I’ve seen an advance screening of Mel Gibson’s controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ. It was a digital projection with a temporary soundtrack and no special effects. Doesn’t matter. It was still the most moving and memorable portrayal of Jesus Christ that I have ever witnessed. Produced by Mel Gibson, co-written with Benedict Fitzgerald, and starring Jim Caviezel, this masterpiece has clearly been providentially ordained by God for such a time as this.
The story begins in the Garden of Gethsemane with Christ’s betrayal at the lips of Judas and follows the last twelve hours of His earthly life and crucifixion, ending with a brief scene of His resurrection. But this is in no way merely another telling of the greatest story ever rehashed. It is an experiential exploration of the meaning of sacrificial substitutionary atonement like no other Jesus movie has ever depicted. Oh sure, most movies about Christ have covered the injustice, beatings, and crucifixion of our Lord and Savior — some of them better than others — but never like this. All other Jesus movies are revisionist candy-coated schmaltz compared to this one. Gibson based the gruesome details of his film upon a famous clinical investigation of Roman crucifixion and punishment, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986. The film translates this historical research onto the screen with a brutal vengeance: scourging whips of leather embedded with bone ripping off flesh, pools of blood, an unidentifiable Christ with His face bashed in. And all of it, true to the Scriptures:
Isaiah 53:3–7 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.
Isaiah 52:14 So His appearance was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men.
Part of the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53, quoted above, is shown at the beginning of the movie to provide a Biblical context for understanding all the violence that follows. Rather than “adding to the scriptures,” this historical detail merely translates for contemporary culture what first-century Jewish believers, to whom the gospels were originally written, knew all too intimately, having lost loved ones themselves to the barbarism of Rome. (The film is not rated at this time, but it will most likely receive an R-rating. But that’s okay. Much of the Bible is rated R anyway.1)
The point of it all is that the effectiveness of redemption portrayed in any story is exactly equal to the accuracy of the depiction of the depravity from which we are redeemed. The brutal realism of Christ’s suffering points to the depth and costliness of atonement, which was achieved for God’s people through His once-for-all sacrifice. To show anything less is to diminish the gospel. Watching this movie, with its in-your-face grisly realism, provides a much-needed corrective to our modern pseudo-gospels with their bloodless Jesuses who exist to fill one’s heart and life with peace, happiness, and fulfillment, rather than to die in place of sinners, saving them from God’s wrath.
Protestant Christian Concerns
There are several concerns that media-wise Protestants may have with The Passion of the Christ. These are (1) the second commandment’s prohibition of images, (2) the shortage of doctrinal teaching in the film, and (3) the Roman Catholic viewpoints of its filmmakers.
Being a Reformed Protestant, I take these concerns seriously and want to address each of them as briefly as possible in order to alleviate any fears.
Some Protestants insist that any visual representation of Christ, be it pictorial or dramatic, is a violation of the second commandment prohibiting graven images. I fully realize that there is considerable difference of opinion (fervently held) among people who are committed to the abiding validity of the law of God regarding this issue, and I cannot enter extensively into that discussion here. For my purposes it is sufficient to note that any understanding of the second commandment must do justice to the fact of the incarnation of God in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy 4:15, offered as the ground of the second commandment, “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully,” can no longer be said of the incarnate God. It is true, we have no physical “portraiture” of Christ (and any such attempts must be acknowledged as imaginative), but that Jesus can be portrayed dramatically as a human being in historical situations does not seem counter to the concerns of the second commandment. We dare not allow our interpretation of the second commandment to lead us into a docetic diminution of the human reality of the incarnation.2 The Passion of the Christ is a narrative depiction of Christ’s humanity and His fulfillment of His mission as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), not an iconic representation of His divinity to worship.3
[NOTE: Having said all this, I must add that any reader who has Biblical scruples against viewing representational art involving the Lord Jesus should not take this review as an encouragement to go against his conscience. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).]
Shortage of Doctrine?
Most Jesus movies tend to reflect the prevailing zeitgeist of their era, and The Passion of the Christ is no exception. The first Jesus movies, made more in an era of belief, tended to emphasize His deity at the expense of his humanity (Intolerance, King of Kings). Later movies, made in an era of skepticism, tended to emphasize His humanity at the expense of His deity (Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell), or worse, make Him out to be sinful (The Last Temptation of Christ). But all these movies were, to a degree, modernist renditions focusing on Christ’s didactic teaching culminating in the cross as the ultimate embodiment of that theology.4
In The Passion of the Christ Gibson has chosen to dramatize a portion of Scripture where our Lord has comparatively little to say (“He opened not His mouth.” Is. 53:7) and very much to do. Thus it is not surprising that there is relatively little overt doctrine protrayed in the film. The doctrinal perspective that is set forth, however, spare though it may be, is consistent with the Biblical narratives from which Gibson is working.
We live in a world in the grip of postmodernism with its negation of reason, language, and discourse. People are bored with sermonizing and preachiness, especially in the arts. They just won’t listen to reason. They want to experience your metanarrative, not mentally process it with the questionable faculties of “logocentric” rationality. Make no mistake, this postmodern prejudice is imbalanced, fallacious, and spiritually destructive. But like Paul identifying to a certain extent with pagan philosophers on Mars Hill, so The Passion of the Christ meets the postmodern challenge with a legitimate experience of Christ (dramatic and emotional, though not irrational). The story is presented through strong images and minimal dialogue that will transcend culture and denomination alike. That’s the power of image. It may be the only movie about Jesus that most GenX or GenY postmodern young people will ever consider watching.
The answer to the potential dangers of a postmodern Christ narrative is not to dwell on the inadequacies of this particular approach. After all, no presentation is without blemish. Reformed thinking has sometimes emphasized a word-oriented theology to the near-exclusion of image and sometimes to the total exclusion of image, and we may suffer under an imbalance opposite that of the postmodern. The truth is “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14), a perfect unity of word and image.
Rather than nit-picking imperfections, we should use this movie as a stepping stone, a tool to open doors. You should watch this movie with your unbelieving friends and family and fill in the holes of doctrinal truth and elaborate on the visual or experiential elements of the movie. Bring word in balance with image. People don’t usually get saved watching movies, anyway. They usually get saved because a person explained the gospel to them in person, answered their questions, and filled in the gaps. Witnessing is more than simply abstract proposition; it is personal and relational as well. So engage in that human interaction that a movie about Jesus can inspire but not provide.5
A Romish Bias?
A third concern of some Protestants regards the Roman Catholic theology of Mel Gibson, the producer and passion behind The Passion of the Christ. I don’t know Mr. Gibson personally, so I can’t speak for him; but as a Protestant Christian, I can say that if there is any Roman influence on the film, it is negligible to the point of irrelevance.
Christ’s actual teachings in the film are minimal and told in flashback, so truth is delivered more through context than proposition. For instance, the Lord’s Supper is remembered at one point in Christ’s bloody punishment. Yet, this symbolic connection is entirely in accord with John’s Gospel narrative, where “eating His flesh” and “drinking His blood” is a sacramental connection with His death and suffering (Jn. 6:52–59). There is no apparent notion in the film of eucharistic transubstantiation, such as in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Christ literally rips out His flesh and asks His disciples to eat it.
Even the sensitive and loving portrait of Mary in the movie does not seem to elevate her to the position of “co-mediatrix.” I watched for this exaltation, but was pleasantly relieved. If anything, Mary’s part in the story is a welcomed corrective to the Protestant pendulum swing of downplaying the mother of Jesus. She is shown as a loving mother with a young adult Jesus who teases her affectionately. No “Queen of Heaven” there, just a good mom. She is shown racked with spiritual anguish — “pierced in her own soul” (Lk. 2:35) — at every beating of Jesus. And whose mother would not vicariously experience the punishment of her son? She wipes His blood off the ground in an irrational reaction of helplessness. I know my mother would. There is a beautiful scene where Mary watches Christ fall on the Via Dolorosa and cannot help Him, but in her mind remembers Him as a little child falling and herself running to His aid. Very moving, very real, and very much like my mom.
Mary holds Christ’s body after being taken down from the cross in what has come to be a symbolic “Pietá” pose. While it may be the case that the Pietá in Roman Catholic theology became a symbolic reference to Mary’s co-redemptive unity with Christ, it was first of all an altogether believable expression of a mother’s love of her dead son (even if the detail is not recorded in the Biblical narrative) and can be appreciated on that level. We are not uneducated plebians relying on sculpture as our text.
There is also a powerful ironic moment where Christ is being led to His scourging and the devil appears in the crowd holding a mutant baby as an androgynous mockery of Christ’s own virginal incarnation. Let’s not forget that the virgin birth was, after all, a key event in Christianity, regardless of denomination.
The short of it all is that the filmmaker’s Roman Catholicism brings mere accent and flavor to the film’s orthodox presentation without slipping into partisan heresy. It shows the perfectly human realistic reactions and connection that Jesus’ mother would have in such an extreme situation. And if such minor symbolic references are so easily reinterpreted, depending on the viewer’s theological perspective, then those symbols need not compel us to specific didactic conclusions.
Death Versus Resurrection
Lastly, it appears that the origin of Passion Plays in the Middle Ages was in part theologically motivated. Although there were Easter, Mystery, and Miracle Plays as well, the Passion Play did tend to emphasize the death of Christ at the expense of His resurrection. True, the early church did not create art that focused on Christ’s death. There were no crosses in the catacombs. Also true that the Protestant Reformation rightfully stressed the resurrection victory of Christ with His death as a means to that end. So, yes, there is the danger of imbalance in Passion Plays.
But the focal point of Christ’s death in Romanism was also practically motivated, rooted in the interest of the peasant class that was largely illiterate or without access to the written Scriptures. Drama could incarnate the gospel narrative for those without privileged status. The purpose of focusing on suffering was to evoke pity. The priests mistakenly believed that pitying Christ could be a starting point for faith. While this is a real danger for a non-Christian to fall into while watching The Passion of the Christ, it is also a danger for any truth claim in today’s world.
Similar to the Middle Ages, many people today are largely illiterate and image-oriented, with entertainment media functionally operating as their canonical texts. Our society worships emotion over cognition or action. It mistakes feeling for participation. Many wrongly suppose that watching a celebrity charity rock concert is the same as actually helping the poor; they are deluded into believing that weeping over the plight of starving children on TV is equivalent to feeding the hungry. So also, many people mistakenly conclude that “believing in God” saves them from hell, being perilously unaware that even demons do so and shudder (Jas. 2:19). So this problem of erroneous participation in truth is more a function of the social milieu than the fault of artistic image. We must be sure to communicate with those who watch The Passion of the Christ that feeling sorry for Jesus as the ultimate victim is not the same as being His disciple.
By the same token, it is just as fallacious for Christians to think that critiquing the imperfect attempts at bringing God into Hollywood movies is somehow participating in the cultural mandate. The Cultural Mandate is not to merely criticize but to create. You must interact redemptively with culture if you want to reform it.
As Christians we are called upon by our Lord not only to promote His kingdom and righteousness (Mt. 6:33) — the work of cultural renewal — but also to “strengthen the things that remain” (Rev. 3:2). Here’s one way in which we can actually participate in the cultural mandate. Unfortunately, the success of any movie in the eyes of Hollywood studios is determined by the box office numbers of the first two weeks. Many good movies don’t make much money and disappear into video oblivion because they don’t have the marketing support that big blockbusters do. This makes those good movies harder to produce because the studios don’t see the profit in it. Christians are always complaining about how Hollywood doesn’t make movies that share their values. Well, the best way to change that is to go to the few movies that do and buy the videos, too. You vote with your dollars. Mel Gibson is not releasing his movie through a big studio, so he doesn’t have the mega-marketing support behind him. If a ton of people don’t see this movie in the first couple weeks of release, it may die in the box office.
Here’s how we can change all that. Here’s how we can be a reforming force of cultural influence. The Passion of the Christ opened everywhere on February 25, 2004. If Christians continue to go see the movie in droves then studios will sit up and notice. If you want to make a difference, if you want Hollywood to make more movies with a Christian worldview, then go see The Passion right away. But don’t just go by yourself, get a group of friends. And don’t just go once, go twice. It’s the multiple viewings that skyrocket a film’s numbers (i.e., The Lord of the Rings). And last of all, buy the video or DVD when it comes out.
Let’s not just critique culture, let’s actually transform it by being involved in it. I call that redemptive interaction with culture. I call that The Passion of the Church.
[NOTE: You can see the trailer for the movie on the web at www.thepassion.tv.]
1. See Brian Godawa, Appendix: “Sex, Violence, and Profanity in the Bible,” Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 187-208.
2. “Docetism” was an early Christian heresy which denied the reality of the incarnation, claiming Jesus’ humanity was merely an “appearance.”
3. We will leave for another time a discussion of whether Jesus’ divinity can be adequately portrayed artistically, and whether that is a theological or aesthetic problem or not.
4. I document this in more detail in my article, “Jesus in the Movies,” on my website: www.godawa.com > Hollywood Worldviews: Unpublished Chapters > Jesus in the Movies. 5. Another question that deserves further exploration, and one which Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker have addressed in their writings, is the relationship of Christian art as art to evangelism. Does Christian art, including film, need a justific