Thursday, April 05, 2007

reflections on the passion

i recently invited a not-yet-christian friend to a viewing of mel gibson's the passion of the Christ, sponsored by the christian medical dental society at mcgill. it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn't long into the film that i began to have pangs of regret. it's an amazing achievement — the story of the last hours of Jesus' life, told in latin and aramaic, reasonably close to the biblical accounts; yet it became a huge box office hit. it evinces care and reverence for the subject and has evoked a powerful response from many people. but it's also graphically violent — so much so that my friend couldn't watch in some places. i winced whenever i glanced over at her and saw that her head was bowed again, her eyes avoiding the ferocity and cruelty of all that Jesus had to endure. worse than that, she had to leave right after the film, and so missed the discussion that followed. she left emotionally drained and bewildered as to what it all meant.

the over 2,600 reviews at the internet movie database suggest that the film is a feature-length rorschach inkblot. nearly all of the reviewers either love or hate the movie; there's very little middle ground. some see one of the greatest films ever made ("unparalleled as a work of art"), while others say that it's utter rubbish ("a completely vacuous and empty movie which is masquerading as something that is spiritually enlightening"). some were inspired ("the film's greatest impact has been to get me to pick up the bible again, and do so with a new faith and understanding"), while others were repulsed ("exposes a sadomasochistic side to christianity that i wasn't even aware of"). could these people really be describing the same film?

as i watched the story unfold, i was reminded again of how context and meaning are inseparably linked. the movie was impossible for my friend to understand because she didn't have enough context; she has very little familiarity with Jesus' life and teachings. to her, the passion appeared to be short, random memories of Jesus' life and bits of his teaching, interspersed throughout a graphic two-hour beating and execution. what could be the significance of that?

gibson attempts to provide a frame of reference with several quotes from scripture, including these:

but he was pierced through for our transgressions
he was crushed for our iniquities
the chastening for our well-being fell upon him
and by his scourging we are healed
isaiah 53:5

greater love has no one than this,
that one lay down his life for his friends.
john 15:13

but in my estimation, it's simply not enough in what is largely a post-christian, bible illiterate generation. that's why so many viewers, lacking a context in which to understand all of the violence, are completely puzzled. others, importing their own ideas about the meaning and purpose of Jesus' life, are offended by what seems to them to be gratuitous, even pornographic violence. still others, partially understanding gibson's intent, believe that he is trying to guilt people into the church.

however, to those who understand the film (and these events in Jesus' life) in light of the two quotes cited, the violence takes on meaning. it is the ultimate act of love: Jesus lays down his life for his friends — taking on betrayal, humiliation, suffering, and death, so that we might be made whole. another of my friends who was watching the movie for the first time came to a deeper, more visceral apprehension of what it meant for Jesus to give his life for her and all of us. she, like many who have seen the film, came away both sobered and profoundly grateful the love of Jesus that endures all of this to break the power of sin, evil, and death, and to restore us to right relationship with our Creator and one another.

i remember discovering, as a young christian, that good friday was the day on which Jesus died. for some, 'good' only means that they get a day off school or work; but for some of us, 'good' is far too weak a description for the greatest gift of all — one that promises to transform us and all of creation.

so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new
2 corinthians 5:17


Sally said...

I think those are insightful comments, Barry, particularly about context and meaning.

Often, as a Christian believer, I find it difficult to see things from a non-believer's perspective. This particularly comes across when I attempt to have evangelistic conversations with my friends - I say something intending it to provoke thoughts in one direction, and often the response is completely different. I guess this was what happened with Gibson and the movie too. Added onto that, the fact that the Christian gospel can be an 'offensive' gospel, in its countercultural-ness.

It's difficult to know how to overcome these problems...

gr8god said...

hey sally,

if it's any consolation, it seems that the church has had the problem from its inception. trying to preach a message about a crucified messiah, calling one another brother and sister, talking about loving one another, eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood — all of these things were constantly misunderstood, and led to some bizarre accusations against the early christians (including being incestuous and cannibalistic!).

as ever, so much of communication is about trust. even if people don't understand us, they may give us a hearing if they trust us. and trust is born of love and servanthood. that's why Jesus commanded us to love one another; he said that the world would know by our love that we were his disciples. and the practical outworking of love is that we lay down our lives for one another and the world, just as Jesus did.

to sum up, the key to overcoming these problems is not primarily in how we talk about the gospel (though we can certainly improve on that), but first in how we relate to people (believer and not-yet-believer) in the world. my friend was bewildered by the passion of the Christ, but very willing to sit down later to sort it out with me, so what the film could not communicate still came across, but in the context of a loving friendship.