A Conversation Betwen Mark and Mel (Jul-Aug 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

“Who Do you Say I Am?”
Mel Gibson’s Jesus, Our Jesus, and the Jesus of Scripture

by John Barton
July – August, 2005

Adapted from a chapter in the upcoming 2006 Chalice Press book, Preaching Mark’s Unsettling Messiah. This book is the printed content of the annual Rochester College Sermon Seminar.

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released on February 25th, 2004, and since has become the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time. With the release of the dvd, the theatre release of the Recut version in 2005, and the many supplementing materials that go with it, the film has also proven to be a remarkable cultural event.

Of course, reviews of and opinions about the film vary wildly. Some, for example, see in The Passion the most beautiful and faithful portrayal of Jesus’ death that has ever been put to film. Others see only a bloody testament to an angry God and describe the film as “more gory than glory” and sarcastically suggest better titles for the film such as “Mad Mel” or “Lethal Passion.” Still others, such as Robert Franklin of Emory, note that many African American Christians have responded positively to the film, being drawn toward a suffering Jesus who is unjustly condemned in a corrupt system. Of course, others have notably charged the film with being anti-Semitic and potentially contributing to violence against Jews. These critics remind us of the historical precedent for such violence as when, in 1539, the Roman municipal authorities had to cancel the annual Passion Play after Christian audiences had angrily ransacked Jewish ghettos after a performance. It is also noted that a number of Muslim countries have lifted bans on western movies in order that The Passion could be shown in those countries, a move presumably resulting not from the Christian depiction of Jesus but from the films negative depiction of Jews.

The fact that the film receives such polarized reviews does not say anything about its content per se; after all, as some have rightly noted, Jesus himself received mixed reviews.

But for better or for worse and despite the polarized reviews, this film continues-almost two years after its initial release-to shape (and reflect) an incredibly large number of people’s understandings and mental images of the death of Jesus, as well as understandings and assumptions about the Christian message in general. For that reason alone thoughtful Christians need to continue to assess the films influence and message.

Much could be said here, but in this article let me briefly explore a few of the more uncommon strands of the debates by imagining what Mark (the author of the earliest Gospel) might add to the discussions. In fact, I want us to imagine Mark the Evangelist and Mel Gibson sitting in a movie theatre together watching and discussing this film. Now I understand that trying to imagine this is highly speculative and requires much imagination! Consider, for example, the incredible expanse of time and culture and language that would have to be traversed in order to make such an event possible. But I do think this imaginative exercise has more to offer than what is immediately obvious.

At one point, Gibson stated his hope that watching his movie would be for the viewers like “traveling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred.” Could Mel sustain such a sentiment as he sits with the Gospel writer in a theatre and tries to explain the film to him? Even if time and space and language could be traversed so as to allow Mark to actually watch the film, think of how totally unprepared he would be to comprehend some of the thematic and cinematic elements of The Passion. Consider the following examples:

  • What would Mark think of the androgynous Satan figure with its hooded cloak (a cloak which resembles the one worn by the Evil Emperor in the Star Wars series, a cinematic sign of evil that we are all “trained” to understand). What would Mark think as this figure mysteriously moves in the crowds? What would Mark think of the scene where a maggot is seen coming from Satan’s nose? Would Mark be able to understand or even identify this figure?
  • For another horror-film-type example, how would Mark experience the group of Jewish children in the film who are laughing and playing around Judas and then suddenly morph into Stephen King type demons and torment him?
  • Would Mark be able to follow the movement of the flashbacks in the film and the way they are intended to provide cinematic “backstory?”
  • Would Mark comprehend the mood-setting elements such as that of the opening scene where the Garden of Gethsemane is portrayed less as a garden and more as a mysterious foggy medieval forest, supplemented by eerie music and surround-sound audio effects?

Many more examples could be given. But these a merely a few examples of the modern artistic expression used to enhance the film’s message for those who are properly trained to perceive them. But there are other more significant thematic features of the film that would be equally as removed from Mark’s experience and knowledge. Consider, for example, the way the film adopts the form of the classic Passion Plays with its intense focus on the last hours of Jesus’ life (an influence which Mark would know nothing about). Or the way the film employs “visual quotes” of famous works of art such as the quote of Michelangelo’s Pieta portrayed when the body of Jesus slumps into the arms of Mary. One could also mention the film’s narrative organization around the classic Stations of the Cross, or the Catholic characterizations of Mary the mother of Jesus. In order to fully understand the film’s ethos, Mark, as well as many modern viewers, would also need to be introduced to Gibson’s heavy reliance on the early nineteenth century German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich whose influence is especially noted by the detailed (and forensically unrealistic) brutality of crucifixion events, as well as antagonistic and even demonic roles of many of the film’s Jews.

Here’s my point: Through Mark’s eyes, we receive a general reminder of the distance between the world of this film and the world of author of the earliest Gospel, thus making Gibson’s desire for the film to be like “traveling back in time and watching the events unfold exactly as they occurred” seem hopelessly naive. Of course, the reminder of distance should not stop with Gibson. Through this dialogue, we also are challenged to acknowledge the distance between our world of cars, computers, PDAs, and leather bound engraved copies of the Bible, from the world that Mark lived in as he penned his Gospel.

Acknowledging such distance is significant in many ways beyond just the technological and cultural. The dialogue between Mark and Mel also highlights questions of content, starting with the question of whether Gibson is guilty of giving a distorted portrayal of Jesus, a question which, in turn, is directed toward all of us.

On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” . . . “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:27b, 29)

In February of 1804, Thomas Jefferson sat in the White House with several Bibles in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, and he cut verses and pasted pieces together in order to produce his own version of a Gospel which is now known as The Jefferson Bible. In short, Jefferson’s Gospel presented a Jesus that was more compatible with Jefferson’s worldview than was the Jesus of the four Gospels. As an Enlightenment rationalist and deist, Jefferson could not bring himself to accept the Jesus of signs and wonders, but he did embrace Jesus’ great ethical teaching and moral example. So when Jefferson’s scrap booking party was over, he had his own tailor-made Gospel and a Jesus created in his own image: a rational ethicist void of any miracles or supernatural occurrences.

In a provocative article entitled “Jesus Nation, Catholic Christ,” Stephen Prothero accuses Mel Gibson of being guilty of the same crime as Jefferson in his producing of The Passion of the Christ: rather than accurately representing the Jesus of history or even Scripture, The Passion merely presents a Jesus made in the image of Mel. Gibson’s Jesus-of-choice, however, is quite different than Jefferson’s, according to Prothero. For Gibson, Jesus is primarily a “man of sorrows,” a suffering Jesus filtered strongly through the medieval Catholic lens described above. This Jesus, the article says, is violently thrust into our faces in scene after brutal scene in the movie. Prothero further states that Gibson’s portrayal is, in part, a reaction against still another uniquely American Jesus: the friendly, soft, Mister Rogers-type, “what a friend we have in” Jesus. (Another commentator describes this soft Jesus by imagining Barney the Dinosaur singing “I love you / You love me / Let’s be friends in Galilee”; this is a mental image that has caused me to lose some sleep in recent weeks!). In other words, according to Prothero, Gibson seeks to replace a wimpy cultural “buddy Jesus” with a shocking medieval “bloody Jesus.” Prothero summarizes these three invented Jesus’ in the following way: The Jefferson Jesus is about the mind and came to earth to deliver moral maxims, the Mister Roger’s Jesus is about the heart and came to earth to exude sympathy, and Mel Gibson’s Jesus is all about the body and he came to earth to, as Prothero so delicately puts it, “spew blood.”

Prothero’s analysis is insightful and challenging and demands attention in a world where Jesus has been cast as, among other things, “black and white, gay and straight, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a civil rights activist and Ku Klux Klansman.”

But the pertinent questions include the following: Is Gibson really guilty of the same kind of cut-and-paste Jesus-creating as Thomas Jefferson? Is there a difference between what each has done? What are the implications for what each of us does every time we speak for or about Christ? Of course, Mark also knows something about the tailor-made-Jesus business. Peter had been guilty of this as well, and in Mark 8 when Jesus didn’t meet Peter’s tailor-made expectations, Peter even rebuked him! You can almost hear Jesus’ responding rebukes of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” and “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” and “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Understood in the context of Mark’s narrative, I think what Jesus was saying to Peter was the following: “Peter, your cut-and-paste version of me will not do. In fact, there is even something demonic about it. But it’s a start and I can still work with it. Now stay with me on the road and we will continue to transform you and your ideas about me.”

What about Prothero’s charges against Gibson? What would be Mark’s perspectives on the matter? With regard to some of excessive (and unrealistic) brutality of the film, and with regard to its treatment of the Jews, we might picture Mark’s Jesus rebuking Mel and saying “Get behind me, Satan!” But what about the charge that Gibson is guilty of creating Jesus in his own Catholic and/or Hollywood image? What would Mark say about that? Is Gibson guilty? Has he committed the same crime as Thomas Jefferson?

It seems to me that Mark would not be overly-concerned with whether Gibson is guilty of creating a cut-and-paste Jesus. In fact, I think Mark would say that we all are continually guilty of the tendency to create Jesus in our own image. Peter certainly was. Rather I think Mark might ask of us all more penetrating and demanding questions: Are you “on the way?” Are you “on the road” with Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem? Are you carrying a cross and continually dying to self? Are your self-created images of Jesus, even the ones with demonic possibilities, continually being broken and transformed as you journey with him on the way? Stated communally, are we walking with Jesus in such a way that, despite our faults and our limited understandings, the Roman centurions of the world can “see how we die to self” and therefore have the opportunity to proclaim, “Surely, Jesus is the son of God”?

These are questions we might not be able to answer for Thomas Jefferson or Mel Gibson, but we should take them to heart for ourselves.New Wineskins

John BartonJohn Barton teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his wife, Sara, have two children, Nate and Brynn. The Barton family lived and worked as part of a church planting mission team in Uganda, East Africa before moving to Michigan.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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