I’ve read the synoptic versions of the passion narrative dozens of times for a variety of reasons, ranging from analytical deconstructions in previous religion courses to mechanical recitations at Easter Mass.
Based upon these experiences I feel as though I had a reasonable understanding of the way the events of Jesus’ passion may have transpired. Never once, however, did I imagine Jesus’ final hours in the Technicolor gore with which Mel Gibson presents it.
Unfortunately for this occasion, a picture truly is worth a thousand words, and The Passion of the Christ is two hours worth of pictures – pictures that have tainted the way that I think about this bit of history.
Perhaps a result of my naÃ?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½vetÃ?Â© of the brutality of Roman society, but more likely the result of Hollywood sensationalism and manifestation of recurrent themes of violence and corporeal castigation in Mel Gibson’s repertoire of films, The Passion is extraordinarily graphic and bloody, while not yet extraordinarily historically or biblically accurate.
However, Mr. Gibson is entitled to present his account of Jesus’ passion just as were the authors of the gospels from which he draws material to create his story. Despite the fact that he is creating a passion narrative nearly two millennia after the event and confused a bit of Greek with Latin, Gibson’s role as a story teller bears a striking resemblance to the earlier authors of the gospels; he intends to present a narrative about Jesus’ final hours, he creates his narrative by drawing from earlier sources, and he manipulates details to target his intended audience (which could presumably include anyone with access to a movie theatre, but would specifically include those to which Jesus’ suffering has meaning).
For the remainder of this brief article I will compare Gibson’s Passion against the narrative as it is presented in one of his sources, the Gospel of John, paying particular attention to the depiction of suffering and death in each. The act of doing so is comparable to comparing two synoptic narratives, though I find it more interesting because Gibson’s account reflects, at least in part, our current social state. The comparison of Gibson’s work to that of the synoptic authors’, however, is dangerous from the perspective of any self-respecting Catholic for it implies that The Passion has in scope affected near wide an audience in our time as have the gospels. If this is the case and Gibson’s version is as widely received and remembered, the Catholic Church may someday find itself canonizing the man who once played Sgt. Martin Riggs.
Before discussing the narratives or the authors, it is important to first note the environmental conditions in which each originated. The Gospel of John was written in Syria in the late first century CE using an amalgamation of texts. At this time, Christian Church communities were disparate and developing in the shadow of a brutal Empire that had little tolerance for groups that were not sanctioned by the State. There was a great deal of social and political strife occurring in the region as a result of Roman attempts to maintain power over the various cultures that inhabited a similar space. Additionally, Christians were struggling to form an identity independent of the Jews – a notion that is clear in the language and content of John.
The historical context in which The Passion of the Christ was created is of course much easier to identify, as are the motivations of its creator, for we live in the same era and have access to the thoughts of Mel Gibson. Gibson is a 21st century American filmmaker who has chosen the typically secular realm of film to his express his religious beliefs – beliefs that align Mr. Gibson with a right wing faction of Christianity whose adherents are usually categorized by their exclusivist attitudes and distress about a societal decline of Christian values. From an impartial academic perspective, I would conjecture that such apprehensions are the result of a variety of contemporary factors which have resulted in an era of religious liberalism in which individuals with non-Christian religious beliefs and individuals with no religious beliefs are granted similar social status as those with conservative Christian beliefs – a trend that is no doubt unsettling to a group that defines itself by its exclusive claim to truth.
Having established the appropriate context of each I will now move on to infer the underlying purpose of each work. Undeniably both have an aesthetic intention, and have successfully fulfilled their visionaries’ goals of being widely received forms of literary and artistic expression. Through the manner in which it was released and publicized, it can also be assumed that Gibson’s Passion was formulated with a financial intent of maximizing profits and furthering the careers of those who took part in the film. Most important to this paper, however is the intended social purpose of each.
The centerpiece of The Passion is undoubtedly Jesus’ suffering. Jesus loved humanity so much that he was willing to sacrifice his body and life for us. Throughout the film from the moment of Jesus’ capture to the moment his body is pierced by the spear of a Roman soldier, the film focuses on the destruction of his body, tracing his journey of pain and suffering.
It is unrelenting in its presentation of human anguish and physical subjugation, yet its intent is not solely to entertain through violence. The film emphasizes the human experience and rousing viewers to find a new way to appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice.
The Gospel of John presents us with a very different story – one that glorifies the death of Jesus rather than his suffering. In John a belief in Jesus; a belief in his death and a belief in his resurrection is paramount.
As Christians, we must choose to abide in Jesus, placing our faith in him, thus assuring our transition from one mode of existence to another. The transition, of course, occurs through death, and is therefore the centerpiece of John’s gospel. His presentation of death has two denotations.
In one facet, Jesus’ death is glorified. John emphasizes that Jesus is lifted up on to the cross, his physical elevation corresponding appropriately to his social exaltation. Secondly, death vs. life is expressed as one of the binary oppositions (others including darkness and light, sight and blindness, hate and love, etc.). Jesus transforms one into the other, giving hope to those who identify with the unfavorable.
In order to best convey their messages our story tellers must understand their audience and tailor their messages specifically to them. Gibson’s audience conceivably consists of any modern movie goer, though his graphic portrayal of suffering would potentially have a deeper meaning for those who identify as Christians.
Gibson employs modern filmmaking techniques and images of violence to get the attention of viewers who have become accustomed to seeing violence manifested on the big screen. Rather than focusing on some of the less brutal, but no less profound aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, Gibson caters to his audience and maintains their attention through the 21st century socially acceptable convention of glamorizing violence.
John’s audience is of course very different.
In his work, he addresses individuals in the early Church who are lacking community. Suffering, persecution, and death are a way of life for these people. Surely emphasizing suffering would have had universal appeal amongst those in his audience who were facing similar torment, however, suffering lacks the ultimacy of death, and by choosing to focus on death, John establishes a foundation for building a permanent community.
Creating a community rooted in devotion to Jesus has the capability to transcend death and persist for eternity. A message of such permanence would to have been very attractive to early Christians who lacked social coherence and were searching for a means of expanding the Church.
While I may not agree with Gibson’s filmmaking style or vision of Christianity I will concede that The Passion has had a profound effect on modern religious discourse. His graphic presentation has inspired personal religious reevaluation, raised questions about the role of violence in society, and prompted an examination of the function of violence in one of humanity’s most deeply rooted social institutions – religion.
The Gospels and other religious texts provide the basis on which Christianity is founded, but contemporary socio-religious expressions such as those expressed through The Passion encourage controversy and dialogue, keeping Christianity fresh and alive in the modern world.