I waited a long time to see The Passion, and in that time I heard a lot of other people's opinion about it. Teenagers told me that it had "cool special effects and awesome gore", while adults told me that it was so moving a story of the essential Jesus truth that they literally cried, presumably with joy and newfound revelation. Other adults told me that the movie conclusively proved that Gibson is a Jew-hating member of a secret "Catholic cult" who wants to control my mind with a distorted caricature of Christ. This must be a powerful movie, I thought. So I rented the DVD and checked it out for myself.
Here's the disclaimer. I'm a follower of Christ, as best as I can manage. I've read the gospel and it really reaches me every time. For me it captures essential truth about both the human condition and our relationship with God. I'm always struck by how transcendent the gospel is of the historical context in which it was written.
My first observation: this movie didn't seem to be about the suffering of Jesus. That seemed strange to me. I was expecting to see Gibson's artistic attempt to capture the emotional range of the Passion, but what I saw looked like a two year old's drawing of a person: there's a stick figure there, but it's really hard to tell who it is, or how they feel. Gibson evidently thinks that flesh ripping is important, which I suppose it is! My two year old always gets the number of arms (2) on her stick figures right, too, because it's important in the exact same way. Of course, Picasso managed to portray some really powerful truth by drawing the wrong number of arms on his figures, or putting the arms in the wrong place. So although the arms are important, interesting, and quantifiable, they might not be essential to the truth.
I saw another movie just yesterday that reminds me of The Passion: Oprah Winfrey's TV production of Their Eyes Were Watching God, based on the excellent 1930's novel by Zora Neil Hurston. That book is a wonderfully deep exploration of a black woman as she discovers herself over the course of a life in the era of slavery: racial, paternal, self-imposed. But Oprah didn't portray that – maybe she couldn't. Instead she showed some scenes from the book, the mere plot frame, over which the real story was stretched like a canvas. I recognized the scenes, having read the book, but I didn't see the art that Hurston created there. All I saw was an anatomically correct stick figure where I was expecting to see a portrait of a woman. Boy, that movie really sucked.
It was the same for me with The Passion. I had already read the book, and I was looking for the agony that Christ suffered when the sins of all humanity were made evident and He cleansed us of our responsibility for our awful acts, professing love instead of rejecting us – as we all would have done in his place. It must have been worse than the pain that I would feel if my children were ripped from me and killed before my eyes. Much worse, more worse than I have capacity to imagine. But Gibson missed it! He drew two arms on a stick figure instead. Here's Jesus hanging from the chains, like Clint Eastwood surviving a hanging. Here's Jesus getting his ass kicked, before his comeback, like Billy Jack in the first reel. Here's Jesus being rejected by weak, fearful, human religious leaders, like Ben Hur. Here's Jesus the stick man, how daring that we drew him with (2) arms.
Here's a picture from Israel in 2001 that haunts me. This man and his young son got caught in crossfire between Israeli and Palestinian soldiers. All he wanted to do was save his son from harm. As a father, as a protector of just one other human life, I can understand his suffering. A pain that I can feel just by looking at the picture, amplified because I know that moments after this picture was taken, the man and his son were shot. His son died in his arms, as the father passed out from blood loss, powerless to save.
This image comes closer to portraying my understanding of Christ's pain than Gibson's "The Passion" stick figure does. Way closer. But you should see Gibson's movie, because the teenagers were right. The special effects are pretty good, if you are into that sort of thing.