Over the months prior to the release of The Passion, Mel Gibson arranged for a number of screenings of the film. This allowed him to receive feedback before the final editing process, and to discuss the controversy swirling in the media concerning the film’s alleged anti-Semitism and lack of historical accuracy. The one I attended, at Charlie and Andi Peacock’s Art House in Nashville, included evangelicals who were active in the arts.
The film opens with Christ agonizing in prayer as his disciples sleep, and follows him through the final twelve hours of his life, through his arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and burial. Watching the violence depicted in The Passion was almost beyond my endurance. I have watched some very violent movies over the years, and believe there is a place for artists to depict violence in ways that unsettle us. In fact, violence and death should unsettle us in this sad world. Sanitized depictions where the bad guy falls down neatly after being shot may be pleasant, but those who love truth should find such depictions objectionable. Violence and death are great horrors, so horror is the appropriate response to them.
The Passion is not difficult to watch because it is about Jesus’ death, but because of the way Gibson has chosen to make the film. There are cinematic techniques which directors can use to achieve a level of realism while softening the horror. The camera may shift away during the beating, as in Glory when the character played by Denzel Washington was flogged, so we see not the entire beating but the faces of onlookers, sharing their horror. Or the scene may cut away and return later, so we only watch the beginning and the end of the violent encounter. In The Passion, however, Gibson wants us to watch as if we were there, and to sense the full horror of what Christ endured. The Roman flogging goes on and on, and then on some more. The crucifixion is shown in excruciating detail. Never again will I be able to mention the death of my Lord without flinching inside. Nor will I be able take the bread and wine of the sacrament without a sense of dread for the cost of my redemption.
The dialogue in the movie is all in the languages of the first century —Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin— which lends a sense of historical authenticity. The screenplay is crafted so as to provide the theological meaning of the events being depicted. So, for example, as Jesus is nailed to the cross there is a flashback where Christ takes the bread and gives it to his disciples saying “This is my body.” The few extra-biblical scenes do not undermine the truth of the gospel but enhance it. This is not a recitation of the narrative of the Gospels but a remarkably thoughtful and creative cinematic depiction of that story.
My response to The Passion as a Christian is first and foremost one of worship. I would hope churches consider encouraging their people to see the film together, and to gather at the church for the Eucharist afterwards. Certainly I desired that after the film ended far more than I desired talking about it.
My second response is to look forward to asking my non-Christian friends what they think of it. I imagine their responses will vary widely, and the discussion should be fascinating. I suspect that many unchurched viewers will wonder why Christians make so much of the cross, and we would do well to discuss among ourselves how we can speak of it in terms that people in our pluralistic world might be able to understand. And since there is an offense to the cross, I will not be disappointed if other thoughtful films provoke better discussions.
My third response involves the charge of anti-Semitism. This is an opportunity to make clear that we believe that we are all responsible for Christ’s death. This fact is expressed by Mel Gibson in The Passion, but in a cinematic technique that casual viewers might miss. Gibson does not appear in the film, except once. When Christ is nailed to the cross, it is his hands which wield the hammer and drive the spikes home. “Mel Gibson’s hand is the one that puts the nail in Jesus’ hand,” it says on the film’s website, “symbolic of the fact that he holds himself accountable first and foremost for Christ’s death.”
After one of the advance showings, a Christian in the audience told Dennis Prager that he wished he could take a gun and shoot the people who had so mistreated Jesus. “I couldn’t blame him,” Prager, a practicing Jew, said. That is a gracious response, but since the man in question claims to be my brother, I would like to respond. And my response is unequivocal: Christ forgave those who crucified him, so your desire is wicked, your speaking it aloud inexcusable, and your failure to identify with a sinful humanity a reason to doubt your acceptance of grace. Jews have been persecuted repeatedly by Christians over the past 2,000 years as “Christ-killers.” We must use this opportunity to repent and promise, Never again!
The Passion begins with a black screen on which the words written so many centuries ago by the prophet Isaiah appear: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and by his stripes we are healed.” When the film ended one of the first questions asked of Gibson was why he had made the film. “I grew up in a religious home,” he answered. “A Catholic home, but I grew up wild and became a monster. When you are a monster you end up being deeply wounded. All I can tell you is that because of his wounds, my wounds have been healed —and if you think that sounds corny, you should know that I don’t really give a damn.”
The film will remain controversial because the story it tells is not neat and pleasant, but brutal and bloody. Who would have guessed that redemption could be found in something so utterly horrible?