After our Good Friday service I sat at home, reflecting. In recent years The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson) has become standard fare on Good Friday television. So I tuned in, trying to look at it with new eyes. It has been a while since its opening.
Ok, forget Hollywood and what it has to do to sell its product. Of course it’s going to be over the top. I understand. But I can’t, I won’t gloss over the implicit theology and Christology of this movie. Even to raise modest protest about the point of view of the movie is to call into question the veracity of one’s faith. Today, in certain Christian circles, one is easily branded heretical if this movie is negatively critiqued, challenged, or questioned. It’s become doctrine, dogma, holy writ. It’s shown to youth groups. Entire congregations watch it.
As I watched it again a haunting question appeared: How can I be fair to your story, Jesus?
The second was close on its heels: How will this theology speak to church and culture today?
Problem 1: The portrayal of the Jewish crowd as ravenous beasts is an outrage. We know Jesus was in conflict with Jewish leaders. We also know that the High Priest was appointed by Rome to keep order. The Roman reach was absolute. If it consulted Jewish leaders it was in private, never publicly bowing to any other authority. The specter of Pilate running a survey of the crowd to find the consensus, even in the Barabbas narrative, is dubious, as scholars know. The reality of the time was that a peasant like Jesus would have been dealt with in a summary way, dispatched quickly and without much fanfare. Which means that the movie was making a theological statement about Jesus. The movie portrayed him as a somebody being crucified rather than a nobody being crucified. The crucifixion of Jesus would have been much more routine, like thousands of others. That’s why it’s important; not because it was carried out in a unique way, but rather because it was like all others.
Problem 2: The movie appeals to one theory of atonement in the substitutionary track. This means that Jesus is portrayed as a vicarious victim whose blood is appeasing God. Mel Gibson’s Jesus knows he is the sacrifice, something Christians meditated on at a much later time. People like the apostle Paul and the early church fathers asked the question: What is the meaning of the death of the messiah? Their answers were several but Gibson gives us one. That’s why the emphasis on inordinate quantities of blood; the more blood, the more pleasing the sacrifice.
Problem 3: Evil is personified as a comic book character. The devil floats around in human form like Harry Potter’s Voldemort, the one whose name shall not be spoken. The evil impulse resides in all of us, a power that seizes collectives as well as individuals. This portrayal simplifies evil to the level of the ridiculous.
Problem 4: The location of the crucifixion was portrayed on the top of Golgotha, the place of the skull. That former rock quarry was a landmark outside the gates of the city. But crucifixions didn’t take place on top. Rather, Golgotha overshadowed the road below outside the city gates. There numerous crosses that lined the road out of the city, an ever present warning to anyone who would disturb the Pax Romana. Jesus was placed in one of these long lines of crosses, among the newly crucified and the bodies that had been rotting for some time. Again, the point is not to be the most unique cross, positioned like no other on top the hill, but rather identifying with the rest of suffering humanity on the road.
Problem 5: No film maker does resurrection well. The best one can do is hint at something that cannot be portrayed. But Gibson has the stone rolled away only to reveal a newly constituted Jesus, all cleaned up except for the marks of the nails. They fall right back into the old distortion: Resurrection as the resuscitation of a corpse. The resurrection has nothing to do with reanimating the old body of Jesus. He really is dead. And his life in God has really transcended death, sin and suffering. But Gibson leaves us with something else, the implicit message: He did his hard work, knowing everything would turn out alright.
To be fair, Gibson lapses into Biblical confusion like scores of other attempts before him. They take scenes and sayings that would have derived from the historical Jesus – like the sermon on the mount – and combine them with long treatises from the Gospel of John, which were really much later statements about Jesus by the church placed on his lips. It’s part of the problem we all face when we try to harmonize various Gospel accounts. It happens in Good Friday services in our churches all the time.
How to conclude this rant? Gibson presents one version of the story filled with historical distortions and one theological position among several. And whenever you attempt to do a Passion, a clip of the entire story, it is easy to disconnect it from the life that preceded it. The Passion of the Christ admirably tries to overcome this with flashbacks to the public ministry of Jesus. But we are still left with the gnawing suspicion that the life was somehow beside the point, as long as the bloody transaction took place, which was the real thing. But the followers of Jesus would have experienced exactly the opposite: It was his life, his proclamation of the realm of God, speaking truth to power, and his willingness to give all for what he valued most that led to this passion, and in the end, overcame it.