Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

February 27, 2004


I actually admire Rebecca Writes for her promise never to post anything at all regarding The Passion of the Christ. There is always something refreshing, in my opinion, about a person's refusal to join the parade, whatever the parade might be.

I speak of the parade of blogger commentaries (blogmentaries?) on the Gibson flick. I had intended to refrain from joining the gab-fest, but yesterday, in a weak moment, I gave in. I mentioned the movie, and admitted that I probably wouldn't be seeing it. Then, last night, it was the first subject of discussion at our small group meeting. So you see, I can't seem to escape the discussion.

With all that as self-justifying prelude, herewith a few thoughts on the cultural phenomenon that is The Passion of the Christ.

As I said yesterday, the movie sounds too ghastly for my taste. I have a rule about these things. I really don't care if the violence has "redeeming value" or not (and in the case of The Passion, it most certainly does), or whether the movie is "brilliant" or not. I simply refuse to subject myself to the gruesome, detailed violence that seems so much a part of modern film.

That having been said, I understand that many truly important and powerful movies have included levels of violence that surpass my threshold of tolerance. Some of these (Saving Private Ryan, American History X for two examples) I have seen and valued despite their violence. I also understand that there is a Christian tradition which emphasizes meditation on the crucifixion of Jesus as a spiritually rewarding exercise.

But I want to emphasize that not all those who are troubled by The Passion's violence should be relegated to the category of Greeks (to whom the cross is always folly) or, even worse, Christ-haters. There are even, I think, some sound theological reasons to be troubled.

As I mentioned yesterday and wish to expound on today, it is possible in my opinion to over-emphasize the violence done to Jesus. Some of the reactions I've heard have tended to suggest that such an emphasis reminds us of the degree of our own guilt. This much violence had to be done to Jesus, this line of reasoning infers, in order to cover the sins of the world. But this is getting things seriously wrong, I think. As if each punch, each whip-stroke, accounted for a portion of our sin, and the accumulated violence done to Jesus equals the accumulated guilt of the world's sin. This is almost a mathematical perspective on the atonement, and would justify I suppose, the careful contemplation of every detail of Christ's suffering (since only thus could our sin and guilt be accurately tallied, only thus the depths of our depravity appreciated).

But what made Christ's death sufficient (even sufficient unto the salvation of all who believe) was not the degree of violence done to Him prior to the point of death, but His degree of innocence. That Christ was the Son of God, that He was perfect in every way, the "unblemished lamb," is what makes the crucifixion sufficient to cover my sin and yours. If Jesus had once sinned, if He had once strayed from the Father's will, it would have utterly undone the plan of God to salvage His fallen creation. This is why Satan tried so hard to tempt Him into sin just at the beginning of His ministry.

Other men have suffered even as much physical abuse, I suppose, as Christ (such is the appalling history of human cruelty). But none of these others was innocent, and none of them was God. For me then, a more valid and rewarding object of contemplation might be something that emphasizes not simply that Jesus paid such a high price for our sin, but that the Jesus who did so was God, which is after all the burden of John 3:16 (and indeed the entire Gospel of John). This is exactily where Paul places the emphasis in his great paeans to Christ (see for example Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-23). Here the deity of Christ is not merely the context, it is the dominant theme. This is an important point I think. Gibson is free to emphasize the violence of the crucifixion, and I do not begrudge him that emphasis, but it is at least arguable that such an emphasis does an injustice to the New Testament message.

Now, I hasten to add that I do not consider the movie heretical or necessarily dangerous to a sound faith. I am not against other people seeing the movie. I am not commenting on the genuineness of Gibson's faith or questioning the integrity of those who are deeply moved by the film. Not in the least. I am only "working out" in words the reasons for my own reservations. And I'm simply suggesting that fans of this film cut its critics (at least some of them) some slack.


By the way, for a discussion of the theological issues involved here, have a look at What Mel Missed by Frederica Matthewes-Green. She says it better than I could ever have.


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