Like everyone else, and Christians especially, “The Passion of the Christ” is overwhelming me. Actually, I haven’t yet seen the film, but I am feeling pummeled by daily e-mails from family and others, all urging me to go and see Mel Gibson’s latest creation. I have read the testimonials, heard the hype, noted the commentary in newspapers and periodicals–and still I’m trying to find a compelling reason to watch “The Passion.”
Many reasons for doing so have been offered. A recent EthicsDaily.com article by pastor Joe Phelps suggests I need to see the film because “when popular culture is talking about your story, you better know what is being said.” Granted, were I to plunk down the price of a ticket–or snatch up one of the freebies offered by local congregations–it would be for that reason. However, graphic descriptions emerging from others who have already been there and done that cause me to think I might become sufficiently informed without going there and doing that myself.
In fact, this strategy has worked quite well with other cultural expressions–artistic, political, religious and otherwise–which I did not see fit or have opportunity to experience directly. The also-violent “Saving Private Ryan” was touted as a “must see” historical depiction of a war I missed by a generation. But unaccustomed and unattracted to entertainment of that sort, I stayed away from that one, too. Yet I did not feel so out of sync with culture that I was unable to critically engage the ensuing discussion relative to war-making. Must I now sit through two hours of “The Passion” in order to understand minimally what the movie-maker has done, or even to have an opinion?
Another almost-compelling reason to experience “The Passion” is because my family of origin says I should. Such advice regarding a Hollywood creation is virtually unheard of where I come from. This film is said to push the boundaries of feature film violence, and examples given by early viewers cause me to believe it. I have a hard time imagining my Christian fundamentalist and evangelical extended-family members paying Hollywood to view its gore, and especially being used to promote it!
Having been raised by conservatives who eschewed violence on television and forbade their children even to enter a movie theater, it is incomprehensible to me that I now am being urged by this religious cohort to support a notorious film producer at his purportedly violent worst, and even to expose my own children to sadism on the silver screen. How times have changed! Or is it that the post-9/11 times have changed conservative Christians so as to be conformed into a more violent cultural mold?
Why this movie garners the fanatical support of evangelicals is beyond me, but it must be both a tribute to Gibson’s genius and a telling commentary on the state of conservative Christianity today. Even so, it’s hard to think of my family of origin actually viewing and promoting what is said to be one of the most violent feature films yet.
Some viewers/promoters of a conservative ilk tell me Gibson’s work is worth seeing if only on account of the way it leaves us Christians feeling. They aren’t referring to the nausea described by many, but to the sense that “it was me” who put Jesus through it all. Not “the Jews” or even the Romans, but me. “I killed Jesus!” is the oft-repeated response of evangelical figureheads whose post-“Passion” testimonials get forwarded in e-mail from one devotee to another.
This is a disturbing twist on substitutionary atonement Christology. It strikes me as a potentially dangerous reaction for those with egos already battered by the “worm theology” of some preachers or with otherwise self-deprecating natures. At least for me, the promise of feeling like a torturer of Jesus is no come-on for seeing a new flick.
The other most frequent comment by Christians who exit sold-out “Passion” viewings is that they feel immense gratitude for “what Jesus did for me.” Graphic depictions of the compassion of Jesus and his forgiveness in the face of cruelty surely could have spiritual benefits for viewers. Even I could go for that.
But does it require exposure to two hours of audiovisual sadism to elicit this effect? It’s not just any torture scene, of course. But that it’s a portrayal of the torture of Jesus is hardly a draw for this follower of Christ! So why does this compel others who also love him? I admit here that I really don’t understand.
It seems to me that some human activities ought not to be realistically re-enacted or vicariously experienced. If so, surely the brutal torture and murder of another living being would be on the list. How many of us would sanely suggest that a parent view extended footage of their murdered child’s treatment at the hands of sadistic executioners? How many of us parents would agree–much less pay–to be subjected to such a horrendous experience in regard to the destruction of our loved one?
And yet we say we love Jesus. Again, I do not understand this “Passion” frenzy.
If Christians were coming out of theaters this Lenten season expressing abhorrence at the inhumane ways in which humans have treated one another, if I heard “Passion”-goers becoming passionate about Christian nonviolence after having virtually witnessed that of our martyred Messiah, if the typical reaction of viewers was that of aspiration to be a nonviolent activist like him, then indeed I too might be headed down to the local multiplex to see what Mel Gibson hath wrought.
At this point, however, I am making no such Lenten plans. Instead, I’m sitting at home or going to church, perplexed, and still trying to find a reason compelling enough to go and see the Passion according to Gibson.
Tarris Rosell is associate professor of pastoral care and practice of ministry at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.