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Supplements » The Passion of the Christ (March 2004)
The Passion of the Christ by David Holloway
At the end of February the media carried a number of comments on Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ.
On 27 February BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day had an Anglican clergyman telling us that: "There may have been better films about Jesus of Nazareth ... but it's hard to think of one that has caused more public uproar ... To the earlier charge of anti-Semitism (hotly refuted by Gibson, of course) there has now been added the accusation of gratuitous violence in portraying the crucifixion of Jesus."
The speaker, in effect, damned the film although he confessed: "I have only seen extracts of the film, but I have talked to people who have seen the whole production and read what has been written about it." But how responsible is it to make judgments on a film you have not seen?
The same day Geza Vermes, the Jewish scholar who used to teach at Newcastle, then at Oxford, was writing in The Guardian. His piece was headed, "Mel Gibson's film about Christ is horribly gory, historically wrong - and it will inspire judeophobia". He writes that the film is "two hours of almost uninterrupted gratuitous brutality" and "I hope I will never be obliged to see something as dreadful again."
So what do we say to Vermes? First, that Mel Gibson's production is not way off a common sense reading of the New Testament. Secondly, the film makes it quite clear that there were some wonderful Jews - the followers of Jesus - and not least the women who were there at the end. Thirdly, Vermes does not regard the Gospels as reliable witnesses. But many would disagree and argue that the film is not "historically wrong" because the Gospels are good witnesses.
A similar position was taken by Andreas Whittam Smith, formerly head of the British Board of Film Classification and now head of the Church Commissioners. In the Independent on 1 March he faults the film for not being for outsiders but for "practising Christians. Look, it seems to be saying to them, your familiarity with the story of Christ's passion as a result of its constant repetition has gradually drained away the meaning from the original events. This film shows you what it really must have been like." The problem, however, is that "the narrative takes no account of corrections which scholars have made to the New Testament account in the light of the known history." So the New Testament, he too is saying, has got it wrong.
Such comments did not surprise me. Over the months that The Passion of the Christ was being filmed, there were many critical reports including the charge that it would be a box-office flop. However, Michael Medved, the distinguished American film-critic and author of the best-selling 1992 book Hollywood vs. America, took a more positive view. His opinion is important, not only because of his inside knowledge of Hollywood but also because he himself is a Jew. So what does he say?
First, he denies the film is anti-Semitic. Then he says:
"The truth of it is, that anybody who has ever sat down and read the four Gospels understands that the real complaint here is not against 'St Mel', it's against St Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And the parts of the movie that seem to bother some people most are directly from the Gospel account."
Then with regard to the artistic merits of the film and its chance of "making it" in Hollywood, Medved comments:
"It's going to be a tremendous hit because people who believe in the Gospels, people who care about the Gospels, are going to embrace it, but so also are secular critics. I was struck by the fact that Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper [two important secular critics] have given this film the highest praise. It deserves it. It is, by a wide margin of advantage, the most artistically satisfying treatment of a Biblical story that has ever been put on film. And I think it's going to change people's lives."
With all this in my mind I went to the first of the regional British previews for church leaders on Monday 1 March. This was held in Newcastle. After watching the film I asked myself four questions.
One, did I think the film should not have been made? Answer: No! I know nothing about Mel Gibson apart from what I have read. I do not know his deepest motives in making this film. But as Paul said in Philippians 1.18: "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this, I rejoice." It follows, therefore, that some people, at least, should see it. The film contains incidents in Jesus' life; it begins with a quotation from Isaiah 53 on screen; and it includes, sympathetically, Jesus uttering his words recorded in John 14.6:
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
If that is going to be seen around the world, as many as possible should see it.
Two, what did I think about the violence in the film? Answer: It was terrible. But crucifixion is terrible. Too many Christians have an anodyne view of the Cross. It is a Cross with antiseptic all over it. But the first readers of the New Testament had a totally different consciousness when they heard that great credal assertion of Paul "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15.3). They had in mind the reality of Gibson's passion, not some silver cross worn on a necklace.
The Roman writer Cicero said that crucifixion was "a most cruel and disgusting punishment." He later said:
"to bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him is an abomination; to kill him is almost an act of murder; to crucify him is - what? - there is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed."
The early readers of the New Testament were all too familiar with this dreadful form of execution. So the early Christians then saw the measure of God's love in "that Christ died for our sins" on a cross. They saw that also as the measure of the seriousness of all sin - the sin of the religious establishment that secured Jesus' death, the sin of the brutal Romans that performed the crucifixion, and the sin of Peter who denied Jesus. So today we, too, should see that as the measure of the seriousness of our sin.
It was quite moving to discover that Gibson chose to illustrate the truth that "all have sinned" within the film itself. In the scene where Jesus' hands are nailed to the cross, the hands of the unseen soldier hammering the nails are Gibson's own hands.
Three, who should go to see it? Answer: If you are a Christian who meditates disproportionately on the sufferings of Jesus in an obsessive way, you shouldn't go. I am sure some people do that in some traditions of Christianity. But my view is that modern Western Protestants do not have that temptation. Rather we have a temptation to sing hymns and choruses that focus on Christ's death and to attend Holy Communion with too little concern for the awful cost of that death. To be reminded of what 1st century Christians knew only too well, provides a good commentary on the Bible. Do not believe Mel Gibson. Believe the text of the New Testament. Go back to the Bible after seeing the film. It will, I believe, come more alive. And, of course, only people of 18 plus can see the film. All will be moved by the film but, it needs to be said, some of us could find the brutality of the soldiers very distressing.
Four, what criticisms did I have? Answer: I thought the scourging scene was too long. It was not gratuitously violent, but it was terrible. The violence of the soldiers seemed all the more terrible because Christ is so sensitively portrayed as good and noble. This highlights the contrast between his goodness and the their evil. It is worth mentioning that there is no "sex" in this film at all, unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, which I judged a blasphemous film. And I am sure the film could have been improved in other ways. But speaking personally I was infinitely more gripped (and moved and challenged) by The Passion of the Christ than by The Lord of the Rings.
Of course, no merely human production (on screen, in print or from a pulpit) is ever perfect. That is why all has to be checked against "God's Word written" - the Bible. But remember D.L.Moody, the great American Evangelist. There was a quote he loved to use as he travelled around on his evangelistic campaigns. Very often he was criticized for errors he was making in his grammar and style of preaching. The evangelist would listen to the criticism and then reply: "I like my way of doing things rather than your way of not doing them."