The Art of “The Passion” (Mar-Apr 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by David Hutchens
March – April, 2004

Among the many accomplishments of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is its resurrection of a tradition all but lost since pre-literate society, in which the popular expression of the gospel was a product not of the academics, theologians, or church insiders, but of the artisans.

And it’s a natural marriage, really, this joining of art and God’s ageless narrative. Many in the church are deeply uneasy entrusting their sacred text to the Land of Excess that is Hollywood, but it turns out that the industry that has perfected character arc, three-act plots, and post-production-enhanced narrative brings a lot to the party.

Most movies about Jesus have been pretty stale affairs, featuring a European Jesus with milky skin, accurately reciting Bible verses in ethereal monotone. Certainly these have contributed—whether positively or negatively—to our vision of the Christ. But with agendas you can smell a mile away, few of these films have succeeded in engaging the popular culture. (The list of successes is a brief one, in which the only real contender within the last twenty years is Scorsese’s Last Temptation … but that’s another essay.)

Now there’s The Passion of the Christ. Sunday school it ain’t. Worship planners fond of using movie clips to lend impact to the song service will be hard-pressed to find much here that is suitable for Sunday morning viewing. The color palette – though awash with dreamy blue hues in the garden of Gethsemane, or muddy earth tones throughout the trial and crucifixion – is, above all else, red. Not the ruby red of your typical Hollywood splatter fests, but the deep amber of coagulating, drying blood smears. It’s horrific, offensive, real.

Critical response from the church is all over the map (testifying to art’s uneasy history with the church, where it clashes as often as it illuminates.) Many have commented on the relative lack of theology in the movie, as if more exposition, more dialogue – more words – would have produced more meaning. (“What brought Jesus to this point?” “What was the political context?” “Where is the hard evidence of Jesus’ divinity?” And so on.) What is most significant about the movie’s dialogue is not the controversial decision to present it in subtitled Latin and Aramaic, but that there is so little of it at all. Those critics who seek more exegesis have a valid case.

Yet there is meaning to be found. In the context of the near-pornographic (no artistic merit) torture session, Jesus’ words, “Forgive them, Father…” simply sliced right through me. I was stunned by their urgency. You say you need more theology? I’m still wrestling with that one.

Or consider the eyes of Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel (Or, more specifically, the eye, for we only see one as the other is buried beneath folds of swollen, purple flesh and rivulets of blood. Not since Jim Carrey played The Grinch has an actor emoted so convincingly from beneath so many layers of prosthetics and makeup.)

It becomes sort of a running theme in the film, as each character in turn is drawn to The Eye. Judas. Pilate. Barabbas (whose own eye is clouded by cataract). Simon. Mary. The thief on the cross (eyes extracted by crow).

You.

What goes on in these mysterious moments of silent transaction? Sorry, but the screenplay isn’t giving up its secrets. This is where you must do a little work, dear viewer. What happened in your encounter with The Eye? The art brings to you a message; Now, what messages do you bring to the art?

Like good art, The Passion is not afraid to provoke. I confess that I don’t know what the demonic infant, carried by the androgynous evil one, “represents.” Is it the spawn of our sin? Is it the intended heir of a mistaken Satan who fails to foresee the coming plot twist? Could be. Call me a postmodern relativist, but I don’t need rational explanation, for what I do know is it was one sucker-punch of an image. And given what was going on a few feet away on that whipping post, horror may indeed be the “accurate” theological response.

I hear much of the public discourse around The Passion, and it is not unlike moving through an art museum, watching the people who are watching the art, eavesdropping on their conversations: “What does it represent?” “Where is the message?” “What is the cash value?” There’s a battle on dramatic display here. On the one hand is reason, which demands answers and knowing; And then there’s the spirit which is simultaneously drawn and resistant to these images which invite a more vulnerable kind of participation. This is the curious logic of art, which moves us from our desire to know, to a narrative, relational truth which can only be experienced.

Friends ask me what I “thought” of the movie, and I find myself at a loss. What did I think? I search myself for a credible answer, but all I come up with is images: A bowl of water. A nail. A piece of bread. A piece of flesh. A dilated pupil. Blackness pierced by a dagger of light. I am haunted by these, and though my job as a writer is presumably to dissect their meaning, what I know for sure is that I can’t, not fully, and that these humble metaphors are now part of my own narrative, where they even now gnaw, provoke, and transform.

So instead, I push back: What do you think? Is The Passion good theology? Is it good cinema? Did the violence enhance or distract? Is this all a triumph of sly marketing? I’ll leave those explorations for your own dialogues with friends over coffee or picket fences.

But if you are one of those inclined to dismiss Gibson’s opus, consider first what it has done: The Passion has engaged the popular culture in a dialogue on the identity of Christ. It has alienated more than a few in the Establishment of True Believers. It poses questions that it refuses to answer. It simply presents its narrative, and then demands from you a choice: Will you engage, or not?

And come to think of it, isn’t that just what art – and the Gospel – is supposed to do?New Wineskins

David Hutchens’ business books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He is the author of PageLand, (© 2003, Broadman & Holman). Go to www.DavidHutchens.com

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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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