catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 5 :: 2004.02.27 — 2004.03.11


I survived The Passion of The Christ

Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion of The Christ has finally arrived at a theatre near me. I’ve been preparing myself for this film for over a year now, but as I entered the theatre on opening night, I felt reluctant. My unwillingness had nothing to do with being squeamish about depictions of violence. It’s just that I have so much of my life invested in the story of Jesus Christ that I was afraid Gibson’s film was going to mess it all up.

Back when the film’s coming was just a rumor, I learned Gibson was making what he thought would be an under-the-radar film, a financial flop, a career-ender: a film of, for, from and about sacrifice. Later, I followed with interest the effects of Gibson’s marketing campaign to the Evangelical community and eagerly watched the film’s promotional DVD (a flowery 20 minute presentation complete with overly dramatic music and voice-overs) that was sent out to church groups. I read the reactions of Jewish leaders and other detractors. I listened to Mel Gibson’s side of the story in his interview with Diane Sawyer. He seemed like a pretty decent guy, a little paranoid maybe, somewhat defensive—but it seemed like he’d been through a lot.

As the hype began to grow, I felt that deep human urge, The Will to Opinion, coming on. It seemed like everyone was talking and thinking about this movie but I didn’t have enough to go on. The only evidence I had was what I had seen in the media. In the last days leading up to the release of The Passion, TV news started to report strange phenomena: People talking about Jesus in this day and age! Masses of church folk (the sleeping giant awakes!) buying up blocks of tickets, making Gibson’s financial sacrifice of a film one of the biggest potential blockbusters in film history!

But recent critical reviews of the film on NPR’s Fresh Air, at, and in New Yorker magazine stirred up a growing fear in me that the movie would be a Hollywoodized aesthetic piece of crap, the product of a sadomasochistic film-maker bent on his own narrow vision of the physical sacrifice of Jesus. The critics blamed Gibson for making a film promoting hatred and division at a time when we need love, tolerance and togetherness. They questioned Gibson’s adaptation of the Gospels, calling it a narrative of violence. They said Gibson makes up for the Passion story’s lack of plot by adding increasing levels of violence, blood, and gore as the film moves toward its end. They said the story consists of nothing more than the transition from a clean, good-looking, half-naked body at the beginning of the film to an increasingly gnarled and bloodied one by the end. They questioned Gibson’s motivations, his psychological well-being, his apparent obsession with gruesome acts performed on his own characters throughout his career—hence, the sadomasochism. As I walked into the theatre opening night, I was dreading what I was about to see. I remembered those awful church sermons where the preacher tried to get us to sympathize with Jesus by giving us scientific facts about the physical pain of crucifixion: the way the lung collapses when a person’s whole weight hangs on a cross, the way the nails punch through the nerves in the wrist, and how one’s shoulder blades get dislocated, etc. That’s what I thought Gibson was going to do with his film. So you can imagine my relief when I watched the first scene of violence against Jesus and it turned out not to be this way at all. There was no sign of sadomasochism. The violence was not meant only to inspire sympathy but to evoke a sense of awe at the strength of this suffering servant. I saw a Jesus Christ that I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time. Instead of the meek, fragile, porcelain, broken man on the cross that is often promoted in the Evangelical community, Gibson gives us the Christ that is spoken of in the Gospels, a man whose submission to the will of God gives him divine strength and power to overcome all things, even death on the cross.

Sure, the film has its problems: a silly scene where Jesus invents modern-day furniture, a few references to the sin of the Jews that could have been toned down just a bit in recognition of our current state of affairs, an overly compassionate depiction of Pilate, some stylistic strangeness. But these are minor aesthetic transgressions. The radical story of God entering human life and displaying His power in a specific time and place is well communicated. The details of everyday life in Jerusalem under Roman rule are well conceived. The different factions within the Jewish community are certainly displayed and the complexities of following Jewish law within the context of Rome are made evident. The Romans are skillfully depicted as a pragmatic people who take pride in their system of governance, their technical expertise, and their ingenuity when it comes to matters of torture. I call attention to this also in order to refute David Denby’s (New Yorker, March 1, 2004) claim that Gibson has an unhealthy fixation on the methods and tools of Jesus’ torture; Gibson clearly attributes the obsession with instruments of torture and death to Roman culture: the Roman guards are constantly showing off their superior skills and expertise in the processes of punishment and execution.

Gibson masterfully displays the ugliness of humankind across all social and cultural lines: in the Jewish community, in the Roman culture, in Jesus’ own circle of friends, and even in the savagery of children, in order to bring home an important point about who’s to blame for Jesus’ death. The message is pounded into us like the nail that Gibson’s own hand hammers into Jesus: every sinner is responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. The iconic scene where Mary the mother of Jesus looks into the camera while holding her son’s dead body clearly implicates all humanity. All those who have come into the theatre thinking they have the right to judge who’s guilty of what—whether the Jews or the Romans are guilty for Jesus’ death, whether Gibson is guilty of blaming the Jews, whether the media is guilty for blaming Gibson for blaming the Jews, whether Christianity is guilty for using Jesus’ story to justify their own violence against others throughout history—ought to pay attention to the line Jesus draws in the sand to save the prostitute Mary Magdalene. And let the person who is without sin cast the first stone.

After watching Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, I understand his defensiveness when it comes to the media hype surrounding his film. Critics, news organizations, and exposé journalists know that when you throw a rock in the air, you’re bound to hit someone guilty. Their profession depends on that fact. Many journalists and critics make a living out of throwing stones in the hopes that they’ll hit the big story, the one that gets everyone really riled up. For such journalists, it’s not enough to share a communicative moment with someone else in an interview or to show how a talented craftsperson has achieved their work. No, many interviews, articles and reviews become an opportunity, instead, for judgment. This was the feeling I got while watching ABC’s abridged version of Diane Sawyer’s grueling 6+ hour interview with Mel Gibson.

Sawyer sat there with her face all screwed up in her trademark skeptical scowl so that Gibson and the viewer could be certain she was not going to let any untruth get past her. She was going to find out what evil, what dark motivations really lurked in the shadows of Gibson and his film. Representing the people, Sawyer executed the interrogation with the highest level of professional skill, trusting that, after all the probing questions were asked, the viewer would be able to come to his/her own conclusion on the matter.

But Gibson’s film resists such human judgments. According to Gibson, The Passion of The Christ is what happened. It is consistent with the message of the Gospels, with the story of God’s sovereign power over all things, including death. If the film is in keeping with the Gospel message of the coming of the Kingdom through Jesus’ submission to God’s will, then any desire for a different story to be told is a denial of the Gospel story. This is what Gibson believes. Therefore, criticism of this film cannot be made on mere aesthetic or stylistic grounds. If this is indeed the Gospel story, the stakes are too high for that. Accepting or rejecting this film is a religious decision for or against the Gospel itself. Those who focus on who’s to blame for Jesus’ death are ignoring the real message of this film, and such willful avoidance must be seen as an act of denial—a denial of one’s own sin and guilt and, therefore, a denial of the love of Jesus Christ. This is what Gibson believes. And after seeing the film, I believe Gibson got it right.

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