No passionless Christ

Some movie reviewers have left themselves no where to go. If future movies are deemed pornographic, extreme, relentless, tortuous, or nauseating, media writers will be left with nothing to do but string “very”s together to indicate a higher level of offense. They have used up all these strong terms criticizing Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death. For them, it’s only about brutal violence.

Relentlessly, they complain that the Jesus of love and peace is all but left out of “The Passion of the Christ.” One writer says that she misses more emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount (more likely, the parts she finds palatable). Let me just offer a Howard Dean shriek at this point. I can’t escape the idea that they wrote these editorials without seeing the movie. They can see symbolism and subtlety and art in cynical postmodern chaos like “Pulp Fiction” but miss the meaning in Gibson’s portrayal of that part of the gospel usually soft sold. They miss it because they don’t value it, I think.

Have there been portrayals of Jesus that emphasize more pedestrian understandings of peace and love and gentleness? I guess so. How about “Jesus Christ Superstar” (no resurrection), “Godspell” (ditto), “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and several smaller movies usually criticized as too boring or literal if they are not ignored totally? That “gentle” Jesus has had plenty of play and patronizing acceptance in our culture. Gibson went a level deeper than these writers want to go, it seems.

Gibson’s Jesus is more authentically gentle. He did not resist the horrible things done to his body or the terrifying spiritual battle required for our redemption. That fact is easily discernable in The Passion. Gibson’s Jesus was also about love. Why did he submit to all this horror if not for love of the Father and of God’s children? Again, it’s there in every scene from the garden to the grave. The violence everyone is so fixated on (granted, it is inescapable) actually emphasizes the meaning of Jesus’ life, his death, his resurrection, and his teaching, for those who are paying attention.

The new element?the one that grieves so many who hate this movie?is strength. From the time he ends his prayer in the garden and through the resurrection, The Passion portrays Jesus as commanding every circumstance of those last few hours. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he seals his decision to obey the Father completely and strides confidently toward the temple guards seeking him. There is no fear or weakness or victim hood or martyrdom in this portrayal of Jesus. He was determined and powerful in a way that intimidates Herod, Pilate, the Romans that beat him, and the Sanhedrin. Clearly in the movie, the beatings and anger are intensified by his lack of weakness or fear. Perhaps it is this Jesus that the reviewers find so over the top. One reviewer said, with naïve discernment, that Gibson’s is actually a war movie. The war, like his kingdom, is not of this world though. It is just fought here. Never has a battle been so gruesome, triumphant, and beautiful as during those last few hours. Without it, nothing Jesus says has any power, or even distinction.

The Jesus our culture praises is safe. He says and does things we consider nice but does not give them eternal meaning by proving his claims. The Jesus who actually exists is not safe at all. He has the prerogatives of God and the determined power of righteousness. It is understandable that this causes a stir in our day as it did in the first century. His blood, startlingly shown in Mel Gibson’s movie, offends the tame and shallow sensitivities of people in each generation. The scandal, like the triumph, is as real today as it was during those essential last hours of his sacrifice.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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