Monday, March 1, 2004

Putting the Suffering in Context

A very good review of the film by Mark Shea himself, followed by rollicking theological debate and commentary on the nature of Christ's suffering and the atonement. Good stuff to chew on.

Mark Shea says:

It made us pray. It made us feel ashamed of our sins. It made us embrace each other. It made us weep. It took our breath away at times--both because of the depth of human cruelty and the awe of divine love. It made me admire Gibson's theological depth and his artistic vision. We left the theatre in silence and did not at all feel very inclined to find baseball bats with which to smash synagogue windows. Personally, I felt a strong need to go sit before Jesus in the Tabernacle.

This, I think, will be the experience of most devout Christians (Catholic, Evangelical and otherwise). However, we can't discount the fact the others will walk away with different impressions, as mentioned by this reader.

Like Mark, I think very few people will be provoked by this movie to engage in hatred and explicit displays of violence toward the Jews. Confusion, however, is a far more likely response, at least based on some of the reports I've read -- again, I have yet to see the film.

Indeed, somebody in my office who saw the film this weekend expressed honest confusion as to why "'The Jews' hated Jesus that much that much, that they could kill him." She wasn't the least bit anti-semitic, but she was stunned by the violence and struggled to find the reason for the violence. (I also asked her about the portrayal of the Romans, if they were cast as the villians as well -- "yes," she replied, "but Pilate didn't think he was guilty, and he washed his hands [of the matter] and handed him over to the mob.")

The point I want to make is this: not every person attending this film is going to be as theologically enlightened or proficient in the gospel accounts to undersand what The Passion is about. Many people will simply recoil at the violence; many others will, like my friend, be left wondering, struggling to find a context for the violence, and why angry mob of Jews could react in such a fashion to a man who, by all appearances, did nothing to provoke them. These people may be in the minority in the vast audiences of Christians who are flocking to see this film, but they will be there nonetheless. As Rosmarie says, commenting in Shea's blog:

. . . will non-Christians be able to appreciate such a movie the way we who are familiar with the life of Christ can?

Take, for instance, the scene in the beginning with the high priest tossing the bag of coins to Judas. We know the Gospels, so we can provide the context for that scene; we know that Judas was an apostle who agreed to betray Jesus, etc. But if someone who knows nothing about Jesus and the Gospels watches this movie, he may well wonder "Who are these people and what do they have against this man?". Unless one knows the whole story of Jesus' life, a cinematic depiction of His Passion may not mean very much.

Now, if a non-Christian watches a Gospel film which depicts Jesus' entire life from birth to Resurrection, he will get the necessary context from the rest of the film, so he will understand the Passion by the time that part comes along. So such films may be better suited for evangelism of non-Christians than this one.

Again, this is not a criticism of the movie; I would not criticize Mel for not doing what he didn't intend to do. He intended to make an unflinchingly brutal and graphic depiction of the suffering of Our Lord, and he has done a great job! This film will be a great help to Christians, to remind them of the price Jesus paid for their salvation.

But I really think this film was made, as Michael Medved said, "of the Christians, by the Christians and for the Christians". A Christian audience will understand it best; non-Christians probably won't understand it very well, unless they are familiar with the Gospels.

A welcome reminder that, as Christians, it is our calling and our duty to -- with kindnes, with charity, with compassion -- supply that context, to provide an explanation, to tell "the rest of the story."

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