Let’s talk Passion (even if we’re behind the rest of the world)

Well, I should have followed my own advice and written what I wanted to post here two weeks ago. By now, I’ve read, said, heard, and written so much about it that I don’t even know where to begin for the sake of this conversation (assuming there’s still a conversation pending). Part of me wants to find some particular angle to focus on so that we might have a shot at a dialogue that hasn’t already been done and redone somewhere else. But that’s probably a futile endeavor. So I’m just going to share some of my personal reaction to the film, then include a few scattered thoughts about some of the issues everyone is asking and talking about. Part of my struggle here is that I don’t know quite how to frame all of this and, as you probably know by now, I’m a bit obsessive about proper framing. Since I don’t feel prepared to do that properly on this, let me do it improperly…

The Passion of the Christ is both a cause and a victim of one of our least helpful cultural phenomena – a rampant and insatiable need to dissect anything interesting to the point that, at least in our mind’s eye, it no longer resembles its original self. I say the film is a victim of this because, as I mentioned before (I wrote it somewhere, if not here), I think it’s being subjected to a level of scrutiny and criticism unparalleled in the history of film. No, I’m not a film historian, but I’m comfortable enough with that statement. If you disagree, write a book about it. That’s not really my point. I also believe the film is a cause of this frenzy because it (and by ‘it’ I mean the film, but I also obviously mean the people behind the film and its success, including Gibson, New Market, and a billion evangelical Christians all too happy to help Mel turn his $35M investment into something upwards of six or seven times that in personal profit) –

Wait, wait, stop. I have a really bad habit of interrupting my sentences with parenthetical thoughts longer than the sentences themselves. The problem with this is that I have to stop after I close the parentheses and go back to remind myself what I was saying so I can figure out the rest of the sentence. If it’s confusing for me, I can only imagine what it’s like to read from territories beyond the borders of my brain. So let me try that one again…

I also believe the film is a cause of this frenzy because it sought the bottom-up buzz that generated at least half of the Passion overload we’re all getting. They wanted people to see the film. They wanted people to talk about the film. Well, mission accomplished. But I’m still talking around things, aren’t I? Let’s end that. My point is simply that this is a hard animal to just talk about. I feel like I have to deal with sixteen prescribed topics of debate and make seven particular declarations about its merit or lack thereof. But I’m not going to do either.

First I’ll tell you that I think it’s a very good film. I first saw it two weeks ago with Amy and my Dad at the big Cinemark megaplex with the football field screen and the Dolby-inter-brain-audio-technology. We then saw it again last Friday night at a little art house theater called The Dietrich. The first time I saw it I just took it in. I had succumbed to the hype I’d warned others about and found myself oddly unsure of how to feel about what I was about to experience as the screen tried to sell me things in the moments before the fade to black, including Jim Caviezel’s new film about boat racing….Huh??!? Did anyone else find this queer and slightly unsettling in some way?

That first viewing turned out to be a little bit like a marathon through a dark graveyard for me. I was often wondering what was behind the next spooky tree, and I had to pace myself and get a second and third wind during the film. That’s a very unusual experience for me, and I admit that it had as much to do with my own uncertainty and expectation as it did with the film itself. How bad will this be? Can I handle seeing it? Do I really want to see what Jesus endured on behalf of a self-loving weenie like me? That kind of stuff. Anyone else have that?

I’m still working through what to do with that first experience because it was a little more emotional and spiritually engaging than I expected. Some would say I fell prey to a shallow exercise in visual manipulation, but I think those people just tie their ties too tightly and wear underwear that’s too small. I was moved by what I saw, and often more by the flashbacks than by the intensity of the violence. I liked seeing Jesus joking around with his mom. I cried when he washed his disciples’ feet and told them: “If they hate you, they hated me first. They’ve persecuted me, and you’re not better than me, so gear up boys. It’s coming your way too.” (My paraphrase, obviously.) I cried more when he followed that with, “You must not be afraid. The Helper will come who reveals the truth about God and comes from the Father.” I don’t think Caviezel is going to win any acting awards for this role (or any role), but I loved his expression in that scene. I think he really captured the soul of the moment.

I had some internal movement when Mary Magdalene looks across the bloody ground and remembers the John 8 scene where she was apprehended by the essence of Jesus. I’ve always loved that story – it’s dramatic and sarcastic and dripping with grace. Jesus writes in the dirt and the vipers drop their rocks. Mary meets mercy, and she becomes the kind of disciple who scorns all things for the sake of following the man who claimed to be The Man. Cinematically, I thought the front end of this flashback was stunning, wrapping its arms around both the momentary and eternal drama played out as Jesus effectively draws a line in the sand.

For me, the blood and physical suffering was hard to know what to do with the first time around. Again, some of that was because I’d heard too much about it before actually seeing it. It took me some time to work through all of that and let it settle into my brain. In terms of the public debate, I don’t find it needlessly graphic or in any way rooted in the increasingly violent ethos of Hollywood. That’s hard for some people to get past, partly because Hollywood is so violent and partly because Gibson has a history of involvement in pretty violent films. The former obstacle should be mostly dismissed by the fact that this was, in many ways, an anti-Hollywood production. Hollywood wouldn’t touch it, and ultimately I think Mel was happy about that. The latter is a more understandable concern, but the historical and spiritual context of the film is enough for me to have little use for the people who complain about it being excess for excess sake. My one caveat there is that I think there are some reasonable conversations about the choices Gibson makes in his focus, and I’ll mention one of those shortly.

The defining moment of the film for me is this: In the midst of the cruelty of the physical and spiritual suffering, Jesus falls under the weight of the cross. The scene is cut so that we jump back and forth between this scene and Mary’s flashback to Jesus falling as a child. As she runs to him in both scenes, the juxtaposition of images is pretty overwhelming. There is all kinds of meaning and depth wrapped up in that sequence, but it culminates in her on the ground with him, face to face as you see here. What Mary sees with her eyes as she looks at her son (and what I see with mine) screams violence, pain, and death. Then come his words: See mother, I make all things new. I don’t know if we can feel our soul move about within our bodies, but something happened for me at that moment that sure felt like that.

So yeah, I know that will sound overly dramatic to some people, but let me explain something. The film isn’t what moved me spiritually. I was moved because something already within me stood up and said, “Yes, I AM who I AM. I make all things new. I confound the wise and rebuke the righteous, and I heal sinners and redeem by my blood what is used and lost and angry and ashamed and unbelieving and spent and abused.” That’s in me. The film didn’t put it there, but for me at least, that moment in the film stirred that in a new way.

This, I think, is the spiritual significance to something like film in general and this film in particular. The film itself is not the Gospel (nor does it claim to be). There is more to the Gospel and certainly more to Jesus than what we see in these two hours. A celluloid reel and a big screen aren’t the ultimate conveyors of spiritual truth; the Story behind the film and the Being behind the Story is what matters to our souls. The film isn’t responsible for carrying out the Great Commission. Followers of Jesus are. That said, this film is a striking piece of art, and it has people talking.

I return to my Fat Tuesday admonition and once again say: let it be what it is. Let it be a film. To those shouting about violence and bigotry and narrow-mindedness I say: let it be a film, and don’t expect it to be more. To those lauding it as though it’s a fifth Gospel and thinking that Mel Gibson has “done our work for us” (as I saw one woman absurdly declare on Nightline) I say: let it be a film, and don’t expect it to be more. For the critics, I think the film will prove awkwardly disappointing in perpetuating the sort of grim outcomes many have predicted. For the enthusiastic believers, I think the film will prove awkwardly disappointing in adding thousands to the fold.

And to that I’ll add one other thought – we should not expect a film like this to make our experience as followers of Christ easier, and the negative responses should not be surprising. The apostle Paul said that the message of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Gentile. We call Paul an apostle and not a prophet, but I think he earned his merit badge for prophecy on that one in the past month or so. The film itself reminds us that we’ll not be loved by the whole world. Quit fighting it like you’re going to eventually come up with the argument that convinces everyone you’re right. It’s not gonna happen.

That said, I think an experience like this can raise the bar for genuine Jesus followers. It doesn’t do our work for us; it requires us to know what our work is (and what it isn’t). It asks us to dialogue with people of other faiths and people of no faith with grace and love, communicating Who Jesus is (and who he isn’t). It requires us to know and lean on Jesus instead of the safe-seeming crutches of religion and denominationalism and tradition; it requires us to make Jesus known instead of making known political positions and doctrinal agendas. In other words, it is just a film, but it’s a film that has an unavoidable consequence for anyone who sees it. It points to a man named Jesus – not to Jim Caviezel or to Mel Gibson’s script, but to Jesus himself – and it asks us all: Who do you say that he is?

For those interested in such things, a little more talk about the film as a film:

The second time we saw the film, I took ten pages of notes (which drove my beautiful wife nuts). I thought the light from the screen would be enough for me to see what I was writing, but the old high-backed chairs at The Dietrich managed to leave my notebook completely darkened. So I repeatedly pressed the end button on my cell phone, which lit up the display, which provided just enough green glow for me to almost see what I was writing. I tried to read the film more critically the second time, and I was actually more impressed with the storytelling and the literary and artistic choices than I was the first time. In particular, I think the consistent use of juxtaposed images and themes was masterful. We repeatedly have the darkness, evil, and violence interrupted by flashes of light and life…

Just as we see the spiritual anguish crescendo for Jesus in the garden, he stomps the snake’s head, referring back to Genesis 3 (God tells the serpent that the “offspring of woman” will “crush your head and you will bruise his heel.”) and foreshadowing, well, the end of the story (in case anyone was in suspense about that).

As Jesus is tortured, we see him promising his disciples that the Helper will overcome the hate and violence and reveal the truth about God.

As Mary and Mary Magdalene irrationally wipe up the bloody mess after the flogging, we see Jesus rescuing Mary Magdalene, scorning the arrogant religious leaders, and silently introducing us to a grace that turns religious piety on its head.

As Jesus stands silent and watches Pilate wash his hands of the King of the Jews unto death, we see him smiling with his friends at the last supper.

As he carries his cross through the streets, we see him entering the city in triumph under palm branches.

As he falls under the cross, he tells us that he makes all things new.

As he carries the cross with Simon of Cyrene and looks up the hill at Golgotha where he will die, we see him standing on another hillside confounding people with the wisdom of God that requires us to love our enemies.

As he reaches the site of his death and looks at the silhouette of the Pharisees against the horizon, we see the Pharisees replaced by the silhouette of Jesus as he declares that he lays down his life willingly for our sake, assuring us that no one can take his life from him.

As he stands, physically climbs onto the cross, and allows himself to be nailed to it, we see repeated shots of him eating with his disciples, telling them that the giving of his life is the greatest love he can show, then urging them to love as he has loved, then declaring that he is The Way to the Father.

As the cross is violently flipped back and forth, he explains that his body and blood are given for a New Covenant between God and man – a covenant that demands an eternal remembrance of Christ’s life and death.

We then have all sorts of prophetic confirmation that Jesus was indeed Who he said he was, even as he dies and darkness reaches its climax.

Then, of course, the grave clothes deflate.

For me, the hope is not hard to find in the film. Others find it more obscure. I’m troubled by that, but not really surprised. Again, I don’t think the film has inherent divine power to create within you something that isn’t delivered by God Himself. In other words, those who don’t buy the hope Christ offers in the first place won’t likely engage with it in the film as readily as those who do. That said, I’m also a bit skeptical of film critics and other intellectual big-shots who eagerly look for deeper meaning and artistic and spiritual subtlety in almost any other work, but dismiss Passion for its lack of obvious emphasis on hope and love. Yes, I think they miss some of it spiritually, but I also think they tend to encounter this film from a very particular and subjective angle. Then again, I guess we all do.

By the way, did anyone else notice that as the Pharisees turn to leave from the crucifixion (it apparently got too violent for them too), they were riding asses? And did you notice that, in contrast to natural tendencies of the sound editing at that point in the film, we hear the asses going “He-haw! He-haw!” as they ride away. Ah, symbolism.

I guess that’s a good place to comment on the anti-Semitism stuff? I don’t have much to say here, mostly because I think people more educated than I have already adequately addressed this. I can certainly understand why certain directorial decisions are upsetting to Jewish folks. That’s a fair response, and I don’t criticize the level-headed folks like Dennis Prager who have expressed some reasonable concerns and reservations. I think the most relevant points to me are about motive and theology. As to motive, if Gibson set out to make a piece of anti-Semitic propaganda, he failed miserably. If you don’t believe that, go read through the four Gospels and take note of all the scenes he could have easily shot and defended as biblical that he chose to omit–scenes that would have been much more likely to make people dislike Jews. It’s just not the point of the film. Second, it’s theologically off base for any “Christian” to get riled up about modern Jews and the story of the Passion. Christ himself said no one could take his life; he laid it down. True followers of Jesus recognize the spiritual causes of His death, and they don’t blame anyone more than themselves. The mocking of the Pharisees has nothing to do with them being Jews and everything to do with them being hypocritical power brokers who were more interested in their own kingdoms than in God’s Kingdom. Beyond that, I defer to the many other people who can address this issue more thoroughly than I can.

A few criticisms (most of which aren’t that important):

– I still don’t like the way Pilate was written in the film. I actually thought he was a well acted character given the way he was written, but it’s just too historically loose for me. I think it serves to unnecessarily confuse some parts of the story.

– Jim Caviezel is a terrible preacher. Overall I thought the way this Jesus was written was superior to most, if not all, previous cinematic portrayals. That said, I thought Caviezel was a little hit and miss in playing that out. The Sermon on the Mount scene was awkward and almost made me laugh at an inappropriate time.

– I thought the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers were mostly too cartoonish. I actually bought this a little more the second time around, mostly because I perceived a little more of the intentional use of exaggeration to make certain points. That said, I wanted the bad guys, especially the Pharisees, to seem a little more familiar to us. I wanted us to be able to see ourselves in them. Instead they were fairly typical movie villains who we easily distanced ourselves from and hated.

– Herod. That was a little silly, I think. Barabbas was even sillier. I’m not sure why.

– The flogging was very difficult to watch (even more so the second time around), but that’s not my complaint. I believe it was right for me to see the extremity of the suffering (not necessarily right for everyone, but right for me). That said, I did feel like the torture scenes may have obscured the significance of the actual crucifixion a bit. I’m still working through all of that, but I actually felt that more after the second viewing than the first. Neither is insignificant, but I’m not sure the ends justify the means in what Mel tried to do there. Play with that a bit.

Little things I liked:

– The opening use of Isaiah 53:5 told the story from the outset.

– The early part of the garden scene was a terrific look into the spiritual anguish that underlay the physical suffering that made up so much of the rest of the film. The interplay between Satan and Jesus, while not explicitly biblical, was well conceived and thought-provoking. Who is your Father? Who are you? s/he asks with a smirk. Then s/he gets, well:

– I liked hearing Jesus tell his boy Peter that his Kingdom wouldn’t come by the sword while watching Peter try to take out the temple guards all on his own. I thought it was a remarkably accurate look at the humanity of the disciples, including their incomplete understanding even after spending three years with Jesus. It also communicated something essential and divine about the Gospel and the Kingdom in the midst of that intense humanity.

– Pilate’s wife’s line: If you do not hear the truth, no one can tell you.

– Jesus demonstrating clearly that no one was taking his life; that he was laying it down. This happens over and over, from him standing after the first round of flogging to him climbing onto the cross by his own strength. Mary asking, “My son – when, where, how will you choose to be delivered from this?” also played into that.

– There’s an intentional argument being made in the increasingly sadistic and voyeuristic nature of the guy supervising the beating. Dig it.

– The irrationality of Mary and Mary Magdalene cleaning up the blood.

– The senselessness of the guards still kicking Jesus around as he’s carrying the cross. Some people cite this as one of the proofs that the film is needlessly sadistic. I think it’s a deep spiritual commentary on our treatment of Jesus despite his sacrifice. The guy was already beaten to a pulp, and he was about to be nailed to wooden beams until he died, but they still took shots at him all the way to the place of the skull. There’s some serious theology of sin wrapped up in that.

– Pretty much everything about Simon’s role.

– The grave clothes deflating. I almost felt like that could have been the end. The resurrection scene must have been a terribly difficult piece of the puzzle in making this film. It’s crucial, but very hard to do well.

There’s plenty more, but I’ll stop. Your turn.