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Reflecting on "The Passion of the Christ"

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse

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Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" boldly asserts that the cross stands at the center of the Christian gospel. The claim is scandalous to Jews, folly to Greeks, and threatening to secularists. It accounts for some of the strong attacks against the film before its release and the tepid uncertainty from Hollywood that follows it. Clearly this movie is making an impact that will take some time to assess.

"Passion" chronicles the last twelve hours of the life of Christ starting with the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and leading up to the crucifixion, with the briefest glimpse of the resurrection. Scenes of the arrest and torture make up most of the film.

It is hard to overstate the impact of these scenes. Every crack of the whip is heard. Flesh is ripped from body and blood spatters the faces of onlookers. It's a relentless portrayal of gruesome suffering.

Gibson draws from a Roman Catholic traditionalism that portrays the crucifixion in the stark terms of historical realism. The idea behind it is that understanding the magnitude of the suffering that Christ endured helps a viewer comprehend the enormity of His sacrifice on the cross.

These stark images are foreign to Orthodox viewers and makes them uneasy at first. It is difficult to reference this brutal depiction to any familiar standard. There are no pegs on which to hang these pictures.

The Orthodox iconographic tradition depicts the crucifixion with much less blood and anguish. The idea behind it is that the quieter style makes the voluntary nature of Christ's sacrifice more evident.

The main icon of the crucified Christ for example, doesn't show the blood and bruises. Instead it expresses the humility Christ displayed in accepting a death that was underserved and unjust. The point is to show that Christ entered death voluntarily, in order to destroy death altogether and thereby reconcile man to God.

It's a mistake to conclude however, that because the iconographic styles between Catholic traditionalism and Orthodoxy are different, Orthodox viewers should avoid the film. The different styles represent a different sensibility, not a difference in doctrine. What Gibson depicted is accurate and correct.

Unfortunately some Orthodox commentators jumped to the wrong conclusion. They assumed that the difference in iconographic sensibilities meant that the movie was teaching a false gospel. They zeroed in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (also called forensic justification) that teaches that Jesus substitutes Himself in the place of all sinners to placate the wrath of an angry God.

There is no question that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement ruled the roost for many years, especially in conservative Protestant circles. From an Orthodox perspective the reliance on this doctrine alone distorts the God of scripture. It is not true however, that forensic language has no warrant in scripture or that Orthodox theology has no doctrine of atonement. These differences are real, but they are not evident in the film.

"Passion" can benefit the Orthodox viewer. Orthodox teaching does not shy away from the brutal realism of the crucifixion, but conveys it through words, not images. On the other hand, who really understands what scourging and crucifixion are today? Who is really aware of the brutality Christ endured? Gibson's movie can be instructive in this regard yet still clarify why the Orthodox tradition doesn't place the suffering front and center.

The centrality of the cross also helps explain why the film is widely accepted by Evangelical audiences. Given the aversion in Evangelical circles to both religious images and the Marian devotion common to Catholic traditionalism, it is surprising that not more criticism was heard. Evangelicals embraced the film wholeheartedly, often bringing entire congregations to see it.

The film portrays evil brilliantly. It personifies the source of evil in the symbol of a woman-like yet androgynous being, and shows how evil spreads through a culture by taking root in the human heart. Gibson's traditionalism is very evident here. It recalls Solzhenitsyn's observation gleaned from eight hard years in the Gulag that "the line between good and evil divides the heart of every man." The wickedness of men and their evil machinations are so convincing that these characters could function as archetypes, as anyone who has suffered from their dark work can confirm.

The personification of evil also refutes the assumption prevalent in the larger culture that evil does not really exist. While evil has no ontological reality and does not exist as a thing by itself, it nevertheless enters the world through the hands of a person whose heart is darkened and whose mind no longer sees God. Sometimes the most diabolical evil is the kind perpetrated in the name of a greater good -- where ideology supplants the commandment to love.

The widespread acceptance the film has found in Christian circles despite some misgivings indicates it might be functioning as a cultural marker of sorts. It comes when the nation has been thrust into wrenching moral debates about gay marriage and other issues. Some Jewish commentators make the same point. They are quite open about their hope that the film would contribute to the moral restoration of American culture. They argue that a strong and vigorous Christianity benefits Jews as well as Christians. The real threat to American Judaism is not the film and certainly not Christianity, but the secularism that seeks the removal of religious faith from public life altogether.

It's hard to tell how the movie will be seen years from now. One measure of its success may be whether it gets people to return to the scriptural texts and read it for themselves. Another might be to compel lukewarm Christians to get with the program. A third might be to raise awareness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the larger culture. Don't see the film if a graphic portrayal of human suffering is too much to bear. Others may find it informative, instructive, sobering, and even uplifting.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website OrthodoxyToday.org.

Posted: 3/4/04



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