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Passion of the Christ February 29, 2004

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Religion.
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I saw “Passion of the Christ” this past week with several people from our church, and have been discussing it with friends and co-workers a great deal lately.

First, Mel Gibson has said he wanted people to be shocked when they saw this movie. I’m not sure how you could go and watch the entire thing, and not be. As someone who’s been exposed to cross images and crucifixion language most of his life, I’ve wondered if I have “sanitized” the event or trivialized it to the point of it losing its meaning. As a result, I went into the thing prepared to have my senses assaulted, and half-wondering if it wasn’t something long overdue.

Several people have asked me what my reaction has been, and the best thing I can compare this to is “Schindler’s List” in terms of emotional impact. (I’m not trying to make a comparison between the two about which is a better movie.) I can’t imagine walking out of a theater after seeing SL and not feeling shocked. Likewise, my feeling upon leaving the theater was one of somewhat numb shock.

Perhaps an analogy would express it better. Can you imagine someone selling rub-on fake tattoos of ID numbers designed to look like they were from a concentration camp? Now imagine your reaction to seeing someone wearing such tattoos after coming out of seeing SL.

This is roughly what I’ve been dealing with since viewing “Passion.” When I see a cross around someone’s neck (or even more so, a crucifix) or some of the crucifixion-nail jewelry, I have to fight this desire to say “How can you trivialize someone’s suffering with ornamentation like that?” I know this isn’t their intent, but that’s the emotional reaction I’ve been dealing with.

Interestingly, the images that were most memorable to me seem to be non-violent ones, or artifacts of the violence. For example, in the scene when he’s being scourged, for me the most powerful image is Mary and Mary Magdelene cleaning up his blood. It’s as if they are (by their actions) saying, “We’re not going to let these people clean up his blood. They’ve already taken too much from him.”

It was similar to the scene where Jesus stumbles and falls carrying the cross, and Mary (his mother) has a flashback about him tripping and falling as a small boy. Her instinctive reaction is to go “make it better,” just as she had done when he was little. (This was, for me, the most emotionally powerful moment in the movie.) However, it’s clear that she can’t fix this. Likewise, in the scourging scene, it’s like she’s reclaiming her son’s blood, trying to save something, anything, that belongs to her… belongs to him. This is the blood, not of a man, but of her son. Blood of her blood.

Other violent artifacts that were memorable to me: the facial expression of Pilate’s right-hand man; the image of the tip of a spike appearing through the bottom of the crossbeam, dripping blood; Mary’s (his mother) shell-shocked response to most everything; the anguish of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane trying to accept what’s happening, though he would prefer a different path.

Interestingly, one of the scenes I thought would come across as a bit hokey to some people, has been missed or misunderstood. Just before the earthquake, the camera zooms way out from a perspective hundreds of feet in the air. The camera blurs, and the drop of water that’s falling to the ground actually initiates the earthquake. The obvious analogy is that it’s a tear falling to the ground from heaven, but it seems to have been missed by many of my friends who watched it. Also, I really liked the ending, which was very understated and brief. Others have hated it, wishing that there had been a “more hopeful” closing, and feeling that without it, it was just depressing.

In sharp contrast to my reaction, some of my Catholic friends have identified more with the actual images of pain and physical suffering. I suspect part of this may be related to their comfort level with images that were (for me) shocking in both intensity and novelty (Southern Baptist churches are filled with cross symbols, but no crucifixes). We (Baptists) seem much more comfortable with an image of hope (an empty cross or the empty tomb) than one of pain and anguish (someone still on the cross). This may be why my mind has latched on to non-violent images more so than what professional reviewers have focused their attention on.

Lastly, I thought this was a reasonably accurate portrayal of what was, at that time, a relatively common form of punishment. What seems intolerably cruel to us today, was in fact somewhat standard fare for some parts of the Roman empire. While we may be guilty of suggesting that Jesus physical suffering was unique, the portrayal here was such that I felt that it wasn’t the physical part that was unique: it was the spiritual disconnect that accompanied it (Jesus feeling ultimate separation from God in a way that he had never felt it before). As with other aspects of the movie, this may be something where my theological baggage colored my perception of the images, and gave them meaning or substance that they don’t have for others.

I would not suggest that this movie is anything remotely close to “evangelical.” Anyone who isn’t very familiar with the four Gospels is going to come out of the theater with far more questions than answers, and will likely have a reaction along the lines of “What kind of God would allow this to happen?” or “Why did they hate this Jesus guy so much? All he talked about was love.” It is an interesting discussion starter, and will give people of many different theological points of view some conversation points for the water cooler.