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February 5, 2014

Why I Am Not Seeing “The Passion of the Christ” (Mar-Apr 2004)

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by Shaun Casey
March – April, 2004

A lot of people at my church are surprised to learn that I have no intention of going to see The Passion of the Christ. After several conversations with good friends I decide to write about why I am not seeing the movie because I think there is pressure on Christians to endorse this film while minimizing the discomfort it has caused for many.

I was disturbed a few weeks ago as I entered church on a Wednesday night heading into the class I teach and saw a table in the lobby with one of our staff actively recruiting people to sign up to see the movie at a special preview screening the night before it was being shown to the public. Thousands of Christians across the large metropolitan I live were solicited in similar fashion through their churches as a result of the marketing outreach for the movie. Perhaps my discomfort stems from my early childhood lessons in which the Churches of Christ routinely “skinned the sects” for various commercial money making enterprises within their walls. The lesson went something like this: Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple so we should remain vigilant against profiteering in the church. I am not sure I fully subscribe to that line today, but I do believe that the church should take great care in endorsing any commercial venture, especially one that purports to help us faithfully tell the gospel story.

Since I think the Jesus story is pretty important, in fact, it is the most important of all stories, it matters to me who has the right and competence to tell this story, especially in the church or with the church’s implicit endorsement. In our society anyone has the right to tell whatever story they choose to tell. Gibson has every right to make this movie. But from a theological perspective, is he competent to tell it and sell it in a way that explicitly seeks and gets the church’s blessing? Most churches, mine included, reserve the pulpit for people who are trained and have demonstrated the requisite skills to preach the Jesus story. Gibson’s theological credentials are sadly lacking, in fact they are disturbing. This is not an elitist argument that anyone who makes a movie about Jesus has to have a graduate degree in Theology or New Testament. But I do think if the movie is promoted by and through churches because the movie maker has pitched it to them, then it is imperative that we ask tough theological questions of the film and its makers.

This movie was sold to conservative Protestants as the real deal. Come and see it like it was we are told. Its R-rating stood for “real.” But theologically I have huge problems with Gibson’s redaction of scripture. We don’t settle for someone spinning the gospel story beyond what the text says in our preaching and teaching in the church, so why would we want to wink at it on video? As one of my friends put it, this movie may establish the mental baseline for interpreting subsequent readings of the gospel texts for those who see the movie for the rest of their lives. It may become the fifth gospel. Worse it may become the first or only gospel.

The Church has always fought the tendency to create one master narrative of Jesus’ life instead of living with the tension of four different gospel accounts. Early on there have been Christians who wanted to blend the four gospels into one account or to retell the Jesus story based on alleged hidden insider accounts. Gibson’s movie fits into this long unfortunate trajectory. Luckily the multivalent readings of the Jesus story in the New Testament endure despite the continual efforts of some to hijack the story for their own ends by blending the four Gospel accounts into one or by creatively weaving a new narrative. The written gospels give us a full account of Jesus’ identity and teaching so that when we get to the Passion story at the end we know who this person is. By concentrating solely on the end of the story as this movie does, the viewer has no context in which to understand what the crucifixion is all about. Apparently the movie distorts the text, adds to it, and leaves out important details. For example, three of the gospels, Mark, Matthew, and John describe the beating of Jesus by the Romans with only one line. Luke does not describe the flogging.

The character and beliefs of the storyteller of the gospel make a difference. It is one of the many myths of modernity that art can be separated from its creator. It is doubly dangerous to embrace that myth in the church. Does being a Christian artist relieve that person of moral and theological responsibility for his presentation of the Gospel? If Gibson had not chosen to market this movie to and especially through the church I could not have cared less about what he believes. But since he did seek my church’s approval I have to inquire.

In a profile of Mel Gibson last year in The New York Times Sunday Magazine by Christopher Noxon, I learned he is a traditionalist Roman Catholic. This is a network of dissident Catholics who believe, among other things, that the current Pope is not legitimate, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s are false, there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church, and that the Latin Mass should be reinstated. Gibson donated several million dollars to construct a chapel near his home in Malibu, California where a Latin Mass can be celebrated for his fellow dissidents. My home, the Churches of Christ, is about as far away from a traditionalist Catholic position as you can find on the American scene. Given this theological gulf, why should he want to market a movie on the crucifixion of Jesus to my church? Now I do not say this as a result of a latent anti-Catholicism. I did my doctoral work under a leading Catholic social ethicist and I have been profoundly influenced by Catholic social teachings. But Gibson’s brand of Catholicism is quite foreign to the piety and beliefs of most members of the Churches of Christ. So it is a little peculiar when some of my friends defend this film when its underlying theological vision is really alien to their beliefs.

What about all this talk of anti-Semitism? Some of my friends who have seen the movie simply say that they are not anti-Semitic and they did not view the movie in that fashion. But what about the many viewers, Christian, Jewish, and secular, who come away wondering about the portrayal of the bloodthirsty Jewish leaders and crowd? If a person’s artistic work or speech produces outright anti-Semitic feelings or causes people to raise those issues, doesn’t that person have to face the charges directly? Gibson’s refusal to disavow his father’s remarks about the Holocaust is deeply distressing. The New York Times piece has some very disturbing quotes from his father about the Holocaust and the younger Gibson has apparently refused to disavow his father’s comments. His stance on this issue alone seriously undercuts his theological credibility in telling the Jesus story. Christians cannot turn a blind eye to either the historic anti-Semitism of the church or to the reactions to this film. Several Jewish columnists, some of them quite conservative, such as Charles Krauthammer and Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, Frank Rich and William Safire of The New York Times, and Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe have expressed deep reservations of how Jews are portrayed in this movie. Their voices have to be reckoned with.

The New Testament reflects a spectrum of attitudes between Jews and Christians ranging from outright hostility to mutual respect. Evangelicals tend to overlook those passages in the New Testament that point to something other than hostility. Three of the New Testament chapters least read by evangelicals are in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11. Here at the end of his career Paul argues that Christians have no grounds for arrogance over against Jews. In fact, he makes the argument, as one of my professors, Krister Stendahl aptly put, that Christians are honorary Jews. Conservative Protestants often want to leapfrog over troubling historical periods such as the Holocaust because they are simply too troubling to deal with directly. Many supporters of the movie just simply don’t want to get into these issues because they are too vexing. For many of us Jews remain a hypothetical people and that makes it easier to walk quietly around these issues.

Didn’t Jesus suffer for my sins and doesn’t this movie tell it like it is on that score? Several of my Protestant friends who have seen the movie are at a loss over what to do with the graphic violence on this movie. It has been said, rightly I think, that Gibson’s vision is heavily influenced by a residual medieval Catholic piety that emphasizes Christ’s suffering at the expense of the teaching of Jesus, his miracles, and the resurrection. Here the superiority of the gospels themselves is clear. They provide a context for the Passion. At the point of his crucifixion in all four accounts the story has provided a rich portrait of who this person is and what his suffering means. Likewise, the death of Jesus is neither the end of the story nor the whole story. Certainly Jesus suffers a horrible death. But the reader does not endure an hour of grisly made for Hollywood violence and still we get the point. By overemphasizing the gore Gibson risks obscuring the whole story of Jesus. The most common reaction I have found among those who have seen this film is numbness. And it is not a numbness that leads to faith, but a shock that wonders what was the filmmaker thinking in this graphic violence. In contrast, the gospels do not leave readers with that same kind of shock.

So where is God’s grace in this movie? A good friend of mine told me that preachers routinely mishandle the Jesus story and the church endures, so why am I bothered so much about this film? The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth is some help here. Barth observed that by a miracle of grace the gospel is proclaimed in human speech in preaching despite the hash we preachers make of the story. As I told my friend, Barth argues that God’s grace operates through the preaching of the church despite inept preachers. He did not say that grace extends to inept movie makers. I am not convinced that Jesus in the hands of Hollywood can qualify as proclaiming the gospel. If the movie distorts the message there is not going to be a different movie next week for a viewer to have a chance to hear it right. There is no ongoing worshiping community to provide a context for interpretation and self correction.

But won’t it lead to conversions to God? There is a deep pragmatic stream in much of American Evangelicalism. If it leads some to God it can’t be all bad, right? The logic of many seems to be, sure it is a flawed movie, but we can fill in all the blanks and tell people the many places where it strays from the biblical text. He has given us a cultural moment, the argument goes, that packs an immediate emotional wallop that helps lead some to conversion. The problem with this position is that it argues for doing wrong in order to produce. I do not believe we have to manipulate the gospel story to increase its yield, no matter how tempting it might be to do so.New Wineskins

Shaun Casey teaches Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. His e-mail address is [].

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