THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST IS not the gospel. The movie is one man's meditation on and interpretation of one particular aspect of the gospel: the 12-hour period commonly referred to as Christ's Passion, His suffering and crucifixion.
It just so happens that this man, Mel Gibson, believes that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that the events described by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really happened, and that Christ is who He claimed to be. Mr. Gibson is also a talented and passionate filmmaker, and the combination of firmly held belief and artistic capability means that this film will resonate with many (perhaps most) Christians, despite some very real weaknesses and a singular, limiting focus.
But unlike the gospel itself, acceptance of this movie isn't an either/or proposition. Viewers can appreciate its artistry, its impact, its potential to communicate powerful truths while still looking critically at both art and message.
Two elements DEFINED PRErelease public perception of The Passion of the Christ: the film's brutal violence and alleged anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism charge doesn't really have much to do with this film itself. Mr. Gibson's Passion play can no more be accused of anti-Semitism than the Gospels themselves. In fact, Mr. Gibson dropped a line straight from Scripture (Matthew 27:25: "His blood be on us and on our children") because of its potential to offend.
While The Passion may not be anti-Semitic, it is undoubtedly violent. Brutally, unrelentingly violent. Reports of the film's unflinching depiction of Christ's suffering have not been exaggerated, and the film is well deserving of its R-rating. Mr. Gibson's clear intent is to shock ("I wanted it to be shocking, I wanted it to be extreme, I wanted to push the viewer over the edge," he told Diane Sawyer). Parents, particularly, should be cautious when considering whether their children are ready to have these images burned into their young imaginations.
Although much of the violence may be historically accurate, Mr. Gibson's depiction of Christ's suffering certainly diverges from biblical accounts in this regard. All four Gospels pass quickly over the particulars of Christ's suffering and execution, more urgently focusing on the meaning of these events.
To focus so heavily on Christ's physical suffering verges on a distortion of what was really happening in these events. Christ died not, ultimately, at the hand of Romans or Jews, but according to the will of His heavenly Father. For the sins of believers, He willingly bore the Father's just and holy wrath-a far worse prospect-upon His shoulders, completing a spiritual task that is represented, but not exhausted, by the physical suffering of the cross. He was no mere martyr.
To be fair, Mr. Gibson does strongly suggest that there is spiritual, supernatural significance in these events, through the appearance of Satan personified in the visage of a woman and in the earth-shaking destruction that comes at the moment of Christ's death. The problem, if there is one, is a matter of emphasis.
(Mr. Gibson's choice of emphasis is perhaps the strongest indicator of his Catholicism-Jesus' repeated stumbling during the long road to Calvary perfectly matches the Via Dolorosa, or the stations of the cross, found in many Catholic churches. His depiction of Mary, on the other hand, will not be as problematic for Protestants.)
An Incomplete Story
But however one interprets Mr. Gibson's exegetical choices, The Passion makes for powerful, emotionally wrenching viewing. This is partially due to Mr. Gibson's self-consciously limited focus, which can be understood as a strength of the film as long as it is also acknowledged as a limitation.
It may be best to liken The Passion to a painting of Christ by one of the old masters. Rendered in vivid detail, these works of art focus the mind and imagination on one aspect of Christ's life (very often the crucifixion), but lack the context and completeness to be anything more than one piece of the whole.
Similarly, Mr. Gibson's film lacks context. But his avoidance of the clumsy moralizing and tract-like artifice that characterizes so many other attempts at filming Christ's life adds significantly to the film's emotional (and even intellectual) impact. There's no clean resolution here. Most audiences, Christians and non-Christians alike, may well be provoked by the film to seek out the true context of these brutal events.
The film's limited focus does create a few artistic problems. The film lacks a narrative structure in any traditional sense. The images onscreen simply dramatize the events that occur over a 12-hour period, from Jesus' arrest by the chief priests to His death on the cross. There's quite a bit of repetitive imagery over the course of the two-hour movie. Time and again we see shots of laughing Roman guards, a fallen and beaten Christ, a sad-eyed Mary. The lack of a strong narrative arc also makes for a sometimes numbing viewing experience. The Passion gets so violent so quickly, and is so unrelenting, that viewers may find themselves somewhat desensitized to Christ's suffering before He even reaches the cross.
One issue that has been almost completely ignored in the midst of the controversies surrounding the movie is that some Protestant Christians have been at best uncomfortable with visual depictions of Christ in principle, graphic or not. Far fewer Christians today share that concern, yet the dangers of blasphemy, idolatry, or simple misinterpretation are certainly worth considering. To the degree that Christians treat this movie as a definitive or authoritative "incarnation" of the gospel, these issues can become especially troubling.
Part of the problem is that any depiction of Christ on film is by necessity lopsided. An actor can dig deeply in Christ's human nature, but how can he communicate the divine? This can affect the narrative on several practical levels. The scattered flashbacks to earlier periods of Christ's life are some of the most effective scenes in the film (minus one odd interlude of comic relief involving a high-legged table), but they place in Christ's mind, as He faces His death, thoughts that we have no evidence to suggest were present. A man may well revisit the events of his life as he faces his own mortality, but would Christ's thoughts not have instead been on the mission given to Him by His Father in heaven, as suggested particularly in the Gospel of John?
But while admitting that the dangers here are manifold, even "rigid" theologians of old recognized the importance of acknowledging and understanding Christ as truly incarnate. For instance (and to step back further than most reviewers of this movie are likely to do), 17th-century English theologian Richard Baxter, in his Christian Directory, noted (while at the same time strongly arguing against any and all images of God in worship) that "the making and using of the images of Christ, as born, living, preaching, walking, dying ... rising, ascending, is not unlawful in itself ... as Christ was a man like one of us, so He may be pictured as a man."
The best understanding of The Passion is that it is Mel Gibson's very personal expression of a deeply rooted faith, in the best way he knows how: on film. Christ's Passion is a narrative with which Mr. Gibson connected. He felt burdened to tell it, and to tell it in a way that resonated most closely with his own experience.
However, what Mr. Gibson chooses to accentuate, what he leaves in, what he leaves out-all of these are choices that reflect his artistic sensibility and his personal experience, and are layers on top of the story. It is important to distinguish between this as Mr. Gibson's interpretation of the Gospels and God's Word itself.
Baxter continued his discourse on images of Christ by making the important point that "it is a great part of a believer's work, to have Christ's image very much ... upon his mind ... that a crucified Savior being still as it were before our eyes, we may remember the price of our redemption, and the example we have to imitate." It is something of this image, it seems, that so profoundly affected Mr. Gibson's life, and that he has boldly endeavored to share using the best tools of his art.
The challenge The Passion of the Christ issues to Christians is to place these images into the larger context of God's redemptive plan, and to help unbelievers to do the same.