Some Cautions While Watching “The Passion”

I realize that many will be watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ throughout this week.  I myself have been showing parts of it to my students. So I am not opposed to watching it.  Nor am I interested in resuming the vitriolic arguments that surrounded its release.  But I would like to suggest a few cautions to all viewers that arose in my mind again while I watched some scenes today in class.  Again, because I find these cautions helpful to myself, I offer them to you.

Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on world religions, states:

Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.  It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ.

The last part is my highlighted emphasis.  The danger in the Passion of the Christ is precisely its tendency, in my opinion, to do just this.  Here is a good article to read if you want to go into depth.  I would recommend it before viewing.

In particular, it is helpful to keep three points in mind.  First, what Gibson adds to the movie from the Gospels, though subtle, is important.  For example, Satan is often seen flitting behind the high priest and other priests of the council.  The implication seems clear: Satan is directing their actions. The demon children run Judas to his death.  Neither of these are in the Gospels.  The implication is that most of the Jewish people in Jerusalem were in on this (except for Mary and John). and were excessively cruel.  Torments are added on that never show up in the Gospels. Even the apostles come out looking pretty good.  The truth is however that only Luke has the devil entering into someone’s heart, and that is the heart of Judas.  The Chief Priests were simply trying to protect their law and customs.  Or, if we want to impute demonic influence on them, we must impute it of everyone else as well, and that should be made clear in the movie.  To simply highlight the Jewish leaders is to miss the fact that a nuanced reading shows they had their own religion and indeed possibly existence as a nation at stake.  They weren’t just being intentionally evil.

But Gibson included quite a bit that is not in the Gospels, particular details of this kind that go into slow motion. Agents of the High Priest pay off witnesses.  Crowds of Jews attack Jesus in different parts.  The Pharisees are mentioned as hating Jesus, while in the Passion it was probably the Sadducees who played the largest role in Jesus’ death. So be careful what those images do to you.  This is not a historical reproduction; it is a work of art, of theatre, of imagination. That is the main caution to keep in mind.

Second, on a theological level, to simply merge all details from the four passion accounts into one can be dangerous.  I’ll simply quote from the linked article above:

What does this mean for dramatizations of the passion of Christ from a Catholic perspective? Unless they decide simply to present the passion according to Mark or one of the other evangelists, all authors of passion dramas have to choose elements from the four different Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death in order to shape a coherent narrative.  This leads to the question: what principles of selection will guide the composition of a particular passion script? In addition, how will the drama of the death of Jesus deal with the later theological insights that are embedded in the Gospel texts? If ignored, a script will anachronistically present theological debates that had not yet occurred during Jesus’ lifetime as realities at the time of his death.

Each author of each gospel is at work writing a “narrative,” as Luke calls it.  This allows for certain literary touches and possibly embellishments, as well as concerns from their own situations that may color their renditions, such as struggles between their churches and local synagogues.  To ignore interpretation in dramatizations can lead to distortions of the real meanings of these carefully crafted narratives. There are also differences between the narratives.  His directorial moves reveal his choices.  We must simply be aware of this and keep in mind that he chooses to highlight certain ways of looking at the Passion story and chooses to downplay others.  The article above will help in that regard.

Finally, it is helpful to keep in mind that alongside the Gospels, Gibson was using the private revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich.  An example of some of her more anti-Semitic writings:

At the same moment I perceived the yawning abyss of hell like a fiery meteor at the feet of Caiaphas; it was filled with horrible devils; a slight gauze alone appeared to separate him from its dark flames. I could see the demoniacal fury with which his heart was overflowing, and the whole house looked to me like hell. […]I remember seeing, among other frightful things, a number of little black objects, like dogs with claws, which walked on their hind legs; I knew at the time what kind of wickedness was indicated by this apparition, but I cannot remember now. I saw these horrible phantoms enter into the bodies of the greatest part of the bystanders, or else place themselves on their head or shoulders.

And more:

[A] crowd of miscreants— the very scum of the people—surrounded Jesus like a swarm of infuriated wasps, and began to heap every imaginable insult upon him. […] [They] pulled out handfuls of his hair and beard, spat upon him, struck him with their fists, wounded him with sharp-pointed sticks, and even ran needles into his body; […] around his neck they hung a long iron chain, with an iron ring at each end, studded with sharp points, which bruised and tore his knees as be walked. […] After many many insults, they seized the chain which was hanging on his neck, dragged him towards the room into which the Council had withdrawn, and with their sticks forced him in, […] A large body of councilors, with Caiaphas at their head, were still in the room, and they looked with both delight and approbation at the shameful scene which was enacted, […] Every countenance looked diabolical and enraged, and all around was dark, confused, and terrific.

Heavily influenced by Emmerich, we can see her influence in the film.  Instead of seeing painful concern on the face of the High Priest, agony that he has to do what he is doing, for example, all we ever see is straight-forward hatred.  On the other hand, why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?  I never understand that.  For example: Pilate offers Jesus water to drink.  Pilate’s wife gives Mary towels to wipe up his blood.  Pilate is shocked at how beat up Jesus is after he has been scourged. We are more ready to understand the Gentile than the Jew.

So these are some cautions to keep in mind while watching the film.  Again, this is not to say do not watch.  I find parts of it to be edifying.  But we need to be careful what we get out of it.  To think of it as a film that “tells it like it was” is dangerous and inaccurate.


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20 Responses to Some Cautions While Watching “The Passion”

  1. Fred says:

    I watched TPOTC again recently and noticed many of the things you mention. I also felt that the demonic torture and the physical suffering tended to define Jesus in place of any particular mission…

  2. Thanks for this. It’s good to remind ourselves of the problems in this much praised film.

    Check out the recently-released-in-North-America Jesus film Son of Man if you haven’t already.

  3. Pete Lake says:

    Nathan, thank you for sharing these concerns. They are valid, even if such concerns are far outweighed by bringing to the screen, i.e., to our actual eyes in addition to the eyes of our heart, the Passion of our Lord, which is to say the reason the Word was made Flesh. I try to watch this film every Lent for this very reason. I suppose we could make the same criticisms of most any films or secondary sources that can never be themselves the Sacred Scriptures. But so what? I don’t think any of them would claim to be the inspired word of God. Having said all that, I think the points Gibson makes about Satan, though you are correct that they are not in the Gospels, are fair ones. We can all agree that the trial of our Lord was an unjust trial and that He was unlawfully condemned to the Cross. Is it too far fetched to imagine that Satan was behind that? I don’t think so. It’s not in the Gospels, but it would not contradict the Gospels either.

  4. Great analysis, Nathan!

    For our confused inter-netted times, would there not
    also be merit to add just a bit more on the
    theological front, to help form the Adult mind,
    especially since Gibson himself is rather so misled
    structurally by Emmerich?! Specifically some
    cautionary contextualization of Old Testament
    unfulfilled prophecies! Like Zach. ch.8!

    And that in the End-times, both the Jews and our
    Hebrew-based Church, will both approach God: there
    will not be two but only One final Banquet!!!

  5. PS: Of structural significance to this topic, Nathan,
    is Lumen Gentium from the Dogmatic Constitution
    on the Church, page 367, #16:
    “…in view of the Divine choice, they (the Jews) are
    a people most dear for the sake of the fathers,
    for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom.
    II: 29-29)….but the plan of salvation also includes
    those who acknowledge the Creator….nor is God remote
    from those who in shadows and images SEEK the unknown
    God, since He gives to all men life and breath and
    all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Saviour wills all men to be saved (cf. I Tim 2:4)….”

  6. Thanks Michael. I’ve been planning to check out “Son of Man.”

  7. […] emphasis on the banality of events links in well with an interesting post at Whosoever Desires warning of potential dangers in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. In […]

  8. George says:

    Valid points, but…TPOTC is a piece of religious art, and, like any piece of religious art takes some liberties and may or may not resonate with a particular individual. Prefacing it with a large flashing “caution” sign seems a bit much. If I were viewing a pieta, would you feel compelled to remind me that there is no scriptural basis for depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of Our Lord? If we were listening to a musical setting of the passion, would you whisper during the performance that the gospels are silent on the issue of whether Jesus was a bass?

    As regards the depiction of our elder brothers in faith: I find this Jesus more Jewish than in similar films. Most other Passion pics seem to characterize Jesus and his disciples less as Jews than as Christians in all but name. An interesting side effect of this movie being filmed in Latin and Aramaic is to place Jesus and company very squarely as being Jewish.

  9. George,

    I’ve named the problem to be more at the level of possible anti-semitism with its use of Emmerich. I want people to be aware of what Gibson added that I think is dangerous.

    Also, there is so much out about this film being “just like it was,” that it is a word of caution. This is a very stylized film with tons of slow motion, music, and cinematic violence. It doesn’t strike me as very real to life. So, I think a caution is in order.

  10. Henry says:

    Nathan,

    As others have already noted, “The Passion of the Christ” is a work of art and like any work of art, a person views it through the prism of their own conscious and unconscious beliefs, and the assumptions that they have uncritically absorbed from their culture. As an aside, one book that helped me understand the symbolism of some of the scenes in the movie is “The Theology of the Passion of the Christ” by Dr. Monica Migliorino Miller, and so I recommend it to you and everyone else.

    Now, I saw the movie a few days ago and I kept everything you wrote in your post in mind, and, after seeing it again, I am sorry to tell you that I do not agree with your assessment. In fact, I found it to be full of astute observations of how human beings, human beings full of original sin, interact with each other.

    Setting aside the charge of antisemitism for the moment (a charge that is so easy to make and that is often used as a way to censor someone or something here in NY), let’s look at it from the point of view of a mirror of the events that transpired during Holy Week. Didn’t we see some people hell bent on destroying something they hated – or, strongly disliked – even to the point of disregarding objectivity, fairness, reason, and careful research? So, looking at how those in power operate now, isn’t it reasonable for an artist to imagine that the religious authorities at the time would use any means to get the outcome they wanted? After all, I don’t see that we are that different now, do you?

    While it is true that Mel Gibson included quite a bit that is not in the Gospels, so what? It’s an artistic meditation that reflects the artist’s understanding of the events that transpired during a small period in Christ’s life. I certainly would have done some things differently but I would not try to control what the viewer perceives by making it seem as though my way is the only way to look at the work of art. Let the artwork speak for itself. And I am saying this because of personal experience. I am an artist and when I was exhibiting my work in East Village in the 80’s I hated when critics, art dealers, etc., told people what my work was about and how they should look at it. Let the artwork speak for itself and let the viewer see what he or she is meant to see.

    Pax,

    Henry

  11. Thanks Henry. I saw it again last night and it only confirmed my thoughts. I won’t be watching it again soon. It is so stylistic so as to be unreal.

    And it is full of bad theology and bad scripture scholarship. That I can’t stomach.

    • Henry says:

      That’s probably a good idea since it provokes you so strongly. BTW, most artist’s today would be very happy with the fact that you reacted in such a strong way because that is often what they are trying to do – wake a person up from their slumber.

      Have a blessed Easter Nathan!

      Pax,

      Henry

  12. Henry:
    I’m in Nathan’s camp: and haven’t even yet watched
    the movie! And now due to this discussion, definitely
    plus defiantly, won’t!

    As the movie was being released, and garnered the
    excessive secular commentary, I discerned it to be
    a product of an individual’s “personal” opinion,
    as opposed to art-form.

    True art-form not only addresses, but incorporates some, minimally, and much, maximally if possible,
    of informed plus scholarly opinion the more a product
    verges on the real, the historical, the trueness of
    truth that it attempts to portray.

    Secondly, when one knows much about a subject matter,
    one expects much from the art-form such a one is
    going to observe. Or the observation will meet with
    failure, and then some!

    Mel Gibson knows nothing about Christology: why did
    he really make this film? And waste such valuable
    resources that could have gone into a better
    theologically relevant contemporary more integrated
    product that would leave a viewer thinking,
    on a higher level of confusion! And as a byproduct,
    dent the viewer’s faith position, as brought to the
    viewing!

    Where Gibson loses it is in over-focusing on the
    historical plus existential and not on the prophetic
    necessity and future prophetic ramifications of
    what this vertical intervention in human history
    represents, within the recorded history of theistic
    seeking by unearthed civilizations and mythological
    evolutionary insights to the human agenda: the
    need for “something” out there which in time,
    becomes “Someone” specific! Coupled to not just ONE,
    but TWO permanent COVENANTS! Which in End-Times
    will conjoin: the trailer that is glaringly missing
    in Gibson’s fantasy world!

    And so, just because someone claims to be an artist,
    does not mean an artist they be. And just too many
    artists-turned producers produce just too much
    mediocre junk film today, on a par on just too much
    junk-science produced by too much pseudo research
    by scientists of this Age.

    For me, my own best articulated example of this
    societal deficiency resides in Crucifix art: there
    is none! There are claims to be, but an informed
    objective viewing determines them to be fake.
    During my lifetime quest, I have only found 3!
    The rest are pathetic claims by uninformed,
    theologically illiterate artists churning out
    copy-cat imitations of Middle Ages dead-Jesus
    artifacts, that do nothing, and say nothing
    to the soul, let alone the senses!

    Any artist wanting to “do” great Crucifix Art
    must first take enough theology classes as
    to inform his artistic talents -assuming he/she
    has them- before launching into production!
    On an analogical par to the Sistine Chapel:
    that informed art is influenced by core theology,
    not just good intentions!

    To find good (let alone the miracle of great!)
    Pascal Mystery Crucifix Art just won’t happen
    in my life time! And I don’t know when!

    • Henry says:

      Virgilijus,

      I know from experience that a person views a work of art through the prism of their own conscious and unconscious beliefs as well as their assumptions, but, if I have understood what you wrote correctly, you are making a judgment about a film that you have not seen and do not plan to see – is that right? If that is correct, then, it seems to me, that you are accepting other people’s opinions about the film as true and accurate. Now, don’t misunderstand my intentions, I am not trying to encourage you to see the film, I am simply provoking you to look at the position you’ve adopted.

      While Nathan’s point of view about the film is shared by some, there are others that have a different point of views and so you might be interested in reading René Girard’s review of the movie – http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1001/RGGibson.htm

      Lastly, I am not sure what you mean when you speak about an “art-form” but perhaps that’s a discussion best left to another post. What I do want to say is that even if an artist took a million “theology classes” that would not guarantee that he/she would make great religious art because the problem lies elsewhere. As a hint of what I am trying to say, I will tell you that, in my opinion, Cezanne’s apples exhibit a greater religious sense that Raphael’s Madonna’s.

      Pax,

      Henry

  13. Henry:
    Well said. And understood.
    However my position revolves around that a Dentist does not have to rot all his teeth, before he knows
    how to fix them…
    And so, being a Process Christian, and minimally
    informed, I’ve watched enough material about the
    film to know that I do not wish to put my emotions
    through the ringer of a person that knows next to
    no theology, but whose project is theological!
    And much is said about analyzing the film’s
    “sensing” side of the historical event, and too
    little about its actual Salvation History context!

    Therefore, by definition, this film will do
    nothing to my understanding of Christology! But
    strain my WWII traumatic experiences in war torn
    Europe by subrogation of a film maker’s immature
    handling of the subject matter…with no real
    redeeming qualities to write home about!

    As for Christian Art, my prior post’s feeble
    exploration in context of this film, attempted a
    thesis that MOST if not all “doers” of Christian
    Art, do so only “in the name” of their respective
    religious affiliation, but NOT from a minimal
    context of knowledge affiliation: resulting in
    Pablum Art. I seek Mature Christian Art; and
    basically, haven’t found any in my life time!

    At least, for example, our Eastern Brothers &
    Sisters, before doing a Icon, must first do a Retreat!
    So, at least “something” is done to both the brain,
    and the Soul! They should mature that after all these
    hundreds of practise years, into an additional
    synthetical theology course or two: it can’t hurt
    and can definitely help!

    This is glaringly absent among Catholic Artists’
    Crucifix Art! Utter ignorance of the Pascal Mystery
    is evidenced in the pathetic products they flog
    on the pews! They don’t even know what the
    Pascal Mystery is! They give us Placebo Christianity,
    in art form! I don’t pray to a Mystical Cowboy!

    If you’ve been through the Desert, spiritual desert,
    you have nothing else to lose! You become dangerous
    to some, and appealing to others. You now love
    what others ignore, and ignore what others love.
    Our Christian Art must reflect that also!

  14. Henry says:

    Virgilijus,

    Pardon the delayed response my friend, it’s been a killer week so far! I understand, and BTW, I agree that the majority of “Catholic art” I see is absolutely awful. I do, however, collect crucifixes and I found some beautiful ones in Barcelona, Mexico, and Peru.

    I am trying to find a beautiful statue of St. Joseph and if you ever see one, please let me know.

    Pax,

    Henry

  15. Henry:
    One of the unintended consequences of this
    missioning blog is for me to find such a soul-mate
    in yourself: what a blessing! Praise His holy name!

    I’ve never run into another Christian “into”
    quality Crucifix Art, let alone any good religious
    art: you’re the first!

    For me it’s sad to visit Xtian homes and
    deliberately look to see (1) if they even hang
    a crucifix, (2) if they do, what level of spending
    does it display, and (3) where is it hung (in the
    washroom, or the living room -lol?!) to discover
    all 3 conspicuously weak, or even absent!
    People will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars
    on a house, and at most ten lousy dollars on a cheap
    crucifix (if even that!) that is hung somewhere
    out of sight so no one sees it! Go figure!

    Any house warming I attend, my gift is an expensive
    PASCAL Mystery type Crucifix, with the demand, not
    request, it be hung in the Living Room,
    so it becomes, a Living influence
    as the source of life!
    (Where are the sermons on that, eh?!)

    Anyway, would love to get an email picture of
    your Crucifixes as acquired over time!

    As for Joseph, that’s about as tough a one as for
    any Marian art form! However, it is Providential
    that you should ask: about two Christmas’s ago,
    a local Protestant religious store had an Xmas sale
    and blew me away with a simple Nativity scene, of
    Mary, Joe, and baby Jesus. That latter, pathetic,
    the former two, absolutely new stylistic humble
    interpretations, made in China with authorship
    of artist unknown. So I bought all they had, gifted
    them away by now and have only Mary left as the
    singular sole piece of acceptable Marian art form
    in my life! (I’ll inquire of the store if they
    remember and possibilities of availability: many
    times they are one-of-a-kind left by salespeople!)

    A personal Xtian Practise: because Jesus as symbol
    participates in that signified, I have a quality
    Crucifixes placed on all my living space walls,
    so that I engage Its presence from every and any
    angle of vision!

    If one psychoanalyzes one’s innermost center
    of being, in time one’s soul (which is the self!),
    one sees that one always actually experiences
    serenity whenever making eye contact with a Crucifix!
    And, the better the art form representation, the
    more all the senses are engaged as well, for an even
    more intense spiritual moment, which is where He
    always is: in the moment of space time we stop
    to experience His impactful presence.

    • Henry says:

      Thanks, yes it’s great to meet a brother in Christ with the same desire for Beauty (with both a little “b” and a capital “B”! I will try to send you some photos.

      Pax,

      Henry

  16. […] review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to our attention in the discussion of Nathan’s critique of the […]

  17. Jason says:

    For myself, I’ve seen TPotC exactly once, and I have no plans to see it again. I’m not an emotional person (understatement of the century) but I came out feeling like I’d been put through a wringer.

    The shock and awe of it seemed unrelenting and I’m not sure why anyone would want to see it twice. The attempts at humour (a table? honestly!) jarred too and detracted from the film.

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