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An Evangelistic Tool?

Andrew Savage

Gone are the days when a film about Jesus Christ was a safe option for a family night out at the movies. Mel Gibson's latest directorial effort The Passion of the Christ has seen to that. Unrelentingly brutal, the film has been described as 'Mad Max goes to Golgotha', and essentially gives the viewer front seat tickets to the horrendous beating of one of history's greatest and most controversial figures. Night after night the devout and the curious line up at cinemas across the globe, pay an exorbitant amount of money and spend two hours watching someone get nearly beaten to death, abused and then crucified. One hand holds the jumbo popcorn while the other covers the eyes as the cat-o-nine-tails tears the flesh off an innocent man. After an hour, it could be anybody up there on the screen, let alone the Son of God, as another lash of the whip sears his blood soaked body.

After witnessing such unholy torture, the audience is left with numerous unanswered questions -- this is particularly true for those being introduced to the Jesus story for the first time. The film fails to give any real sense of who Jesus was. Sure, through a number of flashbacks we get to hear some of Jesus' 'greatest hits' being delivered to the crowds and the disciples, and we get a nice Catholic insight into a mother and son relationship, but never do we fully appreciate why this man was different from all others.

Instead we see a passive, disconnected Jesus stumbling like an animal to his final moments on Golgotha. He comes across as a resigned and frustratingly soulless man going through the motions on a cruel journey set out for him by age-old prophecy. No doubt any man beaten so severely would act the same, but for the purpose of evangelism, this piece of Hollywood fiction fails to deliver the knockout blow.

sing the cinema to evangelise unbelievers is nothing new. In fact, there has been a steady spate of 'outreach' films over the past few decades, from the much-hyped Jesus movie through to the unashamedly manipulative classic Thief in the Night.

Cinematic evangelism seemed at its most perverse during the Thief in the Night era when unsuspecting viewers would be lured to churches under the pretence of a free movie and then assaulted by a story designed to frighten the Jesus into you. Thief in the Night - with its famous Larry Norman catch phrase "you've been left behind" - was a low budget, badly acted, yet frighteningly disturbing tale of the emergence of the anti-Christ and the 'last days' as alluded to in the Book of Revelation.

Hopeful evangelicals would scan the room at the end of a showing, searching for any sign of weakness that they could pounce upon. After planting the seed of fear, they would then attempt to sow a victory for the Lord by enacting a well rehearsed, emotionally driven altar call. Every eye is shut, every member of the congregation afraid to move lest they become the target of a special prayer.

Slowly but surely, people begin to rise from their seats and make their way to the front of the church ("The first step is a step of faith", the minister reassures the courageous). The chiming keyboard lurches into another round of a Graham Kendrick classic, and the congregation sings the frightened lambs into the arms of the waiting prayer squad . . . .

It seems like a long time ago, but Thief in the Night was a favourite on the cinematic evangelical circuit for many years, being resurrected on more than one occasion for a youth group event or a new church offensive on the unsuspecting. How successful that film was in converting souls is anyone's guess, but the method and nature of those conversions can surely be questioned.

How many of us know someone who came to Christ through a moment of conviction only to let it go at a later time? Films like Thief in the Night frightened people into the faith, but did not necessarily keep them there.

ur generation is now faced with a new cinematic juggernaut to deal with, except this time it looks good, is acted (relatively) well, feels authentic and delivers a sobering punch. Like Thief in the Night, The Passion of the Christ has the potential to start many a person thinking about Christ, but where to from there?

The fact that churches across the globe are leaping upon this film as a tool to evangelise the lost reeks of a desperation that is almost embarrassing. Are we so stagnant and unimaginative that we have had to appropriate a Hollywood interpretation of the final day of Christ's life, in the hope that it will have an impact on a society that is largely unimpressed by the way the Church conducts itself anyway?

Mel Gibson drowned $30 million of his own money into this film, which should serve as a reminder to us that this is a big budget business venture. Perhaps a venture with a conscience, but a venture nonetheless. The cynical amongst us question the way a movie like this taps into the ever-ready Christian market. We imagine box office managers rubbing their hands greedily as the theatres begin to sell out, with Christians footing the bill in a desperate hope of gaining some leverage with a non-Christian friend in an ongoing conversion project.

Charles Laurence reports in the Dominion Post that, "Gibson's depiction of Jesus' final hours topped US$300 million (NZ$454 million) after three weeks at the box office, studio executives who originally refused to finance the film were left wondering how best to exploit the new trend".1 Laurence goes on to make reference to the merchandise being spawned by the success of the movie. "The 'book of the movie' . . . shot into second place on the New York Times bestseller lists. The coffee-table collection of photographs taken on the set includes grisly close-ups of James Caviezel, who plays Christ. Images of Jesus' flayed back, and of his feet nailed to the cross, are captioned with quotations from the Gospels."2

A photograph of a nail pendant sold especially to coincide with the film accompanies Laurence's article. I can hear the ringing of the cash register already. It would not be at all surprising to see the emergence of a mandatory "I survived the Passion" T-shirt out in time for next summer!3

o be fair, we must remember that Mel Gibson's film is just that. A film. However, it is concerning that the evangelical church is attempting to appropriate the film for its own purposes. It is not, as many would have us believe, manna from heaven. Let us remember that God did not direct this film, and it is Jim Caviezel, not Jesus, we are watching on the screen. It is, as all adapted screenplays are, an interpretation of the Passion, not a sign from God.

The film is steeped in the long tradition of medieval Catholic Passion plays, with all their own historical baggage (these plays were often responsible for inciting pogroms on the Jews of Europe, and contributed towards the belief in the "blood curse" that has plagued Jewry in Europe for hundreds of years). It is not meant to be a vehicle for evangelism, but a cinematic interpretation of a tradition that stretches back to the 15th Century.

For those viewers aware of Catholic tradition, the film might actually have a greater sense of purpose. But for the uninitiated the film offers no context and no background. Many of the scenes are not from the Bible. Think about it: there is simply not enough information in the four gospels about Christ's last twelve hours to come up with a screenplay for a two-hour movie.

For instance, we are treated to an interesting fantasy where Satan appears to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here, a beautifully androgynous Devil whispers doubts into Christ's ears. Later we see Satan spying on Christ while he is mercilessly flogged. And what's more, he is carrying a hairy baby that leers at the lacerated body of the beaten Christ.

On top of this guest appearance by the Prince of Darkness, we also witness a very creative interpretation of the torment of Judas. Here we witness Judas harangued by a group of demonic children who chase him to the hanging tree outside the city walls. Fascinating, but based on pure fancy.

In his article entitled "Honest to Jesus", Stephen Prothero of the Boston University Department of Religion says, "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are simply not screenplays, or even treatments of them. To make a Jesus film based on the Bible you have to go outside it (as Gibson reportedly did, consulting the visions of a female mystic recorded in "The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ"). You have to make millions of idiosyncratic choices about dialogue, sequence, action. You have to choose this line from John rather than that from Luke. And you have to make things up."4

earning history from films is dangerous enough, but making life-changing decisions about your spiritual future based on one is a whole new issue. To begin with, what is most memorable about the film is the violence.

The violence in The Passion is the film's selling point -- and it is this excessive violence that makes this film so different from the classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told or King of Kings. We justify this to ourselves by saying that this film is showing us the reality of what Christ went through for us.

The violence is definitely realistic, but it is not necessarily a depiction of the actual events Christ went through -- how can we know exactly what they were? In Mark 15:15, the writer merely says, "Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified."

The actual beating of Jesus may well have been as brutal as Gibson has depicted, but the Apostle Mark obviously did not feel the need to feed his readers all the gruesome details. As a result of the extreme violence, the film succeeds in marrying the genres of the Passion play with the savagery of an action film.5 As has been alluded to above, this film is Mel Gibson's personal vision, not another piece of Scripture.

The beauty of Christ is in his teachings, and in the truly revolutionary way he turns the status quo on its head. It is his words and life that will make an impression upon people's hearts and change their lives, not the macabre details of his death. Secondly, Christ's death is meaningless without the resurrection and an understanding of atonement. Unfortunately, the representation of the resurrection in The Passion is confusing and clumsy. Without some greater context, it feels like an afterthought. This is a particular problem for those aspiring evangelists out there looking for a hook to hang their story on.

Thirdly, a film is a moment, and a moment only. Just as Thief in the Night scared people into Christianity, The Passion has the dangerous potential to shock people into Christianity. Ultimately though, this 'moment' will fade and lose relevance, and then what is left?

he film is sure to elicit an emotional response from its audience, but is it wise to target this most fickle of human reactions? Too often evangelistic tools have succeeded in achieving the much anticipated repentance prayer only to leave the new convert to tread water in an insular and often idiosyncratic community with all its strange customs and expectations.

Jesus himself spoke of the wise man that built his house upon the rock and the fool who built his upon the sand. Unless the Christian community has an amazing strategy planned to teach Passion converts the true message of the gospel, the film will fade into memory as another misguided publicity stunt the Church was woefully underprepared for. If this is the case, then conversions through The Passion have the danger of quickly becoming houses built on the sand.

This is why Christians should be careful about using the The Passion as an evangelistic tool. For a conversion to be truly meaningful, it should be based upon a far greater understanding and foundation than shock, fear or even sympathy.

Christian leader Brian McLaren, after watching a video to promote The Passion of the Christ, commented on the hype surrounding the film. He writes, "Christians can be trusted to bounce and bound like golden retrievers from one silver-bullet outreach opportunity to the next - seeking single source shortcuts to complete our mission..."6

He goes on to make a very astute observation about the emerging culture of today: "Emerging culture people are, no doubt, as sensitive as anyone else to dramatic, multi-sensory, rational-plus-emotional presentations. Special effects can impress them. But they're also suspicious of the whole business. They're looking for something that can't be 'produced' but which can only be created. Authenticity. Reality. Honesty."7

The culture of today is quick to see through the thinly veiled attempts of the Church to make itself relevant. Whether through technology, film, videos, books, music or mass gatherings, it all seems a little too much like a case of 'the Emperor's new clothes'.

he Passion of the Christ is not the great white hope for the western Church. It is not the best outreach opportunity for 2000 years (as some have put it).8 And it is not the definitive account of Christ's suffering.

As a community we need to slow down and think. Christ spoke wonders. He turned the world upside down through fearless confrontation with the status quo. He questioned everything, he forced people to think for themselves, he encouraged open debate and thrived when amongst people from all walks of life.

The real challenge is to see what is actually going on around us right now -- to engage in the world we live in. The Passion of the Christ is a thought provoking film with enough violence to satisfy even the most seasoned horror movie fan, but as a tool for evangelism it does not reveal enough of the heart -- or the essence -- of the Christian story to make any real impact on our society.