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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Passion of the Christ

Yesterday was Good Friday, and tonight we are planning to watch and discuss an edited version of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (with the violence toned down some...see below), so I thought I would reproduce here a newspaper interview I did years ago, during the week that the movie was first released. I hope you find it interesting and edifying, and that it will help you to better understand the event that is truly the "crux" of history...

1) Are you planning special church programs on The Passion movie? Why or why not?

The only thing that our church might do is have a message around Easter time entitled "The Passion--Fact and Fiction," or something like that. The goal would be to instruct our congregation about the truth of Christ's sacrifice, but also to possibly attract some people that are interested in the movie and its topic. I am frankly surprised that so many church leaders are endorsing this movie, and viewing it as a form of evangelism, in many cases even before they have seen it! I have seen it, and find it to be a somewhat disconcerting--and potentially dangerous--mixture of truth and error.

2) Do you see this movie as bringing people to your church and/or Jesus? Why or why not?

Of course I do want people to be drawn to Jesus, and also to our church, if that is the best place for them. But if people are truly drawn to Jesus by the Holy Spirit, it will not be through the movie itself, or the emotional experience of viewing it. It will be through the Word of God (biblical truth) contained in the movie and expressed through it. The gospel itself is "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16). The medium of film definitely has the power to move people emotionally, but the power to change people spiritually can only come through an understanding of the words about Christ, as Romans 10:17 says.

3) What role does Jesus' suffering play in your spirituality? Why?

Wow! I would need to write a whole book to answer that question! But in shorthand, the source of all my motivation for living as a Christian comes from the conviction that because Jesus died for me, I should live for Him (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Peter 2:24). I love Him because of what He did for me, bearing the penalty for my sins and freeing me from any fear of the judgment of God. Also, Jesus' suffering is a model for me, since He said that I should take up my cross, and follow Him (Luke 9:23-25). I need to be willing to give myself up for the glory of God and the good of others.

4) What do you think of the way the movie treats the Virgin Mary? Why? What role does she play in your spirituality? Why?

This is one of my biggest misgivings about the movie. Knowing that Mel Gibson believes strongly that Mary is both a "co-redemptrix and co-mediatrix," as he told an interviewer recently, and merely having my eyes open while watching the film, it is obvious that he wants people to place their trust not only in Christ, but also in His mother. Mary is referred to as "Mother" by everyone, is portrayed as if she is offering up her Son, and at one point she matches steps with Satan on the other side of Jesus, implying that she is also a more-than-human character playing a significant spiritual role in the proceedings. But most significant is the fact that every time Jesus falls under the cross, he looks to Mary and receives from her the strength to go on. Mel Gibson himself said that he was surprised that evangelicals are so supportive of the film, "because it is so Marian."

I believe what the Bible says about Mary, and nothing more. She was a good model for us when she submitted to God's will and praised Him (Luke 1:38-55). But she was also a sinner like everyone else who needed to be saved like everyone else (Luke 1:47). The big problem with making her more than that is what I alluded to above: people direct their trust and worship toward Mary when the Bible is very clear that we should trust and worship God alone. So what we end up is a dangerous form of idolatry--or "maryolatry," as some have called it. And the Bible makes it abundantly clear that idolatry is displeasing to God and dangerous to those who practice it.

5) Do you consider the movie too violent? Why or why not?

Yes, that is the other biggest problem I have with the movie. I can't say it better than so many of the critics have ("the goriest story ever told," "a merciless excursion into motion-picture ultraviolence," etc.). But I can suggest a couple possible reasons for Gibson's enigmatic excesses. First, he is a product of Hollywood, where whole companies exist to create special effects for the purpose of depicting grisly realities. So if it can be done, they will do it, sometimes only because it can be done! Second, and more significantly, he is inordinately preoccupied with the physical suffering of Christ, which is actually consistent with his Roman Catholic beliefs. He believes that the mass (which the cast of the movie observed every morning on the set) is a re-sacrifice of Christ, in which the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. The belief of Reformed Christians (and I would say the teaching of the Bible), on the other hand, focuses more on Christ's spiritual suffering, when the Father turned His face away and Jesus bore the pains of hell in a once-for-all, unrepeatable atonement.

For your information, by the way, Matthew and Mark and John only mention briefly that Pilate "had him scourged," without giving any further details. Luke does not even mention the scourging, and records a speech that Christ gave after He was scourged (Luke 23:28-31), which is long enough and cogent enough that it would have been unlikely he could have delivered it after the kind of beating that the movie depicts. The fact is, Gibson got the excessive scourging idea from a mystic and stigmatic 19-century nun who claimed to be receiving visions from God about the passion.

I think it is very unfortunate that what many will remember most about the movie is the overdone violence and gore. The Bible simply doesn't linger on it like the movie does, not even close. So it will be known as the movie Roger Ebert called, in a positive review, "the most violent film I have ever seen." The fact is, Jesus' physical death was not the most violent death ever, so the movie warps reality. On the other hand, His spiritual suffering--the Son being separated from the Father--was utterly unique. But that can't be captured on film, and Gibson makes little attempt to communicate it.

6) Would you take children to see the movie? Why or why not?

Not unless I thought they were old enough, and mature enough, to discern the truth from error and to realize that it is merely a movie, the gore is just special effects, etc. Rather than watching it in a theater where the screen is huge and we are at the mercy of what flows across it, I would rather view it on video where it can be fast-forwarded and discussed along the way. I also do not believe my children, or anyone for that matter, would be impoverished in any way if they do not see this movie. The written Word of God, read and taught, is sufficient to produce faith and godliness, and a wonderful relationship with God, as I alluded to above (see 1 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3).

7) How does Mel Gibson's Catholicism affect your view of the movie? Why?

Well, I think you can figure that out from the comments above! I view the movie as a kind of "evangelistic tract" for Roman Catholicism. In fact, it has been reported that cast and crew members were converted to Catholicism during the filming. Mel Gibson is not just selling Christ--he is selling a particular perspective on the person and work of Christ. That being said, I am grateful for the scriptural truth that is included in the movie, and I believe and pray that God can use that truth to draw people to Himself.

8) How does your spirituality treat the suffering Jesus? Why? Do you focus more on the Resurrection? Why or why not?

Yes, you keep reminding me of problems I have with the movie! I don't want to be overly negative, because I think much of the source material (namely, the New Testament) is fantastic! But maybe my criticisms can serve as a helpful balance to those who are uncritically accepting the movie...

I understand that the movie was about the passion of Jesus Christ, and not His resurrection, and that one movie cannot cover everything about Christ, or even everything about His passion. But again, when it lingers so long on the gory details of his suffering, and adds the resurrection merely as the cinematic version of a footnote, it seems to say something about the perspective and priorities of the filmmaker. It also implies that the resurrection, and the details surrounding it, are not necessary to an understanding of the passion. I would say they are, and that in true biblical thinking about Christ, the resurrection is just as important as the passion. Narratives about the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances are given just as much space in the gospels, if not more. And the epistles almost always mention the resurrection, in one way or another, when they mention the death of Christ.

9) Do you think Christianity needs to focus more on Christ's suffering? Why or why not?

We are always in danger of forgetting the great price that our Lord paid for our sins, and we need to be reminded of it. However, I don't believe we need to meditate extensively on the details of His suffering, especially on the extra-biblical details that this movie fabricates and obsesses over.

10) Do you see Christ's sufferings merely as past history,or something still relevant today? Why or why not?

I do not believe Christ's suffering are continuing today, or being repeated today, as Romans Catholics do. But I certainly do believe they are relevant today, as I explained in my answer to number 3 above: The source of all my motivation for living as a Christian comes from the conviction that because Jesus died for me, I should live for Him (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Peter 2:24). I love Him because of what He did for me, bearing the penalty for my sins and freeing me from any fear of the judgment of God. Also, Jesus' suffering is a model for me, since He said that I should take up my cross, and follow Him (Luke 9:23-25). I need to be willing to give myself up for the glory of God and the good of others.

11) What do you think of crucifixes? Why?

Crucifixes are problematic in several ways. First, many people venerate them or use them as an aid in worship (e.g. kissing them, praying to them), and that can be a form of idolatry--placing trust in the object, as if it had some kind of magical powers, rather than trusting in God, who alone has divine power. Also, I think the fact that Jesus is represented as "still on the cross" often reflects the Roman Catholic misunderstanding of the Lord's Supper and the nature of His sacrifice (which I discussed above under number 5). So if we choose to display a cross, in our churches or around our necks, I prefer an empty one, so we can remember that the Lord is risen and reigning in heaven at the right hand of the Father!

12) What is the role of suffering in your spirituality? Why?

I assume that you mean my own suffering, because you already asked about Christ's. My suffering plays a very important role in my spirituality. I do not go looking for it, nor do I enjoy it, but when God allows suffering in my life by His providence, He uses it to help me "become conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29). Suffering turns my heart toward heaven and away from the things of this world; suffering strengthens my character; suffering gives me an opportunity to trust God more; suffering enables me to help others who are going through tough times; and suffering for the sake of Christ gives me assurance that I belong to Him.

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