Five “Must Knows” Before Seeing Gibson’s Passion”

Today is the official release of what has been arguably the most media-hyped pre-release in recent film history.

Some argued that it was anti-Semitic. Then there was the debate about whether or not Pope John Paul II really turned movie critic and said, “it is as it was.” There is the issue of violence and sub-titles etc.etc. In light of all this here are Five Things you need to know about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

ONE. It is not anti-Semitic.

Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater LA said this week, “The only important work that Jews know less about than the Torah are the Gospels. Gibson’s movie won’t destroy decades of fruitful Christian-Jewish dialogue; it will simply prove how crucial that dialogue is.” In an age of biblical illiteracy most Americans don’t know how to evaluate what Gibson said, “Critics who have a problem with me don’t really have a problem with me in this film. They have a problem with the four Gospels. That’s where their problem is.” He is right. Jews and Romans alike participated in the crucifixion of Jesus you can read about it in The Bible.

The movie also reveals Christian’s ignorance about history. The Holocaust is only the most recent example of history’s repeated persecution of the Jews and in Europe, Anti-Semitic Christians motivated much of it and used Scriptures about the Jew’s role in the crucifixion to justify their hostility to Jews. To underscore this issue, here is a comment from a Jewish believer who heard me this AM on Mark Elfstrand’s morning show on Chicago’s WMBI. “I do not agree that the primary issue within the Jewish community is over the Gospel text. The issue is in how the text has been used to vilify Jews throughout history and to justify the rampent persecutionn of them. Even Hitler used the Passion play as propoganda to incite hatred for the Jewish people. Unfortunately, your comments on the radio brushed off the wounds that many Jewish people carry with them because of how past presentations of the Passion have been abused. ”

TWO: It IS R rated for Extreme Violence

Movieguide’s Ted Baehr said, “Children under 15 should not go to see it. It’s going to be shocking to them, and they won’t get the point. They are not intellectually or developmentally ready.”

The Passion visualizes violence in a sustained manner and if it were not about Jesus, many people would be hostile towards Hollywood for releasing such a gruesome film. Some are taking that position even though it is about Jesus.

Concerned about kids, AP’s Christy‚ Lemire commented, “Gibson has said he wants his film to be shockingly graphic to show the humanity of Christ’s sacrifice. But the idea that children should see “The Passion” as a learning device — that churches are organizing screenings and theater trips for their parishioners and catechism classes — is truly shocking. Grown-ups — even true believers — will have difficulty sitting through the film. Just think of the trauma it will inflict on kids.” Reacting to the violence itself the New Yorker’s David Denby observed, “The movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony. … Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.” NYT A.O. Scott refers to “The Passion” as possessing “the suspense of a horror movie, the dread of a slasher film.”

The film may not be kid appropriate, but the R-rating is creating a new debate among conservative Christians about what is appropriate viewing fare, and about what place violence plays in our choices about media consumption. The irony here is that the debate about whether “serious and good” Christians WILL attend R-rated movies is over they will and they are!

THREE: Passion means to suffer.

In a day when we love to talk about discovering “our passion and pursuing it” as the key to career and life satisfaction, we are being reminded that passion is really about sacrificing for what you love and think is important.

If this film makes a single point it is this God is REALLY PASSIONATE about humans. God through Jesus REALLY loves us. As Gibson said to Diane Sawyer, “That’s what this film is about. It’s about Christ’s sacrifice. Jesus Christ “was beaten for our iniquities. He was wounded for our transgressions and by his wounds we are healed. That’s the point of the film. It’s not about pointing the fingers…It’s about faith, hope, love and forgiveness. It is reality for me. ¢â‚¬¦ I believe that. I have to ¢â‚¬¦ for my own sake ¢â‚¬¦ so I can hope, so I can live.”

Heidi Newmark, pastor in the Bronx talks about visiting a seeker-friendly suburban church that had removed all references to “the blood of Christ,” because it is a turn-off to contemporary seekers. She commented, “this is what drew me back to Christianity, knowing a God who could bleed to death and yet live. WE who bleed in the Bronx want to live too. We want “power in the blood.”

The younger generation has been exposed to violence in real life and the media since birth. A gospel without the blood of Jesus is insufficient in addressing their real world. Years ago H. Richard Neibuhr summarized “bloodless” Christianity this way. “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment though the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” That view is laid to rest in this film.

FOUR: It is Subtitled.

Originally Gibson planned to not use sub-titles in a film where actors spoke only Aramaic and a kind of “street Latin.” (Weirdly enough there is no koine Greek which was commonly spoken at the time.). Gibson said, “The audience will have to focus on the visuals. But they had silent films before talkies arrived, and people went to see them.” Eventually sub-titles were added. But even their presence reminds the culturally savvy viewer that Jesus’ story is for most of us a foreign one.

Understanding the gospel and Jesus requires immersion in the mindset and life of a Mediterranean Jew, a middle easterner. Many Americans fail to grasp the “otherness” of our faith tradition because we have “Americanized” Jesus and made him into someone who would slip easily into a world of malls, fast food and churches with comfortable stadium-style seats. Jesus story took place in a foreign land, this movie was filmed in a foreign land, and understanding the gospel requires learning about its original context, not squeezing it into our mold.
FIVE: It is ART.

Most evangelicals have again revealed a disinterest in ART, seeing The Passion primarily through the lens of an evangelistic impulse. Gibson’s work here is a heartfelt, but it is still a commercial piece of ART, whereas evangelicals are primarily interested in exploiting it for “the gospel’s sake.”

It would be good for us to remember that before God called us to be evangelists, humans were called to be creators to glorify God in whose image we are made.

AS Mel Gibson said, “You know, if I was Billy Graham, I’d have preached. If I was Jackson Pollock, I’d have painted. But I have one good trick: that’s filmmaking, and that’s how I express myself. This (movie) is my meditation.”

Many seekers will be more intrigued and interested in our thoughts, if we acknowledge our appreciation for the artistic merits of “The Passion” instead of just using it as an entrée to our “main course,” ie. making our “sales pitch” for Jesus. This is similar to Lord of the Rings where most people were drawn to Tolkien’s brilliant story telling and Peter Jackson’s stunning visual effects. Starting with a mutual appreciation of how this art resonates with our common humanness is not just a strategic entrée to sharing our beliefs about Jesus IT IS one of our beliefs about God¢â‚¬¦namely, that good ART matters to the God who ended each phase of creation saying, “It is good.”

This lack of appreciation for Art is a huge blind spot for evangelicals as observed by Kenneth Woodward in a NYT editorial where he observes, “Unlike Mr. Gibson’s film, evangelical Protestantism is inherently non-visual. As spiritual descendants of the left wing of the Reformation, evangelicals are heirs to an iconoclastic tradition that produced the “stripping of the altars,” as the historian Eamon Duffy nicely put it. That began in the late 16th century, when radical Protestants removed Christ’s body from the cross. To the Puritans, displays of the body of Jesus represented what they considered the idol worship of the Papists. To this day, evangelical sanctuaries can be identified by their lack of visual stimulation; it is rare to see statues or stained-glass windows with human figures. For evangelicals, the symbols are all in sermon and song: verbal icons. It’s a different sensibility. For this reason, I think, evangelical audiences will be shocked by what they see (in The Passion).

One final note. I was interested in USA Today’s Cynthia Puig’s comment: “The Passion of the Christ offers plenty of agony but not enough ecstasy.”
While her comment is a cinematic observation it triggers a theological one. The crucufixion without the resurrection is just another brutal Roman Crucifixion. Christianity offers not just a bloody Christ, but a resurrected one–in this we find our hope and ecstacy and his passion becomes ours.

Remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now.)

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