Mel Gibson has always been a sensitive subject at my house. I love action movies. No one is going to confused them with great art, and I don't, but sometimes you just want a diet Coke, popcorn, and a good car chase. Without making generalizations about the gender, my particular wife does not view this as a great date. She keeps unreasonably demanding things from films such as good dialog and female characters that are not just physically well rounded. And then I noticed an odd thing. We kept going to a certain sort of action movie. My darling wife would always say agree to a particular date film. This was good, but I had a startling observation, Mel Gibson was in all these films. This was not just startling, it was disturbing. Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask her about what I hoped was an accidental circumstance. "It is his eyes. Those eyes." my faithful, conservative wife sighed.
Having overcome my initial irrational resentment, I was forced to concede something I had not noticed up to the point. Gibson has expressive eyes. Now the power of eyes is something I understand. My job may not be driving fast cars or defending Scotland from English tyranny, but I am a philosopher who specializes in Plato. (Though it is not quite comparable when it comes to meeting people and impressing them.) Ancient philosophy knew that eyes can be a window to the soul of a man. If someone connects with you, looking you in the eyes, it can have a powerful impact.
I began to look at Gibson, the person, in his movies. If the eyes were a window to his soul, I wondered what I would find there. There seemed to be a bright-eyed sterility to the Mad Max Gibson. He did not seem to be there, just acting out a part. Lethal Weapon Gibson seemed trapped by roles that grew progressively more paint by numbers. The impressive performance in the too little watched Hamlet showed a Gibson who wanted more, but was being (once again) let down by a script that butchered the Bard. Then Gibson began to make his own movies, to get more control over their content, and his vision seemed to change. There was both pain and passion in his gaze in the nearly perfect movie Braveheart. None of his later films quite matched this intensity, almost as if Mr. Gibson had gone on to something else and was making films to pay for it. Now we know what that something else is.
I was fortunate to see Gibson's film several months ago. It is far and away the best film about any portion of the life of Christ ever made. This is faint praise indeed, because with exception of the made for television Jesus of Nazareth, which plods but has powerful moments, most of the films are very bad indeed. There is the over-blown and pretentious Last Temptation of Christ which had the unique ability to be both blasphemous and boring. There is The Greatest Story Ever Told which managed to include every breathing Hollywood star, but which only clicks when Heston is on the screen as John the Baptist. The casting of Jesus is so bizarre and the score so overdone that it is hard to take the entire movie seriously. Gibson easily defeats all of those films by having a good script, great actors, and a steady directorial hand. He also tells one portion of the life of Christ and does not fall into the last temptation of all directors dealing with Jesus to work in all the good material.
Assaults on the film seem to come in three ways. The film is: too Christian, or anti-Semite, or too violent. Let's get those out of the way before talking about The Passion as a movie.
Is Gibson's movie too Christian? One can hardly turn on the television without seeing some apostate Christian leader proclaiming that Gibson was naïve for basing his film on the Bible. With ever decreasing membership, these "mainstream" pastors have nothing better to do than allow their parishioner envy full reign on cable talk shows. These Church leaders seem worried that their own pet vices are condemned by "literal" reading of the Bible. If the life of Jesus has to be mythologized to save sodomy, then so be it. Empty pews don't bother them have as much as the fear of Biblical literalism on film. Occasionally, they can even find an odd Catholic bishop or two who mystically believes that following the Episcopal Church to theological destruction will save Christianity. For the most part, these Christian leaders are the leaders of the Christians who don't go to church. Existing on endowments from better times, they worry most about the growth of more orthodox communities.
What these sheepless shepherds mean by Gibson's fearful "literal reading of the Bible" is Gibson having the audacity to read the text for authorial intent. Mel Gibson made the mistake of reading the Bible the way one reads, say, any other book. Of course, if one did that then most of present Episcopal bishops would be out of work. Lightly educated, their only function is to find ever more convoluted explanations of how the Bible actually reflects a worldview to the left of Dennis Kucinich. Actually dealing with Greek texts, interpreting them, understanding the Church fathers and the creeds are far more daunting tasks. Better to label their actual job "old fashioned" and "unnecessary," so they can attend another well-lubricated business meeting to deal with church investments.
If one wants to find the roots for the liberal political affection for a "living constitution," one can find it in most seminaries. Utterly marginal to academic life most of the time, these Bible "scholars" have but one mission. They are allowed to exist by the secular academy only so long as they make periodic denunciations of actual Christian scholarship. Sadly, the only remnant of the Victorian era to survive at schools like Harvard is Victorian Biblical criticism. Members of the "Jesus Seminar," who know nothing about Jesus and are not a seminar, exist only to be brought out to denounce Easter every Easter. Year by year, they try to replace their imaginary, up-to-date Jesus for the Jesus of the historical Gospel accounts. They predictably hate Gibson's film, because they hate the Jesus every else loves. People interested in actual scholarship on the subject of Jesus should read the excellent collection of articles in Jesus UnderFire (see below).
The Passion is not at all the work of an anti-Semite. Jewish characters are on both sides of the Jesus question. Roman characters, with the possible exception of Pilate's wife, are all bad guys. Gibson could have been more sensitive in his dealings with the Jewish community. Faithfulness to the gospels in a wooden way is not a sufficient justification for some of the film's decisions. The Gospels have an axe to grind in an era before pogroms and the Holocaust. They portray the Jewish leaders in unflattering ways using the general term "Jews." Such were the normal conventions of ancient historical writings. Check out Tacitus if you want to see this sort of generalizing raised to a propaganda art form. This has to be handled with care in a modern context in order to give the reader of a translation of the Bible the message the author intended and not an overly strong one. For example, translating the common New Testament Greek term for "the Jews" when the Jewish leaders are being condemned for their attacks on Jesus as "the Jews" in English sounds more accurate, but misses important historical context. As odd as it might seem, "Jewish leaders" is more accurate and much less inflammatory. The version of the film I saw missed this point. In any case, Gibson never seemed to grasp the pain that centuries of anti-Semite persecution has caused. He was not well served by his early statements on this topic. However, there is nothing in the film or about Gibson personally that justifies any broader conclusion than that he was insensitive. Given that persons of Gibson's certified genius are routinely forgiven much greater sins in Hollywood, the passion directed at Gibson's early fumbles is inexcusable.
Some of my favorite writers, including the luminous Frederica Mathewes-Greene, find the movie too violent. They rightly point out that the Gospels themselves are sparing in their accounts of the crucifixion. Do we really need the gore?
The historical context of the Gospels provides the answer. Readers of the day were intimates of violent death. Any Jew or Greek in Palestine would have seen numerous crucifixions in a given year. Nobody needed to describe the details. Just as they needed no translator for the Greek of the text, they needed no blow by blow account of what the victim of a Roman beating looked like. Americans and other Westerners, thanks to Judeo-Christian culture, are insulated from those times. Most of us have never seen a beating, let alone the victim of expert torture. We don't get it.
The reaction to Saddam's torture proves the point. We cannot imagine what torture is really life. In fact, movies have served us badly here. They show cartoonish violence against stock orcs pulled from cgi hell. The camera blinks when the violence becomes too real with judicious cutaways. Gibson gives us what any ancient person would have had burned into his bones: a clear vision of what it means to be tortured by the power of a government without moral restraint. The Christians of the catacombs did not need this lesson, the Christians who go to Disneyland do.
It is impossible to comment about other reviews of the film from more liberal pundits who routinely give slasher movies a pass, but find their stomach turned by The Passion. Unlike most Hollywood films, violence is not glorified in The Passion. It is essential to the story being told. It is done realistically, which is the actual complaint of the critics. They prefer cartoonish violence that does not force them to face hard questions. Violence that lowers the cultural bar does not threaten the industry. Instead, Gibson has used Hollywood's tools to force a modern culture to ask ancients questions about life and death, sacrifice and redemption. No one can watch The Passion without asking, "What about this man Jesus?"
Gibson's really unpardonable sin is being brilliant and creative in an industry that rewards conformity to its own skewed community standards. A man who defies the powers that be and makes a film they know no one will watch and then has the temerity to succeed despite their attacks is dangerous. He has not bowed down to their golden calf.
But is it a good movie? It is a great movie. Every element of the film combines to tell the story. The script is well balanced and moves rapidly to the climax of the film. Oddly, the acting is not limited by the "foreign" language. The story is well known and could be followed by any literate without reference to the sub-titles. Though some of the technique is familiar to fans of Braveheart, Gibson has matured as a director. This is must see film, regardless of the subject matter. If there is justice, it will win "Best Picture" next year. If there is no justice, it will be vindicated by history. It is the movie made this year most likely to be watched in one hundred years. Like an ancient icon, it is spare with no extra details allowing all the focus to be on the central character: Jesus Christ. In a culture that prefers His name to be a profanity, this is the film's great achievement. It is the only movie ever to capture the humanity and the divinity of the God-Man.
Gibson named his production company "Icon." I have always wondered at this name. My own Church is the Church of the Holy Icon, the window to Heaven. These artistic images, which had to be defended at great cost against haters of images, provide mystical and profound theological insight to the man who approaches them. It is a heady ambition for a man to try to learn to write icons in celluloid. It has never been done, and perhaps has yet to be done. At the end of the film, I was emotionally moved, but the feeling was deeper still. Could it have been the Spirit of God? Who can say? Gibson may have provided a window, cloudy but real, to the sufferings of the Savior of the World.
It may have been too much even for Gibson to meet his goal, but Gibson's film is close, very close. It is unlikely that Mr. Gibson will ever read this review. But if he does, I hope it brightens those eyes of his. If true icons are a window to heaven, then Gibson's movie is at the very least a window into one brilliant man's true vision and real relationship with Jesus Christ.
John Mark N. Reynolds is founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, a great books and community centered program for gifted students, at Biola University. He is the home school father of four and a member of Saint Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church in Whittier California.
Copyright © 2004 John Mark Reynolds. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author. Read this article on the California Republic website.