Mr. Gibson’s raw images invade our religious comfort zone, which has long since been cleansed of the Gospels’ harsher edges. Most Americans worship in churches where the bloodied body of Jesus is absent from sanctuary crosses or else styled in ways so abstract that there is no hint of suffering. In sermons, too, the emphasis all too often is on the smoothly therapeutic: what Jesus can do for me.
More than 60 years ago, H. Richard Neibuhr summarized the creed of an easygoing American Christianity that has in our time triumphantly come to pass: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment though the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Despite its muscular excess, Mr. Gibson’s symbol-laden film is a welcome repudiation of all that.
“The Passion of the Christ” is violent — no question. Although Mel Gibson the believer identifies with a traditionalist movement that rejects Vatican Council II, Mel Gibson the artist here displays a thoroughly Catholic sensibility, one that since the Middle Ages has emphasized Jesus as the suffering savior crowned with thorns. Martin Luther, too, would have recognized in this film his own theology of the cross.
But there is a little twist here. In his prerelease screenings, Mr. Gibson invited mostly conservative evangelical clergy. They in turn responded by reserving huge blocks of movie tickets for their congregations. When the film opens today, expect theaters around the country to be turned into temporary churches.
And what’s so strange about this? Unlike Mr. Gibson’s film, evangelical Protestantism is inherently non-visual. As spiritual descendants of the left wing of the Reformation, evangelicals are heirs to an iconoclastic tradition that produced the “stripping of the altars,” as the historian Eamon Duffy nicely put it. That began in the late 16th century, when radical Protestants removed Christ’s body from the cross. To the Puritans, displays of the body of Jesus represented what they considered the idol worship of the Papists. To this day, evangelical sanctuaries can be identified by their lack of visual stimulation; it is rare to see statues or stained-glass windows with human figures. For evangelicals, the symbols are all in sermon and song: verbal icons. It’s a different sensibility.
For this reason, I think, evangelical audiences will be shocked by what they see. And, as Mr. Gibson has said repeatedly, he means to shock. Catholics will find themselves on familiar ground: they, at least, have retained the ritual of praying “the stations of the cross” — a Lenten practice that, like Mr. Gibson’s movie, focuses on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus. By contrast, Southern Baptists and other mostly fundamentalist churches do not observe Lent, and even Catholics have muted the ancient tradition of fast and abstinence that commemorated the Passion of Jesus.
Indeed, Mr. Gibson’s film leaves out most of the elements of the Jesus story that contemporary Christianity now emphasizes. His Jesus does not demand a “born again” experience, as most evangelists do, in order to gain salvation. He does not heal the sick or exorcise demons, as Pentecostals emphasize. He doesn’t promote social causes, as liberal denominations do. He certainly doesn’t crusade against gender discrimination, as some feminists believe he did, nor does he teach that we all possess an inner divinity, as today’s nouveau Gnostics believe. One cannot imagine this Jesus joining a New Age sunrise Easter service overlooking the Pacific.
Like Jeremiah, Jesus is a Jewish prophet rejected by the leaders of his own people, and abandoned by his handpicked disciples. Besides taking an awful beating, he is cruelly tempted to despair by a Satan whom millions of church-going Christians no longer believe in, and dies in obedience to a heavenly Father who, by today’s standards, would stand convicted of child abuse. In short, this Jesus carries a cross that not many Christians are ready to share.
It is easy, of course, to contrast third-millennium Christian mores with the story of Christ’s Passion. Like other Americans, Christians want desperately to know that they are loved, in the words of the old Protestant hymn, “just as I am.” But the love of God, as Dorothy Day liked to put it, “is a harsh and dangerous love” that requires real transformation. It is not the sort imagined by today’s spiritual seekers who are “into” Asian religions.
Significantly, the Passion and death of Jesus is the chief element in the Gospel story that other religions cannot accept. In Islam, Jesus does not die on the cross because such a fate is considered unfitting for a prophet of Allah. By Hindus and Buddhists, Jesus is often regarded as a spiritual master, but the story of his suffering and death are considered unbecoming of an enlightened sage. Like the Buddha, the truly liberated transcend suffering and death. But Jesus submits to it — willingly, Christians believe — for the sins of all.
Were we a nation of Bible readers, not just Bible owners, I don’t think a film like Mr. Gibson’s would cause much fuss. While I do not think that “The Passion of the Christ” is anti-Semitic, I do think it presents Christians with a “teaching moment.” But the lessons have more to do with forgotten Christian basics than with who killed Jesus.
Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, is the author, most recently, of “The Book of Miracles.”