Should I Re-Watch the Passion of the Christ?
Posted on March 26, 2013
On Tuesday nights, I host a Bible Study at my house. It’s a great thing–I get to talk with interesting women about issues of faith, and I have a reason to make sure my house gets cleaned on a weekly basis. Well, the parts of the house my guests see, anyway.
Together, we are reading a book called The Kingdom and the Cross by James Bryan Smith. Its chapters are pleasantly short, and the questions it poses are appropriate to facilitate a good group conversation. I enjoy the focused meditation it asks readers to participate in–most chapters include spending time with a specific icon and trying to learn from the visual history of the faith.
This week, however, we were asked to view The Passion of the Christ.
My gut reaction: Hell. No.
I haven’t seen The Passion since it was released in 2004. I saw it in a theater in LA with a few dozen classmates at the LA Film Studies Center, a consortium-style education program that is attended by students from a wide range of CCCU-affiliated schools. One of our classes was focused on Jesus films, so we had already watched movies like Life of Brian, Jesus of Montreal, and The Last Temptation of Christ. My classmates were Christians, for the most part, and many wept in the theater as they watched the film.
I didn’t weep.
I cringed, I felt uncomfortable, and I got angry, but I didn’t weep.
I went to the mandatory discussion after the film and listened as some of my peers praised the movie, but others of us voiced concerns. The narrative was bad. The plot was confusing. The movie seemed overly violent. It lacked context. There have got to be better ways to explore the meaning of Christ’s death than to focus on his suffering in such a graphic and violent way. How does it fit into the tragic history of passion plays, which were frequently followed by the murders of local Jews?
It’s hard for me to remember all of the reasons I disliked the film, because I’ve avoided seeing it again for the past nine years. Here’s what I do remember: It was a bad movie that didn’t provide context for viewers who might not be familiar with the Biblical texts that inspired it. It was anti-Semitic, and that’s something I felt back then, not just when Mel Gibson proved himself to be an anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist jerk. It was violent to the point that it felt no different from torture porn movies like Hostel and Saw–I realized long ago that violence that is implied is far more powerful and effective than violence that is depicted.
Worse than the fact that it was a bad movie was the fact that it was so celebrated by Christians. A campus figure at my university got on stage during chapel and declared that it was THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT EVANGELISTIC TOOL OF ALL TIME. Mel Gibson toured megachurches and provided free screeners and managed to get churches to buy out entire theaters. It was marketing genius, really, and so was the fact that Gibson sold himself as a tortured, oppressed Christian in Hollywood who was funding the project with his own money because it was just so important. Yeah, right. I don’t doubt for a moment that Gibson knew the riches this would bring him. Why NOT make an historically inaccurate, two-hour long snuff film about Jesus’s death if it’s going to make you unlimited amounts of money?
After I began hearing stories that students at my school were being ostracized and criticized if they voiced even the slightest negativity toward the movie, I ended up writing an editorial in the student newspaper reminding people that disliking a movie about Jesus is NOT the same as disliking Jesus. It was the first time I published something and got replies of, “Thank you. I’ve been hoping someone would speak up, because I’ve been feeling really alone on this.”
I don’t think I’m going to re-watch The Passion, despite the instructions in my Bible Study book. Although I would be interested in re-watching it to figure out if my original criticisms still stand true, I have no more interest in watching Jim Caviezel’s Jesus get tortured than I do watching a single Saw movie. I just don’t have the stomach for it. I can handle violent movies, but movies that are violent simply for the sake of being so? I can’t stand when a movie seems to revel in violence.
I can’t really fault my Christian peers who value the movie, or who feel closer to God thanks to watching it. It can evoke a lot of strong feelings, especially for people who have struggled to comprehend the humanity of Christ or the extent of his suffering. I certainly don’t judge those who have learned or benefited from the movie. Just this last week I read an essay by a student who wrote about how watching the movie as a teenager helped her solidify her own faith, and she integrated it pretty well into her story.
I just can’t get over the fact that the movie has a poor narrative, or that it represents to me the screwy, cynicism-inducing Christian marketplace. I can’t ignore the anti-Semitism or Mel Gibson’s general awfulness.
I know that voicing criticism of The Passion is passe in some social circles and scandalous in others. How scandalous? Two years after writing that article for the school newspaper about how you can be a Christian AND dislike The Passion, I was engaged to Chalupa. He went into the gas station near campus, and the attendant said to him, “Hey, I hear you’re engaged to that Liz Boltz girl. Isn’t she the one who wrote that article about how terrible The Passion was?”
Chalupa reports that the guy said it with disdain and judgment in his voice–almost pity. As in, you poor fool, don’t you know what kind of heathen you’re marrying?
Fortunately, Chalupa knew exactly what kind of heathen he was marrying, and he’s in the same heathen boat with me. I’m not willing to give into that kind of attitude, though. I’m not going to sit here pitying people because they have a different response to a movie than me. I’m not going to think that somehow they’re worse people because they like the movie.
It’s a movie.
I’m never going to watch it again, but I can’t hold it against someone who decides that they want to. I may be willing to discuss my reasons for disliking it–and I might even do so in a way in which I attempt to persuade them to join my side of the issue–but I’m not going to judge them for liking it in the way that I was judged for disliking it.
A movie is not my faith. A movie is not their faith.
A movie is just a movie. Even if it’s a bad one.