Friday, March 05, 2004


As promised, here is my review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ:

For weeks media coverage of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ has been at a fever pitch. (“Passion” is a word meaning “suffering”.) Charges of anti-Semitism have been levied by Jewish groups, starting well before any of them had ever seen it. At the same time many church groups and leaders were given advance screenings and were proclaiming the movie a moving and accurate rendering of the Biblical texts. Others objected over the brutality of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. Some were put off by the film’s use of English subtitles supplementing an Aramaic and Latin dialogue. With so many different views of the movie, what is the Biblically concerned Christian supposed to think?

On the Saturday following The Passion’s release, my wife and I attended a sold out viewing of the movie along with several other members of the church where I attend. I think most of us were somewhat leery at what we might see.

The movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, with Jesus in agonized prayer to His Father, looking to the agony that He must endure. We find His disciples sleeping in that dark misty Garden, unable to keep their Master’s request to wait and watch for Him. The film then introduces us to a continuing character in the movie: the presence of Satan. The androgynous devil never is addressed directly by Jesus, but his nay saying character is an almost constant presence. In these opening scenes as Jesus is fervently praying to His Father, Satan is doing all he can to create doubt in the mind of Jesus that He can, or even should, go through the horrors of the cross.

Of course this is just the sort of cinematic device that one has to assess from a Biblical standpoint. The Scriptures nowhere record that Satan was in that Garden saying anything to Jesus. Is this a valid addition to the story, or a non-Biblical intrusion? Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask when evaluating the presentation of a Biblical account. In this instance I think the answer will be based on personal decision. I found the presence of Satan in the Garden consistent with the overall tenor of Scripture.

We certainly know that Satan did tempt Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13), and that after he was unsuccessful in leading the Son of Man into sin “he left Him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13) The Scripture never tells us when that opportune time was, but what time other than when He said “remove this cup from Me” as His sweat “like drops of blood” fell upon the ground? Satan is the accuser (Revelation 12:10). And we know that Jesus was aware of Satan’s schemes. He tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.” (Luke 22:31) Satan is always present, and Gibson shows it well as he prompts Judas in his betrayal, Peter in his denial, the crowd in their bloodthirsty call for Jesus’ crucifixion. There is no question that Satan was there. But Gibson does a masterful job in his use of the Satan imagery as Jesus responds to Satan not with words, but rather when the devil sends a serpent crawling toward Him as He prays, Jesus stands up and stomps soundly on the head of the snake. “He shall crush you on the head.” (Genesis 3:15; cf. Romans 16:20)

The wonderful thing about movies is that they allow us to see the reality of words we have read for so long. We see the dark chaos of the arrest in the Garden, as Peter wields his sword and the disciples flee. The nighttime trial comes to life in all its thrown together confusion, a reluctant Pilate takes the stage, his wife urging him to “have nothing to do with that righteous Man.” (Matthew 27:19) King Herod and his debaucherous court laugh and mock Jesus. The Roman soldiers sadistically scourge the Savior, not knowing what they do. Simon carries the cross. John stands with Mary at the foot of the cross. A thief mocks Him while another is promised Paradise.

Certainly the movie is not perfect. I found some of the Satan imagery to be a little off-putting. Clearly Mel Gibson was influenced by Catholic tradition and imagery in His vision of the last twelve hours. I can see how some would feel that the gory presentation of His beatings and crucifixion could be too much. I certainly understand why many would not want to see the movie for that reason. As to Gibson’s additions to the Biblical story, I generally accept the necessity of using narrative filler in a situation like that. As long as one it being true to the overall tenor to the message, I don’t generally have a problem with it. Using narrative filler is different from putting Lot on a pirate ship to attack Noah’s ark as the infamous TV movie from a couple of years ago did.

The best answer, of course, is to be familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. That’s where we find the words that lead to eternal life, not in a film. But I think The Passion of the Christ likely is the best portrayal we will ever see on film of Jesus’ last twelve hours. Gibson clearly is a talented filmmaker, and I’m glad I went to see the movie. To anyone interested in going, I would say be aware that at times it does add scenes not found in the Bible. And I would urge you to be aware of how violent and bloody it is. Talk to others who have seen it, and read reviews.

I think we have to be pleased that the death of Jesus is receiving more widespread attention than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. That can only be a positive thing. Regardless of whether you see the movie or not, take advantage of this window of opportunity to speak to people whose hearts may be opened during this time.

No comments: