Why It’s Still Okay to Love “The Passion of the Christ”
             “The Passion of the Christ”, a cinematic presentation of the Saviour’s suffering by Mel Gibson, debuted to a firestorm of controversy in 2004. The movie was attacked by Jewish groups as anti-Semitic. In the poisonous and divisive atmosphere of an election year, it was typed as a movie for ‘conservatives”. Thus the film was almost completely ignored by the Academy Awards (yes, it was a very competitive year–“Million Dollar Baby” won Best Picture, with other nominees including “The Aviator” and “Ray”). Despite the criticism, the movie was a massive success, and was enthusiastically embraced by the Christian community. There were stories of people whose lives were dramatically changed by seeing the film. (One man turned himself in on a murder that he had gotten away with). I know a young man who attends a conservative Christian college, where he had to sign a pledge to never attend an R-rated movie–with the single exception of “The Passion”.
             In the past few years, Mel Gibson’s public image has come apart. He has melted down completely as a spiritual leader. And yet...I still love “The Passion”. It’s certainly on my list of favorite films (not quite displacing “The Deer Hunter” or “The Wild Bunch”, but coming close). Whatever personal flaws Gibson may have, he made a masterpiece in “The Passion”. It’s both a powerful cinematic work and an overwhelming spiritual experience. Here are a few reasons why:
             The Devil - This is the creepiest Lucifer ever to hit the screen (he glides when he walks–you don’t see him bouncing up and down like a human would). He is present throughout the suffering of Jesus–in a way, choreographing the Passion. He truly feels in charge of the whole event--he is overseeing the destruction of the Son of God. Then, in the end, when he realizes that he has been duped by God–that God has really been managing the whole event, and that Christ’s defeat was actually Christ’s victory–his screams of anguish are unforgettable.)
             The Suffering - This film brought home to many people the intensity of the pain that Jesus felt for us. The savage whipping especially caused people to cringe. It powerfully conveyed what Christ was willing to suffer for us. “By His wounds we are healed,” Isaiah declares in the Scriptures (Isaiah 53:5)–and “The Passion” shows us that those wounds were real lacerations on a real body.
             The Crucifixion - The nailing of Jesus to the cross was remarkable because the Roman soldiers went about it in such a workmanlike fashion. They were just ordinary guys doing a job. “No, that’s now how you do it–let me show you!” As if they were laying a floor instead of nailing a human being to wood! This makes the centurion’s ultimate confession of faith even more dramatic–he thought this was just another day on the job, but really it was the great Day when God redeemed the world through the suffering and death of His Son.
             Horror Film References - I catch at least four references to classic horror films–the werewolf that appears after Jesus was arrested; the Devil’s baby, which looks a lot like Nosferatu, the original 1922 Dracula (one could also take the Devil’s baby as a reference to “Rosemary’s Baby”, I suppose); the way the centurion looks admiringly at his work after Jesus is hoisted on the cross, very much like Michael Meyers in the kitchen scene of “Halloween”; and the pecking of the thief’s eyes out on the cross, which recalls “The Birds”. The point of these various horror references is, I think, that Good Friday really brought about the ultimate horror–God Himself embracing pain and sin and death for our sake. But in that horror, we also encounter the beauty of God’s love.
             The Cross and Communion - As Jesus is dying on the cross, there are flashbacks to the Last Supper, when He institutes the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion. This makes a great point about the meaning of Communion–when we receive the Sacrament, we are united with the cross, with the body given there and the blood shed there. “When you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (Isaiah 11:26)
             Little details - The film is full of wonderful little touches:
          –Mary watching Jesus fall under the weight of his cross, and flashing back to a time
             when He fell down in childhood.
          –The hand driving the nail–which was actually Mel Gibson’s hand, showing that every
           one of us sinners had a hand in putting Jesus on the cross–it wasn’t just the Jews or
         the Romans
          –Jesus’ graveclothes deflating like an air mattress on Easter morning–showing that His
           transformed, glorified body simply passed through them without unwrapping them.
         Anti-semitism? Is the movie anti-Semitic? Actually, every Biblically-based retelling of the Passion story has faced this charge–the Oberammergau passion play, for instance, or the Good Friday liturgy...or even the Gospel of John. Scripture says that the Jewish leadership arrested Jesus and then pressured the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, into executing Him on trumped up charges of political rebellion. You can’t tell the story without making the Jewish leadership look guilty!
       “Lawrence of Arabia” makes Turks look bad. “Schindler’s List” makes Germans look bad. “Mississippi Burning” makes southerners look bad. “Dances with Wolves” makes Americans look bad. That doesn’t mean that all Turks, all Germans, all southerners, or all Americans are bad. “The Passion” does not blame the entire Jewish people for Christ’s death; there are Jews in the film who are noble and worthy. To have suppressed the Jewish leadership’s role in Jesus’ death would have been dishonest to Scripture. (And really–do the Romans come off any better in this movie?) Gibson may be an anti-Semite in his personal beliefs, but “The Passion” is no more anti-Semitic than the New Testament.
              So despite Gibson’s dramatic failings as a human being, the movie stands on its own. It still inspires. It still amazes. Above all, it still shows what Jesus was willing to endure for us sinners. It’s still okay to love it.
              God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 83 - No. 6
JUNE 2012