Gibson’s Passion was good for me. It caused me to dig at least
this deep. It overwhelmed and quieted me. It was less and more than
I expected. What I lost was not worth keeping. What I gained is precious
and I wouldn’t miss it."
back to the
Murry Reading Room
THE WORDS GROUP
700 Sleater-Kinney Rd SE
Lacey, WA 98503
Our Little Passions Begin
we’ve learned anything from the Passion it’s that the price
of your forgiveness has been paid in full. You can’t out-sin God’s
movie, “The Passion of The Christ” presented
too much for me to process. For a time, I was simply quieted, my senses
and sensibilities overwhelmed. Personal images of the trial, torture and
crucifixion of Jesus were eclipsed and intimidated by Mel’s large
and filmcraft-empowered tour de force. I came away feeling slightly lost,
treading water in a pool of issues too deep for me.
One review comment kept going through my head; “this is not entertainment.”
Well said. If the Passion is less than entertainment it is also much more
than that. What it is and is not has become a large preoccupation for
just about anyone who cares to voice an opinion these days. Atheist Christopher
Hitchens, sounding forth on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country
recently summarized the work: “Gibson’s a fascist,”
he said. (Now that’s entertainment.)
I’m exhilarated by this movie. I’m blushing with pleasure
at the way Gibson allowed history’s only acceptable human sacrifice
to take him seriously as a motion picture artist. (The choice of words
here is quite deliberate.) If the Passion of Christ does not
take you seriously, make your pulse pound, give you nightmares, raise
the hair on your neck, thrill you to the brink of Hell and promise you
Heaven, then I don’t care what kind of artist you are, you cannot
approach the sacrifice of God’s Son with any semblance of integrity.
I sense that Mel danced in that fire, trembled with that terror, and will
walk with a psychic limp ‘til the end of days. Call him a bit touched,
crazy. That speaks well of him.
He says that a period of personal sorrow, repentance and contrition over
sin led him to attempt this work. I say it shows in every loving frame
of the movie. I thank Mel for his brave offering, and I thank God for
enabling him to see it through. In that, there has been a new mark set
for Hollywood. Not a mark they can live up to, mind you, nor even understand.
It’s a damning mark they will puzzle over until they find just the
right gossip to neutralize Gibson, marginalize his movie, and explain
its huge power as something sinister and perverse.
Having said that, however, I turn now to my own discomfort with the movie.
Strangely, after all the build up, I was not as deeply moved as I expected
to be. Yes, I shed tears, beginning with Mary’s first view of her
arrested son. A trickle of tears continued to seep out until the very
end. But I’m a shameless weeper, and other movies have touched me
more. The Great Passion of Christ that I know in my spirit did
not sufficiently materialize for me in all that lovely imagery and relentless
gore. Beneath the flood of soul-stirring “amens” and “bravos”
and “nice work, Mel” that whispered from me as I watched,
I came away with nagging twinges of things “out of place,”
things I could not put my finger on. I’m feeling that something
has been lost as well as gained in my viewing of this Passion, and I think
this is a proper response for anyone who sees it.
The comments that follow will largely assume that the reader has seen
the movie: Mel’s Passion was less than I expected. Or wanted. If
Mel diminished the Passion for me, I think he did it by taking my imagination
out of the equation and for two unrelenting hours, replaced it with his
own. But then one is asked, how can you make a serious movie from Scripture
and not do exactly that? Exactly! Word-pictures from Scripture leave a
lot of room for interpretation. Movies replace the individual’s
own picture with just one.
I have been at work for years on a movie script about Peter’s Passion.
(Gibson’s Peter disappointed me.) My Peter is not a buffoon, nor
a coward, nor a red-necked fisherman with over-bushy eyebrows. Nor does
my cursing Peter deny his Lord so wimpishly as Gibson’s does. My
Peter is not afraid at the trial of Jesus-- he’s destroyed! He bellows,
“I don’t [cursing] know this man!” And he means it.
But, how would my state-of-the-art Hollywood-empowered Peter affect the
preconceived notions of my Christian family? How much would they gain
or lose from seeing it? Alas, maybe it should remain the movie of my imagination.
Not for public consumption.
So, the first problem in any movie of the Passion is that it will inevitably
fall short of the great reality of the actual events. Jesus suffered far
more than can be shown. Far more than our best minds can conceive. None
can approximate the agony of the one true Innocent who carries the sins
of the world before God. This is not revealed in the kiss of betrayal.
Not in the flesh-ripping lash of the Roman scourge. Not in the pool of
blood, smeared in violent excess around the whipping post. Not in the
spittle running down his beard. Not in the insult of the crown of thorns,
nor in the ignorant challenges from religious and political leaders mocking
his Kingship and his Kingdom. Not in the tragic near-miss of his rescue
by Pilate. Not in the bearing of the cross, nor in the piercing with the
The true agony was inaudible, invisible. It was made supreme in the fact
that it was not inevitable. He could have verbally out-duelled Pilate
and Herod. He could have outfoxed the High Priest. He had often escaped
mobs. He could have called an army of angels. He privately confessed to
his disciples before going to Gethsemane, “Don’t you know
I’ve come to bring fire on the earth? And how I wish it were already
kindled.” I think his jaw clenched over that line. Do you see the
Son of God engaging in a moment of wishful thinking? What do we hear?
He could have done it-- he could have incinerated the whole damn lot of
us. And some day that fire will be kindled and we will be as dumb before
Him as he was before Pilate. But on the day of our Salvation, he chose
to stay the course. “Not my will, Thine be done.” He chose
to reveal the Father’s love for his ruined people. And on the cross,
suddenly something unexpected happened --- the Father abandoned him.
Jesus Speaks for a Fallen World
Here is the Passion. Here is what perfect obedience earns you; “My
God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!” And there is no answer.
In this moment Jesus speaks for every inexplicable tragedy common to a
But this screaming Son of God is hidden behind the tortured figure on
Gibson’s cross. It takes a healthy and informed Christian imagination
to reach toward the depth of that cry and know that you will never get
there. He’s beyond you in a place you can never know. Not even this
word-picture is nearly adequate. Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs tells
us that many imperfect and clumsy Christian disciples have been tortured
to death for their faith and have sung hymns and forgiven their killers
as they died because He was with them-- as he appeared to Stephen as he
was being stoned-- and they feared no evil. ---But not Jesus. He was abandoned
in the jaws of Hell because he was innocent, because he was perfectly
obedient, and because he carried our guilt. How do you picture that?
Mel gave us a lot of the physical details of the suffering because that’s
what movies do. And for that, I thank him. Protestants are notorious in
their rush to the Resurrection, skipping lightly past the depth and duration
of the Passion, displaying an empty cross and an empty tomb. Catholics
are notorious for their glorification of the Via Dolorosa, the stations
of the cross, the crucifix. We do need each other.
We need to see the physical torture in Gibson’s Passion, even though
it falls short of the full ugliness. Very little of the actual suffering
of Jesus took place with such lovely backlighting and convenient staging.
The crux of it, the actual propitiation for the sins of the world, is
a cosmic mystery play staged for the eyes of God alone. But Mel, to the
best of his ability, tried to put it in our faces, spraying us with the
water and the blood.
I suspect that after exposure to too many slasher films, or a Jurrasic
Park or An Interview with the Vampire, today’s movie-going
audience has lost its capacity for a vital imagination. Gibson gave them
a Passion they could grasp. The beating with rods. The punches to the
chops. The scourging with the cat of nine tails. The rough burlap garment
thrown across His bloody back, aggravating the deep contusions beneath
the weight of the cross. Mary’s bloody lips coming away from kissing
her son’s crucified feet. The piercing of His bloated side and Mary
and John standing in the hot putrid stream that spews from the hole—oh
yes, Mel!. (At this point in the movie, a few in the audience were inclined
to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy and hide their faces from him.)
This is the physical power of Mel’s movie and it repulses those
who do not embrace the full human physicality of Jesus. More highly evolved
human beings would never invent a story like this. They would rather a
virgin conceive and give birth to a god-hero without messily having her
water break. Religious and well-educated human beings have had historic
trouble with God in the full human jacket, complete with morning breath
and bowel movements. Especially if that body is to inherit eternal life.
It simply does not compute. But the Incarnation is a gritty Gospel idea
that leaves no wiggle room for the highly evolved who would see Him as
somehow suspended above the vileness of the real world in Salvador Dali-type
splendor. Mel properly went for the full human jacket. It discomforted
my intellectual pride, and for that, I thank him.
Discomfort, Questions, Concerns, and An Answer
I felt uncomfortable with Gibson’s Mary. Those Maia Morgenstern
eyes! The superior knowledge she seemed to have of the coming ordeal.
The wise composure she exhibited as Mary Magdalene fell apart, weeping
as ordinary women do. She was a more Catholic Mary than I’m used
to. And at the end of the crucifixion, that send-up of Michelangelo’s
Pieta with Mary holding Jesus’ body at the foot of the cross! Holy
moly! Suddenly she turns to stare directly into the camera! Eye contact.
This is how Gibson identifies the true Christ killers. We are all guilty.
You, me, everyone, whether we watch this movie or not. There is no room
for anti-Semitism in the gaze of this woman. She nails us with the Mother
of all guilt trips, as if saying; “Boy, is this going to cost you
a bunch of ‘Hail Marys.’” Yes, I was just a bit uncomfortable
with this Mary.
But thank you, Mel. This blissful Protestant needed to be reminded that
Mary was indeed the only being of all time selected to bear God’s
seed as a virgin. She was called “blessed among women.” And
at her infant son’s circumcision, the holy man Simeon prophesied
those awful words, “A sword shall pierce your soul.” She knew
before anyone else, and more clearly than the others, that a Via Dolorosa
lay ahead. Jesus began separating from her at age 12; “Don’t
you know I must be about my Father’s business?” In his ministry
he denied her, “Who is my mother? Anyone who does the will of my
Father.” Mel pictured it right, Mary dealt with her grief in advance
of the Passion.
Luke interviewed Mary late in her life, and in his Gospel, shows us the
secrets that Mary pondered in her heart for all those years; Her personal
visit with the angel Gabriel, the leaping of John the Baptist in his mother’s
womb, the beauty of Mary’s Spirit-inspired Magnificat. Perhaps a
more Catholic vision of Mary has been good for me. But I’ll stop
short of the ‘Hail Marys,’ thank you.
The young boys who tormented Judas bothered me. Why did Gibson choose
this artistic vehicle as the means to drive the Betrayer of the Lord to
his suicide? It’s not in scripture. In fact, Scripture says that
Satan entered into Judas. Where is it written that innocent children morphed
into demons and hounded a helpless Judas to his hanging tree? It’s
not there. OK, I told myself, Mel decided that the Betrayer of the Lord
would be hounded by ordinary boys mocking him the way ordinary boys do.
It was Judas’ guilty conscience that saw them as demons. And in
fact, that is the correct interpretation of Mel’s device.
But here, he skated on the thin ice of anti-Semitism according to Christopher
Hitchins. Hitchins, on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, pointed
out something this blissful Protestant did not know; that long-standing
Catholic traditions from the Middle Ages assert that Jewish children are
demon possessed. Now, I’ll have to take Hitchens word for it because
he didn’t cite his source, but just for argument’s sake, let’s
say he’s right. Mel might have selected a better device.
I’ve become troubled by the stench of anti-Semitism on the Passion.
I’m not referring now to Gibson’s movie, nor to the Passion
Plays staged throughout the world which, on rare occasion, have incited
mobs to attack local Jews. But I’m talking about the Great Passion
of Christ Himself as recorded in the book of Matthew, the most Jewish
of the four Gospels. It depicts Pilate as washing his hands in public
and declaring himself clean of innocent blood. In response to this, the
Jewish mob cries, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
My problem is not whether they actually said such a terrible thing. They
did. I believe the very words of Scripture through the pen of the writers
were inspired and ordained by God-- I have no choice but to acknowledge
it as fact. But my greater problem is with a God who would allow Matthew
to record words that would spawn so much ignorant bloody reprisal in the
centuries to follow. In human terms, the author of this Scripture could
be held liable in the largest class action suit of all time with awards
high enough to bankrupt Heaven.
We know that generations of so-called Christians have quoted Matthew’s
Gospel to support their participation in the worldwide persecution of
Jews. “They asked for it! They Killed the Lord and invited his blood
on their children!” It’s as if God could have used a good
editor to clean up this Scriptural passage. In deference to offended Jews,
Mel Gibson has removed the subtitles from his film that quoted this very
verse. But the God of Scripture shows no such squeamishness, nor does
He shrink from the awful result of what has been written. In Luke’s
account we see Jesus being followed along the Via Dolorosa by a group
of wailing women. A beaten and bloodied Jesus turns to them and says,
“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves,
and for your children. For, Behold, the days are coming, in the which
they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare
I‘m treading water again in a pool too deep for me. I know that
Jesus was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. but modern
history has shown that he was referring to much more than that. And it
doesn’t stop. On Ash Wednesday 2004, the day Gibson’s Passion
hit the screen, the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver put
up a marquee that read, “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus. Settled. 1Thess
2:14, 15.” I took my Bible and reread the Scriptures cited. Read
it for yourself and you will see that indeed, such ignorant evil can quote
Scripture (albeit ripped from context) to justify itself. Why? Why would
God allow it to be so? I am able to sympathize with those who would cite
this conundrum as the gravestone of their naïve faith in God.
But a faith that stands on rock and is not shaken by this horrible puzzle
must be a faith that has looked it squarely in the eye. The Gospel accounts
of the Passion of Christ bring the baggage of Christian anti-Semitism
relentlessly to the surface. For that, many are calling Gibson a fool
for making a serious attempt to bring it to the screen. Should he have
withheld his artistic vision because he ran the risk of raising horrible
questions he couldn’t answer? I think not. The robust nature of
Christian faith thrives in spite of the culture, not because of it.
But for me, the anti-Semitic question must be addressed. Frankly, I have
no answer for God’s motives. I’ve knocked on Heaven’s
door and asked, “Why did you allow Matthew in his Gospel, and Paul
in 1 Thessalonians, to use such dangerous language? Language that leaves
the door open for such tragic and uncharitable interpretations?”
And I get no answer. (For those who demand God to answer for Himself,
I would suggest that a virulent atheism or a more benign agnosticism seems
your only honest recourse.)
I have no answer. But I have found an explanation. I find it in the teachings
of Jesus Himself. During the time of his ministry on earth he described
his Kingdom in parables. These stories were designed to help those with
ears to hear grasp an explanation for such awful mysteries. But I offer
this explanation with a warning label; every parable of Jesus’ can
be interpreted more than one way. You may choose to reject this view even
though I am right.
Mustard Seeds and Misunderstandings Accepted
Jesus said his Kingdom was like a mustard seed. When it is planted it
is smaller than the smallest of seeds. But when it is grown it becomes
a tree and the birds of the air lodge in its branches. Think of the birds
in this parable as the anti-Semitic Christians. They are there but they
are not part of the tree, nor did they come from the seed. Stay with me.
Jesus went on to say that his Kingdom was like a fish net that men cast
into the sea gathering all sorts of fish. When they have drawn it to land
they sit down and sort the good from the bad. Think of anti-Semites who
would use Scripture to justify themselves as the bad fish, OK? They are
going to be tossed away. But there’s more. Jesus said that his Kingdom
was like a field in which he plants good seed but in the night his enemy
comes and plants weeds in the same plot. As the crop begins to grow the
weeds begin to grow as well. His disciples see the weeds and they demand
that he pull them out. Jesus forbids them. He says that tearing the weeds
from the soil would destroy some of the good crop that is still tender
and growing in the same soil. Think of the anti-Semites as the weeds.
This is where the Christian faith rises above all other systems of thought
for me: Do you see weeds in God’s garden? Who doesn’t? Wouldn’t
you love to tear them out? So would I! But the Lord asks us to take a
longer view. A longer-than-we-want-to-take view. He went on to say in
his parable that at the end of the age a proper time will come to remove
the weeds, and the bad fish, and the birds in the branches. It will be
a job assigned to angels, not to us, and we must wait for them.
This is where our little passions begin. No, we are not innocent. We are
not perfectly obedient. We will not carry our own sins, let alone anyone
else’s. But we will share in a teeny-tiny portion of His suffering.
We will be called anti-Semitic for being overwhelmed by his Sacrifice.
We will be misunderstood and blamed for inciting hatred, when all we really
want to do is depict God’s love. We will see the various weeds growing
tall in His garden and we will scream to rip them out—and we will
not be able to. Yes, this is the little crown of thorns we must wear as
we wait for the angels to come and clear things up at the end of the age.
Mel Gibson’s Passion was good for me. It caused me to dig at least
this deep. It overwhelmed and quieted me. It was less and more than I
expected. What I lost was not worth keeping. What I gained is precious
and I wouldn’t miss it.
Some will read this meditation and choose not to accept a God who will
not weed His garden (and weed it now!) before another Jew is blamed for
the crucifixion. What’s your alternative? Can you write us another
Gospel? A better Gospel? One that will rise above the Canon of Holy Scripture?
Go for it. The Gnostics took their turn. Modern editors abound, weeding
away the genius of the original text. Got a big eraser? Big enough to
erase the life and death of Jesus from the consciousness of the world?
Good luck. The effort’s been going on 24/7 from the day Herod first
took it in mind to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem. But in spite of
history’s failures, you are free to join Atheist Christopher Hitchens
and give it one more try. If we’ve learned anything from the Passion
it’s that the price of your forgiveness has been paid in full. You
can’t out-sin God’s love.
Or else … you can fall to your knees like Mel. Surrender to the
Passion of the Universe. Let Gibson’s movie move you in the proper
uncomfortable direction. Taste the true Passion, the greatest story ever
told, and I’m convinced, the only story worth telling. When Jesus
cries “It is finished,” roll the credits. What can be added?
Or subtracted? You can accept it, reject it, ignore it, ridicule it. You
can twist it into an excuse for racial hatred, use it for self aggrandizement.
You can become a bird in God’s Tree, a bad fish in his net, or a
weed in His garden, but you will find yourself in this story. You will
see your profile reflected in the eyes of Mary as she holds her son’s
lifeless and battered body at the foot of the cross. And someday, maybe
today, maybe a long time from now, you will meet an unexpected angel,
and you will be required to answer for yourself.
STEPHEN E. BRANSFORD
The Words is copyright free . downloading
& duplication is encouraged
permission to duplicate The Words
applies to all
audio narrations and/or video on this site