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Movie Review: The Passion of The Christ

"I desire steadfast love, not your bloody sacrifice." Hosea 6:6

After reading tens of thousands of words in newspaper articles, advance reviews, commentary from religious leaders of various faith groups, after listening to a score of pre-release television shows and a lengthy interview with the film maker, I was excited, and a bit anxious as I made my way to my local theatre here on Manhattan's upper west side on opening night, Ash Wednesday 2004, to actually see Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ.

It was a scene with protestors and the media jamming the sidewalks.

There were throngs of protesters and a score of television crews, not only from the U.S., but from the foreign press, waiting outside the theater on this beautiful late winter evening. Among the theatre goers there were quite a number with ashes on their foreheads, indicating attendance at religious services earlier in the day, and highlighting in my mind, what a masterful job Gibson did not only in drawing pre-release attention to his film, but having public interest peak on opening night. And the wave of interest continued for weeks, carried by the back draft of Lent and Holy Week and Easter, release of the DVD, and the ongoing controversy. It seemed to me that the Jewish protestors outside the theatre were perfect foils for the publicists who had already succeeded in making this film pay off at the box office; add to this the special assist the movie recieved from religious leaders interested in using it as a "teaching tool" and thereby keeping it alive for years to come.

The first Christian splatter film. If that is not an oxymoron.

The reviewers had prepared me for the level of physical violence that fills the screen in this movie, prompting some to aptly refer to it as the first Christian splatter film. Never in the history of film making has a single character spilled so much blood, so vividly, so prodigiously, in such graphic color, with such a dazzling combination of lighting and sound effects. This is a reverse mirror image of Gladiator, with the hero, Jesus, not inflicting violence on others, but stoically taking it in. But aside from the profusion of blood, I can characterize this film in a word: it's derivative.

The best film-making money can buy.

Gibson is a very good film maker: not a gifted artist, but highly polished at his craft. The costumes, the lighting, the sound track, the special effects, the computer graphics, and yes, the make-up, these are all first rate here. But there is nothing in this movie that is innovative or ground breaking. It struck me as being a composite of all the Bible movies I have ever seen, and I've seen a lot of them, from the Ten Commandments forward. Add to that the razzle dazzle of up to date animation and cinematography, the best that money can buy, and you have, if not actually a faithful rendering of the passion and death of the historical Jesus, at least a solid and compelling expression of one man's deeply felt faith.

Mel Gibson's faith is that of an "evangelical catholic," and I use that phrase deliberately. He belongs to a sectarian movement of former Catholics who have broken away from mother church, seeing it as being far too accommodating of contemporary, secular culture. But Gibson's faith has also been influenced by the popular evangelical movement that came to the fore in late twentieth century America. Both Gibson's Catholic background and his evangelical (protestant) foreground are evident in this film.

Aside from Jesus, Gibson spins Mary and Peter too.

Consider this. One of the weaker characters in the film is the apostle Peter, who in a Catholic context, represents the magisterium of Rome. Here Peter not only betrays Christ, which he does in the gospel narratives, three times, but he shows little of the robust leadership qualities that Jesus identified in him, resulting in Peter's later being taken as the leader of the church and a paradigm for all future Popes.

Rather than Peter, the strongest character in this movie is unquestionably Mary. Her relationship with Jesus comes through as the redemptive heart of this film, at times upstaging the heroic suffering of Jesus himself. In the movie's climactic moments, she cradles the corpse of Christ in a lovely and moving pieta that echoes a venerable tradition of Catholic art, piety and formal theology in which this minor player in the biblical narrative emerges as nothing less than The Mother of God. Gibson may have grave doubts about the Catholic Church's supreme, patriarchal leader, but he seems to identify passionately with the Blessed Virgin Mary, his tradition's symbolic matriarch.

It's all about the blood.

At bottom this film is a dramatic and powerful statement of the core theological premise of evangelical protestantism. It is in and through Christ's suffering on the cross that humanity is saved. According to this widely preached tradition, human sinfulness is so great, and human nature is so depraved, that there is only one thing that can possibily restore humanity to a right relationship with God, and that is the sacrificial death of God's Only Begotten Son.

Not Christ's wise and prophetic teaching, not his loving, healing ministry, not his advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, not his fierce condemnations of the privileged and the powerful, not his resurrection, or even his relationship with the Father, are sufficient for salvation. It is the perfection of his suffering alone that can make all things right. In the film, Gibson rips a phrase out of its actual context in the Bible and places it in the mouth of Jesus as he encounters Mary on his way to the cross: "See how I make all things new." This is renewal of creation written in a trail of blood.

Flaws at the heart and core of Gibson's theology.

But there is a problem with this theology, with this piety, and with this movie, a fatal flaw at the very center of Mel Gibson's faith, as well as the popular forms of contemporary Christianity that this film reflects. As Mel Gibson's Passion so powerfully illustrates by negative example, the suffering of one human being, even if it happens to be Jesus of Nazareth, is not sufficient to make all things new. For however bloody and painful the death of Jesus was in fact--and this movie pulls out all the stops in making that suffering clear--ordinary people in the world today, two thousands years after the time of Christ continue to suffer and die just as he did and in the same old ways as victims of ruthless violence, and they do so in the same old places, such as the streets of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Baghdad, not to mention the awful, violent deaths occurring weekly, daily, hourly right here, much closer to home.

Was the death of Jesus on the cross any more ghastly than the deaths not long ago of nearly 3000 human beings in the towering infernos of the World Trade Center, where, within a few painful minutes, these thousands were burned, asphyixiated, crushed, pulverized or buried alive? And as this bloody world turns, such deaths continue daily, hourly, minute by minute such that we are incapable of counting, let alone remembering them.

A symptom of our problem rather than a cure.

I happen to believe that the world will not be saved by the repetition of such violent stories, but rather by the saving acts of a loving God who reaches out to each and every one of us in ways that are as numberless as they are real. Today in contemporary America we are fixated upon violence both fictional and real, and I am afraid that Mel Gibson's film is a symptom of that fixation, rather than its cure. What the world needs now is the good that can come from God, and all of God's people acting in concert to repair this broken world, not a ritual of violent sacrifice from which some still believe the good may flow. In America today we need to listen to the words of the prophet of old, who put it quite plainly: "I desire steadfast love and not your bloody sacrifice." Hosea 6:6 -- translation mine.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.