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Gibson's "Passion" -- Awe and Shock

John A. Nixon

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After reading and hearing all the controversy, it was with great anticipation that I saw Mel Gibson's  "The Passion of the Christ."  I was awed by James Caviezel in portraying the most convincing and Semitic Jesus that I have seen on the screen. He played the Man more believably than actors in other Jesus movies. He took on the role in a way that conveyed divinity and humanity in a very real way. Of course, these portrayals were most evident in the flashback scenes; for the most part, however, he's busy reacting to the beatings. It's therefore no coincidence, I think, that Caviezel is a believer and found he had to pray a great deal to execute his role. Convincing as well was Maia Morgenstern's portrayal of Mary. She has a prominent role, and helped to create a story of relationships behind the Gospel accounts of the last 12 hours of Jesus' earthly life. She thus added to the tangibility of the humanity of Jesus' suffering, seen through the eyes of His mother.

Shocking tangibility was something this movie certainly had: I felt more as if I was actually there, listening in and watching the events, than I had in viewing other Jesus movies. The use of ancient languages added to this tangibility. Thankfully, Gibson included subtitles. The Gospels gloss over the details of the torturous pain of the scourging and crucifixion. While Orthodox Christianity sticks to the Gospel accounts in it focus, the Catholic and Protestant traditions have explored the pain Jesus endured with reflective emotionality; the Way of the Cross, the Stabat Mater, and Sr. Anne Catherine Emmerich's Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ are the lens though which Gibson interprets the Gospels. Does the film go too far with the violence? It depends: if we are to stick with the Gospels themselves, then, yes. However, first century readers of the Gospels knew what crucifixion was, and probably from personal witness. Twenty-first century audiences in the western world are far removed from this particularly humiliating and cruel form of execution that had its beginnings in ancient Persia and which subsequently was perfected by the Romans, who typically preceded a crucifixion with beatings and scourging. Crucifixion was so brutal that Roman citizens generally were exempted from it. In the film, the beatings  are virtually nonstop. In the case of Jesus, most scholars agree that He got more than the usual amount.

The endurance of the continual beatings present a theological problem, however, for implications the film (and Western Christian theology) make about Jesus, the God-man. The Fathers of the Early Church were precise in defining Jesus' divine-human nature. No man, even an athletic carpenter's son, could carry a cross the complete course to the place of execution, having been beaten virtually nonstop since His arrest; the horizontal beam itself would have weighed over 100 pounds. The idea that He was superhuman in enduring the pain diminishes the reality of His suffering as a human. Therefore, since there is much metaphorical content in the film, necessarily so, given that the Gospels were not written as screenplays, the only way I could make sense of the nonstop beatings was to see them as a metaphor for the much larger picture of the rejection of Jesus by the world. Gibson does want to shock the viewer into realizing the intensity of the suffering. He succeeds. The scourging and crucifixion is more something we participate in, rather than simply observe as a sanitized visual recitation of the Gospels. Through vivid and bloody violence, Gibson shows in detail the dark side of a fallen humanity, an openly brutal and savage side which persists in this century. We thus need to see the violence at a level necessary to overcome our desensitized consciousness in order to appreciate its significance and the human reality of Jesus' voluntary sacrifice.

For me, the greater significance of Christ's sacrifice for our salvation was not in the crucifixion, but in the resurrection; He defeats Death. In the film, we see Hades disturbed, and the resurrection lasts about two minutes. I would have preferred a bit more to establish the context of what happened after the burial. It is in light of the resurrection that Christ's victory over death is realized. To have seen Hades decimated, and the women who met Him early on that first Easter morning, and the risen Jesus' first appearance to the gathered disciples, would have helped to reify His victory for the viewer.

One must ask why Gibson has drawn so much  fire long before this film was even released, and a number of commentators have addressed this issue.  Early last year, detractors  began by trying to dig up dirt on Gibson's family. Secular forces in the western world for quite some time have been aggressively unraveling our moral social fabric shaped by Judeo-Christian sensibilities of right and wrong, good and evil. So when a famous actor breaks ranks and begins this project because of the conviction of his faith, influential forces in the media work to discredit him. The Cross of Christ is foolishness, to them at best, and I remain convinced that Evil in the world does not want the sacrifice of Jesus Christ proclaimed, and this film does that.

See The Passion of the Christ. Don't take young kids, however: it's R rated because of the graphic violence. If you go with the prayerful desire to appreciate the intensity of Christ's suffering, you won't be disappointed.

John Nixon has an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and an Ed.D. in Counseor Education. He is an Arizona Certified Professional Counselor and counselor educator in Phoenix, AZ.

Read this article on the Nixatron Blog website. Visit the John Nixatron website at www.nixatron.com. Reprinted with permission of the author

Posted: 3/6/04

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