It’s important to say at the outset that it is possible to criticize The Passion of The Christ without taking yet another whip to Christ’s back. Pointing out its flaws as a movie does not make me, or any other critic, an enemy of Christendom.
And as a movie, as a devotional aid to Christians and as a mass media phenomenon, The Passion has serious flaws. Director Mel Gibson signals immediately that he is going to stick to fairly standard tropes of the crucifixion story; when 30 pieces of silver fly through the air in slow motion and scatter ominously on the courtyard floor, it is a sign that we are in familiar rhetorical territory. Throughout, slow-motion violence and suffering backed with relatively generic Middle Eastern music give the film a ponderousness and, paradoxically, encourage viewer detachmentsurely the opposite of what Gibson intended. Jim Caviezel as The Christ gives a terrific performancein two dead languages, no lessbut the movie around him gurgles and oozes like molasses. No matter how much its devotees profess to love it, I can’t imagine them coming back to see it again and again for any reason other than self-flagellation.
Although it fails as a film, The Passion has another life and another purpose, as a highly personal devotional exercise. Unfortunately, despite the evident sincerity and commitment of the filmmakers, it fails for the Christian viewer on this score as well. The spiritual aim of contemplation of The Passion is to take responsibility for the suffering of Christto know and feel that not only did Jesus die for me, but that I killed him. Gibson consistently undercuts this aim through editing and story construction.
The characters here are clearly divided into good guys and bad guys. The director repeatedly cuts to the good guys on the margins of the crowd: shedding a tear, helping Jesus and showing horror at his sufferingthe same horror we in the audience feel. Bad guys jeer, yell for Barrabas, spit on Jesus and laugh maniacally. They do so without reasonwithout any discernable motivation except for maliciousness, sadism or greed.
I understand that in God’s eyes, none of our ridiculous “reasons” or justifications for sin have any weight. But God is not the audience for this film. We arehumans. And when we watch these characters defile God’s son for no reason, we don’t see fellow humans. We see evil forces. Watching the characters onscreen, I identify with the weeping Mary, not the shouting mob. Despite Gibson’s stated intentions, I am the good guy; I am innocent of Christ’s blood. In other words, this film achieves the very opposite of what The Passion intends.
If nothing else is working about the film, at least it is a success as a market phenomenon. But as a theologian, I wonder if the evangelicals packing theaters are aware of how thoroughly, unapologetically Catholic The Passion is. I’m a high-church Protestant myself, and I have no problem with tradition as an authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice. But the Southern Baptists crammed into my local theaters have been raised on sola scriptura, the Bible alone; for them, reliance on tradition is what makes Catholics heretics.
Yet the bulk of Gibson’s imagery is derived from the early 19th century mystical visions of Anna Catherine Emmerich, who provided such Passion details as the flipping of the cross face down, the dislocating of Jesus’ arm and the shards of glass on the Roman scourges. A few of Emmerich’s stories, which add specific details to vague Gospel texts, have leached into Protestant sermons and popular piety. But when Saint Veronica showed up in The Passion on the Via Dolorosa, her veil receiving the miraculous imprint of Jesus’ face, I wondered if any of my fellow audience members realized they were witnessing the insertion of a fifth century Catholic legend into their Franklin Graham-approved version of the gospels.
The Passion is the culmination of a decades-old trend: Evangelicals accept non-biblical elaborations of the gospel as long as the elaborator’s intentions are pious. (Scorsese bad, Gibson good.) This betrayal of principles has led them in a circle, right back to the first icon, Veronica’s cloth, and all the papist trappings it represents. If evangelicals and Catholics want to find common ground in a conscious ecumenism, I’m all for itbut I doubt the evangelical laity filling theaters realize what they are praising. Let me point them to something that is in the Bible: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book” (Revelation 22:18, NRSV).
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