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Volume 16, Issue 1: Ex Imagibus

The Passion of the Christ

Nathan Wilson

The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
New Market Films (2004)

This film, perhaps more than any other, loads a reviewer up with predispositions. For the secular reviewer, only one thing will suffice. The story of Christ's death must not be presented (historically) in accordance with the gospel. Modern historians have aptly demonstrated on the Discovery Channel that the Jews were not responsible for Christ's death. I cannot count how many times I heard this before seeing the film, and how many times I have heard it since. The strange thing was that this historical picking at Gibson's nits completely misled me as to the nature of the film. Secular historians would piously swear their fealty to pedigreed history on CNN, and then point out that their only problem with the film was that it trusted the gospel accounts in that the Jews were seen to have pressured an unwilling Pilate into crucifying Christ. Beyond that, they were fine with it. Seeing and hearing this, I assumed that the film must maintain merely a surface presence, meaning I expected only physical action, not the spiritual. I was not expecting a pervasive Satan character, or child-like demon imps. I was not expecting a resurrection. But I got all of these things. They are all in the film. But historians aren't quibling about Satan's presence in the garden as Christ's disciples sleep. They aren't pointing out that many honorable scholars, (grace be upon them) have denied the resurrection. No, they are careful. Their beef is not with Gibson's faith. It's with something more kosher in today's political climate: his narrative, if not heartfelt, anti-semitism.

This film has a terrific amount of baggage for me, as it does for any Christian, though some of it might vary slightly. It is a Jesus film, and so I am predisposed not to like it. And yet it is Mel Gibson, maker of many bad movies and a couple good ones, and so I am predisposed to like it. The secularists hate it. And so I am further predisposed to sing its praises. It has its own NASCAR, key chains, prefabricated insert-your-church's-name-and-and worship-time-here commercials, and so I want to hate it. I have seen interviews with Gibson, and he has demonstrated, apart from some very Catholic marketing decisions, an unmistakeable backbone. Almost an exo-skeleton. The net effect was that I went into the film already respecting the film makers and their goals, and wishing that I could like it, and, at the same time, suspecting that I wouldn't.
There are a number of ways that the film demonstrated a maturity that I was not expecting. First and foremost, was the spiritual representation of what was going on. The impression throughout the film is that while the Son of God is in chains, the demons and devils have come out to play. It is very much like the scene described by Lewis when Aslan is at the stone table. There are demons outside, playing like children, while Chist is being kangarooed through his trial. Demons hound Judas, again as children, all the way to his death. Satan is a perpetual observor of Christ's torture and at one point is holding and caressing an imp mock-infant while he is being whipped. These are all things that are not in the gospel accounts, and yet they are, at least typologically, far more accurate representations than what the average Christian imagination would provide. This truly was a conflict with personalities on both sides. There really is a character in history who is Lucifer, who tempted the first Adam to destruction, and who was no doubt very interested, and even integral in what went on in the days and hours that led up to the cross. If he was not watching and acting then, then he never has been. The human characters surrounding the torture and trial of Christ frequently deteriorate in their mannerisms into near demon posession, and that can only be expected with so many of them romping around. The historicity of this demonic interaction remains unchallenged.
I cannot even begin to formulate a defense of any poor sap who thinks he can attempt to act the Word made flesh made scapegoat. I cannot defend Gibson for making what I think must be a commandment violation. At the same time, I am profoundly grateful that I saw it. Gibson makes mistakes. He falls into Monty Python medieval villagism, believing everyone to have been unwashed, and the Roman palace's interior looks like a German ruin. It is hard to believe that the flagellation has not been Catholically increased, and the hole in the hand in the final frame looks to have been made by a forty-five. But Gibson transcends his critics where they attack him.
Gibson has been called a sadist; his film is the most anti-semitic film since German propaganda, and death-obsessed religious fanatacism is the last thing we need right now. There is no hope, only despair. The New Yorker even said that The Last Temptation of Christ was a more favorable picture of Jesus. But the truth is that the film is riddled with the promise that the temple will be rebuilt in three days, that Christ will take His life back up again, that Pilate has no authority over Him that is not granted from above. This is what perhaps bothers the secularists most. For them, it looks like nothing more than a gruesome and prolonged suicide. They see that He is able to avoid the cross and does not. And when Christ collapses under the cross along the way and spits through blood to his mother, "Behold, I make all things new," they do not hear, and they cannot understand. They have complained that Gibson dared to focus on Christ's death rather than His teaching. But He taught His death. Their complaint is the foolishness of the cross.

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