The Gospel According to Mel
March 23, 2005 - 5:25 p.m.


In the words of the Black Adder, the Devil farts in my face once more. Spring, so recently emergent, is once again buried beneath a blanket of snow. If your city didn't have much snow this winter, it's because Toronto stole it all. Sorry. We'll be all too happy to return it.

A day or so ago I mentioned a photo album's here! There's a link to it, in the "On-Site Links" section of the menu, over in the navigation bar. There are only a couple pictures there now. When I add a new shot to the bottom of the main page (see below, in the main window) I'll move the old one to the photo album page. I can smell your excitement.

Amy and I watched The Passion of the Christ last night. Neither of us was what you'd call keyed up for the experience...I don't know how one would get keyed up to watch the crucifixion, but I guess that some people do. I rented it just because it's Holy Week and because I'll be preaching on Good Friday. So there we were, watching the Gospel according to Mel.

We both had problems with the movie. To be fair, I'll mention what I did like before tearing it apart.

First of all, I don't have a problem with someone making a movie about the Passion. I can see why someone might, but I put it in the fine tradition of stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts. Christianity has always used images to tell its story, and movies are the current images.

I like that there's some focus given to the crucifixion. I might not like the vehicle, but it's a facet of Christianity that I think people are quick to ignore. We like Easter, but not that awful event leading up to it. But it's a package deal, and crucifixion is part of our reality.

I liked the presence of Satan, lurking in the background. The shot with the bizarre devil-baby was just...weird. But in general I liked having a visual reminder that Jesus could have backed out, that he could have chosen to serve himself, and that it was a struggle with death and evil itself.

Some of the (all-too-brief) shots of the Last Supper were nice. I liked the feeling of friendship and family they created.

And it was good to have it in Aramaic, and cast with people who actually look as if they could be Jewish.

O.K. Now what I didn't like...

Trying to combine Passion narratives, putting four accounts together, just doesn't work. You end up completely messing up the theology. The movie included the "Good Thief" sequence from Luke in which Jesus, from the cross, tells the man who is crucified next to him "you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) This reflects Luke's vision of Christ, entirely in control and powerful in death. In Luke, Jesus' last words are "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." He's making the choice, he's in control and knows that God is there.

But the movie also shows Jesus quoting Psalm 22, crying out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is from Mark's gospel, and Matthew used it when he wrote his own account. In Mark and Matthew, there is no powerful Christ passing judgement from the cross. In those two accounts Jesus is more of a victim, especially in Mark. Mark's vision of Jesus is that of utter loss - victory is gained by self-emptying and defeat. The last become first.

Both of these are valid visions, but they don't jive side-by-side. You end up with a very confused theology, and some contradictory material. Mel Gibson mixes everything together, like we do with Christmas pageants, and either brushes aside or ignores those details that don't match.

I also have difficulty with the violence of the depiction. Not that it was too intense, but that it was so intense it lost its impact. Part of that is, again, due to the conflating of the story. Jesus is whipped and beaten in different parts of the story in different gospels. Mel decided to keep it all, and the movie becomes one big flog-fest. And that's my complaint. The movie started so bloody, so violent (within the first few minutes Jesus was in chains, hanging off the side of a bridge) that by the time we reached the crucifixion it was sort of "ho hum." We'd seen so much violence, so much blood, that the actual crucifixion had very little impact. I have a problem, I think understandable, with anything that robs that act of impact.

This is connected to another problem. The violence also serves to divorce the audience from the character of Jesus. (I say "the character of Jesus" because nothing Mel does will ever divorce us from the real Jesus.) Watching the actor go through all that violence, all that beating and flogging and whipping, it just became silly. It turned into, "Oh, he's getting whipped again. Poor him." It was so much that I lost the ability to connect to the victim, and if we're not connected to Christ then the crucifixion is worthless.

In addition to this, as Amy pointed out, the entire story becomes how violent it was, how much pain and suffering there was. This serves a certain crucifixion-as-payback mentality, the idea that Christ's death was the price for our sins. It's not a theology I embrace, at least not exclusively. There's a much deeper significance to the sacrificial act, which I'll write about later, that is missing in this view. Suffice to say, "atonement" is an act of making us "at one." At-one-ment. It's a lot bigger than the mean and small-minded concern over who owes how much and for what sin.

Anyhow, those are my thoughts. I'm sure Mel Gibson will now pull the movie from the shelves and remake it.