Unavoidable Gore, Controversy in 'Passion?'

Gibson's preoccupation with Christ's shed blood and agony threatens to distract us from another crucial dimension of his death. Survey any Roman legion in the reign of Tiberius and they'll probably say that crucifixion was as much about shame as it was about pain. Ask Paul about the scandal at the heart of his Gospel and he'll point, not to whips and nails, but to the sheer embarrassment and absurd foolishness of a crucified savior. Hebrews says Christ, "endured the cross, disregarding its shame," (Heb 12:2; cf. 6:6). So the cross was not only about cruelty but also about degradation and defilement, exclusion and ridicule, which is why, by the way, it proved such an obstacle to early Christian preaching.

No one who screens Passion will ever be tempted to minimize the horrors of the cross. The Christian trinket industry may suffer. Good Friday services this year will feel different. What is not clear to me, however, is how well the film exposes the shame side of things. I suppose humiliation is harder than suffering to portray on film, and riskier. And we in the West don't really "get" shame. (Witness the popularity of shows like Jerry Springer, Cops, "Girls Gone Wild" and Howard Stern.) I don't know: Maybe the film could stand a bit less blood and a bit more blushing; maybe fewer lashes and more disdain. As it stands, I'm not sure Passion gets the balance quite right.

Veronica’s Cloth

The Passion of the Christ is also very Catholic. The storyline borrows bits from each of the four Gospels (with nods toward Matthew and John), but it is also steeped in church tradition and guided by images and symbols long cherished by Catholic worshipers. Jesus stumbles three times on his way to Golgotha, in keeping with the traditional Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The legendary Veronica of Station Six steps forward to wipe Jesus' bloodied face, only to find his image perfectly imprinted on her cloth. And Mary is highly visible and central to the story — a much stronger figure than the two-dimensional, inconsequential Mary of so much Protestant piety. John calls Mary his mother, if I heard correctly, even before Jesus suggests the idea (John 19:27), and Jesus, while praying, self-identifies as "the son of your handmaid" (cf. Psm 86:16; 116:16). At the cross, Mary murmurs "my son, let me die with you" and later cradles her son's dead body, Pietà-like, while gazing into the camera, as if to assure us that all will be well.

I find refreshing a film so firmly rooted in a particular Christian confession. But honoring simultaneous commitments to history and tradition is always tricky. Like Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, the film occasionally loses its footing. Why, for example, would Jesus be forced to carry a whole cross while his two rebel counterparts bear only their horizontal beams? Why would Jesus engage Pilate in Latin instead of Greek? (Fluent Latin wasn't common among Galileans in the 1st century.) Similarly, why does Greek disappear from Pilate's tri-lingual inscription naming Jesus King of the Jews? In each case, sacred memory trumps historical plausibility.

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