Monday, July 23, 2007

Thoughts on the Passion

I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ(henceforth referred to by its original and superior title of simple, The Passion) since it was in theatres for its first release. At the time I had resisted going to see it for a long time, despite being really excited about it from the first trailer. My resistance began building the December before the film was released, when it first began to receive criticism for being anti-Semitic. I'll address that later, but the problem I had was that immediately right-wing conservative and christian pundits, leaders and politicians began defending the film from its critics. What bothered me was although both the critics and the defenders were basing their comments upon the descriptions of the few people who had seen the film, none of them had seen it. What really bothered me was that the defenders adopted the tactic of out-shouting and out-labeling anyone who criticised the film. Anyone who called it anti-Semitic was themselves labeled as anti-christian. In their attempts to defend the film from what seemed to me as honest questions about its content, they once again exposed the worst aspects of people who call themselves Christians. Of course, all this was nothing but beneficial to Mel Gibson and his film, since the controversy had elevated from a obscure art-house project to the number one topic of the day. Gibson and his company correctly realized that something like this was an opportunity that churches would want to participate in, so they flooded churches with promotional materials and arranged screenings for congregations across the country. This resulted in many churches not only organizing screenings or trips to theatres, but actively telling their congregants that the film was, quite literally, a must-see. All of this resulted in me having a distinct desire not to see the film. Not because I thought it would be bad, but because I bristle when someone tells me that I have to do something, particularly when someone in a church tells me that I have to do something that is quite obviously not connected in any way with Biblical principles(example, my old Baptist church telling me I couldn't drink or get tattoos). So I didn't go see it at first, but during that time I read a lot of reviews of its violence, and it sounded kind of excessive to me. Finally, my curiosity overcame me I went out and saw The Passion on my next day off. Since I was in Texas at the time for military training, I went by myself, sitting in a nearly full theatre on a Sunday afternoon. I just read my journal from that day, and at the time I pretty much felt what I feel now. The film is good, but not great. It does one thing, depict Jesus' death, and does it very well. At the time I wrote that I felt it was not violent enough, since I have read far more horrific descriptions of Jesus' torture than anything shown in the film(there is a reason no one recognized Him when he returned from the dead), but I'm also probably jaded. I'd heard of people vomiting in the aisles and what I saw was nothing of that level. What I will say now is that in my study of Christianity over the past couple years, I think I can appreciate more the necessity to consider the sheer violence done to Jesus on the cross. It is a stark contrast to the "tender Jesus meek and mild" that dominates modern American Christianity, and an equally sharp contrast to the "action hero Jesus" that has recently emerged in many Christian men's books. This Jesus, as both Don and Justin point out in their comments, is a portrait of restrained strength. As the Devil says to him earlier in the Gospels, at any time He could command angels to lay waste and loose his bonds, or simply reveal the power of God on Earth and remake reality, but He does not. He lays down His life for those who hate Him. A powerful message, one that resonates in the film. However, that message is only clear if you are already one of the faithful. I have to disagree with a couple of points that Don and Justin made, one on a historical level and one on a personal level. Personally, I don't feel that this film is an effective evangelical tool. Despite the church's efforts to use it as such, this film has no place being used to introduce people to Jesus. If you are not intimately familiar with the details of Jesus' life, this film will be exactly as Justin described it being presented to a child: mindless violence without purpose. In a sense, the film is preaching to the choir because you have to have a pretty good understanding of Christianity to understand and be moved by the film. Not just the gospels, but also some of the historical Church traditions and a pretty good full Bible knowledge to get all the symbolism and references that Gibson layers onto the film. If you do have that, it is a powerful film that I believe should be watched several times, perhaps with a couple of years in between, to keep it fresh in your mind how much Jesus gave up for you. Wow! That sounds like a pretty ringing endorsement. But, of course, I have to rain on my own parade with some nitpicks. Some of them are pretty major, but most of them have more to do with how the film was and is presented to audiences than with the film itself. I've already covered the problems with non-Christians, and even immature Christians lacking the background to truly appreciate the film, but my biggest problem was that during its release, and still in many conversations I have with Christians, the film is described as Biblically and historically accurate. As far as the Bible goes, this film expands generously upon the Gospel accounts. Not only does it incorporate the stations of the Cross, but it also adds a great deal of material from the 19th century stigmatic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich(published as The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ). All this is fine, filmmaking wise, but puts the marketing of the film and arguments for its "necessity" in dubious standing. Historically, the only thing I have to add that Justin didn't cover was that it is unlikely that the Romans and Jews would be conversing in Aramaic. Romans probably wouldn't have known that language, although Pilate could have learned it to better communicate with local leaders. The absence of Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, is a huge historical over site, on par with the mixing of Aztec and Maya culture in Gibson follow up, Apocalypto. I also stand by the fact that the film does a very poor job of explaining who Jesus is or why He is wanted dead, but this is, as Justin correctly pointed out, a modern Passion play, not the life of Jesus. Ok, enough of what I didn't like, what did I like about it as a film? I think that this film is excellent in every technical way possible, and that Gibson is a talented director. He knows how to make his visuals memorable and iconic, and Caleb Deschenal deserves special praise for his amazing cinematography. One thing I particularly liked was the small elements of humor that found their way into the film. At one point, during His torturous walk to Golgotha, Jesus seems to intuit that Mary is recalling a childhood experience of His, and He cracks a joke. On the way to the cross, Jesus is cracking wise! Personally, I felt the crucifixion itself was the most powerful moment of the film, visually and emotionally. It stays close to the Biblical accounts, with a minimum of pseudo-mystical embellishment, making it powerful for sola scriptura folks like me. Some final thoughts on the controversy. There are many who claims that any so-called anti-Semetic imagery is simply a reflection of its historical setting. I would agree, with one qualification, that the film is not anti-Semitic. Justin describes this as a period film, but I would have to disagree with the period that it depicts. The problem I have is that the film is a period piece, but not a 1st century period piece. The film is a 13th century period piece, reflecting medieval passion plays and their imagery. Unfortunately, Gibson chose to ignore the last 800 to 2000 years of history and what that history has done to that imagery. Even if the imagery is historically accurate, it is the same imagery that fueled anti-Semiticism in medieval Europe and associated itself with that imagery forever. How Gibson expected to make a modern Passion play complete with costuming that, accurate or not, was iconically identifiable as Jewish caricature, and not be accused of implying that Jews are Christ killers, I don't know. Gibson should have toned down those elements in order to respect the awful history of the past 2000 years. So those are my thoughts on The Passion. I hope you've enjoyed them. I've run way long on this post so I'll hold my general notes on the podcast for tomorrow. Save This Page

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