The Passion of the Christ – A Letter to Christians about Mel Gibson’s Film

This commentary is a follow-up to my review of The Passion of the Christ.

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Most Christian press publications will lavish praise upon Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. They will celebrate the arrival of a film rich with spiritual power, rendered with riveting and even excruciating detail.

Some will go so far as to declare that in this film, the Church has a fantastic “evangelical opportunity.”

But the fact that many Christians — many churches — are responding to the film as if it is a call to arms, an exhortation to use Gibson’s work as a blunt instrument of evangelism, reveals that they are blind to one of the very things that makes many people steer clear of the Gospel.

People view Christians as self-righteous. They see believers as thinking they have all the answers. They see us as confrontational, militant, ready to ambush them with a sales-pitch for Jesus.

This very thing happened this morning in Dallas. A crowd of believers and unbelievers filed into a cinema, experienced a work of intense and complicated art… something that requires a good deal of time for recovery afterward… something that requires contemplation.

But just as the credits started the roll, and while the music was just beginning to soar… the system was shut down.

A team of ministers appeared on stage.

The gospel was explained and an altar call was held.

Some filed out… believers and unbelievers alike… astonished that they were not allowed to absorb the film and think about it. They were ambushed, taken advantage of, while in a state of high emotion.

This is wrong… just plain wrong.

It is presumptuous, arrogant, manipulative, exploitative.

And I believe it is further hardening people’s hearts, making them not want to have anything to do with a religion that does not allow them to experience something for themselves and have their own thoughts about it.

What is even worse is this: Believers come out from behind the walls of their churches only when they have their own story to talk about. They do not show much interest in hearing… much less discussing… the stories that the rest of the world has to tell. How will we ever get to know them and understand their questions, fears, and problems if all we do is come out and beat them over the head with Gospel tracts? Moreover, how will we ever be open ourselves to what God might say to us through a work of art… even one that an unbeliever crafted?

Now that there is a movie about Jesus on the big screen, sure enough, here we come, ready to sign folks up for Jesus as if  The Passion of the Christ is some kind of army enlistment commercial. I saw a commercial for the movie the other night immediately followed by an ad for a local church, in which two smiling mild-mannered ministers basically said that after people get out of the movie, they should come on down to the local church and get their questions answered by the experts.

Folks, The Passion is not propaganda. It should not be treated as such.

The Passion is a remarkably imagined, powerfully executed work of art. Yes, it has the power to transform perceptions, hearts, whole lives. It gives us opportunity to examine how good and evil are in conflict, how God has worked and still works in our lives, and it gives us a wonderful… but human, and thus flawed… expression of one of spiritual conflict.

But we should note two things:

One: We should consider our own responses, search our own souls, after seeing this work. That should come before we worry about someone else’s response.

Two: Meaningful movies happen all of the time. Why are we only bothering to interact with our culture about this movie?

Each month, a flurry of new films comes to theatres. Many of them are produced merely to make money, and very little attention or care is given to the quality of the storytelling, the acting, the technical aspects. These “flashes in the pan” are quickly forgotten, until they resurface on DVD, and the process repeats itself.

But several films, almost every month, reflect the passion of individual artists to tell meaningful stories to the rest of the culture. These films are in some way worthy of praise. And even if the artist did not intend to communicate anything about Jesus, anything about Scripture, anything about God… if they made something with excellence, they have given us something worth exploring, worth discussing, something that is, like The Passion of the Christ, flawed and yet revelatory.

When this happens, it is important that people gifted with vision and discernment be there to hear these stories and to discuss them with others in the audience.

Scripture exhorts us to “test all things and hold fast to what is good.” Instead, most churchgoers fear the culture’s offerings, or else just prefer to stick with what is familiar and comfortable and “Christian.”

It is especially important that Christians follow the example set by Jesus, who listened passionately to broken people of all kinds, and helped them find wisdom in their own words, helped them realize what their own questions revealed. He transformed the way a woman thought about drawing water from a well… a very practical and mundane act. He led Nicodemus to consider the profound implications of wanting to begin life anew… that there is, indeed, an offer from God that allows us to be forgiven for our past sins, so we can be “born again.” Jesus had a knack for metaphors.

Does the church remember the power of a metaphor?

Do Christians realize that metaphors happen outside of the Bible? Do we know how to look at other powerful movies — like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mean Creek, The World, The Motorcycle Diaries, House of Sand and Fog, or even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to name a few released this year —  and realize what they shows us about the consequences of sin? Do we see what they say about spiritual emptiness? About pride? About greed?

All good stories reflect truths about good and evil, choices and consequences, sacrifice and self-indulgence, slavery and freedom. Art, when it is excellent, is immensely powerful and rich, no matter who creates it — believer or unbeliever.

And shouldn’t we expect that to be the case? Scripture assures us that all men and women have been created by God, in his image, and (according to Romans) that on some level we all know and recognize the truth, no matter how little we acknowledge it or understand it. So of course the truth will become evident, to some degree, in the works of even the most outspoken atheist. Indeed, if anything about an artist’s work communicates anything, then there is something, however feeble, of God’s design reflected in it. It’s our job to separate meaning from lies, excellence from mediocrity, and to give God the glory.

That’s just what the Apostle Paul did when he found a secular monument “to an Unknown God.” He saw a work that inadvertently pointed back to Scripture, and he talked about it.

People come away from movies saying “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” or “It didn’t do anything for me” or “I was moved by it.”  But rarely do they go deeper than that. Rarely do they say how it moved them. That’s where we can start taking the discussion to a new level. That’s where we can begin to explore a story’s meaning.

What does it mean when someone says, “It moved me”? Do they mean they started at Point A, and now they are at Point B? What changed? How have they been transformed? Is it a good change?

Those are the sorts of things we should be talking about.

Our culture has become so desensitized, so numb from being over-stimulated by relentless media, that we have ceased to think about what it is we are consuming. Moviegoers just want the latest thrill. We need to learn to “digest” our cinematic “food.” We need to rediscover productive conversations about what we are watching, just the way the world is grappling with this film about Christ.

And we all need to realize-even Christians-that we do not have all the answers. We can learn from art, and from talking to others about what that art has meant to them.

This is why the favorite films of critics at the end of the year are so different from the favorite films of “the People’s Choice.” Critics have the job, and thus the responsibility, to guide us into examining the details: quality, meaning, symbolism, and originality. By thinking more critically, we can get more out of our movies and learn to appreciate richer cinematic “food.”

NOTE: I am not saying film critics are better than other people. One person has already criticized this letter, saying I am being egotistical. If I give you that impression, then I’m not being clear. Of course I’m not saying critics are better than other people. But I am saying that the discipline of discernment — of listening and “testing all things” — is our responsibility as Christians. I need other Christians to see the things I don’t see, to help me understand more clearly, to get involved in the discussion and lead me to insight and understanding.

But too many believers live in fear that they will be corrupted by “secular culture.” They do not want to do the hard work of resisting temptation, testing all things, and striving out to engage the culture while wearing the full armor of God. Most Christians are more comfortable within the walls of the church, talking with other Christians, listening to music they write for themselves and each other that is free of anything offensive (“contemporary Christian music”), copying every cultural activity and creating their own “sanitized” and “sanctified” versions of those activities. (Take the Grammys, and their Christian “clean” equivalent, the Dove Awards. There’s even a Christian version of American Idol going on. How ironic.)

The truth is that Jesus did not just hang out at the church. He spent time with smelly fishermen, hard-working women at the well, religious people having crises of faith, demoniacs, prostitutes, drunkards, lepers, and tax collectors. He listened to them, ate with them, chatted with them, argued with them. He was engaged in the culture. He was not withdrawn, creating a cheap sanitized copy of the world where his disciples could live uncontaminated.

Another note: Am I saying we must go and expose ourselves to pornography and other terrible, offensive things? No, of course not. We must be wise and responsible. But we must also be involved. Christ saw a lot of evil, and he dealt with it. He spoke the truth… but not in a self-righteous or condemning way… he spoke the truth in love.

Yes, he did tell us to avoid being a stumbling block. We should not take an alcoholic to a bar, and we should not take someone prone to sexual errors to a movie about sexuality. If I have a weakness, I should be cautious until God has helped me overcome that.

Christ exhorted us to become stronger, to put on “the full armor of God” that will help us “stand firm against the schemes of the devil.” This is part of graduating from “milk” to “meat”, to use Scripture’s words for it.

It would be wrong for me to over-generalize here. Indeed, there are many followers of Christ who are living in the world without becoming of the world. They understand Christ’s observation, that it is not what goes into us that can corrupt us, but what comes out of us that can corrupt us (Christ’s words, again.) They see God’s truth showing up in all kinds of art from all kinds of people.

I sincerely hope that The Passion draws churchgoers out from the walls of their sanctuaries and into the local theater. I hope it inspires them to be a part of the larger cultural conversation about movies-what they they reflect, the questions they ask, the truths they reveal.

And I hope this is the beginning of the end of the era in which Christians condemn wholesale the world of mainstream art for reflecting the honest confusion, incomplete philosophies, and idea of popular culture. Sure there are gross and indulgent offenses at the movies, just as there are in professional sports, literature, business, and religion. But we are not to withdraw in disgust from the whole arena. We are to be salt and light, which means we will suffer. So let us suffer as Christ did, out of love for the broken hearts that are out there needing to be heard and loved.

It is time to stop judging the film by its “ingredients” and start looking hard at what those various ingredients create. (If we refused to hear stories in which people are sinning, we’d have to throw out the Bible!) Meaningful storytelling will show us ourselves… at our best and at our worst. What is important is not how many times the hero said a bad word, but whether or not the WHOLE of the work contains glimmers of truth and beauty.

WHERE DO WE START?

Well, in the world of mainstream entertainment, there have been… even recently… many wonderful subjects for discussion and exploration.

Here are some of the recent works of art that, like The Passion, are flawed, human expressions, but that also reflect enough truth to merit discussion, debate, and exploration. They have the power to humble, convict, inspire, reveal… Like Hamlet and his players, they can “catch the conscience” of any of us, if we look closely enough, with eyes to see.

Where was the church in conversations about these films?

  • House of Sand and Fog - a drama in which people behave desperately, with blind self-interest, and ruin things for others and eventually themselves, having hurriedly constructed their dreams on weak foundations.
  • Stevie - one of many brilliant documentaries released last year that examines the way that the sins of the father lead to corruption, heartbreak, and worsening sins in the son. It also reveals miracles of compassion, the power of a good role model, the wisdom of angels given to some of the most damaged and unlikely individuals, and the foolishness of the “mature.” It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, and I’ll bet you can’t find more than one or two people at your church who have even heard of it.
  • Mystic River - a story about how the sins of our past continue to poison our futures until we see them, acknowledge them, and confess them.
  • Lost in Translation - a story of failing marriages, in which two lonely people discover that life, even life in a foreign setting, becomes vibrant and meaningful when experienced in the context of compassion, understanding, and love.
  • Finding Nemo - a fantasy that talks to kids about the importance of boundaries and obedience, while it talks to parents about the dangers of being over-protective.
  • Capturing the Friedmans - another new documentary, rated amongst mainstream critics as one of the year’s best films, and one of the best documents you’ll ever see of the way one lie can lead to evil that spreads like an epidemic and destroys whole families.
  • The Lord of the Rings films. Yes, a lot of Christians have cheered to see the success of a series based on a story created by a Christian. We’ve boasted that, yes, Tolkien was one of us! But have we opened ourselves to the humbling power of what takes place in the story? Most discerning viewers will come away challenged and convicted by at least one of its myriad storylines, inspired by its examples of Christ-like sacrifice, the power of mercy, and the way that even the righteous cannot withstand evil on their own, but need the grace of a Higher Power… “another Will at work.”

To name a few.

If we hope that the rest of the world will listen closely to The Passion of the Christ, the story we care about most, are we willing to attend with equal concern, questioning, and openness to the stories that everyone else has to share?

Look at this: Christ’s last words from the cross were a quote, a sign pointing to another work of art. His last words were an excerpt from a song written by an adulterer and a murderer. When he cried out “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsake me?” he was quoting Psalm 22. He was referencing another artistic expression, one written by a sinful, broken, corrupt man. Instead of coming up with original words of his own, he called upon the words written in the desperate expression of someone else.

For me, The Passion of the Christ is a vivid reminder of what God’s son endured. It shows me that he endured so much in order to show me just how far God is willing to go to replace my fear with peace. It reminds me of something else as well: That he loved and forgave even those who murdered him. Similarly, I must attend to those people with my own love, with my own attention, listening to their questions, their frustrations their fears, and… yes… their art.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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