Since I haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” I can only ask questions. I have lots of them:

–Does it honor Jesus or exploit Jesus?

Richard Niebuhr in his critique of liberalism wrote, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Do we have here a Christ on a cross who will bring convicted sinners into the kingdom, or do we have a Passion that will leave viewers devastated by guilt, shame and pity?

–What is Mel Gibson’s point of view?

To transfer the gospel to any other medium–be it a Passion play, film or sermon—requires a point of view that controls artistic or homiletical decisions. What is Gibson’s? He told Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Primetime Live” that Jesus was “beaten for our iniquities.” A Hebrew scholar tells me the text of Isaiah 53:5 does not support this translation, but it may explain Gibson’s concentration on violence.

The film’s theology apparently is based on a penal substitution view of the atonement. Does any one atonement theology do justice to the full, rich meaning of the death of Jesus?

–What about the violence?

Words from two old hymns inform my reaction to film clips I have seen. “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love,” not “of Jesus and his flogging.” “Teach me the slow of heart to move by some clear winning word of love,” not by spattering blood.

But after seeing the film, will I have feelings like those of Morris Chapman, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee. He told Baptist Press: “I have been unable to erase from my mind the scene of the beating given Jesus by Roman guards. It was gruesome. It jarred my sensibilities. The sight of Jesus’ back after the cat of nine tails had torn bit by bit into His flesh was almost unbearable. It was so real I was almost certain the audience around me had given a collective gasp, sinking into their seats, shrinking from the horror of such excruciating pain.”

How do Gibson’s violent images compare with others in Christian art, hymns and devotional literature? Does he isolate or contextualize the violence? In an effort to put in context the film’s violence The Worship Leader Magazine tried to distinguish various types of violence in the media: suggestive violence, gratuitous violence, fictive violence, realism, virtual violence and comic violence. This list omits sado-masochistic violence, pornographic violence and the violence that sears the spirit and leaves an indelible impression

The scourging and crucifixion were horribly violent, but does Gibson honor or inflate the gospel account? Matthew, Mark and John devote only one verse to the scourging of Jesus; Luke does not mention it. Carrying the cross to Golgotha occupies one verse in Matthew, Mark and John, and just six in Luke.

Although the Gospels never mention a single fall by Jesus, he falls many times in Gibson’s version. Again his interview with Diane Sawyer is revealing. After her comment on his “choreography of pain,” Gibson spoke proudly of the way he filmed Jesus falling “almost like a ballet…a lyrical fall.”

–What about the charges of anti-Semitism?

Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and author of Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, knows anti-Semitism when he sees it. He says the movie is not anti-Semitic, but that it “has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, to reinforce it.”

At the urging of critics Gibson did remove the sub-title translation of the chilling blood curse from Matthew 27:25: “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

In spite of his claims that the film is not anti-Semitic Gibson does not seem to understand the painful Jewish experience history of Passion plays and Good Friday observances.

Gibson needs a consciousness-raising on anti-Semitism similar to the moment in his film
“What Women Want.” Gibson plays a womanizing playboy. Then an accident with a hair dryer and a bathtub shocks him into a state where he can hear what women think and want. I do not want Gibson to be zapped, but I would welcome a similar transformation on this point.

–Is the film true to the Gospels?

Gibson claims it is, but some viewers report that he draws on the 19th century German mystic and nun, Ann Katherine Emmerich, author of The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. She is the source of the scene in which Jews, not Romans, make the cross in the court of the Jewish high priest, of all places.

There are reports of other non-biblical moments. Jesus is pushed off a bridge and kept by his chains from hitting the stream. Pilate’s wife and Jesus’ mother have a meeting.

–What effect will the film have on interreligious relations?

Will the film set Jewish-Christian relations back 30 years or more? Or will it present an opportunity to learn more about what both unites and divides us. Rabbi Charles Aria of Baltimore’s Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies writes, “If Jews and Christians use ‘The Passion’ as a springboard for deepening our conversations, this controversy in the end can help us to provide ‘good news’ for both communities.”

What impact will “The Passion of the Christ” have on Protestant and Catholic relations? Evangelicals are working closely with a pre-Vatican II Catholic, a remarkable union when many of them would agree with Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He said recently on CNN’s Larry King Show, “I believe the Roman Church is a false church and teaches a false gospel.”

Gibson has taken conflicting theological positions, neither of which will please evangelicals. When the Herald Sun in Australia asked the star if Protestants are denied eternal salvation, he answered “There is no salvation for those outside the Church.” But later Gibson seemed to embrace universalism when he told Diane Sawyer: “It’s possible for people who are not even Christians to get into the kingdom of heaven. It’s just an easier ride where I am.”

–Where can we get good background on the film?

The Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies’ Web site has many resources. Shanta Premawardhana, longtime Baptist pastor in Chicago and now associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches, has prepared a free bulletin insert at the NCC’s Web site.

–What is the best we hope for from the film?

That not a single Jew will be insulted or harmed in any way because of it; that no one of any faith or no faith will suffer emotional damage from its heavy dosage of violence; that Christians will deal carefully with the film’s theological issues and its evangelistic potentiality; and that all viewers will leave the theater resolved in the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

John Ewing Roberts is associate scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies and pastor emeritus at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore.

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