Passion Without Perspective

Director’s Cut of ‘The Passion’ Leaves Some Questioning His Intent

There’s no doubt who the Bible says is responsible for Jesus‘s death. God ordered the crucifixion as part of his plan for humanity’s salvation, and Jesus allowed it to happen.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, speaking to the disciple who has cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant during Jesus’s arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

“Do you not think I can call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” he asks. “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?”

Later, when Pontius Pilate gives in to a Jewish mob’s demand that Jesus be crucified, the Roman prefect’s concession fulfills Jesus’s prediction that he would die “lifted up from the earth [and will] draw all men to myself,” according to John.

Peter Nelson, who teaches New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, said the story of Jesus’s death has two levels: the ultimate and the temporal. “Jesus died for God’s purposes. He was put to death by human opposition,” Nelson said.

One of the most striking aspects of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” is the virtual exclusion of God’s role in the 2,000-year-old drama. The film begins with a verse from Isaiah on a dark screen, one that foretells the physical pain the Messiah will bear. But little else in the movie suggests the fulfillment of God’s plan.

For more than two hours, it’s Gibson’s personal theology that fills the screen. Gibson gives short shrift to the three years of Jesus’s ministry before Holy Week and to the Easter Sunday that completes it, focusing instead on his brutalization by Roman soldiers and the steely resolve of Jewish leaders to have him crucified.

Gibson, who helped write the screenplay and spent $30 million of his own money on the project, has made no secret of his hope that the movie’s graphic depiction of Jesus’s suffering will bring converts to Christianity.

“I’m not a preacher, and I’m not a pastor,” he told a Colorado Springs newspaper in June after showing an early version of the film to evangelical leaders in Colorado. “But I really feel my career was leading me to make this. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize.”

To this end, Gibson has openly courted evangelical Christians, who had praised his performance as William Wallace, a Scottish avenger of English oppression, in the 1995 film “Braveheart.” And Evangelicals have rallied to his defense in recent months, not only against Jewish critics but also against Christian critics who accuse Gibson of minimizing Jesus’s messages of love and justice and providing so little context that the story of his death will be unintelligible to non-Christians.

Although a traditionalist Roman Catholic, Gibson speaks the language of Protestant evangelicals. He has said, in various interviews, that he believes in a literal reading of the Bible, that God preordained all that happens and that only those who believe they are saved through Jesus will achieve salvation. Many evangelicals have said that Gibson’s superstar status has given their faith unprecedented cultural validation.

And while castigating Hollywood for producing violent films, evangelical leaders have endorsed “The Passion,” one of the bloodiest films in recent memory, as a powerful tool for evangelism.

“It’s an important movie worth seeing,” said Nelson, an ordained Baptist minister as well as a scholar. “It puts the sheer fact of Jesus’s terrible suffering on the table for contemporary culture to see and think about.”

But what of Gibson’s claims that the film accurately portrays the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death? His use of the visionary writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century German nun and mystic, to enhance his presentation has been widely noted. After being arrested in Gethsemane, for example, Jesus falls over the side of a bridge and dangles there by his chains, long enough to look into the frightened eyes of Judas, who has just betrayed Jesus and was trying to hide.

In another innovation, a cowled satanic figure lurks about through much of the film, taunting Jesus in the garden and looking on gleefully as Roman soldiers ravage Jesus’s skin with knife-tipped whips. But it’s fair to argue that the figure of Evil is true to the spirit of the story if not literally present in all instances depicted.

Luke says “Satan entered Judas” and caused him to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. In the passage where Jesus tells Simon (Peter) that the disciple will deny knowing him three times, the Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “Simon, Simon. Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.”

Clearly absent in all four Gospels, however, is the beating and suffering of Jesus on the way to Golgotha, a torturous journey scripted by Gibson from the Stations of the Cross tradition that dates to the early days of Christianity but is not explicitly supported by the Gospels.

John says Jesus carried the cross on which he would be nailed but does not speak of his falling down several times under its weight or of continual taunting and beating by Roman soldiers.

The Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — tell of Simon the Cyrene being drafted to bear the cross in a verse immediately following the passage where soldiers mock Jesus with a crown of thorns. They do not mention his falling down or other events depicted by Gibson, including a woman who wipes Jesus’s bloody face with a white shawl.

Gibson also inserts into the film a chastisement of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, by Dismas, one of the two men crucified with Jesus. After Jesus says from the cross, “Lord forgive them, they know not what they do,” Dismas looks down at a gloating Caiaphas and says, “Listen, he prays for you.”

The line eerily echoes a statement Gibson made last month in an interview with EWTN Global Catholic Network. “I don’t want to lynch Jews,” he said. “I love them. I pray for them.”

That kind of Christian love bothers — even angers — Jews.

“I know what ‘praying for’ means — converting Jews to Christianity,” said Rabbi James A. Rudin, senior adviser of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “We feel put upon and say, ‘Enough. After 2,000 years, isn’t it clear it isn’t going to happen?’ . . . We have a perfected religion that doesn’t need an addition or change. It stands on its own.”

The movie’s implication that Jews need salvation has only added to the dismay of Jewish leaders upset over Gibson’s portrayal of Caiaphas, the temple guards and the Jewish mob as conspirators in Jesus’s death. Most egregious, Jewish leaders say, was Gibson’s insistence on including a passage from Matthew that has been used to justify violence against Jews from the Middle Ages into the 20th century.

“Let his blood be on us and on our children,” the people cry after Pilate washes his hands of the issue and gives the order to crucify the Nazarene.

Last fall, when the hype and controversy surrounding the film began in earnest, Gibson told the New Yorker that he would delete the line despite being accused by his brother of “wimping out” for doing so. “But, man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come to kill me,” he said.

Nonetheless, Gibson proceeded to show evangelical audiences a version of the film that included the words and the subtitles translating the Aramaic into English. (The entire film is done in Aramaic or Latin, with English subtitles for most of the dialogue.)

Jewish leaders were relieved earlier this month when the New York Times quoted an unnamed Gibson associate as saying that the line would be excised. But the scene is in the final version. The apparent compromise on Gibson’s part was to leave out the subtitles. Some Jews understand Aramaic, however, and view the line’s inclusion as mean-spirited.

For some Protestants, including evangelicals, it is puzzling that “The Passion of the Christ” devotes more than two hours to the trial, beating and crucifixion of Jesus but only 20 seconds or so to the Resurrection.

Historically, Catholics have emphasized the suffering and death of Jesus, while Protestants have focused on the Resurrection. That’s one of the reasons Catholics most often use crucifixes — crosses with Jesus on them — while Protestants prefer empty crosses.

The death of Jesus is “profoundly important, but if I were to imagine Holy Week finishing on Good Friday, it would be a crushing vision,” Nelson said. Jesus’s suffering “is vindicated by the victory of the Resurrection” and gives suffering Christians the hope that they, too, will be resurrected.

At the same time, Nelson said that Gibson’s choice to focus on the death of Jesus for his film is as valid as a scholar’s decision to write only about Jesus’s death or resurrection. It’s not the entire story, but it represents a starting point for discussion about the life of Jesus and its 2,000-year impact on the history of the world, Nelson said.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Washington Post, USA
Feb. 28, 2004
Bill Broadway

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 3, 2004.
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