After seeing an advance screening of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” two weeks ago, I felt like Pilate pondering a host of questions: Was it anti-Semitic or fair to Jews? Was it true to the Bible or adapted, a la Hollywood, to accommodate dramatic flourishes?
On one score I had little doubt: “The Passion,” which opens Tuesday, is easily the most violent, blood-drenched film I have seen in years — perhaps ever. And therein lies a serious issue I see not only through the eyes of an entertainment writer, but also a church-going Christian.
Churches busing youth to this movie like it’s some sort of Chuck E. Cheese field trip need to think — and pray — long and hard about the aftershock. “The Passion” is not kids’ stuff. It is gory in the extreme, with prolonged flogging and torture scenes. One lasts 45 minutes.
Further, “The Passion” has the potential to traumatize kids and young adults rather than bolster their faith.
That is not to criticize the film outright, as some Christian opinion leaders point out. “I thought it would be a very moving and powerful film and I’m glad I’ve seen it twice,” said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today. “But I’m just a little nervous that it’s being promoted as a film that everyone must see. It depicts Christ’s sufferings so graphically that I have my reservations about exposing younger teens to this kind of violence.”
Some churches even plan to bring viewers as young as 10, and that has national theater chains scrambling to cover themselves. AMC plans to make adults escorting large groups of minors sign forms acknowledging “The Passion’s” graphic content.
Granted, it is impossible to ignore those Christian clergy who have seen “The Passion” and testify to its power. For some, a visible reminder of Christ’s sufferings serves as a spiritual and cerebral firebrand.
Yet do teens and preadolescents need to be burned so? On the one hand, it’s easy to say we live in a world of Eminem, Mortal Kombat, Columbine and “Thirteen,” that today’s kids are tough and have seen and heard it all — and rationalize that the violence in Gibson’s film is at least redemptive.
But the film’s brutality, I would argue, could also be excessive and desensitizing. And for many church kids — who are not only unaccustomed to this kind of viciousness, but in fact zealously guarded from it — “The Passion” will deliver a huge, unexpected jolt.
Imagine a congregation buying a big block of tickets to see Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” Not in a million years, right? That’s because Christian churches don’t embrace violent entertainment — conservative churches in particular. So it seems curious that evangelical Christians have bought thousands of advance tickets for “The Passion,” a hard R-rated movie.
True, conservatives hope this film will lead the “unsaved” to become believers, including the young. “Bring a friend” mission campaigns have been built around this very strategy. And yes, moving conversion stories will come in the days ahead. To resurrect an old cliche (with biblical roots): Seeing Christ’s wounds is “believing.”
But it’s hard to imagine that Jesus — who said one must become like a child to enter his kingdom — would want any young one to endure something this harsh as the admission price.
What’s more, even well-meaning clergy can be dead wrong when it comes to branding entertainment. Just a generation ago, nearly every evangelical pastor worth his Psalter dubbed rock “the devil’s music.” Try that line out on today’s Christian punk and heavy metal bands.
Likewise, the most zealous shepherds gathering youngsters to see “The Passion” seem equally ignorant in declaring this film a must-see.
For children and adults alike with tender, sensitive hearts — the lambs, in Christian parlance — witnessing Christ’s slaughter will be like getting hit over the head. And in the gut. And across the face. Over and over and over again.
Christian historian and author Martin Marty puts it well in Sightings, a newsletter of the University of Chicago Divinity School: “The previewers who like violence if it shows Jesus suffering, on the grounds that savagery moves people to appreciate his sacrifice, are measuring the wrong thing. In Holy Week I’ll be listening to Bach’s `Passions,’ singing about `was there ever grief like Thine?’ and meditating on the wounds of Christ, but not in the belief that the more blood and gore the holier, a la Gibson.”
He adds: “The point now is not to accept grace because we saw gore.”