Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

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Feb. 27 2004 9:54 AM

Why Is The Passion of the Christ So Controversial?

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Dear Robert,

I know I risk my credentials as a card-carrying academic by saying this, but I actually liked this film. Well, like is a bit strong. Let's just say, as they put it on Wall Street, that it beat my expectations.

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The movie was about as anti-Semitic as I expected. As you point out, the Jewish mobs scream for Jesus' blood like cannibals who haven't eaten for weeks. And Gibson bends over backward to exonerate Pilate, leaving no doubt that conniving Jewish authorities snookered their ruler into doing the deed. I doubt that the film will stir up anti-Semitism in the United States, but I do worry about the effects it will have in countries where hatred of Jews simmers just below the surface, or above it.

The film is also indescribably violent, and the sadism of the Roman torturers does border on the pornographic. I literally retched at one point during the everlasting scourging and averted my eyes repeatedly during other scenes (missing, among other things, the utterly gratuitous violence of a crow plucking out the eye of one of the crucified criminals). At times it seemed, as one friend later put it, that Jesus needed to be beaten one time for each and every human sin. Quentin Tarantino, if given the same subject, almost certainly would have made a meeker film.

The Passion also has some ridiculous moments, most notably Jesus' death. In this scene, which literally made me laugh out loud, Gibson makes a horrible decision (driven doubtless by the fidelity fetish you describe) to include all the last words of Jesus that appear in the Gospels. So, we get not only, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (from Matthew and Mark), but also "It is accomplished" (from John). In each case, Jesus' head collapses either front or back, and we think he has given up the ghost. But then he pops back to life, like a horror movie villain giving chase, and delivers his final exit line (this time from Luke): "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

Still, I found the film strangely moving, not so much as a translation onto film of Gibson's blood-and-guts sacramentalism, but as a simpler story of a mother witnessing the torture and execution of her son. Much has been written about the extra-biblical influences on this film. I have written myself about what this movie owes to the medieval passion play, the action-adventure movie, and the horror film. And the brutal iconography of the "Man of Sorrows" tradition—acknowledged in the movie's epigraph: "He was wounded for our transgressions … and with His stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5)—is another important inspiration. But The Passion recalls even more powerfully centuries of pious devotion to Mary the mother of God.

The intense Mariology in the film has gone largely unremarked upon, perhaps because evangelical defenders and liberal critics don't like it or (more likely) because they don't get it. But the Virgin Mary appears in virtually every scene in the movie, and in keeping with traditional Catholic theology, we witness the horrors not so much through our own eyes as through the mediation of hers.

As Jesus ascends the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha, Mary walks with him, like Christian pilgrims have for centuries (still do). At one point, however, the brutality she is witnessing overtakes her, and it seems for a moment that, like us, she has finally seen enough. Gibson cuts quickly to Jesus' childhood. Mary's boy has fallen, and she runs to him in a panic, soothing him (and herself) with her words, her touch. Cut back now to the alley off the Via Dolorosa and to Mary, who is running as before to her son. And as she touches him and sends him again on his way, she reassures us that, like her, we can summon the resolve to accompany Jesus to the cross.

There are centuries of Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary packed into this scene, this movie. But it is not Mary's role as co-redemptrix of the world that moved me. Neither is it her ability to accept as the will of God what is being accomplished. What made me choke up was much simpler, more basic: watching a mother watch her son being led to an excruciating death.

I can't judge the Aramaic in the movie (my English isn't even that good), and I certainly don't want to justify its anti-Semitism. But the fact of the matter is that, while damnable, this is also a damn good movie, as much about Mary as it is about Jesus. And while I could have done without the tear of God falling from the sky at the end, the "swelling choruses of sublime music" that annoyed you got to me.

So, take away my Boston University ID card if you want, or remind me that I was the sucker born at 8:03 p.m. ET on November 13, 1960. But think on this, too: Precisely because of its merits as a film, The Passion may be even more dangerous than you and other critics have led us to believe.

Stephen

Stephen Prothero is the chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University and is the author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.

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