The Passion of the Christ

This will be a longer essay than I'd like, so I've divided it into sections. If I could summarize it in one sentence:

The Passion of the Christ
is a two-hour film that ought to have been three hours long.

Read the last section to learn why. Everything else is commentary.

Manipulating a controversy

Consider two recent films of Jesus' life.
  1. Film (A) is produced by a company founded by evangelical Christians. It mirrors the Bible word-for-word, including some controversial passages that, according to some Jews and even some Christians, are the seeds of later Christian anti-Semitism. One leader of the 1st-century Jews sports a villainous makeup job.
  2. Film (B) is produced by a stridently traditionalist Catholic. It is not at all word-for-word from the Scriptures; rather, the producer has removed one infamous Gospel quotation, while including highly sympathetic portrayals of many Jews, portrayals that are not found in the Bible
I present three questions.
  1. Which film was a media sensation?
  2. Which film was lavished with praise by evangelical Christians?
  3. Which film was bashed by leading Jewish commentators (both religious and secular) as anti-Semitic?
The answer to all three questions is film (B): Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Film (A), Visual Bible's The Gospel of John, is a word-for-word filming of the book of the same name. Despite its high-quality production values -- rather unusual in contemporary Christian film -- it was by and large ignored by the media, by evangelicals, and by Jewish commentators. The only acquaintances I know who watched The Gospel of John are fellow Catholics whom I encouraged to watch it. I don't know a single Protestant who watched the film. Most of them never heard of it. I watched it twice around its opening day, and both times the theater was half-empty.

Passion is not at all word-for-word from the gospels -- not that most people would know, since the characters speak Aramaic and Latin. In fact, significant portions of Gibson's film were inspired by, if not taken directly from, decidedly non-biblical sources:
Most of the Jews in Passion protest Jesus' death, a fact that is certainly not confirmed by the Gospels. Yet the film became a lightning rod for controversy, drawing condemnation from both academic ecumenists and Jewish commentators. William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, and Richard Cohen (whom I often read, agreeing often with the former two, rarely with the latter) all declared the film anti-Semitic. Cohen went so far as to call the film "fascist".

Meanwhile, evangelical Christians are pounding the pulpits and packing the theaters to view this decidedly Popish film -- and they leave the theaters delighted.

If ever I wanted a sign that the end is nigh...

This much is certain: a herd mentality is associated with any controversy. The herd mentality of the otherwise "culturally enlightened" usually helps Hollywood sell the most patently un-Christian trash, including such badly-made films as The Last Temptation of Christ, a film which, by the way, isn't nearly as shocking as the book, which isn't nearly as shocking as people might think. Indeed, the book is quite thought-provoking -- heretical, yes, but thought-provoking nonetheless.

This time, Hollywood fumes while the film at which they turned up their noses outsells during its first weekend pretty much all the smut they peddled over the last year. This may be a flash in the pan, since few people will care to watch the crucifixion twice; all the same, $125 million is an astonishing amount of money. That's the sort of revenue associated with blockbuster summer action films, not with a religious film released on Ash Wednesday. [Edit: No "flash in the pan": in its second week, the film earned another $50 million. Note that Mel Gibson spent around $30 million to make the film.]

Someone did a masterful job of manipulating the media. Intentionally or not, Mel Gibson employed the very same cultural forces that Scorcese did in 1988 for The Last Temptation of Christ. In doing so, he has made not merely millions, but hundreds of millions of dollars off of evangelical Christians, many of whom consider Catholics like himself barely Christian (if that). The film may thus do something to dispel many evangelicals' misunderstandings about Catholicism -- or it may not -- but it has certainly done something to better Gibson's bank account. That genius should be saluted.

My opinion of some controversial aspects of the film

I'll consider several major aspects.

The gore. Last year, one critic summarized the film Kill Bill, Vol. 1 as "a liturgy of blood." The description is far more apt for Passion. I haven't watched Kill Bill, but I can't imagine how Quentin Tarantino could have used more blood than Gibson did in Passion, nor how Tarantino's use of it could be called "liturgy". In Passion, blood spills, spurts, and spatters over everything and everyone. In one scene, so much of Jesus' blood puddles on the ground that one could mop it up with towels. Moreover, flashbacks tie the violence and suffering directly to the Christian liturgy: namely, communion.

Gibson considers the gore necessary to his vision. The argument is along these lines: our modern, "soft" Christianity has forgotten the meaning of the word "sacrifice". When they see a crucifix, a large number of Christians think not of "sin" or "repentance", but of "social injustice" and "self-righteousness". Passion aims to reawaken for Christians the old conviction that Christ's death was necessary for our salvation; the web page declares, "Dying was His reason for living." I would suggest that Gibson also hopes to deflate the currently fashionable theologies of communion, and re-emphasize the neglected connection between the crucifixion and Christianity's second most important rite. (Baptism would be the most important.) In this respect, Gibson's film is one of the most biblical films I have ever seen.

Many viewers have expressed their horror at the gore. To some, it deepens their appreciation for Christ's teaching that the second greatest commandment is love of neighbor. To others, the gore is counterproductive, revolting and a turnoff; many commentators have denounced it as "religious pornography."

I had neither of these reactions, and I believe I know the reason. My mother is Italian;  every summer when I was a child, we visited her parents in Gaeta. Nonna was devoutly Catholic, in the classic, southern Italian tradition. Theirs is a passionate and emotional Catholicism, colorful and chaotic. In the room where I slept, she kept her own version of Michelangelo's Pietà. Unlike Michelangelo's sober, marble-white vision, Nonna's Pietà exploded with vivid color. Christ's body was covered in red; his knees were skinned and bleeding from falling repeatedly under the weight of the cross. This image struck me profoundly; its gory vision of the crucifixion has accompanied me since my childhood, and visited me in many meditations.

Catholics were once encouraged to spend a significant amount of time meditating on Christ's suffering and death. Abstaining from meat on Fridays (the day of Christ's death); the Way of the Cross; the hanging of a crucifix in church, in the home, and over one's bed; the First Friday devotion; flagellation; hair shirts; all these practices sprung from this tradition. Christ's Passion was one of those parts of Scripture that Catholics read frequently and imagined vividly in their art; combined with the later Ignatian spirituality of inserting oneself into the scene of a Gospel passage, it produced a powerful spiritual effect.

In my experience, Protestants have an aversion to meditating on the Passion, preferring to emphasize the triumph of the resurrection over the sorrow of the crucifixion. They also have an aversion to religious imagery, let alone the sort of religious imagery that southern Italians carry around in processions. Modern American Catholics are in a similar situation. Since at least the 1970s, the American Catholic clergy, with their eagerness to become "respectable" members of the mainstream American religious scene, literally whitewashed their churches, and added such immense amounts of saccharine to their spirituality that most American Catholic liturgies are as pathetically bland as lukewarm water.

The reader needs to keep this in mind when reading some reviews by clergy; what passes for modern Christian "spirituality" is how one feels instead of how one acts. Morality has been redefined with "fundamental orientation" and individual crimes are not so bad if they feel natural. Trapped in a wasteland barren of religious imagination, most American Christians have never had a hint of the brutality of the crucifixion. They have a notion of it, since the Bible relates it after all, but they have never considered how serious and central the crucifixion is to Christian faith.

The result is that most American Christians are overwhelmed by the amount of blood in this film. I am not at all surprised to read that lifelong Christians weep while watching Jesus' suffering, sit stunned for several minutes after the movie, and walk out saying they had never before realized the horrors Christ endured out of love for them. Why should they have realized it before? Nothing even remotely comparable exists in the modern American religious experience.

The charge of anti-Semitism. After we watched the film, I remarked to my roommate that Anyone who thinks this film is anti-Semitic needs to have his head checked. My roommate agreed that it was not anti-Semitic, although he differed with my qualifications to make such a psychological diagnosis.

Having thought about it several days, and having followed some of the ridiculous shouting matches that pass for debate in our culture, I stand by my statement. I divide my argument into several subparts.

[Later edit: In mid-March 2004, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research conducted a survey, and found that 83% of Americans said they were neither more nor less likely to blame today's Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus; 9% said they were less likely, and a paltry 2% said they were more likely. In other words, my position has been vindicated.]

But first, I have to confess, as one of my agnostic friends rightly points out to me:
In refuting charges of anti-Semitism we must, I think, bear one fact in mind: none of us (you, me, Protestant America) has ever been a member of a persecuted minority. ...While the Holocaust remains in living memory and The Protocols of the Elders of Sion is in print not only in Arab countries but also in Western Europe we must expect that Jew will remain sensitive to their portrayals in popular culture.  And of course one cannot discount the role played in the controversy played by Gibson's father which, while it may not be germane to the actual movie, certainly casts a pall of suspicion over it under the premise that a poisoned tree bears poisoned fruit.
I am not a Jew, and I have never lived under the persecution they endured, and I likely cannot imagine it. Nevertheless, I am a Christian, and I do care about my faith -- a faith which must not be misrepresented, and which can have no common cause with anti-Semitism. Christ, his holy Mother, and all the first apostles were the Jews; the Christian Bible contains more passages written by "pre-Christian" Jews than by "Christian" Jews. Christianity was born not because there is something imperfect with Judaism, but because there is something holy about it. If someone portrays the Jews as an irredeemable race and an unholy religion, he is portraying my own religion as vain. Such a charge would after all be related to the Marcionist heresy; so, the question of anti-Semitism is of great importance to me.

1. Anti-Semitism in itself

We need to ask ourselves: just what is anti-Semitism anyway? I'll look at it from two perspectives:
The one example of Nazi-style anti-Semitism in the film is found on the lips of a Roman soldier. He orders away a heroic Simon of Cyrene with the words: Go away, Jew. Hatred of the Jewish race is quite clear in the soldier's face and voice. I don't know if this is deliberate, but I do find it remarkable that I have not found this noted by any other reviewer. [Edit: I found a comment confirming my suspicion made in an interview by the theological consultant to the film.] As one might expect, the film contains no assertions that "the Jews" control the world's banks and diamonds and are manipulating the international money markets.

As for traditional, religious anti-Semitism, Gibson's detractors have lost all sense of perspective. Many of them compare the film to the Oberammergau passion plays, noted by some scholars to be a source of anti-Semitism in Germany. This is a very serious charge, and requires very serious evidence. I asked myself: Well, how exactly did the Oberammergau play portray Jews? The answer I found: in a manner vastly different from how Passion portrays the Jews. As an extreme example, here is an example of what you might have seen in an old-school Oberammergau passion play, quoted from a set of recommendations for fixing latent anti-Semitism in the play:
The hats that the Jewish leaders now wear do in fact make them look very "evil" [some commentators write "Satanic"], even ridiculous. However, there is no historical basis whatsoever for these "horned" hats. They are a medieval Christian misunderstanding of the Exodus description of the "rays"--not the "Horns "--coming from the head of Moses. They should be eliminated.
-- section 25, staging and costumes
Needless to say, Passion features not one single Jew in a horned hat. Indeed, I am shocked that not one of Passion's critics, when naming Oberammergau, bothers to admit that Gibson's film reflects many of the considerations of the document I quoted, although not all. This document was composed by a group of American Christians and Jews. For example, Passion exhibits the following differences:
Looking this over, I cannot but conclude that arguments invoking Oberammergau-style anti-Semitism are simply wrong.

(As an aside, I'm not convinced that Oberammergau's new hats are any less ridiculous.)

2. Portrayal of the Jews

The Passion of the Christ portrays most Jewish religious officials as corrupt, but so do the Christian Gospels. Passion also depicts them as carrying out their religious duty; they are putting to death a man who claims to be the Son of God -- indeed, claiming to be God himself. ("I AM.") It should be noted that commentators claiming that Jesus never claims to be divine in the Gospels are flat-out wrong. (How exactly can Jesus "blaspheme" in such passages, without claiming to be divine at least implicitly?)

I say that Gibson goes out of his way not to be anti-Semitic. Some specific examples:
Quite frankly, if people want to combat anti-Semitism, they should play up these accounts of Jews, rather than ignoring them.

Charles Krauthammer makes the argument that, since Satan walks among the crowds of Jews, the Jews are being implicated as Satanic. Putting aside the possibility that Krauthammer is reading too much into such scenes, one wonders why he does not consider the implication that the Romans are Satanic: Satan and a childlike demon stand behind them during the flogging. Indeed the flogging becomes so brutal that the Jewish priests cannot bear to watch it, and walk away. Or again: why does Krauthammer not believe that Mary's walking through the crowds of Jews, on the opposite side of the road as Satan, in some parallel manner sanctifies the Jews through whom she passes? At least try to apply the argument consistently.

3. Portrayal of the Romans

In the meantime, the vast majority of the Romans in the film are portrayed in an unflattering light. Some specific examples:
Much has been made of Pilate's offering Jesus a drink -- nevertheless, he also orders Jesus to be flogged, and then crucified. When Jesus claims to have come to teach the truth, Pilate mocks, What is truth?

If you think Passion portrays Pilate sympathetically, let me ask you:
What is so sympathetic about knowingly condemning an innocent man to death,
just to save a job you hate?

Two -- that's right, all of TWO -- Roman soldiers are depicted in an unquestionably sympathetic light. One is the centurion; the other an unnamed infantryman. Pilate's wife is also portrayed very sympathetically, but again, that is somewhat consistent with the Gospel account.

4. The "blood curse"

A lot of ink has been spilled over the so-called "blood curse," by William Safire, for example. This verse appears in the Gospel of St. Matthew, and also appeared in a draft of the film, and supposedly in a screening of the film:
And the whole people said in reply, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." (Matthew 27:25)
In and of itself, the line is not anti-Semitic: the fact that the statement has been used to justify anti-Semitism, does not make the line itself anti-Semitic. This is an important distinction not made by quite a few people who ought to know better. Their error is akin to the argument employed by some: it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israeli counter terrorist measures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such arguments empty the term of any real meaning. Reading such accusations leads one to ask the question: do they believe Gibson's film is anti-Semitic? do they believe that the gospels themselves are anti-Semitic? or (as it turns out) do they believe that Jewish customs of the time were anti-Semitic? Indeed, from the source quoted above on reforming Oberammergau:
Furthermore, we now know that the phrase "his blood be on us and on our children" is a kind of technical juridical term meaning that the group involved is giving its approval for the legal judgment just stated. In Jewish custom it was obviously meant metaphorically.
In other words, it is a real phrase, used in real trials of Jesus' time. Again we see that critics of the film would help their cause by broadcasting positive facts instead of negative opinions.

The questions I pose above are not such improbable questions. It wasn't so long ago that a popular Catholic cardinal in the United States asserted that the gospel of John contained within it "problematic passages" that led to anti-Semitism. In some quarters, "scholarly" and "non-scholarly" alike, the Gospel of John is considered blatantly anti-Semitic. Yet none of these people denouncing Passion bothered to mount mass protests against a film based word-for-word on that "anti-Semitic" gospel.

This sort of "blame game" is wrong. Anti-Semitism, like all bigotries, is a form of tribalism, an "us vs. them" mentality that sees "us" as needing protection from "them", the "them" that is different and strange. It is not a product of the gospels -- most of which were written by Jews -- indeed anti-Semitism existed among the pagan cultures of Hellenistic times, as exemplified by the Wars of the Maccabees. Likewise, anti-Semitism is not found in Gibson's film, although it may be found in the people who watch Gibson's film. The solution to anti-Semitism among Chrsitians is the same as the solution to any other sin: turning one's eyes to Christ. Christianity sees all humanity, believer and non-believer alike, as united in Christ, the tree of life who grew from the root of David. As John reminds his readers through Jesus' dialogue with the Samaritan woman, salvation is from the Jews. (John 4.22)

Nevertheless, all this spilled ink is totally irrelevant: the blood curse does not appear in Gibson's film. At the point where it should appear, one Jewish leader is saying something, but it is drowned out by unintelligible crowd noise. It certainly doesn't appear in the subtitles, and while I am no expert of Aramaic, I can discern intelligible crowd noise from unintelligible crowd noise, and so I repeat: the blood curse as depicted by Matthew does not appear in Gibson's film.

By the way, let's again compare Gibson's Passion to Oberammergau's:
At the bottom of this page the priests and crowd say once, "His blood come upon us and our children." This is a vast improvement over the 1970 text, where the statement was repeated more than four times. [emphasis added]
In Gibson's film, the statement is heard at most once, by one man -- if that.

My opinion of the film

I didn't enjoy the film very much.

It has been dreadfully overhyped. It is neither as good, nor as bad, as any review I have read. Then again, I didn't enjoy The Gospel of John that much on first viewing: I found it long and tiresome. I enjoyed The Gospel of John much more on the second viewing; likewise, I intend to watch Passion a second time, and perhaps I will enjoy it more. [Ed: In fact, I did enjoy it much more on the second viewing.]

The film is not what I would call scriptural, as it departs repeatedly from the text. I repeat what I wrote above: it baffles me that so many evangelicals promote the film as some sort of "biblical epic", when it is in fact a manifestation of a distinctively old-style Catholic spirituality -- which in any other venue they would fall over themselves to condemn.

It also disturbs me that the website promotes "authorized products": necklaces with a nail, shirts, &c. Ironically, the image that links to the "authorized merchandise" has a photo of Judas.

However, also as I said above: there is a scriptural theme to the film: that Christ's suffering is integral to Christian faith. Many commentators who abuse the film for its graphic violence are offended by the very notion that a Christian film should dwell so much on human suffering. They suggest that the film teaches despair instead of hope. One wonders whether they might take the same attitude towards Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; nevertheless, I humbly suggest that such critics spend some time contemplating my Nonna's contemplation of La Pietà. I can assure them with a most certain knowledge that images of Christ's suffering comforted and strengthened her in her final years, giving her hope instead of despair. She would frequently kiss a bust of his head crowned with thorns; she identified her suffering with his, and would offer her suffering in union with his. She didn't enjoy suffering, but by contemplating Christ's suffering, she knew that she could join her suffering to his; consecrating and transcending her pain.

I suppose that modern Western theologians with access to high-quality medical care, who sit in ivory towers and lock their dying parents away from view, have little reason to contemplate the "problem of pain" and how to face it. I can't blame them; it's a difficult question, not easily answered. Yet this very silence exposes the great lie of contemporary theology's new gospel: so many "answers" are based on the shallowest reasoning, guided more by avoiding hurt feelings than by turning one's eyes to contemplate Christ. Any honest contemplation of the Gospels must include contemplation of his suffering, and why he suffered: we did this to him, and we continue to do this to him, every day. It doesn't surprise me that many of these same theologians endorse the despair of abortion and euthanasia over the hope of life, or of a truly dignified death.

Some critics complain about a lack of "balance": the suffering of the crucifixion is overemphasized, the joy of the resurrection minimized. I remind the reader that, according to their own modern scholarship, the Gospel of Mark emphasized the Passion much more strongly than the resurrection; most of the resurrection narrative that we find in Mark's gospel was added later: verses 9-20 of chapter 16, which gives us 8 verses for the resurrection, and 108 verses for the crucifixion. Even with the extra verses added, the crucifixion outweighs the resurrection by more than 500%. I wonder whether these scholars would sit in judgement on the author of Mark's Gospel, accusing him of a sadomasochistic spirituality. It offends their sensibilites to watch Christ's brutalization, just as it does to watch a Pope crippled by Parkinson's disease. I cannot disagree with them more: in her contemplation of Christ crucified, in the embrace of her cross, my Nonna understood death in a way that no theological study can hope to bestow; she loved her divine Christ, who had shared her human sufferings, and she loved her suffering, crippled Pope, who smiled out at her from the television. They gave her hope. But I must suppose our modern theologians would condemn Nonna as sadomasochistic.

It may seem contradictory then when I agree with those who argue that the blood and the gore become tiresome, that the raw violence loses its shock value. Hear me out; my reasoning is not at all saccharine.

By using Aramaic and Latin, Gibson appears to want to create a film that will transcend the modern, Western culture that produced it. Unfortunately, the film seems to wallow in a fault of modern culture: it seems "fascinated by blood," rather than "grieved by suffering."

You see, what I did find affecting about the film was its dramatization. Gibson is not only interested in showing the graphic nature of Christ's crucifixion; he also tells a story. Much of the dramatization is accomplished by peering into the memories of:
Another reviewer has argued that Gibson's Christ is the most human and least divine Christ we have ever seen in film. Indeed, Passion emphasizes Jesus' humanity, especially in the relationship between Christ and Mary. In addition, Judas endures some highly un-scriptural visions that I personally found more unsettling than the violence in and of itself -- but whose value to the theme is highly questionable. Satan also appears in clever and disturbing scenes. It should be noted that Satan does not appear in the Gospels' account of the passion, but the value of these scenes to the theme is great indeed.

These un-scriptural dramatizations are powerful. Some of them seem mean-spirited, freakish, or gratuitous:the aforementioned visions of Judas; in another instance a nasty crow (? some sort of black bird); the depiction of Herod's court. Such flourishes seem to miss the very message of forgiveness that Jesus recites as he is being nailed to the cross, and helped leave the sour taste in my mouth, the feeling that the film is more "fascinated by blood" than "grieved by suffering."

However, I found the other dramatizations compelling and thought-provoking, far more than the "liturgy of blood." They contributed very much to my enjoyment of the film (and I did enjoy it somewhat). Alas, Gibson fails to develop them fully, in particular the one involving Mary Magdalene's flashback. We receive glimpses and tastes of an idea in Gibson's mind, a spectacular idea that sorely lacks exposition. The dramatizations hang weakly off the film and give it a feeling of losing focus, of being a collection of stories rather than one story. It's a shame, and this is why The Passion of the Christ is a two-hour film that ought to have been three hours long.