The Passion: Still a Sign of Contradiction

From a Christian standpoint, it is the most-anticipated movie since, well, ever.

From a non-Christian standpoint, movie fans and film critics have been all abuzz about the project since word of it first appeared in the industry trades three years ago.

The interest in The Passion is not just because this movie, set to be released next spring, is being financed and directed by international film superstar Mel Gibson, whose last directing effort, Braveheart, won him multiple Academy Awards.

It's not just because this movie was shot in several dead languages and will have only sporadic captions to accompany the visuals. It's not just because the movie is basically one long sequence of horrific violence. And finally, it's not just because this project was singled out far in advance of its release as being potentially anti-Semitic and backward from a Christian theological standpoint.

The maelstrom of controversy surrounding Gibson's The Passion ultimately comes down to the fact that the cross is now, has always been and will always be a sign of contradiction.

Depending on your proximity to God, the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth will be either a source of grief and joy, of confusion or of fury. The cross can be ignored, but once out in the open it cannot be irrelevant because our nature is drawn in fascination toward the suffering of the One who made us.

One of the problems for the various groups lining up in attack formation against The Passion is that few of them have even seen the film yet. I have seen the film, and while I know it is probably unfair to take on people who are arguing in ignorance, somebody has to respond to the mud that is being slung around.


Is The Passion anti-Semitic? The answer is No. The film portrays good Jews and bad Jews, compassionate Romans and Romans who are twisted and cruel. The film leaves viewers with heartfelt sorrow for their own participation in the violence of sin. One of the last images of the film is a shot of Mary holding her dead Son and looking straight into the camera.

It's hard not to look away from the gaze that says, “This was for you. This was because of you.”

My sense is those who are hurling terrible accusations of anti-Semitism against The Passion tend to also find the New Testament anti-Semitic. One of the scholars who started all the controversy by publicly lambasting an early version of the screenplay told me emphatically, “The New Testament is undeniably anti-Semitic.” I'm not sure what we can do to soothe these folks about a film that bases itself first and foremost on the New Testament, but somebody has to say that calling the Scriptures evil is the same thing as calling Christ Beelzebub.

Many in the corporate Church are trying to find cover from the controversy behind a set of guidelines the U.S. bishops issued in 1988 regarding depictions of the Passion. One priest-professor of theology warned me just recently in foreboding tones, “We can never support a film that violates the bishops' guidelines.” Notwithstanding the irony of this particular dissenting theologian suddenly getting submissive to magisterial authority, the fact is the bishops' guidelines are irrelevant to Gibson's movie.

Released under the title “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion” (Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988), the bishops' statement was not written for mainstream entertainment productions such as The Last Temptation of Christ or The Passion. It was written for “all levels of Christian instruction and education.” That is, the document was written to rein in religious educators and parish liturgists in their “extra liturgical” projects. The dramatic projects referenced in the guidelines are Church-sponsored Passion plays. The “mass media” referred to in the bishops' document and the Vatican ones it is expanding upon is directed to specifically Church media. It has no bearing on secular entertainment productions.

But even if these ecclesial guidelines had authority in the secular context, the bishops' list has little practical application for artists. The document is basically official cover for the Church against charges it doesn't do enough to discourage anti-Semitism. But as a practical guide for artists, it is fairly useless. The document itself offers the following summary with a shrug: “A general principle might, therefore, be suggested that if one cannot show beyond reasonable doubt that the particular Gospel element selected or paraphrased will not be offensive or have the potential for negative influence on the audience for whom the presentation is intended that element cannot, in good conscience, be used. This, admittedly, will be a difficult principle to apply.”

How can anyone “show beyond reasonable doubt” that a work of art “will not be offensive” to someone somewhere? What is more, I would think a depiction of the brutal murder of the Son of God that wasn't somehow “offensive” would be, well, offensive. Observing the “general principle” of non-offensiveness is a completely subjective call, one a devout artist might have presumed to have avoided by staying as close to the literal text of the Scriptures as possible.

But that brings us back to the fact that, for many liberal theologians, the Scriptures themselves are problematic. The only certain guidance such scholars can offer devout artists is to never make art about Jesus, particularly not about his suffering and death.

Why Now?

There is a darker motive stirring in many theologian-types who seem inordinately predisposed against The Passion. It is as though they consider it in bad taste to make a devout, major motion picture about the suffering of Jesus at all. One angry academic actually e-mailed me the message, “Why do we need to see this kind of film now? Why deliberately enflame interreligious discourse?” The academic here is very right that parts of our Christian story are inflammatory for people of other traditions. The problem is his insinuation that it is somehow uncivil of us to harp on the points of divergence.

There are many Christians on the left whose opposition to The Passion comes down to green-eyed jealousy. Having desacralized and demythologized our faith for the last half-century, they have also lost their voice of authority with the People of God. They have “bound up impossible burdens of doubt and cynicism” regarding the Christian story and imposed them on the sheep who have been dismayed and even crushed in the process. Is it any wonder most people have turned them off and have become sheep without shepherds, wandering around aimlessly?

Now Mel Gibson steps forward with a powerful artistic presentation of the real Shepherd in Jesus' most-compelling posture as the sacrificial Lamb of God. The People of God are magnetically drawn to the film in hoards. It becomes a source of compunction and devout meditation for them in a way that 40 years of dissenting cynicism and biblical decon-struction has not been able to do. This is causing a reaction among some Church scholars that can only be described as fury. They are gnashing and grinding their teeth as their kingdom is being taken from them and handed to another.

A further source of elitist indignation toward the film comes from the presumption that we modern Christians have somehow outgrown the grim details of how the Savior won our redemption. The scholar I mentioned earlier went on in his message to note that “our real story is in the Resurrection, because anyone could die, but only God could rise again.”

I am not a theologian, and I won't even try to defend the right of Christian artists to renew and recall whichever mysteries of faith happen to be preoccupying them. But I do feel on solid ground in asserting that we must never stop meditating on the suffering of Christ. Driving home in the car after the screening, I found myself praying, “Jesus, I'm so sorry. I forgot…” This is something I haven't felt in years of banal homilies. It is a holy thing for sure.

Why So Violent?

The Passion is a shockingly graphic representation of Jesus' suffering. For people who love Jesus, watching it through the lens of an extremely talented filmmaker is almost overwhelming. I wanted to run from the screening room a few times, but it occurred to me that if Jesus could live it as an act of love, I could at least watch it as an act of worship. In a touch that Catholics will especially appreciate, it is at these moments of the film that the camera always finds Mary. Her presence and faith gets us through it in the same way maybe her presence got her Son through his passion.

Still, a chorus of dissenters in the Christian community has been disturbed about the violent aspect of the film from early on. One friend wrote me, “There's something fundamentally wrong with an R-rated movie about Jesus.” Actually, what was really “wrong” was the brutal death of the Savior. Trying to make his Passion non-offensive enough to earn the “family film” moniker seems to me to be much more theologically problematic.

It is not an easy question as to whether children should see The Passion. The reasons against plain old screen violence do not seem to apply here. This isn't choreographed gore meant to titillate and entertain. It is a devout retelling meant to elicit gratitude and love.

Since seeing the film I have found myself reflecting many times when something bugs me, “Well, this still isn't the Agony in the Garden.” A woman told me she wouldn't want her 10-year-old son to see the film until he is old enough not to be overly disturbed by the images. Hmmmm … Isn't being disturbed out of our self-centered comas part of the purpose of sacred art? This is something over which parents should brood.

Overall, The Passion is a beautiful work of art from the heart of one filmmaker to God, which we will all be blessed to share. It is controversial because Christ is in it, and he must always be “a sign that will be opposed.” The sniping against the film will fade as soon as it is released and millions of people experience it as a moment of grace.

Thanks be to God. It's not a moment too soon for a little extra grace in the Church.

Playwright Barbara Nicolosi is executive director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood.