Written by Eric C. Shafer
The Gospels meet 'Ben Hur,' 'Braveheart'
Whenever Hollywood tells our story, we Christians have an opportunity for outreach, education and dialogue. Mel Gibson's new fi lm, "The Passion of the Christ," is such an opportunity.
I was pleased to be among those who participated in a private screening held at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Ill., attended by more than 5,000 people—mostly clergy—from all 50 states. A colleague and I arrived more than an hour before the screening only to find that the 4,500- seat sanctuary was already nearly full. Six hundred more ended up sitting in an overflow area. We were on hand to view a rough cut of the fi lm—without credits and without some of the music and special effects.
Presented in several biblical languages with English subtitles, "The Passion of the Christ" is best described as "the gospels meet 'Ben Hur' meets 'Braveheart.'" It is part gospel story and part myth, with a generous amount of Hollywood and violence thrown in.
It follows the gospel accounts of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life—from Gethsemane to the crucifixion with a brief resurrection scene at the end. The film is dark, violent (R-rated—under 17 not admitted without parent) but well told.
However, much has been added to the gospel story to fill in the gaps. In an interview after the film, Gibson stated that his project was "the gospels plus my imagination" and that he brought the story from the gospels, yet added information from "history, visions and medicine."
I did not find this film to be anti- Jewish. It clearly makes the point that everyone is responsible for Jesus' suffering and death—Romans, some Jewish leaders, the rabble, ourselves. Jesus is beaten from Gethsemane to his crucifixion. The violence towards him is unrelenting. He is bleeding and battered during most of this film. This is not a film for children or anyone who cannot handle the depiction of graphic violence.
Perhaps because of Gibson's Roman Catholic background, Mary—Jesus' mother—has a major role in the film. Gibson puts Mary at nearly all of the events of his trial, torture and crucifixion, and even has Mary kissing Jesus' feet when he is on the cross. There are many scenes like that one—not Biblical, but probable—and many based in mystic and apocryphal writings as well as Roman Catholic tradition. I took notes of the non-Biblical scenes, events and characters, and I had a full page of them.
Should you see this film? Should you recommend it to others? Because of the level of violence, that is a hard question to answer.
It is important for Christians (and others) who view this film to read the gospel accounts before and/or after any viewing. The danger is that it will become the Oliver Stone's "JFK" of Christ's Passion story. That is, the public may only know the Passion story as it is depicted here—with all of the non-Biblical material assumed to be Biblical or historical, just as many now only know the details of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through Oliver Stone's fictional film.
The Rev. Eric C. Shafer is director of the department of communications for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.