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How to Watch The Passion of the Christ
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"The Passion of the Christ"
By Lee Ramsey
"Christian or not, anyone who decides to see this movie should by now be properly forewarned. Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ is relentlessly violent, violent, violent. ... "

"What Was the Passion of Jesus?" (Audio only)
By Marcus Borg
The movie betrays the passion of Jesus. His suffering and death were the result of his passion for the Kingdom of God. ...God does not require anybody's suffering.

"The Bigger Picture"
By Simon Cohen
What is the worst thing you have ever done? Did you curse yourself afterwards, feel a deep sense of shame, and make an empty promise that you would never do anything like it again, and you would be a good person for the rest of your life? That’s how I felt after watching The Passion of the Christ.

"The Gospel of Truth" Reflections on The Passion of the Christ
By Stephen Montgomery
In this post-modern world there are some who say there is no such thing as truth. And part of the problem is that we in the church make some truth claims that aren’t true, but we say them because they are true. Do you know what I mean?

"Ponderings on The Passion"
By Mark Beckwith
It is classical medieval theology. Jesus offers himself as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. That is the underlying theme of The Passion of the Christ, and to his credit, Mel Gibson’s film is congruent with this medieval message, which still casts its influence over vast swaths of the Christian landscape.


Commentaries on The Passion of the Christ

How to Watch The Passion of the Christ
After the Curtain Falls

How to Watch The Passion of the Christ
for those who have not yet seen the movie
by Lowell Grisham

It seems a bit silly to write about Mel Gibson's movie without having seen it. But the movie became a cultural event even prior to its release, and opinions about it are a dime a dozen. Since explorefaith.org is free, I'll give you my ten-cents worth.

I was impressed by Mel Gibson's passion in his interview with Diane Sawyer. He has had a transforming spiritual experience that led him out of a materialistic soul-sucking lifestyle and into a satisfying spiritual practice and a fulfilling family life. I applaud that.

I expect to be deeply moved by The Passion. One thing it will do is witness to the vicious cruelty of crucifixion, which has been too domesticated by our jewelry and art. The cross was exceedingly ugly. That's real.

Everyone brings his or her own interpretations of Jesus to a movie like this. In some way, it's like reading the Bible. Everyone is an interpreter. Even people who claim to be literalists bring a theology to their reading, whether they admit it or not. It helps if people are clear about their presumptions on the front end.

If we accept this film as Mel Gibson's preaching, his witness, that is fine. He has a theological place to stand. But to jump to the conclusion that he has filmed history is too far to go. It's like the Biblical literalist's error of reading scripture as though it were a newspaper. The Bible is “poetry plus, not history minus.”

Atonement is the Christian doctrine of the cross -- Why did Jesus die? What did his death accomplish? There are a lot of versions of the Atonement doctrine in Christian history. I don't like some of Mel Gibson's theology. I already know that. The “substitutionary blood sacrifice” version of the atonement is the least compelling theological explanation of the cross for me. That's what Mel believes. I don't have space to go into that here, but let me describe where my heart will be as I watch the violence of Jesus' crucifixion on the screen.

For me, the suffering of Jesus is a sacrament of the love of God. The story tells us that God willingly soaks up all of our systemic injustice, personal evil and violence and returns only love.

The predominant ethos of Jesus is compassion. And here's where the use of Latin actually comes in handy. Cum , meaning “with,” and passio , meaning “to suffer; to feel deeply.” Compassion = “to feel and suffer deeply with.” It is a visceral word. Biblically it is associated with the kind of feeling that comes from the womb or from the bowels, and so we have that odd biblical expression of Jesus that “his bowels were moved with compassion.” (John 11:33, 38) Jesus reveals a God whose love for us is deep and womb-like, like the love a mother has for the child of her womb.

So, God is no distant deity in some pure heaven far away. God is with us on earth in our horror, our terror, our violence, and our suffering. God refuses to add to the evil and violence, but instead responds with vulnerable, compassionate love. That's how God wins. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims that love is more powerful than hate, compassion triumphs over oppression, and vulnerability overcomes power. Jesus invites us to put our trust in God, even in the face of horror, oppression, cruelty and death. God is with us. God feels and suffers deeply with us. And, what God does best is to bring life out of death.

That's how I'm going to watch this movie. And you don't have to be a Christian to watch it that way. Every enduring religion places compassion at its center and witnesses to a path of transformation from death to life. So Christians, back off from the triumphalism and conversion stuff. Lead with your strength. Jesus shows us a way of compassionate, courageous love. That's something for the healing of the planet, not its division.

Copyright ©2004 Lowell Grisham

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After the Curtain Falls
Thoughts on a Misguided Creation
by Lowell Grisham

I don’t know if Mel Gibson’s Passion will inspire people to become Christians, but it certainly is a compelling promotional piece for Amnesty International and the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

I packed my pockets with Kleenex and entered the theatre prepared to be deeply moved by the story that is so close to my heart. When the movie ended, I took my dry tissues unused out of my pocket and left with a sad sense of disappointment. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found I could never deeply enter the drama;I was distracted by its main character – not Jesus – but director Mel Gibson.

Over and over again, I found myself yanked out of the narrative by the quirky choices Gibson made. He souped together a mixture of legend, non-historical literalisms, artistic fantasy, and the four canonical stories to create something that I could accept as one person’s witness -- but it came off as a very peculiar witness indeed.

Everyone interprets art individually. Mel’s Passion is art, not history. He takes a lot of artistic license. Unfortunately, I was more distracted than moved by most of Gibson’s artistic flourishes. The “Satan” figure just seemed stupid to me. And the snake? …mel-o-dramatic. (Oh, I caught the reference to Genesis 3:15.) The guards were like cartoonish Orcs, better suited to the Lord of the Rings. And what was that ugly baby about?

I kept asking, “Why?” Why did Mel do that? Why have Jesus knocked off the bridge to land suspended at eye level with Judas? Why the bit with Pilate’s wife trembling, offering towels to the two Marys, and then the two women wiping up blood from the scourging site? Why perpetuate the mis-identification of Mary Magdalene with the woman accused of adultery? Why the gang of crazed kids chasing Judas? Why the earthquake that splits not the curtain but the Temple itself? Why the queasy Pilate and the effeminate Herod? For me these were embellishments that were more distracting than enhancing.

Particularly troubling was Gibson’s consistent choice to interpret Jewish involvement in its worst possible light. Now some of the blame has to rest on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Writing 35 to 60 years after the events, the authors of our gospels knew that open criticism of Roman policy was dangerous. And the Jesus movement had created close conflict within Judaism, resulting in the eventual ousting of Christians from the synagogues. So it was convenient and even wise to focus early-Christian polemic upon Jewish leadership while using coded symbolic language for any strong critique toward Rome, as in the book of the Revelation.

Biblical historians tell us that the Roman authorities were responsible for Jesus’ execution. It was a political killing. The very small group of Jewish elites who cooperated regularly with Roman rule was willing to conspire with them against Jesus since he had challenged their authority and domination as well as the economic interests of their Temple-sacrifice monopoly. But picturing a dominant Sanhedrin intimidating a cowed Pilate is just bad history. It also feeds into a subsequent history of tragic anti-Semitism. Shame on Mel for perpetuating such wrongs. It would have been easy for him to be more accurate.

When I could overlook the distractions, I was moved and horrified by the graphic scenes of torture. In a way, I was glad to see the brutality of the crucifixion as a corrective to the way we have domesticated the cross. I had a parishioner who once wore an electric-chair necklace charm as her way of challenging our ease with such a cruel symbol.

Gibson’s film is a reminder that cruel people and governments still practice barbarism. My annual renewal from Amnesty International arrived last week while the images of Jesus’ beatings were fresh in my mind. I quickly renewed my support of the planet’s strongest voice against such tortures. Witnessing the legal and religious proceedings that conspired to condemn Jesus was a stark reminder that our own judicial systems are also imperfect. Imperfect systems should never have the ultimate power to impose the death penalty. Jesus was not the last innocent person to be executed by the state.

I’m glad Mel Gibson filmed his interpretation of Jesus’ passion. It has opened up interest for important conversations. I’m happy for my friends who found it moving and compelling. But it’s not the way I would have directed such a film. And maybe Mel has done us all a great service. How would each of us have directed our film to witness to the most important thing in our lives? That’s worth thinking about.

Copyright ©2004 Lowell Grisham


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