Much criticism directed at Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is that it is too violent and that it puts too much blame for the Crucifixion on Jews.
Both are valid concerns. Christians who object to violence in pictures by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are flocking to this film, with a level of graphic violence that is clearly aimed to shock.
Many evangelical Christians dismiss the question of whether Jews or Romans were primarily responsible in Jesus’ death with a “who cares?” attitude. Jewish persons one or two generations removed from the Holocaust, however, see the culpability question as far more than a historical footnote. While Gibson probably didn’t intend the movie to be anti-Semitic, it is insensitive and a missed opportunity for many Christians to confront and reflect on the shameful history of violence resulting from comparatively recently discredited theology labeling the Jews as “Christ-killers.”
As a Baptist, however, my biggest problems with the movie are theological. The central message of the gospel is the Resurrection. Yet Gibson gives the event less than two minutes, following two hours of torture and gore that goes far beyond details reported in the New Testament. Gibson’s Resurrection feels more like an epilogue than a victory. The emphasis is clearly on a Suffering Savior and not a Risen Lord.
The movie was marketed to the evangelical community as “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” But the film offers little that is likely to appeal to non-believers. Occasional flashback scenes provide too little information to put Christ’s Passion in context, unless the viewer is already familiar with the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry.
While some predict secular viewers will flock into churches with questions stemming from a renewed interest in Christianity, the movie is more likely to generate discussion among Christians. While many will like it, some may feel duped by a marketing scheme that prompted churches to buy out screenings of the movie sight unseen, based on glowing reviews by trusted Christian leaders like Billy Graham. Most cynical was the practice of requiring persons invited to closed screenings to sign a pledge going in that they would say nothing critical if they didn’t like it, ensuring that most, if not all, reviews would be positive.
One also wonders what evangelicals will do with much of the movie’s extra-biblical content. While Gibson has said the film is based on the four Gospels, the central role he gives Jesus’ mother appears to borrow more from Catholic tradition than the New Testament. Frequent glimpses of demonic characters lining the route of Jesus’ journey to his death add to the film’s creepiness, but come more from imagination than a careful reading of the Bible. This will not only hinder any value the movie might have for evangelism, it also will tend to confuse biblically illiterate Christians who populate churches in large numbers.
Asked what his goal was for the movie, Gibson reportedly said, “I hope they will watch the movie and want to read the Book. I hope they are changed.”
I’ve read the Book and seen the movie, and the Book is better.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence. Reviewer’s note: Please don’t take your children to see this movie.
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson
Cast: Jesus: Jim Caviezel; Magdalen: Monica Belluci; Claudia Procles: Claudia Gerini; Mary: Maia Morgenstern; Dismas: Sergio Rubini; Anna: Toni Bertorelli; Malchus: Roberto Bestazzoni; Gesman: Franceso Cabras; Satan: Rosalinda Celentano; Peter: Francesco De Vito; Judas: Luco Lionello; Pontius Pilate: Hristo Shopov.
The movie’s official Web site is here.