A Globe of Witnesses      
AGW Welcome The Witness Magazine

Walking the Via Dolorosa with Mel Gibson

By Mark Stanger

As Roman Catholic kid in a parish school in the late 1950’s, I remember being herded from St. Mary’s School, in the disciplined double-lines we were accustomed to, each grade led by its Dominican Sister, a quarter-mile downtown to the Grove Theater for a special showing of The Life of Maria Goretti. I think we did the same thing for Song of Bernadette (which at least was in color and didn’t have subtitles).

At the end of January, I journeyed to the second of two large-scale special pre-screenings of the idiosyncratic production of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, set for commercial release on February 25th, the day Christian liturgical churches mark as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a season of preparation for Easter. The target audience of these two previews was Christian pastors invited to screenings held in two suburban "mega-churches," one in southern California and one outside Chicago. The not-so-neutral settings and the well-defined guest list were unashamedly designed to bolster the assumption that the film, in its almost final cut, would not only be liked but even enthusiastically embraced as a tool for Christian evangelization. To the cynic, the arrangements may have been a determined, even desperate, final marketing ploy to shore up an otherwise unanticipated release. Charges of anti-Jewish content, gratuitous gore (which earned it an R rating), and general fuzziness of concept have not been good omens for Mr. Gibson’s self-financed portrayal of the final hours of Jesus of Nazareth.

I would not recommend the film to a devout Christian, skeptical Jew, or avid Hollywood buff. My fairly traditional Catholic 76-year-old mother, who accompanied me, found it "plodding" and the violence of the portrayal of the torturing of the captured Jesus turned her stomach.

I would not recommend the film to a devout Christian, skeptical Jew, or avid Hollywood buff. My fairly traditional Catholic 76-year-old mother, who accompanied me, found it "plodding" and the violence of the portrayal of the torturing of the captured Jesus turned her stomach; she lasted till the end of the event in order to see El Gibson onstage, interviewed by the local pastor. (Telling about it at bridge later that week would be quite a trump card, worth any temporary discomfort.)

I am not adverse to meditating on the Passion. Just last October I took another group of pilgrims to Jerusalem and a highlight was walking the Stations of the Cross in a context of vivid recollection and prayer. As a life-long Christian and lover of the person of Jesus and the implications of his life and death for me and for humanity, I nonetheless found the film dull, trashy, and historically and biblically unsound. I worry about the effect, desired or otherwise, it will produce.

"Historical Authenticity"

Having the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin served to reduce the immediacy of the characterizations and dramatic events. Mr. Gibson gave two reasons for this choice: one was the very determined effort to add an air of historical authenticity and believability to the tale. This is particularly curious since he confessed artistic license in the adding of material, claiming that though he believed the biblical accounts to be absolutely true in every detail it is ok to "read between the lines." For instance, a flashback of some imagined affectionate kidding between a young adult Jesus and his mom at home right before lunchtime is particularly cloying, and there are both tender and gruesome details of the Passion gleaned from universally unrecognized ecstatics and visionaries and later Christian tradition. The shape and finish of the cross of Jesus is decidedly church-goods store quality, probably not the crossbar the condemned would have carried (cf. the two thieves in the film).

I’m not a total stickler in this regard. Part of authentic piety has always accommodated some fanciful diversions from the witness of archeology, history, or even the sacred text itself. I’m fond of the medieval story, nowhere mentioned in the Bible, of Veronica wiping the bloody face of Jesus and coming away with a souvenir picture on linen (the name Veronica means "true image"; the story is rich in symbolic overtones). And speaking of fabric, I wonder if Mary’s get-up, especially the veil, wasn’t more medieval European than ancient Mediterranean. And Mary Magdalene is confused with the woman caught in adultery, a confusion which most writers have untangled over the past half-century. Positively, the addition of some lines by Jesus, especially in his prayerful address to God the Father, were psalm quotes, not those specifically mentioned in the four passion Gospels but consonant with them. These are trifles but the claim, explicit or implicit, of historicity and faithfulness to the biblical accounts, is an indefensible one (the historicity of those accounts is mentioned below).

More disturbing was Mr. Gibson’s second reason for the language barrier. In a protracted explanation, he compared presenting a film depicting ferocious Vikings ready to descend with all their barbarous intent and weaponry on an innocent fishing village. "To have them step off the ship, ready to attack, but speaking English, would diminish the sense of fierce horror. The same goes for those who put Jesus to death." Apart from the logical inconsistency (the speech of Jesus and his followers was also subtitled, after all), the idea that more brutal terror would be evoked by non-English speakers strikes me as being chillingly xenophobic. (Though Mr. Gibson may have a point: I actually couldn’t help but imagine the disorienting and horrifying experience of some whose first language is not English or who know no English held at Guantanamo Bay, without formal charges or a clear process of justice, having daily commands barked at them in our uniquely American style; it led some of them to literally suicidal despair).

The anti-Jewish bias is hard to pin down, mostly since Jesus and his followers were Jewish and the Gospel accounts, written later, reflect a growing discomfort between that wild new group of Jews for Jesus and faithful mainline Jewish groups of that time and place. But having the full-screened image of the temple high priest Caiaphas as the prominent cheerleader for the shouts demanding crucifixion not so subtly villainizes him and his faith. The same cinematic technique of focusing on Pilate’s washing of his hands (a detail only Matthew records) reinforces the perception that the "blame" is being laid squarely on the Jews. This is, of course, preposterous and offensive to Jew and Christian alike: Christian theology at its best and clearest (and even parts of this fragmented film) consistently affirms that the death of Jesus was necessary and freely accepted. Complicity in his death is shared by the Roman occupying power (to which belongs the actual sentence and method of death), religious traditionalists of the time (who happened to be Jewish), an out of control mob, and, easiest to overlook, by the weak and spineless disciples of Jesus.

Mr. Gibson’s idea, shared by thousands, is that the four passion accounts in the Gospels have been diluted of their literal, historical truth (and their power) by "revisionists" — his disdainful word for the findings of the past two generations of faith-filled, critical scholars of the texts. This would include the startlingly coherent and liberating official principles for biblical interpretation promulgated by the assembled bishops of the Roman Catholic Second Vatican council in the 1960’s (the document DEI VERBUM: On Divine Revelation — I wish we Episcopalians had a similar document).

Gibson further trashed the idea that the four gospel writers had "agendas," a concept that puts him firmly outside official Catholic teaching and the mainstream of most Christian biblical interpretation. That wholesome tradition, stretching back not to 1900 but to the earliest interpreters of the texts, recognized the very real and intentional theological, pastoral, and spiritual agendas of writing the gospels, not as eyewitness factual accounts, but as theological works (spiritual screenplays, if you will) to answer questions and express divine truths in a particular time and place. The late Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S., in his masterful two-volume meditative study, The Death of the Messiah, or his succinct and profound little booklet A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, far outshines this $30 million piece of truncated and lurid propaganda.

Graphic Brutality

The violence-induced "R" rating, which the movie’s promoters cleverly compare to the same rating given to "such fine films as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), is justifiably earned. The gratuitous, protracted, unnecessarily detailed depiction of the torture of Jesus is very offensive to universal sensibilities.

The violence-induced "R" rating, which the movie’s promoters cleverly compare to the same rating given to "such fine films as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), is justifiably earned. The gratuitous, protracted, unnecessarily detailed depiction of the torture of Jesus is very offensive to universal sensibilities. Three examples which provoked particular disgust: a freakishly imaginative scene of Jesus being hauled off with a chain around his midsection; he tumbles or is shoved off a steep wall, with only the unyielding chain violently yanking him very un-bungeelike in mid-air. Later, the long-suffering Jesus doesn’t react to the soldiers’ liking to the first sadistic session of beatings so a second, more brutal flogging with enhanced implements is graphically presented. And the nailing to the cross is filled with particularly depraved imagined happenings, including flipping the cross face-down with Jesus nailed on it, his body weight tearing into the nails and the full weight of the cross on his back.

The Gospel accounts are less wanton and morbid. As Fr. Raymond Brown notes, the Gospel writers straightforwardly and soberly state that upon arrival at Golgotha, "There they crucified him." Only Hollywood, or an overactive and distorted religious imagination, would fill in details of the stretching of a weakened arm to the point of dislocation and other such horrors shown in the film.

How Is the Suffering of Jesus Salvific?

Defenders of this presentation do so because of their allegiance to its subject, Jesus, whom they confess as Savior and Lord. Those who would make a cult of his agony might consider keeping it in their cultic assemblies, far from the public marketplace of high-stakes movie receipts.

In order to be truly effective in assuming the burden of human sin and paying off a petty, calculating God in gallons of blood for its remission (itself undigested shorthand for a richer, more diverse array of biblical reflection on the meaning of his life and death), the implicit and distorted assumption is that the death of Jesus somehow had to be more agonizing, more brutal than even comparable forms of human suffering and death.

Besides ignoring the historicity of the fact that crucifixion bordered on routine and Jesus was one among so many, is the torment and suffering of other humans really outshone by the ugly death Jesus endured; or, conversely, must we minimize our own share of and complicity in human suffering by exaggerating the sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth?

I would suggest that the cinematic portrayal, about five seconds long, of the crucifixion and implied sexual assault of the wife and family shown in the film The Gladiator seemed more horrible to me, especially since it came upon them without prior knowledge or acceptance. Besides ignoring the historicity of the fact that crucifixion bordered on routine and Jesus was one among so many, is the torment and suffering of other humans really outshone by the ugly death Jesus endured; or, conversely, must we minimize our own share of and complicity in human suffering by exaggerating the sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth? What of the five-year old undergoing a long series of surgeries and chemo treatments for cancer, or multiple skin grafts after a horrible fire? What of the trapped brutalized victim of years of domestic violence with no available means for extrication? What of the Palestinian mother of newborn twins who watched them die right after birth in the cold at an Israeli checkpoint on December 18, 2003; or the dead victims, or alive and forever disfigured, of the numerous random, sick suicide bombers? Or the thousands of slow deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa in 2004? Or the protracted suffering of an Afghani or Iraqi child who steps on a land-mine and lives to tell the tale?

Many have written of their concern for the distorted portrayal of Jews in The Passion of the Christ; I have as much concern for its unbalanced portrayal of Christian belief. The long Tradition (capital "T") of Christianity, despite its own repeated episodes of the ugly infliction of innocent suffering and its petty and ruthless sins of self-protection, nonetheless is custodian to a rich and life-giving Tradition, based on the same biblical material. The suffering and death of Jesus are placed in the wider contexts of a life of service, of a promise of "living water bubbling up from within" the human heart, of a prophetic denunciation of all that is false in religion or society or human motive, and, in John’s passion account especially, the exaltation of the King who "rules from a tree," lifting up human suffering and hopes with him in a cosmic marriage between heaven and earth.

The post-screening interviewer tried to commit him to doing more biblical films as a kind of new ministry. Mr. Gibson squirmed and, in a moment of wise clarity, hedged, "There are a lot of good stories out there." Indeed, the greatest literature and films so often illuminate the mysteries of suffering, death, redemption, salvation, forgiveness, human brutality and betrayal, renewal and resurrection. For narrowly "religious" inspiration, it’s often best to skip Hollywood altogether and find a group of people with generous hearts who celebrate the Risen Christ in their midst. Or go for Hollywood’s best and noblest offerings. Unfortunately, The Passion of the Christ is not among them.

 

The Rev. Mark E. Stanger is canon precentor and associate pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif. He may be reached by email at marks@gracecathedral.org.

The Rev. Mark Stanger looks over the Old City of Jerusalem in October 2003.

 

Related Links:

"Inside Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’" an interview by Cintra Wilson of Salon.com with the Rev. Mark Stanger about The Passion of the Christ.

"Three Takes on the Passion of Christ" by Bruce Fisk of BeliefNet.com