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Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ (Part Two)
February 26, 2004
This is the second part of my review of The Passion of the Christ. The first part can be found here and is a scene-by-scene description of the film. In this part I am going to analyze the movie under several headings. I do not pretend to be an authority on movies so I will analyze the content of the movie - its quality as a representation of the Bible and not its quality as a movie.
Is this the greatest opportunity for evangelism in the past 2000 years?
This movie has been characterized as the greatest opportunity for evangelism since Christ’s death but I believe that is an unfair statement. What other opportunities have there been in the past 2000 years that could even be categorized with this? Has there ever been something like this movie that has been able to reach the whole world in a matter of days? The only similar thing I can think of is the Jesus film and it is said to have converted 176 million people or some enormous number like that. If that is the case this movie has a long way to go.
The greatest opportunity for evangelism always has been and always will be the faithful preaching of the Bible. Make no mistake: there can be no more powerful method of evangelism that this.
Naturally when I heard that this movie was being made by a devout Catholic I became concerned with his portrayal of Mary. It seems my fears were well-founded. In the Biblical accounts Mary appears only in the book of John where Jesus tells John that Mary is now to be his mother and tells Mary that John is now to be her son. In this movie she is present in almost every scene and her role is elevated far above what the Bible teaches. She is presented as being Jesus’ support and strength during His trials. Many times Jesus falls and is unable to get up, but after looking at His mother He finds the strength to carry on. The disciples all call Mary “mother.” Mary is shown submitting her will to God’s, saying “so be it” as if her consent was necessary. The movie shows Mary as the suffering servant, suffering along with Jesus. This, of course, stems from Gibson’s Catholic theology and is foreign to the Bible.
Emphasis on Jesus’ Suffering
The movie chronicles Jesus’ physical suffering. He is beaten time and time again and each beating is shown with graphic brutality. After two hours of suffering we see only ten or twelve seconds of Jesus’ triumphing over death. There is really no attempt made to humanize Jesus or to display His divinity and power. There is no attempt made to explain that His physical suffering was nothing when compared to the suffering He experienced by being forsaken by God as the full wrath of God for sin was poured out upon Him. One would assume from the movie that the pain He felt was one and the same as His forsakenness.
I was troubled to hear that Gibson has patented a line of pendants featuring a spike and this has become a big seller in the Christian world. Traditionally Protestants have displayed an empty cross as a sign of triumph where Roman Catholics have displayed a crucifix as a sign of Jesus’ suffering. The spike people are beginning to wear harkens to His suffering, ignoring Jesus’ all-important triumph.
Would this movie look the same if it was made by a Protestant?
The answer to this question is unequivocally “no!” The movie espouses Catholic theology, Mariology and interpretation. It is clear this movie has a strong Catholic bias. The Catholic bias is simply too strong to deny or downplay.
This movie is almost completely free from context. Any serious student of the Bible knows that context is king and studying the Bible outside of its context is dangerous and leads to erroneous beliefs. Though flashbacks provide snippets of context, on the whole this movie shows only the events of the suffering of Jesus. Without context these events can make no sense to people who are not familiar with Jesus’ history. There is no explanation as to why He has to suffer or even what His suffering and death accomplishes.
Many of the characters were poorly developed. The Roman soldiers were unanimously portrayed as bloodthirsty, consciousless barbarians consumed with bloodlust. They were barely human. The Jews were almost all portrayed as being vicious, argumentative and cruel, caring little for the truth and rejoicing in Jesus’ pain. The characters were so underdeveloped that they reminded me of the Japanese soldiers that used to appear in Bugs Bunny cartoons – ridiculous, dehumanized caricatures that made little sense and were far from accurate.
I found it very troublesome that people identify Jim the actor with Jesus. My mind and emotions never made the transition to actually believing that Jim was Jesus. At one time I began to feel emotion as Jesus, nailed to the cross, cried out for God to forgive His murderers. Interestingly, my mind immediately intervened and kept me from seeing Jim as Jesus. I simply could not and ultimately did not want to see the real Jesus in this movie. I could not identify with this human playing my Lord and my Savior. My mind told me that making such a leap would be to succumb to idolatry.
On a macro level this movie succeeds in presenting the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and death. It covers all the major points from the Garden of Gethsemane to Jesus’ death. On a micro level it is a terrible failure. Errors on this level abound and erroneous theology and interpretation is evident in almost every scene. On the macro level it is the gospel, for it simply follows the Biblical outline. On the micro level it is not the Bible and thus not Christianity. The micro level is mysticism, tradition and poor interpretation.
Gibson drew heavily from Sister Anne Emmerich’s devotional book entitled The Dolorous Passion of Christ. Emmerich is known as being a Mystic, Stigmatist, Visionary, and Prophet. She apparently received many visions in which God provided her details about Jesus’ last days that are not contained in the Bible. This extra-Biblical account of Jesus’ suffering provided many of the smaller details in the movie such as Pilate’s wife providing the cloth to Mary as well as Simon and Jesus linking arms as they held the cross. It also provided inspiration for some of the words Peter spoke, such as his expression of unworthiness before Mary. Most troubling is that it provided many of the words Jesus spoke. A great number of Jesus’ words from the movie are drawn not from the Bible but from Emmerich. The movie makes no attempt to show what was drawn directly from the Bible and what was drawn from extra-Biblical writing. I am reminded of Revelation 22:18 which reads “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” To add to the Words of the Bible is a grave sin.
Reading through The Dolorous Passion of Christ after seeing the movie I was shocked by how closely the script of The Passion of the Christ follows this book. So much of what I assumed was artistic license was actually drawn from supposed extra-Biblical revelation.
I found this movie to be very disappointing and disheartening. Though I had read many reviews for and against it, I was convinced when I began to watch that I would be pleasantly surprised. I believed this especially based on the multitudes of Protestant leaders who provided their support for the movie. The list of these men (on one of the Passion Web sites) reads like a who’s who of Christian leaders and they described the movie as being “factually accurate,” “very accurate [in the details],” “realistic,” “biblical,” “an accurate account,” “a true representation of Jesus” and “close to the Scriptures.” Alas, it was not to be. Error is abundant to such a degree that I was shocked that so many Protestant pastors and theologians could give it their full, unequivocal approval. How little they must think of Protestant theology to ignore the pervasive Roman Catholic influence in this movie. My greatest disappointment was not in the movie but in the Protestant leaders and theologians who gave it their recommendation. Gibson made a movie that expresses his faith, but his faith is not the Protestant faith. It seems that so many people in the Protestant world simply do not know enough to discern the difference or they just do not care.
It sickens me to hear people expressing that this movie brings the gospels to life and expresses the story of Jesus’ suffering in a new and relevant way. I only wish that people would be so enthusiastic about the Bible! God has ordained that the primary means of reaching the world would be through the faithful preaching of His Word. That is not to say that He cannot and will not use other means, but we must guard ourselves against believing that other methods can surpass the Bible. This movie, full of flaws and error, has made me realize even more why God has given us His living, breathing Word as the primary means of reaching the world. Oh how I wish the church would turn to the Bible as they have turned to this movie! How I wish we would feel the same level of excitement for God’s words to us given in the Scripture. How I wish we would have faith to believe that God can do so much more through the Bible than can ever be done through a movie.
I will leave you with this thought: As my wife left the theatre last night she heard a member of a Protestant church say “I didn’t remember the part in the Bible where Mary wipes up Jesus’ blood. That was so beautiful.” This movie blurs Catholicism and Protestantism, Bible and Tradition, Scripture and mysticism. This movie is firmly opposed to Biblical Protestantism.