Since everyone in the blogosphere seems to be putting in their two cents about The Passion, and since folks in my church have been asking, I suppose I should share my reflections on the movie now that I’ve seen it. I hesitate a bit. Movies like this one are better left to roll around in the brain without any pastor types trying to force an interpretation on the piece of art. I also hesitate because my thoughts on the movie are rather disjointed. So what you’ll get here is not a complete essay on the meaning of the movie, but rather a bunch of bullet points that are disconnected and most likely contradictory.
Like I usually do, I have to note that the hype in preparation for the movie (both positive and negative) was wrong. I keep finding things like the fact that the “Paul Harvey Review” of the movie floating around in e-mail wasn’t written by Paul Harvey, but a RCC Deacon in the D.C. area. The hype forced me to be sceptical in viewing the movie, which blunted the meaning for me.
Having noted the above, I think the movie was neither as moving or as troubling for me as the early reports suggested. Do I think that this is a significant work, a fine piece of art, a good movie? Yes. But the hype had led me to believe that the movie was the most accurate portrayal of the passion ever. It wasn’t, and the inconsistencies with the scriptures jarred me. Does Gibson have the right to take poetic license and to interpret the scriptures in a way that contributes to his vision of the story? Of course, and from that standpoint I think he was successful. Yet I’m afraid that folks will equate this movie with scripture — and it’s not.
Of course, as everyone knows by now, the film is brutal in its violence. This surprisingly didn’t take me by surprise. For many years I have been aware of the brutality of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. While there were inaccuracies in the violence (most especially in nailing Jesus through the hands instead of the wrist), it is likely that Gibson was accurate (although the gospels are less explicit in their descriptions).
Yet, it seems clear that for Gibson, violence and suffering are the worst things that can happen to someone. As I understand death by crucifixion, the physical pain is only a part of the torment. There are many other modes of death that are equally as painful. Crucifixion was used as a way of not only killing, but publically humiliating the one being killed. It’s interesting to me that Gibson took the medieval manner of having Jesus not fully naked on the cross. According to the gospels, Jesus’ clothing was divided among the Roman soldiers, leaving him naked, subject to humiliation. Some might say this is out of modesty for the Christ. Yet, if the goal is to offer a complete experience of Jesus’ death, let’s be fully accurate.
It is one thing to honestly portray the reality of brutality. It’s another thing to revel in it. It seems to me that Gibson fell into the latter category by having the raven peck out the eyes of the “bad” thief on next to Jesus. It wasn’t Biblical. It wasn’t neccesary to the story. It was gratuitous violence.
I can see how some might interpret the movie to be anti-Jewish. Certainly, the Jewish leaders were demonized in the movie, even though there was an attempt to soften this portrayal by having other Jews support Jesus. While the Romans are responsible for carrying out the brutality, the film portrays Pilate as a sympathetic character (a characterization that Josephus and others would probably question). What is most significant to me is the presence of the Jewish leaders at the crucifixion, something that is not in the scripture, and again serves to reinforce the perception that they are the primary movers behind Jesus’ death. And, according to the scriptures, there is a bit of truth in this characterization.
Was it neccesary? I’m not sure. My preference (if I were the movie maker) is to play the “evil” characters as less demonic and more tragic — something that I think is closer to the truth. The Pharisees and Saduccees were simply good, religious folks who were concerned that this young upstart Rabbi was trying to change things. I think they are much more like good church folk today than we like to admit. I’m thinking that the characterization used in “Jesus of Montreal” is much more accurate than the one in Gibson’s movie.
What did I like about the movie? For me, the opening scene in the garden was top notch, bringing home the reality of Jesus’ torment as he headed toward a certain death. The flashbacks were great, and I think the one of him building the table and playing with his mother was perhaps the most significant — an image of Jesus as playful human, an image we need to see more.
This is not a movie for unbelievers, but those who proclaim faith in Jesus Christ. From my perspective, I would hope folks would be less in the “Oh poor Jesus. Look how he suffered for me…” mode and instead watch remembering that WE are called to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Do Western privileged Christiand really belive this to be true? Am I willing to undergo what Jesus went through?
I’m sure there are other things I could say. It’s an important movie and be all means see it (but hold off on taking kids who are sensitive to violence and horror). My only caution is to not get caught up in the hype and buy into all the extra-curricular junk that’s being sold in conjunction with The Passion. If you want to get deeper, read the gospels — slowly and carefully. Meditate on them, and on the scripture which states “By his stripes we are healed.” You don’t need a silver cross with the logo on it. No, we need to put the reality of the cross in our hearts and minds.
And never forget that it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming…
Jay Voorhees is a pastor, writer, and community activist located in Nashville, TN. Jay currently is the pastor of the City Road Chapel United Methodist Church in Madison, TN, and is engaged in helping to connect others to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ and to take seriously Christ’s call to love our neighbors in radical ways.
Jay is the co-founder of The MethoBlog, a site that aggregates the writings of Methodist-related bloggers throughout the world, and is the former managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter. Jay has been involved in the United Methodist Church at both the local and national level since 1988. Jay is also the owner of Only Wonder Media, a boutique book and media publisher.
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