Once More, with The Passion


Occasional Reason contributor and Washington Post Book World Deputy Editor Chris Lehmann has written a thoughtful and searing indictment-review of The Passion for The Revealer, a "daily review of religion and the press" published out of NYU's journalism department.

From the piece:

The bad faith of The Passion resides in its handling of the scourging and crucifixion as spectacle. As with violent and pornographic cinema, the accumulation of grisly and painful detail proves deadening to viewers who are asked to do nothing more than compulsively and viscerally re-experience acts they know in advance to be evil and/or illicit. Guiltily, the filmgoer has to wish for Jesus? death, not so much for the resurrection or the redemption of believers, but out of the simple and entirely defensible human desire for the carnage to cease.

I haven't yet seen the movie (may well do so this weekend); as someone who was raised semi-new school Catholic (i.e., post-Vatican II but familiar with all the old stuff via nuns and parents and older relatives used to Latin masses and the backs of priests), I'm especially interested in the by all accounts over-the-top mortification of the flesh that has appalled especially (though by no means exclusively) non-Catholic viewers. MOF is something that is taken for granted among many (maybe most) Catholics but is largely absent from Protestant religious traditions, which not only pointedly eschew asceticism in most or all forms but even banish the bloody Christ from their crosses in church. Given my personal religious baggage, I'm curious to see just how violent (and possibly ill-considered, for the reasons Lehmann lays out) I find the violence in the film.

But for me, the most interesting question the movie's massive success raises is this one: Why are non-Catholic Christians flocking to see the movie? Twenty years ago, it was inconceivable that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would have sat through a Catholic's take on Christ's death any more than they would have read the Latin Vulgate bible or kissed the Pope's ring. They'd have been more likely to decry JP2 as Dagon the Fish God or an Antichrist; Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell were attacked for consorting with Catholics as a form of theological contamination (Falwell himself was never slow to differentiate himself from mackerel-snappers). Some Christians I knew refused to participate with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue because it was run by Catholics.

Ecumenicism was a dirty word among hard-core Christians if it meant sharing the stage with Catholics (and Jews–and you wouldn't have wanted to get them started on Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians). That all seems very different now, with the axis of a contemporary culture split running between secularists and non-secularists. I'm not sure what any of that means, but it surely must mean something.

NEXT: The New Pentagon Papers?

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  1. The film WAS gory. However, as an atheist, or (in Woody Allen’s words) a member of the “Loyal Opposition,” my main complaint with the movie was that it provides absolutely no substance to chew on. If Gibson intended the film to be evangelical in some manner, he surely failed. I am very familiar with the story, and I didn’t find the movie confusing (as some non-christians have complained), but rather completely lacking in message or depth. In fact, the deepest character representations in the movie were of Pilate and his wife who are visibly distraught over the question of Truth, and how to act upon it. The rest of the film was an overbearing retelling of the old story that felt like it was produced by the same folks who put out Christian garbage like “The Omega Code.” More run of the mill preaching to the converted.

  2. It isn’t the history of the Maccabees that Protestants have trouble with (well, those who even know about the books). It’s the theology.

    I guess the Protestant reaction to a movie based on those books will depend upon how Gibson deals with those elements.

  3. You want to see some real preaching, check out Kirk Cameron’s spiffy website: http://wayofthemaster.com/

    Oddly, it turns out that I’m a murderer:)

  4. Jesse Walker is correct; indeed, its a great joke to my wife’s family. 🙂

    “In fact, the deepest character representations in the movie were of Pilate and his wife who are visibly distraught over the question of Truth, and how to act upon it.”

    Rather humorous, given that these representations are completely non-textual.

  5. My athiestic impression of the film:

    I came away thinking that Pontius Pilate was the only sane individual in all of Judea.

    Similarly, I came away from Bowling for Columbine thinking that Marilyn Manson is the only sane individual in all of America.

  6. I find it mildly surprising that libertarians are focused on the “gore” of the film. I fail to recall concern at the remake of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses.” I am also surprised that the libertarian have generally ignored the market success of the film. By my reading, the film that cost some $30 million to make stands to gross some $300 to $400 million. One would think libertarians would applaud such capitalistic acumen by Mr. Gibson.

    To the original point, one might surmise that Catholics and Christians find themselves on one side of a cultural divide… where the the other side is same-sex marriages, etc. A movie like “The Passion” would seem to emphasize elements of a shared faith rather than doctrinal differences. In listening to people talk, I have not heard it described as “Catholic” movie, rather a move about Christ. Due to some clever marketing (again, a nod to Gibson), the movie has become something of a “have you seen it” phenomena.

  7. I hereby announce that I am officially tired of this topic.
    Janet Jackson’s breast, however…
    Now THERE’S a worthy subject!

  8. “By my reading, the film that cost some $30 million to make stands to gross some $300 to $400 million. One would think libertarians would applaud such capitalistic acumen by Mr. Gibson.”

    Hmm, so because he’s made money on the affair, that means his film is beyond reproach? BTW, I do love how Christians have been emphasizing the amount of money it has made.

  9. “Hmm, so because he’s made money on the affair, that means his film is beyond reproach?”

    Yes. Yes it does.

  10. There’s an old Phil Ochs song “The Crucifixion” that Jim & Jean did, probably in the late 60s. I put it up for somebody in honor of getting a replacement turntable after 20 years, maybe it’s still … aha

    real audio (700kb)

    (lyrics, more or less)

    (Buckley didn’t like it the movie)

    I had remembered the line “and do you have a picture of the pain?” from the song.

  11. I liked the film (what I have written, I have written) and thought it was a tremendous artistic success.

    An observation: I have seen about have a dozen film accounts of the life of Buddha…some more successful than others– no one has really done it up right yet…but I am hoping someone will, even though I am familiar with the story. I assume an effective treatment of the subject would be more popular in Buddhist societies, than not.

    Such a treatment would probably contain some lurid episodes involving the luxury Buddha renounced, the aseticism he initially embraced, and the Suffering that served as his constant impetus.

  12. Recently I saw a sign outside a church: “Christ is passionate about you.”

    My reaction: “Yuck! Stop bleeding on me!”

  13. Andrew,

    “I liked the film (what I have written, I have written) and thought it was a tremendous artistic success.”

    Actually using the term “like” is a bit of a lie; you drooled over it and called it one of the best films of all time.

    “Such a treatment would probably contain some lurid episodes involving the luxury Buddha renounced, the aseticism he initially embraced, and the Suffering that served as his constant impetus.”

    Actually, if Gibson were to make such a film he would ignore the luxury, focus on the asceticism (of the Buddha and his three companions), and end the film before the Buddha reached enlightenment under tghe Bodhi tree. BTW, your statements directly contradict your “no context” argument from about a week ago.

  14. I know athiests who have seen or intend to see this flick. As such I think it might beat Titanic (it will be a fantastic commercial success if it gets half way there, not that its not already wildly successful).

    Time to come clean Jean Bart! Admit it, you want to go see it, don’t you?

    I have this juvenile urge to go see it and then 3/4 through the movie stand up and run to the exit while screaming antisemitic obscenities at the top of my lungs. Anyone want to go see Passion with me? I’ll buy. (other juvy thoughts include hysterical laughter and applause, or wearing headphones while jamming some Ludwig Van- I’m going to hell for sure)

  15. bigbigslacker,

    No, not really. Of American movies I am looking forward to “Hellboy” and “I, Robot” (though that Will Smith stars in the latter makes me nervous). I also have read that there may be a re-make of “Zatoichi.”

  16. I prefer to defend comments I have made rather than those others would invent and attribute to me. I did not say the film was “beyond reproach.” I simply find it interesting that libertarians have focused on the content to the apparent exclusion of its commercial success. I did not say or suggest anything about the Christian reaction to the film. One might reasonably expect a somewhat different reaction from those who celebrate the free market and those who celebrate Mass.

  17. Jose Ortega y Gasset,

    I didn’t attribute any comments to you; I asked you a question so I could better understand your statement. Now stop attributing actions to me that I did not make. And what exactly should libertarians be celebrating here?

  18. I might go see The Passion on a dare, but from the reviews I’ve read, it doesn’t appeal to me. I have to mildly disagree with Eric, however. Passion plays have always had, in addition to reinforcing the faith of the faithful, reactivating the belief of the fallen-away as a goal.


  19. First, a simple “No.” No work of art is “beyond reproach.” Second, I would not presume to dictate what libertarians might celebrate. Instead, let me offer a few observations. Artists were able to make a work of art unfettered by government control or influence. A business venture was able to make an extraordinary profit. People were gainfully employed (and compensated). Critics have been free to criticize. Filmgoers have been free to attend (or stay away). The film has played throughout the American nation without any outbreaks of violence or violent reactions by the police. The film has prompted a vigorous discussion on many subjects. Despite a good dealing of worrying, there is no appearance of backlash against either Jews or Romans.

    Perhaps not enough for you, Jean Bart, but I find something worth raising a small glass.

  20. I almost never go to theatres; renting movies and watching them in the comfort of my own home is much more satisfying… and much more affordable.

    The Passion of the Christ is the first movie that I’ve ventured into a theatre for since The Phantom Menace back in 1999.

    I only went to see it because a friend wanted an objective opinion from a non-religious person. (She paid my admission).

    My objective opinion… the book was better. The movie just showcased the worst elements of humanity… hatred, jealosy, rage, cruelty, and a whole bunch of very irrational individuals (Romans, Jews, and “Christians”).

    I just realized, in addition to Pontius Pilate, there was another seemingly sane individual… Simon of Cyrene, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up having to endure what would have been a most unpleasant and probably emotionally traumatic experience.

    Everyone else seemed to be slightly off their collective rockers.

  21. I know athiests who have seen or intend to see this flick. As such I think it might beat Titanic

    Theists outnumber atheists by something like fifteen to one in the United States. If “The Passion” fails to beat “Titanic”, it won’t be because the atheists stayed away.

    Personally, I see little reason to see it. I already know the story, and it’s not a very interesting one. “The Passion” appeals to me about as much as a remake of “Mandingo” would. Plus, Gibson’s turned a little creepy. I’m not sure I want to give him money anymore; his apparently inability to come right out and admit that the Nazis deliberately tried exterminating the Jewish “race” worries me.

  22. I think it’s odd to generalize at all about libertarian reactions to this movie. Go to LewRockwell.com and you’ll see an overwhelmingly positive response to it. Here at Reason it’s been generally negative, but with different accents: Cathy Young argues that it flirts with anti-Semitism, I reject that argument but think the film fails on artistic grounds, etc. Libertarian bloggers are all over the map on it. And so on.

    Which is as it should be. Even it is most rigid form, the libertarian catechism says nothing about taste in art.

  23. Even it is most rigid form, the libertarian catechism says nothing about taste in art.

    I’m sure there must be people who would be willing to add a few injunctions on what type of art thou shalt or shalt not enjoy.

  24. People are going to this movie because the critic’s say it’s the most violent thing they’ve ever seen.

  25. Gibson is not a Catholic church official or really representing the Catholic viewpoint of the crucifixion, so there is less resistance to breaking bread with him, so to speak. Furthermore, the non-Catholic Christians do have some common ground with the old school (pre Vatican II) Catholics, as both groups have passionate doctrinal differences with the modern Church. Ecumenicism was not such a high priority with the old Catholics.

  26. Any post linking to chick.com can’t be all bad.
    Jack Chick RULES!

  27. Excellent, insightful post.

  28. Gibson is not a Catholic church official or really representing the Catholic viewpoint of the crucifixion, so there is less resistance to breaking bread with him, so to speak.

    I think too much has been made of Mel’s supposed differences with the modern church (much of it by Mel himself). The divisions between pre- and post-VII Catholics are not as clear or hard as they’re made out to be, and JPII has made a concerted effort to loosen up on those folks while trying to coax them back into the fold. For various reasons, this movie has helped that effort, and weakened the hand of the kind of progressives who all but outlawed the Latin mass in the seventies. It’s pretty clear that the pope has come as close to openly endorsing this picture as the cautious and mealymouthed manner of papal communication will allow.

    As for the larger point about pan-Christian ecumenicalism, I think this is a clear case of My Enemy’s Enemy, strengthened by the pose of victimization Christians have been striking in America over the last two decades. The untold cultural story of our time is that identity politics are now the exclusive province of the right. As I’m hoping to get an article out of this crap at some point, I’m going to clam up now.

  29. I saw the movie last night. I don’t remember who said that The Passion is the Saving Private Ryan of Jesus films, but I think that analogy is about right. The intention behind both films seems to have been to get audiences to feel enormous gratitute to the protagonist(s), and wonder if their own lives are worthy of such sacrifice. But you have to believe in Christianity for The Passion to have that effect on you (I don’t).

    Private Ryan and The Passion are different in another important way: Private Ryan is a drama. The story poses and answers the questions, “Will Tom Hanks et al save Private Ryan, and will they live through the movie?” In The Passion, there’s nothing for Jesus to do but take a lot of punishment and die. This contrasts with another Jesus film, The Last Temptation of Christ, where the Devil presents Jesus with a vision of an alternate future where the Crucifixion didn’t happen, and Jesus considers choosing it.

    To summarize, The Passion was interesting to me, but it was clearly not intended as Christian outreach, and there’s some question in my mind about whether it was even intended to be entertainment. It’s a film made by a Christian for consumption by Christians.

  30. The sad thing about the entire Christian church is the, inadequate at best, lesson it has drawn from the crucifixion and taught to the congregation, which is that the state has given people the means for committing horrendous acts without having to assign specific blame or anyone having to bear consequences for same.

  31. If Mel actually does make a movie version of the Maccabees, we may see just how far evangelicals are willing to take this ecumenical stuff.

  32. I saw this on opening night. I consider myself very much atheist, though my family origins and lineage are almost exclusively Irish & Catholic.

    Despite having seen my share of gore as a volunteer paramedic in suburban Philly, I found this to be hands-down one of the most gory, violent movies I have ever seen. Honestly, I have absolutely NO desire to see this again.

    From a theatrical perspective, I thought the movie was excellent. However, I can only imagine how trying it must be for some of the Christian faith to view this film.

  33. Charles Oliver,

    I don’t think the Protestants deny the significance of the Maccabean revolt. They just don’t think the book of that name is canonical. Modern Judaism doesn’t include I and II Maccabees in its scriptural canon, either, but there’s still an important Jewish holiday inspired by the events in them.

  34. It’s not that important a holiday. It’s just that there’s only two or three Jewish holidays that most gentiles have heard of, and this, thanks to an accident of the calendar, is one of them.

  35. “Why are non-Catholic Christians flocking to see the movie? Twenty years ago, it was inconceivable that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would have sat through a Catholic’s take on Christ’s death…”

    What were the choices in Christ centered movies twenty years ago? Might be that such a telling has been scarce for a generation.

  36. Nick’s “most interesting question” doesn’t interest me much. As others here comment, Protestants and Catholics share the basic set of beliefs about Jesus’ mission. C. S. Lewis called this commonality “mere Christianity.” That Protestants and Catholics would find themselves sharing Jesus in common is, well, unsurprising in the extreme. And remember that to get Zefferelli’s TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” made, two or so decades ago, the Pope entreated Anthony Burgess to write the script. If any Protestants complained about this, it was probably more for the selection of Burgess than for the influence of the Pope. Ps and Cs have been getting along better and better over the years, though the schism still exists.

    Like the pseudonymous Ortega, above, I’m surprised by all the blather about the violence by libertarians. I found the article linked by Nick to be not very good. Actually, some of its interpretations seemed, well, almost vile.

    For instance, Lehman writes: ‘In what is perhaps the film’s most didactic and dishonest moment, Gibson has a Roman soldier spit out a derisive “Jew!” at Simon the Cyrine (the passerby who aids Jesus in holding up the cross en route to Cavalry [sic]). This marks the first such acknowledgment of widespread Roman hostility to Jews, but it is instantly negated in a cynical visual cue that has Simon locking arms with Jesus as the two men re-shoulder the cross. It’s a moment of unexplained and therefore meaningless solidarity worthy of the worst instincts of Popular Front documentary photography and literature, circa the voyeuristic WPA photos of Dorothea Lange.’ What a strange interpretation. “Cynical visual cue” and “unexplained AND THEREFORE meaningless” constitute bizarre critical lapses, if you ask me. I think there’s something very perverse going on here.

    Lehman comes close to a good point when he objects to the presence of Satan in the story – a being not mentioned in the gospel accounts of Passion. But he mixes it up with his obsession with the Sanhedrin rather than objecting to it on more interesting grounds: Gibson has replaced a consoling angel with a taunting devil. I’ve mentioned this to believing Christians, and each one has immediately excused this. Odd, for literalists. I find this to be the most interesting Christian reaction to the movie. Gibson radically revises the story, and Christians hardly raise a peep.

    Of course, non-fundamentalist Christians are too concerned about the things that most secularists seem concerned about – how it might offend modern Jews – to care about faithfulness to the story.

    As for lack of message, I agree with Lehman, and with nearly everyone else who’s criticized the movie. The film can’t convince you of much you aren’t already primed to believe. But as a spectacle, it is interesting, and all talk of dishonesty and propaganda and voyeurism and pornography etc. doesn’t really diminish the film’s visual impact.

    Still, there’s only one point where the story itself moved me: the repentant thief. Lehman is probably right to suggest that this moving moment is too quickly undermined by the instant retribution of the scoffing sinner on the cross. The bird that pecks at his eye wasn’t in the original story, either. There is probably something very vindictive about Gibson’s moral vision, and it comes through here. But wasn’t Lehman wrong about identifying the bird as a vulture?

    Oh, and back to the violence: though there’s a lot more of it, I can’t say it is more effectively used than the torture scenes in Ken Russell’s “The Devils” – a film that is a far better movie, really, and with a message that Christians and Jews need a lot more: theocracy can be dangerous.

    But then, that’s something they should’ve taken from “The Passion of the Christ, too.

  37. The mystical nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, the Dolorous Passion
    is the big source of Catholic vision added to the script:

    IN the movie, not the Bible:
    The movie TPOTC had Jesus thrown from a bridge.

    ?I saw our Lord fall twice before he reached the bridge, and these falls were caused entirely by the barbarous manner in which the soldiers dragged him; but when they were half over the bridge they gave full vent to their brutal inclinations, and struck Jesus with such violence that they threw him off the bridge into the water?
    Chapter XXIII p. 137

    The movie TPOTC, not the Bible, had Mary wiping up the blood:

    ?I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God.?
    Chapter XXIII p. 138

    ?Then it was that the Mother of Jesus, accompanied by the holy women, approached the pillar and wiped up the blood with which it and the ground around were saturated.?
    Chapter XXXV p. 165

    The movie TPOTC, not the Bible, had an extended role
    of an enscripted man carrying the cross of Jesus:

    ?Their cruelty to Jesus so exasperated Simon of Cyrene that he at last exclaimed, ?If you continue this brutal conduct, I will throw down the cross and carry it no farther. I will do so if you kill me for it.??
    Chapter XXXV p. 166 — Simon of Cyrene

    ?Jesus was on the point of again falling, but Simon, who was behind, perceiving that he could not stand, hastened to support him; he leant upon Simon, and was thus saved from falling to the ground.?

    YES, the movie is from a Catholic perspective,
    having been made by a Catholic director/ producer, who had read the hundreds of years old the Dolorous Passion of Anne Catherine Emmerich.

    Baptists will live with that, or without the movie.
    They are wisely taking the movie by a great majority.
    As Mel Gibson said, this is ‘entertainment.’

  38. Jose:
    I agree with your point that it’s a very good thing that Gibson was free to make the movie, and an even better thing that people have been able to debate it furiously without any censorship, or any outbreaks of violence that I’ve heard of. But that’s something we all agree on, so how could we have a good argument over it? 🙂

  39. Re: Walker

    You make my point, but perhaps not as intended. If libertarian thinking avoids establishing a “taste in art,” I wonder why the majority of libertarian writing seems focused on the content of “The Passion.” If you will indulge me with a personal observation, libertarians celebrate freedom. When people use this freedom to practice religion, it seems to make libertarians rather uncomfortable… moreso than say mainlining heroin. Would it not be correct to characterize the private practice of religion as essentially a “victimless crime.” Yet the religious content of the film has an effect not unlike scratching one’s fingernails on a chalkboard… at least to some free thinkers. I simply find it a bit odd that more libertarians have not examined the film from the perspective I offer in this thread. Perhaps Gary is correct. It is more amusing to be an art critic than to agree on the wonderous liberty that allowed the art to be created, enjoyed and perhaps best of all, profitable.

  40. There are still many very deep and very important doctrinal differences between Protestant Evangelical Christians and Catholicism. But the main sticking point in American society was equating Papal power with monarchy. With the decline of Monarchy and the decline in influence of Papal “authority,” Evangelicals are more open to Catholics if not Catholicism itself.

    A defining doctrinal difference that had/has real political significance is the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in Protestant Evangelical dogma versus the Priesthood of Priests in Catholicism. The point of the First Amendment was not so much separation of church and state, but denying the ability of the government to come between a man and his God – a uniquely Protestant point of view. The divine rights of the Pope too closely mirrors the divine rights of the monarchy for Protestants to ever be comfortable with Catholicism on a political level.

    On a doctrinal level, there are key points of agreement – namely the importance of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Passion, having confined itself to those issues, does not conflict with Protestant doctrine. On the other hand, a movie worshiping Mary, or praying to saints, or worshiping idols, or exalting the near diety of the Pope, or exalting a life without sex and marriage would have been shunned by Protestants.

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