I am afraid of “The Passion of the Christ.” I’m afraid people are going to watch the film (which is apparently the most violent movie film critic Roger Ebert has ever seen) and stop reading the gospels and appreciating them for their wonderful variety, narrative richness and even the oftentimes complicated historical and narrative inter-textuality in favor of a story that focuses on ultra-violent details that the gospels simply lack.
Stated simply, “The Passion” is not an objective film adaptation of first-hand accounts of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Most people do not even know that the gospels were written several decades after Jesus’s death. Mark, commonly thought to be the oldest surviving gospel, was probably written at least 40 years after Jesus’s death. In addition to their distance from Jesus’s life, the gospels contain four differing accounts of many details of Jesus’s life and message.
As TCU religion professor and New Testament specialist Daryl Schmidt pointed out in a recent Dallas Morning News article, Mel Gibson’s film does not present a clear, historically accurate, visual representation of the passion; rather it selectively picks verses from the four differing gospels as they fit his particular ideas about how Jesus saves us — namely Gibson’s ideas of the Atonement.
Gibson’s theory of atonement is a reflection of the Latin/Anselmic theory of atonement, otherwise known as the substitutionary theory. The substitutionary theory basically states that Christ died as “satisfaction” for the demands of God’s justice; an offering was necessary to appease God and fulfill the requirements of the Law.
In other words, a ransom was required to satisfy justice and adherence to the Law; and apparently, according to Mel Gibson’s portrayal, the gruesomeness, blood and gore involved in this satisfaction is especially relevant. Basically, this Latin theory makes it seem like we are saved from God, a God who requires the bloodiest and most horrible sacrifice of all time (according to Gibson) in order to atone for the immense sinfulness of creatures and satisfy God’s own thirst for retribution.
Yet, there are indeed alternatives to this conception of the Atonement. Many critics believe that the substitutionary theory actually legitimizes violence as a means to heal the alienation and sinfulness of the world. Yet, there are many who believe that the reason for atonement is to free us from bondage to forces that we cannot free ourselves from (like violence) and not because God is pissed off at us. Rather, Jesus Christ was God incarnate. His life was God’s means of rescuing us from the forces of evil, not from God.
My fear of “The Passion of the Christ” simply rests in the fact that it will overshadow and overwhelm alternatives with its brutal, hyper-violent images. I am certain the substitutionary theory will make an exciting and disturbing film. However, while I could be wrong, I’m not so sure it makes for solid, world-transforming theology.
Kip Brown is a senior religion major from Enid, Okla.