Considering "The Passion of the Christ"
randal, February 25, 2004 4:23:00 PM GMT
A review of some spiritual issues surrounding the film
by J. Randal Matheny, editor
The great hulabaloo in the U.S. now is the February 25 release of Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ." Most of us have read articles and reviews over the past months. Religious people have rallied to the film's defense in light of unfair criticisms, and properly so, I supppose. It is touted as an exceptional opportunity to strengthen faith and evangelize the lost. Gibson himself has suggested the latter purpose.
I will go see the film when it comes to Brazil. I will probably recommend it to others, if it's as good as they say it is. But I might add a word of caution to the wave of enthusiasm that has washed over most people in American Christendom.
First, it is a movie. Let us never forget that. As accurate as it may be, as sacred as its subject is, it is still a movie. As good as the director's motives are, and I have no reason to question them, he still is using the techniques of acting, directing, producing, and distributing "The Passion of the Christ" that all other good movies use. As such, there are liberties with the story. There are "holes" that must be filled in, dialogue supplied, perspectives assumed that go beyond what is written in Scripture. Though these may not contradict the Word, they do interpret it in a certain direction.
Second, taking this thought a bit further, the director will show his religious bias, even as the title indicates. In spite of consultations with religious and biblical experts, his worldview will show through. Linda Chaves, of CNSNews.com, wrote:
"Gibson's film is an intensely Catholic account of the Passion. Indeed most of the scenes depicting Christ's journey along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Golgotha seem inspired by the Catholic devotional ritual the 'Stations of the Cross,' which dates back to the 14th century. A scene in the film depicting Jesus' encounter with Veronica, who wipes his face and is left with Christ's image on her veil, is part of Catholic tradition, for example, and may be totally unfamiliar to non-Catholic viewers."
Third, the medium is the message, or so wrote Marshall McLuhan in his 1964 book, Understand Media: The Extensions of Man. Though one can overdraw the case, the medium chosen by God to communicate the gospel is the spoken and written word, not powerful images which provoke, above all, emotional responses. The emotional responses God wants are based upon mental comprehension of truth, as can be seen in Acts 2:37. A movie cannot sustain the emotional reactions, so some people will return to see it repeatedly. All this is to say that a film is not God's means of communicating the Good News and will fall short of the needed process for one's perception of and proper response to the message. "The Passion of the Christ," as good as it may be, replaces the written word with the image.
Fourth, from the reviews and descriptions, the movie apparently plays to modern religious tendencies for maximum emotional impact that bypasses the mental processes. Consciously or no, it may well reinforce the individualistic, personal religion that makes little difference in the way one lives, as surveys show is the case in the U.S. today. One takes away from the film one's own impressions and conclusions.
Fifth, the movie is incomplete. The gospel means showing people the way to respond appropriately to Christ and receive the merciful salvation he gives. Perhaps we cannot fault it greatly for this, but it may also feed the general view that it matters not how one responds to the Gospel story, just so you make some response. Some will try to "tack on" in public viewings and small group discussions how people should accept the gospel, but it's possible the movie may shortcircuit those attempts. Time will tell.
The movie has had a positive effect of focusing attention on Jesus and what he suffered. Unfortunately, it has been greatly politicized, and many people will attend -- and they have so stated -- as a way of showing support to the "conservative" Mel Gibson against liberal efforts to supress it.
Gibson and company have done an excellent job of working the denominations to gain support for the film. Conservative groups praise it with few restrictions. Articles by my own brethren have tended toward support, though some are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
These concerns expressed above have briefly mentioned not only questions directly concerned with the film, but larger cultural and religious issues as well that could possibly injure the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
mskelton, 2/25/04 5:45 PM
Excellent thoughts Randal,
All Christians should be prepared to use this opportunity to teach Christ. As you stated, this is a film, nothing more nothing less. However, people will obviously be moved by it so we need to be prepared.
It reminds me of the opportunity Philip encountered with the eunuch. Reading about Christ from Isaiah the eunuch was confused, he didn't have the full picture and proclamed, "How can I [understand] unless someone explains it to me?" Scripture says that Philip began "with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus."
This is what we must be prepared to do. We must take people from where they are after seeing this film and tell the the good news about Jesus.
In His Name,
kevin cauley, 2/25/04 9:00 PM
Motivation is Good, but Commitment is Better
You give some good insights, Randal, to the situation in the U.S. right now. These past few days it seems that many want to discuss the movie. I have heard some people say that it is too violent, however, the cross was violent. I have heard others say that much good will come out of it, but I wonder, good according to what standard? Most of all, I have heard the comment that the film will be "moving."
There is no doubt that the film will be moving. It is difficult to watch any film about death and not be moved. "Saving Private Ryan" was moving. "Lorezo's Oil" was moving. "Pearl Harbor" was moving. The difference, however, between these movies and the historical reality of the death of Christ is the doctrine that goes along with it; it is the doctrine that calls for commitment on the part of the believer. Are we "moving" people for the sake of "moving" them, or are we "moving" them toward a commitment that will not be broken?
I was thinking about this the other day with a friend and reminding him how after 9/11 there were "many" who sought after God. However, once the "threat" subsided (at least in the minds of the masses) God was once again forgotten. I expect that we will see a similar thing with this movie. The question is not one of motivation, but of commitment.
It is not being moved by the cross with which we should be concerned, but the dedication to the One Who died there and His doctrine. Without the doctrine which Jesus brought regarding man's salvation, and the commitment which must be made in response to the love of God, the cross is merely another sad story amongst millions of such stories in the events of human history.
wtb, 3/2/04 5:02 PM
Good comments, Randal, esp. under #4.
Some concerns I have to add to your list based on articles I have read (I will see the movie when the hoopla dies down) and some scenes I have seen on the Internet:
1) The physical beating of Christ, while historically true, serves the "Matrix" mindset of cinema violence. Will the more important theological reasons get through the violence and into the hearts of the viewers?
2) Gibson was under immense pressure to change some of the Biblical truth to make it more "acceptable" to our pluralistic age. For example, some Rabbis took immense umbrage to the phrase, "His blood be on us and on our children." They are afraid this will promote a new wave of anti-semitism. Peter wasn't afraid of that in Act 2 when he accused the people there of being involved in Christ's death! And while some may have taken offense - 3,000 knew that truth and were baptized!
I understand Gibson kept the phrase in the Aramaic but did not put in the English subtitle.
This leads me to fear that social-political reasons took precedence over the truth.
This is not to discount good that CAN come from this movie. But, like Randal said, we can not subsitute cinematography for preaching.
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