SINCE I AM EVIDENTLY IN THE HABIT OF RECOMmending R-rated movies, few will be surprised that I plunked down $8.50 for another this weekend, abjuring the natural leanings of my gentle sex to submit to violence that makes The Matrix look like Lab puppies playing. (Reviewer A.O. Scott of The New York Times, unmindful of paraphrasing Isaiah 52:14, said by way of criticism that the Jesus of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is so excessively lashed that "he is all but unrecognizable, a mass of flayed and bloody flesh, barely able to stand, moaning and howling in pain." Out of the mouths of babes and unfriendly critics ...)
After weeks of a pre-release national food fight over the film (that tells me religion is never far from the surface of every person's thoughts) and exhausted hyperbole over its ground-breaking realism, I went to Passion wanting an "experience." I wanted the shakes and barking and uncontrollable tears that two centuries ago swirled around revival camps where even hard-nosed and religiously challenged reporters were caught up viscerally along with true believers. An hour into the movie, this wasn't happening.
"What did you go out to the [cinema] to see?" Matthew 11:7-9 rebuked my conscience. "A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see?" A social phenomenon bigger than anything to hit the country since September 11th? "What then did you go out to see?" An apparition that would make you a better person automatically? (If that were possible, then Abraham might have granted the rich man's request in Luke 16:27-31). A movie that would deepen your relationship with Christ? But what deepens your relationship with Christ? Is it not obedience and walking in His ways?
The Passion was not so much a movie as an old-fashioned passion play. Mr. Gibson takes us by the hand along the church nave walls to pause between each stained-glass eye and bow before Twelve Stations of the Cross, as once we children did on many a Good Friday, fingering rosaries in prayer. And just as I was nursing that thought as a criticism, it dawned on me that the Bible is the same way. Not everything that Jesus ever said and did is shared (we know this from John 21:25), but just enough to make the point. Mr. Gibson has constructed a one-point sermon, and he has done it very well: Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and the propitiation for sin, for Jew and Gentile alike.
I thought about what a movie can do, and what it cannot. Can a movie save? I wouldn't think so. Can a movie containing the words of God save? Ah, that's another story. And what words! The director posts this summary statement at the head of his film, like the INRI posted on the mast of the cross: "He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities" (Isaiah 53:5). And every scene from there is a vehicle for showcasing the gospel.
But a movie cannot do follow-up. It cannot go home and read the Bible. It cannot answer the 20 questions your unsaved neighbor will pepper you with afterward at Starbucks. Nor can it be the daily model she will look at to see Christ alive and relevant, when once the impact of the movie has faded like the glow on Moses' face behind the veil.
America went to the movies this month. Some came away with an Aristotelian catharsis, and others came away with true repentance. Some saw Jesus, while others, like the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, swore there was nothing there at all. And the responses to the movie were uncannily the movie playing itself out, with the divisions between men depicted in the film mirrored in the divisions between men in theaters and the press. For Jesus will always do that: "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division" (Luke 12:51).
But where seed has indeed fallen on fertile ground, and not the hardened sod from which Satan snatches away, are we evangelicals even ready for a large harvest? Or are we ourselves effete and confused in our rocky, rootless, thorny soil of "the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches" (Matthew 13:22)? What will we say to our neighbors after the movie is over?