[Disclaimer: I finished writing this after I hit the end-of-the-day-mental-exhaustion wall, so I’m not affording it the typical proofread and edit treatment. I know some of you will be shocked to know that I actually proofread the other nonsense I post here, but nonetheless… Just be warned that I haven’t taken the time to grind down any of the sharper edges on this one. If you’re a member of the Christian Coalition or the Moral Majority or work for Focus on the Family and are easily annoyed or offended, you might want to put on your thick skin.]
So everybody’s talking about The Passion of the Christ, especially after Mel’s visit with Diane Sawyer on ABC last night. I’ve posted a banner or two at the top of the site and linked to an article, but I haven’t actually commented on the film with any depth. Sometimes I hesitate to wade into big, obvious stories here. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess I just don’t want this to turn into the spot where I dispense unoriginal and unnecessary opinion just to prove I have something to say about something. I may do that anyway at times, but I guess I’ll just refer any complaints back to that whole sovereign tyrant bit. Anyway, I feel like cracking open this Jesus movie conversation. I’ve had several sidebars with some of our site regulars about it, and there’s been enough discussion in the comment section that it seems to make sense to give the thing its own little home here.
Before I get into the film itself, I want to pull the curtain back on a few things that will give my perspective a little more context. Some may see this as a brief moment of rolling around in the mud of my own opinions, but so be it. The readership on this site is more diverse than you might think. The spectrum runs from a Ph.D. who’s a declared atheist to a traveling preacher (and lots in between). When we belly up to the bar of religion and spirituality and (particularly) Jesus, we’re all lugging around the baggage of assumptions and biases and all sorts of other imperfections that make the same words mean something different to each of us. I can’t prevent that, but I do want to be as clear as I can about what I mean when I start rambling about this film.
This context stuff may be all over the map, but here goes…
I don’t usually get excited about the mainstreaming of Christianity via mass media or mass evangelism. What I mean is I still view the journey of following Christ as mysterious, revolutionary, subversive, and counter-cultural (in almost any culture). I don’t think the world needs more Christian music or Christian books or Christian movies to experience spiritual renewal. Not all of that stuff is bad (and yes, it is appropriate to read that as: “some of that stuff is bad”), but it’s not what God needs from the Church. I’m pretty sure He doesn’t need anything from us, but I think He wants people who are serious about cutting through all of their traditions and rituals and cultural lenses to figure out Who Jesus really was and is and decide if they really want to follow Him more than they want the comfort of what they’ve always known. Then he wants all those people to get together and be the Church by living in real community, embracing honesty and vulnerability as they love each other and follow Jesus. That following Jesus part involves a lot more grace and servanthood than it does politics or power. It’s a lot simpler and less flashy than most of us think. It’s more about sacrifice than success; more humility than publicity.
So I didn’t anticipate a global revival when Kirk Cameron hit the big screens in the first installment of the Left Behind (ahem) films. I’m not all that impressed when I see Stephen Baldwin wearing hats with crosses on them on Celebrity Mole. If he’s a believer, that’s great, but I don’t find his testimony any more valuable or commendable than that of the guy who cleans the toilets at my church. I don’t think God values the church that bought 30,000 tickets for Mel’s movie any more than the church that hasn’t seen $30,000 come through its bank account in its entire existence. Neither do I. There are certainly some benefits to our President being a professing Christian, but you won’t find a shred of New Testament support for the notion that the strategic political advancement of Christians is a necessary or worthwhile priority for the Church.
God doesn’t need more attention from Hollywood or the media. The Gospel isn’t handicapped by media bias. The Church doesn’t need more influence in Washington. Non-believers don’t need rock carvings in Alabama courthouses to find truth. School children don’t need to declare this “one nation under God” or be led in ritual prayers to communicate with God. American Christians, with very few exceptions, aren’t being persecuted. Life may not be as comfortable for some of us as it was a few decades ago, but curl up next to the fire with a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs if you think you’re suffering for Jesus. Besides, we were told to expect hardship and rejection, not to fight for our rights or lobby for protection and clout.
So anyway, that’s me. Obviously I’m neglecting elaboration on a lot of those ideas, but you can imagine how long that would take. If you’re offended or upset by any of that, well, send me an email. I’ll either explain or apologize or defend myself. Maybe all three. That may or may not seem relevant to what I write next, but it helps me believe I’m making a little more sense here.
That said, I guess it’s fairly obvious that, even with my typically cynical and dismissive view of mass marketed Christianity, I’m interested and intrigued by this particular film. I should try to explain why (although I’m not going to offer an exhaustive dissertation on the whole deal…at least not yet). For starters, every indication is that this film is going to be artistically and cinematically superior to all of its Jesus-themed predecessors. In other words, it’s going to have merit purely as a film, not just as a moving picture tract. It also seems to be faithful to the biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus. That combination may prove to be unprecedented — a truly artful portrayal of the story many of us deem the most important ever told.
I also think it’s going to prove to be a powerful impetus for conversations of all shapes, smells, and sizes. This isn’t just about more people getting saved. It’s not just about shocking people into God’s Kingdom. There is very little meaningful, serious dialogue taking place between people who believe and people who don’t. We’re a lot better at stereotyping, dismissing, and ridiculing one another than we are at really talking to and understanding each other. The film hasn’t even hit theaters, and the conversation is already a contagious phenomenon.
That brings me to The Interview. Think what you want about Mel Gibson or his film or Jesus, but it’s hard to dispute that it was a compelling hour of television. When you consider that it ran in the same heat as a show where people eat intestines and swim in spiders for money and a competition to be the lucky gal that marries a midget, it’s not hard to declare it a superior viewing experience to 99% of the sludge on television.
A few particular moments merit comment. First, the whole interview was worthwhile for me to hear a guy of Mel’s stature and experience declare this: “I’ve been to the pinnacle of what secular utopia has to offer, right…it’s just this kind of, everything…I’ve got money, fame, this, that, and the other…and it’s all been like ‘Here, here you go,’ like that. And when I was younger I got my proboscis out and I dipped it into the font and sucked it up. It didn’t matter. There wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good enough. It’s not good enough. It leaves you empty. The more you eat, the emptier you get. I’m not gonna miss that. Don’t want it. It’s a drag…it’s really a drag.”
I also thought he handled the two moments of personal tension pretty well. One was a question about some unkind stuff he said about New York Times reporter Frank Rich, who had accused Gibson’s publicist of being a Holocaust denier/defender. Turns out the publicist’s parents have these little numbers tattooed on their arms from their stint in Nazi concentration camps. Mel’s agitation with Rich and the NYT seemed understandable, and he was honest and real and funny in explaining that. He also showed a lot of patience and grace in talking about his father, but was direct in shutting Diane down when she started taking his tolerance for granted. Dave did a nice little bit on that tonight, making Mel’s eyes turn red and showing him call down lightning from the sky to zap Diane out of existence.
There was one other more serious angle of the interview I was going to comment on, but I’m tired. Rather than rambling incoherently, I’ll shut it down here for now and see where this goes.
Just remember as you comment that you’re among Catholics, Baptists, atheists, agnostics, Mormons, and other assorted affiliations and non-affiliations. Play nice.