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An Open Letter to Mel Gibson
I went to your film today. I am a Christian and so have a certain interest in Jesus. I am a pastor and so want to be part of extending the Kingdom. I am a theologian, who has completed a Masters of Theology on the atonement in contemporary culture, and so have a certain professional interest in how the death of Jesus is portrayed.
I went to your film today Mel. I am a Christian and so have a certain interest in Jesus. I am a pastor and so want to be part of extending the Kingdom. I am a theologian, who has completed a Masters of Theology on the atonement in contemporary culture, and so have a certain professional interest in how the death of Jesus is portrayed . . .
So I went to your film. It might be box office in the US, but there were only eleven of us in the theatre today.1 One of the eleven wept through most of the movie. So I want to state that for some, your movie is very powerful. I want to honour that.
I wish I could have cried. I couldn't. And I shouldn't pretend. So can I be really honest? Can I say I feel less convinced of my Christian faith now than when I went into your movie? Can I say that you have got me turning and re-turning the pages of the Bible?
But before I explain to you my deep ambivalence, I would like to note what I did admire. I share this with you because the movie was art. That was its genre.
o as movie art, I appreciated the following; (Warning, if you want to see the movie but haven't seen it yet, skip this section and proceed to the first heading)
You did it as an act of devotion. You invested so much of your talents and money in this project. Thank you.
Artistically, the portrayal of Judas driven to the edge was powerful. You provided a provocative exploration of Judas's motives.
Some of the crowd scenes were superb. The two women, one Mary, one 'Satan' walking through the crowd on either side of Jesus, was a wonderful piece of dramatic tension.
When Pilate made links between the Palm Sunday crowd and the crowd shouting "Crucify", I appreciated in fresh ways the absurdity that is mob violence.
The single solitary tear of God was a moment of poignant beauty.
The thunder, the dark clouds, the earthquake were a superb reminder of the cosmic, earth-shattering event that is the death of God.
My movie of disbelief
I was warned. As the disembodied voice on the cinema information line told me, "The Passion of the Christ has an R16 rating and contains brutal violence, torture and cruelty."
And as you yourself said in the Diane Sawyer interview on ABC television, the film is "very violent. If you don't like it, don't go . . . . If you want to leave halfway through, go ahead . . . . I wanted it to be shocking. And I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge . . . so that they see the enormity -- the enormity of that sacrifice -- to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule."2
Mel, I was repulsed by the violence. It actually became, for me, unbelievable. Jesus did not seem to flinch. Jesus did not seem to react. I began to wonder if he was human as he endured yet another beating, yet one more vicious blow.
The opening alerted me. The camera panned around a garden, seeking a view -- an interesting cinematic device, and one that rendered me a detached observer. You invited me not to share in the emotion of a character, but to be a bystander.
So as bystander, you need to be aware that I live in a generation that sees huge amounts of violence. I knew I was in the 20th century when the blood splattered across the faces of the soldiers and I thought, "What about AIDS." A sad thought. But do you see my point, Mel? One way to cope with extreme violence is to turn off. I did.
The way your characters respond to the violence made it, for me, even more unbelievable. You have Jesus' mother saying, "So be it". Yet if my child was dying, I would not stand by, passive, a stray tear falling. I would be beside myself with grief. I would either want to throw myself at the soldiers, or be led away to wail in peace.
I guess I am affected by seeing how people in the Middle East today mourn tragedy. They are hysterical with grief. "Come on Mel," I wanted to cry, "make it believable. Direct some emotion please."
One moment of belief occurred when the second nail went into Jesus' outstretched hand. Finally the human reacted. Finally he jerked away in protest. They had to hold his hand down.
That got me. That moment hammered through my disbelief. At last Jesus was human. At last he was feeling pain. My overall response of disbelief left me pondering. Can 'splatter' art turn off the watching viewer? Does the violence and the passive response to violence actually make Jesus less human, less real?
Mel, I was disturbed by the theology of your movie. I was so disturbed that I would like to offer you a free copy of my Introduction to Theology lecture notes. In the lectures on the person and work of Christ I suggest the atonement is like a diamond. It has many facets, and to be appreciated in all its depth and beauty needs to be turned.
We need to see how the light makes the diamond dance, to appreciate all of its depth and intricacies. We need to see all the facets. You gave us one facet Mel, that of suffering. And you gave us that facet over and over again.
The Bible shows us many facets. It speaks of Jesus as victor, as sufferer, as martyr, as sacrifice, as redeemer, as reconciler, as justifier, as adopter, as pioneer, as merciful. All of these are Biblical images.3 The danger is that we get locked into one part of the diamond. We think the only way to come to Jesus is our way. We find Jesus through sacrifice and so that is the only gospel we witness to.
You do offer some hints of the depth of biblical atonement theologies. Jesus says to Mary, "See mother, I will make all things new." This is a hint of Jesus as cosmic redeemer (as portrayed in Colossians 1). You hint at Jesus as victor. As Jesus is arrested in the garden, the movie jumps to a scene where women declare that they were slaves but are slaves no longer. Jesus in life has been their victor. But then you cut back to the cry "Seize him", and so Christ is enslaved, suffering, that we might be free.
So, Mel, you left me pondering the theological point. You are an expert at directing a camera. You know what to frame and what not. You chose to frame twelve hours of Jesus' life. You cleverly interspersed those twelve hours with other scenes from Jesus' life like the footwashing, his teaching and the Last Supper. You dropped in a gorgeous climax with Jesus' resurrection. But by your cinematic framing, you distorted the atonement.
The framing of violence
Even more disturbing for me as a pastor and theologian was my awareness of research that links the abuse of women with the way you portray a theology of suffering. As a male, I find this research hard to fully comprehend. But when you listen to the stories of abused women, they often interweave the suffering of Christ into their own suffering in ways that actually perpetuate abuse.
Their thought patterns seem to go like this.
Jesus took a beating.
That was redemptive.
So when I suffer, I should endure my beating as Jesus did.
This leads to passivity, rather than a movement toward new life. On this basis some theologians have called for a theological removal of the suffering of Jesus. They say it sanctifies abuse. They see the battered woman and cry "Stop. Stop using those images of suffering."
I would not go that far. Rather then reject this theology of the atonement, I have gone more deeply into the Bible. Reading the Old Testament closely I would want to observe two strands of sacrifice language. One is of redemptive Levitical animal sacrifice. The other is the pursuit of justice as sacrifice. Thus in Isaiah 1:10ff, God asks for redemptive sacrifice to stop, and justice to roll. 'Sacrifice' is thus replaced by 'the pursuit of justice'. Both redemption and justice are Old Testament images of sacrifice, and both need to be expressed and explored.
Your suffering, Mel, was not located in justice. It is a biblically limited portrayal of suffering. The use of the suffering Jesus needs to be handled with pastoral care and sensitivity.
The Satan figure was a female. And she introduced a snake into the Garden of Gethsemane. Mel, I hope you weren't trying to replay old adolescent jokes about sin being woman's fault. The account in Genesis 3 is clear. It takes two to tango and there is no Satan in the Garden of Eden.
And perhaps it doesn't matter and I am being too PC about how women are portrayed. If so, please still hear my sadness at the continued exit of talented women through the back door of our churches, because they can't line up their experiences of church with Galatians 3:28.
While we are talking about gender relationships, your film did make me want to re-explore the relationship between male testosterone and violence. Those Roman soldiers really got a kick out of torture. It was their strength, their egos being bolstered. It made me want to think again about the male propensity for violence. It was a timely reminder of the sinfulness of some ways of being male. So thanks for that.
This was a heavily marketed movie. There is nothing like religious controversy to scoop a few headlines.4 Having seen the movie, I think the concerns over anti-Semitism were over-hyped.
You do push it, when Jesus declares to Pilate that "It is he who has denied me to you who has the greatest sin." But to your credit, you do set Jesus within a delicate political dance. You portray the tense relationship with Romans. When Jesus is first captured, we see Jewish leaders misinforming Roman soldiers. To secure Jesus' crucifixion, Jewish leaders have to negotiate with Pilate. You then match that by showing Pilate under pressure from Caesar.
I suspect this detail might bypass viewers who do not know their Bible. They would be left with some well-dressed guys masterminding the doing in of Jesus, helped by some brutal Roman soldiers against a background of a hysterical crowd baying for spectacle. No-one comes through clean, not disciple, not Jewish leader, not Roman soldier, not passive bystander. So I think you did nail (pun deliberate) that piece of theology. Humanity did kill Jesus.
But you did introduce an even more insidious theological question. In the end the question of who killed Jesus hangs there. Was it suicide? I think one of the criminals asks Jesus, "Why do you embrace the cross, you fool?" Jesus does seem to have a cross-wish and the implications of this were not addressed by the movie.
Evangelism by art
I was glad I could leave the movie theatre in peace. I wanted time to reflect. Immediate appeals are not my scene. Faith is too deep, too life-changing, to be decided on an emotional limb.
Your work is an attempt at art. That is the nature of the movie genre. To have had some enthusiast shove a cheap tract in my face or try to preach to me would have sullied your art and demeaned your multi-million dollar outlay. I would have been appalled to see your expenditure laid alongside some mass produced tract.
Art is not preaching. It raises questions. It provokes. I wanted to think. I needed to think.
I suspect that in this thinking, The Passion of the Christ could be an evangelistic opportunity. Not so much for our culture as for the church. Your art asks me to think more fully and carefully about my understanding of the person and work of Christ. How do I frame Jesus? How do I communicate Christian belief in a violence-sated culture of disbelief?
went home from your art to open the Scriptures and work on a preaching series "Meeting the passion of Mel's Jesus":
Why the levels of violence?
Who did kill Jesus?
What about before and after the twelve hours?
This will be advertised in the community. I do like to open up my conversations, and my ongoing need for biblical conversion, to interested bystanders.
So evangelism will occur. But in a way that I hope will preserve the integrity of your art by taking seriously the questions the movie raises. And in the process I pray that my faith will deepen and my understanding and telling of the Jesus story will become more fully biblical.
Mel, you have shown immense courage in making this film. May God guide you and me, making us both ever more biblical and more effective as we tell the Jesus story.