When John Shea wrote his book on Jesus, he began with an apology, asking whether yet another book on Christology was really needed. I share that sentiment as I weigh in on the discussion around Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ: Is another opinion really needed? Probably not, but what are columns for?
What’s to be said about Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ?
First, that it’s a work of art and, as such, is not to be judged, first and foremost, by its particular theological slant. Art isn’t right or wrong, it speaks to you or it doesn’t, is in good taste or bad, is aesthetically palatable or overly saccharine, is powerful or flat, and either ennobles the soul or debases it. In the end, Gibson’s film needs to be judged by these criteria, not by his particular theology.
What’s my judgement? Like most pieces of art, it’s mixed. Let’s begin with its strengths:
First, nobody disputes its power. The film packs a wallop. Some critics would counter with, so does a bad odour. That’s unfair. A foul smell isn’t art. This is art, whether one likes its message or not.
There are too some particularly excellent scenes and character portrayals in the film. The movie opens with Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and Gibson does this scene excellently. Jesus sweats the water and the blood of the lover’s agonia and Gibson frames it very powerfully, complete with an androgynous devil. Jesus’ mother, Mary, too is particularly well done. No saccharine, no drippy sentimentalism. She’s the woman of the Gospels, strong, standing (not prostrate) under the cross, pondering, holding her faith, her solitude, and her femininity at a high level. As well, the characters of Magdala, Peter, Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and Simon of Cyrene are interpreted well.
But more critically: Gibson chooses to emphasize, to the point of imbalance, the physical sufferings of Jesus. The gospel writers don’t do this, but emphasize instead the emotional and moral loneliness of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus’ primary sufferings have to do with being betrayed, misunderstood, alone, humiliated, and unanimity-minus-one. Indeed in several accounts of the passion, the physical suffering of Jesus are expressed in a single line: “And they led him away and crucified him.”
What Gibson does by so excessively highlighting Jesus physical suffering, particularly the lashes (which go on and on, far beyond where any human being would have been able to absorb them), is weaken, deaden really, Jesus’ religious and moral triumph. By the time Jesus says: “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing,” he is so beaten- up and rendered so half-human that his words don’t pack much punch and they issue more from the mouth of a physical than a spiritual athlete. Had the hero of Elephant Man spoken those words at the end of his story, they would, to my mind, have been more powerful than the words that Jesus, portrayed as enduring such horrific physical pain, utters at the end of Gibson’s movie. By emphasizing so much Jesus’ physical struggle, Gibson is partly unable to show us the real depth of Jesus’ moral and religious struggle.
Though, to give Gibson his due, the excessiveness of the physical suffering, particularly of the lashes, is his main point. The lashes represent sin and Jesus’ incredible capacity for endurance represents his willingness to absorb and forgive them. That interplay, as we know, does go on and on and on.
Overall, in balance, this is a good movie. It’s not anti-semitic, though it’s not particularly deep either. This is not retreat material for the spiritually mature, though neither is it the fundamentalistic aberration that the liberal community accuses it of being.
Watching The Passion of the Christ and seeing its impact among popular audiences, one is reminded of something Malcolm X said when he left his Christian roots to embrace Islam. He stated something to the effect that, while he personally preferred Jesus’ gentler message of love, he guessed that, given the times, the harder discipline of Allah was more useful in his work among people in the ghettos because they found themselves such a long, long ways from the experience of order, love, and peace. The gentler gospel of Jesus, he felt, could play a deeper role later on, after the ground is cleared by a harsher initial approach.
Gibson, I believe, has a similar intuition about our culture. In an age obsessed with celebrity, reality-T.V, entertainment as an anaesthetic, in an age which has turned with a nasty adolescent grandiosity upon its Christian roots and thinks The Da Vinci Code carries theological depth and meaning, perhaps this kind of portrayal of Jesus is a wake-up call. A wake-up call isn’t intended to be deep, it’s intended to rouse you from sleep. Tens of millions of people are flocking to see this movie. Whatever else, they’re leaving the theatre a bit more awake and infinitely more cognizant of what it cost Jesus to die for us.