of Christ's Passion. Harmonization of these four accounts is the work of Christian readers not of the apostles. So, we distinguish a harmonization of the Four Gospels from the Bible's authorized individual Gospel accounts. We also distinguish between Mel Gibson's film and God's Word. The film is an artistic rendering of a well-known story. It is a film, not a sermon or Scripture. Thus, it lacks the narrative structure that the Bible provides with its textual medium. Gibson compensates for this lack of larger narrative by quoting Isaiah 53 at the beginning to link the film's story with the Old Testament and by effectively using flashbacks to Jesus' ministry throughout the story that link from scenes of characters in particular situations of contact with Jesus especially at the Stations of the Cross. Mary is almost ubiquitous. She is hardly off screen. John, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and others call her "Mother." Why does she sop up Jesus' blood at the flogging post? Why does she pace step for step with Satan in one scene? Why does she as the only human actually see and recognize Satan among the crowd? Why, repeatedly, as Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross, do his eyes meet Mary's from whom he derives strength to press on to his crucifixion? Why, at the cross, as Jesus expires, does Mary press her face against his pierced feet, kissing his toes and expressing a desire to die with him? Does not the androgynous female-like Devil ape Mother Mary, and by doing so feature Mary? Does not the anti-Madonna and Child image of Satan serve to feature Mary's relationship to Jesus as Mother of God?15 Veneration of Mary is evident in the film as she plays a co-redemptive role in the movie. Yet, Gibson's presentation of this is subdued, respectful to non-Catholics, and only mildly obtrusive to the presentation of the story for Protestants.
Regrettably many film viewers will have unrealistic expectations of the film, perhaps not unlike Michael Coren's, setting themselves up for some level of disappointment. On February 25 Coren confesses, "Last week, I wrote a preamble column about Mel Gibson's new movie, The Passion of the Christ. I said that I was extraordinarily optimistic. In fact, I have never before wanted to enjoy a movie so much." He invested too much in the hype and controversy that swirled about the film before seeing it. He was disappointed after viewing it, as he says, "If the movie works for you, I am happy. For me, it is prayer, Bible and a dwelling in a God-given imagination that this hyped Hollywood product can never rival."16
Many Evangelicals have lodged undue hope in Mel Gibson's movie itself for evangelistic transformation of the masses. "The Passion of the Christ" is not the gospel though it presents the gospel with amazing clarity and accuracy for a major film production. Yet, the film does not substitute for the preached gospel in biblical proportion. Because of this, icons and images projected onto a screen prompt concern over idolatry for some Evangelicals, an issue that no one should glibly dismiss. This is not to suggest that Christians should not view the movie. Rather, it is to encourage believers to let the film bring them back to Scripture to have all of Scripture stir holy imagination that is truly vital to proper worship and remembrance of Christ who endured God's wrathful afflictions on our behalf. Visual images are powerful, yet even Jesus' disciples who were eye witnesses of his mighty works were not brought to unimpaired belief until after his resurrection. The gospel is God's authorized appeal to holy imagination of faith and not to sight.
While the film is instructive concerning the horrors of the Roman flogging and the physically excruciating agony of crucifixion, disproportionate focus upon these aspects, in comparison to the brief mention of Jesus' physical suffering in the Four Gospels, may obscure the central message of the gospel with its focus upon Christ's sacrificial death to satisfy God's wrath on account of human sinfulness, even though it is present within the film. The gospel message is present within Mel Gibson's movie, and for this we ought to praise God and pray that our Lord will use his good news within this film to deliver many from the clutches of sin's dominion. Mel Gibson's film creates significant points of contact for Evangelicals with non-Christians to speak openly of God's good news in Christ Jesus. Let us seize every opportunity presented to us.
"The Passion of the Christ" is an apropos film for our post-modern society in that it is given to both visual image and narrative. The gospel of Jesus Christ comes to us in narrative within Scripture. The Four Gospels individually convey the drama of Christ's life and suffering for us who were not there to see him. Jesus says to Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). How shall any of us believe and be saved? Is it not by hearing the gospel preached (Romans 10:14)? Does not the proclaimed gospel move us to worship and love him whom we do not see (1 Peter 1:8)? Does not the gospel call us into the "fellowship of his sufferings" (Phil 3:10)? But is the focus upon the physical agonies Jesus endured in his flogging and crucifixion or upon the greater affliction he bore as laid upon him by his Heavenly Father?
Christians need to be wary lest we permit the extended iconography and images of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" intrude and corrupt true worship of Jesus Christ. Yet, we also need to be wary of imaginations made dull by reducing the gospel to an intellectual form or by binding consciences to unmitigated imposition of the Second Commandment. Did not the Word become flesh? Do we not have a Man seated in the presence of God on our behalf, albeit the God-Man? It is vital for Christians to guard the sanctity of their imaginations from idolatry, but sacred imagination is vital to proper and true worship to avoid intellectualized sterilization. While we who view the film run the risk of idolatrous images intruding into our worship of him whom we do not see, we also must not pretend that the gospel of Jesus Christ preached in our hearing does not employ rich imagery that projects graphic visuals upon the screens of our minds somewhat akin to those captured by Mel Gibson's cameras. The Apostle Paul understood the gospel's appeal to sacred imagination when he said, "Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified" (Gal 3:1 niv). How is this to happen? It happens through the preached gospel. If it happens through Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," God is to be praised.
1 Quoted by David Neff, "The Passion of Mel Gibson: Why evangelicals are cheering a movie with profoundly Catholic sensibilities," http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/passion-passionofmel.html.
2 "We didn't want an American Jesus, or a Japanese Jesus or a French Jesus. What we wanted was a language that allowed Jesus to be none of these nationalities, so that he can be all of them at the same time. This is a universal story." Gibson's interview with Raymond Arroyo of EWTN is available at http://www.ewtn.com/WorldOver/.
4 In his interview with Raymond Arroyo of EWTN, Gibson explains that he intended to have no subtitles. After testing the film's effectiveness on audiences, first with subtitles and then without, he found that subtitles added the effect he desired.
5 Lest anyone accuse Gibson of wanting to bury the message in unknown languages, in the EWTN interview Gibson also responds to criticism from three unnamed New Testament scholars who dispute the historicity of the New Testament accounts upon which he based his portrayal. Gibson makes it evident that he believes in the authority and authenticity of the New Testament Gospel narratives. He expresses confidence that the four Evangelists' accounts are historically accurate. He also asserts his right as a Christian who is not a biblical scholar to understand the meaning of the Gospel accounts.
6 The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of medieval Catholicism are: Jesus' Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Scourging of Jesus at the Pillar, the Crowning of Jesus with Thorns, Jesus' Carrying of the Cross, and Jesus' Crucifixion and Death.
7 "Stations of the Cross," http://www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/stations-prn.html. Mel Gibson follows, though not rigidly, Anne Catherine Emmerich's The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, meditations based on alleged visions she experienced concerning The Passion. This is the source of the scene that is strange to Protestants. Emmerich claims, "[A]fter the flagellation, I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present. . . . I soon after saw Mary and Magdalen approach the pillar where Jesus had been scourged . . . they knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent."
8 For example, Roger Ebert claims, "This is the most violent film I have ever seen." (http://www.suntimes.com/output/ebert1/cst-ftr-passion24.html). Andrew Sullivan says, "In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere flesh"
12 Mel Gibson explains the androgynous Devil in his interview with Raymond Arroyo (EWTN) that he wanted to show Satan "in a form that is most seductive . . . the great ape of God, who likes to imitate in a way that is a little off . . . pleasing on the surface, but there's something a little wrong."
13 Again, in his interview on EWTN, Mel Gibson explains, "You're seeing the big realm. It's not about us; it's about principalities. And it's about the big war that's going on. . . . The big realms, the dark and the light realms are battling over us, and the battle happens. We can't see it, but it's there. And that is what I wanted to show in the film . . . that the diabolical shows itself, and at times the divine peeks through, so you look under the surface and there it is. You're looking right at it."
14 For description of the movie see http://www.gospelofjohnthefilm.com/mainpage.aspx. For a favorable review of the film see the Christianity Today web site: Ben Witherington III, "The Gospel of John," (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/reviews/gospelofjohn.html#ff).
15 I thank my friend Justin Taylor who confirmed my understanding of the "anti-Madonna and Child" by sending me a link to the Christianity Today article by Mark Moring, "What's Up With the Ugly Baby? Everyone's asking about the Passion scene where Satan is carrying a hideous infant" (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/040301-passion.html).