The story of Jesus’ death in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” will likely seem more familiar to Catholic viewers than to Protestants. That’s because Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, closely follows the Stations of the Cross, a series of 14 images or pictures representing stages in Christ’s suffering and death that are found in nearly every Catholic church.
While some evangelical Christians are touting Gibson’s film as a powerful tool for evangelism, Ed Hogan, pastor of Jersey Village Baptist Church in Houston, said he did not find the movie “overtly evangelistic.” He said it does have evangelistic qualities “if you do intentional evangelism,” such as seeing the movie with a non-believer and then discussing it over coffee, but the couple of non-Christians he has talked to about “The Passion” didn’t understand it.
“The intentionality we are trying to do is to create a dialogue,” Hogan said in an interview. Hogan said he has been studying for some time to prepare his church for a “kind of Protestant-Catholic” dialogue about the film.
“What I was not aware of until I saw the movie was that it was basically just a walking through the 14 Stations of the Cross,” Hogan said.
Hogan said many evangelical viewers who see Gibson’s film will recognize that many elements are not from the Bible and will assume they are the result of artistic or creative license by the director. What they’ll miss is “that these are explicitly Catholic doctrines,” he said.
“Once you get to the point where [Jesus] is handed over to the Roman authorities for scourging, the movie plays out as a Mass to the 14 Stations of the Cross,” Hogan said. “Every Station of the Cross is present, and every one is in exact order.”
The Stations of the Cross replicate stops along Jesus traditional route through Jerusalem on the way to his death called the Via Dolorosa. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the object of the Stations as “to help the faithful make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death.”
Practiced since at least the 15th century, it “has become one of the most popular of Catholic devotions,” the encyclopedia continues. “It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing a stanza of the ‘Stabat Mater’ (hymns celebrating the emotions of the Virgin Mary at the Cross and Manger) while passing from one Station to the next.”
Some of the Stations are from events recorded in Scripture, such as Jesus being condemned to die, carrying and being nailed to the cross and Simon helping him to carry the cross. Others, like Jesus falling, meeting the women of Jerusalem, having his face wiped by a woman named Veronica (thus leaving an imprint of his face that tradition says was passed down as a relic) and being taken from the cross into his mother’s arms, are not.
Hogan said Gibson is probably not being disingenuous when he says he attempted to base his movie on the four Gospels, but that as a Catholic he reads the Gospels through 20 centuries of Church tradition that most Protestants reject, relying instead on Scripture as the sole authority in matters of faith.
Hogan said he does not approach his critique of the movie in a “negatively critical” way, but he faults Gibson for relying too much on tradition in terms of accuracy. In terms of “spirit,” however, he gives Gibson “huge kudos.”
Hogan finds telling that Gibson named his production company Icon. The woman’s face pictured in the Icon logo is St. Veronica, whose name transliterated means “vera icon” or “true image.”
“What he’s hinting at is that he has tried to create a true image of who Christ was,” Hogan said. “That image is blurred, because it looks back through the lens of 2,000 years of interpretation, layer on layer.”
Hogan said he suspects that many Baptists and other evangelicals who are enthusiastic in their support for the movie probably have no idea it contains so much Catholic theology. “If they had known how closely related it was to Catholic theology, they would have been more reserved in their praise,” he said.
He also attributed much of the praise from evangelicals to a “theology of a great revival.” One line used in marketing the film referred to it as “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.”
“The one thing you never want to be seen as is being against a great movement of God,” he said. “I think they convinced themselves this was going to be a great evangelistic opportunity. Who wants to be opposed to God?”
But he also suggested that some may have been too quick to jump on the bandwagon. “There are so many places where Paul says to test the spirits,” Hogan said. “We are to think critically.”
Despite his problems with the movie—not the least of which is the violence—Hogan believes it offers churches “a wonderful teaching tool.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.