The Persuasive Power of "The Passion of the Christ"
- Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Mel Gibson may not be a Gutenberg, but he might be a William Tyndale. Gutenberg invented the printing press, but it was Tyndale who first used the breakthrough medium of his age to make the Word of God more accessible to the masses.
In "The Passion of the Christ," scheduled for re-release in an unrated, "Recut" version on March 11, Gibson takes a story largely removed from the daily experience of what some have called our "post-Christian" and "post-literate" culture and fuses it with the West's most powerful medium: film. And it works better than previous "Messiah movies" because Gibson knows how to exploit the strengths of film to intrigue, affect, and transform. By paying attention, Christians can learn a lot about sharing their faith with a cynical culture.
Making the Familiar Strange
It is difficult to take a well-worn story and get people who have tired of the narrative to reconsider it with fresh eyes. The story of the Gospel of Christ has been circulating since its inception nearly 2,000 years ago. Thanks to ubiquitous printings, recordings, film, radio, and television it is safe to say that there are few people in the West who are unfamiliar with the basic construction of the Gospel story. Nearly everyone has some image of the essentially Anglo Savior speaking in a British dialect whose mostly unbloodied body hangs artfully from the cross. It has become, for many, "background noise" in the spiritual talk of the culture. Engaging people anew requires the familiar to become strange.
Gibson's decision to have the actors in "The Passion of the Christ" speak in now dead languages isn't merely an attempt at historical accuracy – it is strategic. It removes the ability of filmgoers to sit back and passively view the film. The people on the screen are speaking a language you do not understand – almost no one in the theater can even read Latin, much less understand it when spoken, and even fewer Aramaic. Watching requires engagement. Viewers are visually and verbally involved, reading the Word of God while watching it embodied on a screen that fills their field of vision. For a generation of spiritual "observers," this is an immersive and intriguing experience.
Instead of following the familiar narrative of the life of Christ, all possibility of comfortably settling in is removed. "The Passion of the Christ" does not begin at the beginning, but near the end. What little context there is comes through flashbacks. No linear plotline here, but the violence of the Passion is the interpretive lens through which all other aspects of the life of Christ are made clear. Intercutting the beating of Christ's body and the spilling of His blood with soft-lit scenes of the Last Supper insures that no Christian who sees it will ever again complacently take Communion.
Some critics have decried the depictions of violence in "The Passion of the Christ," but the brutality of the film is just what separates it from the pristine versions of the past. Even the six minutes trimmed for the Recut version will not blunt its force. And no one familiar with modern film or the Gospel story can, in good conscience, call the violence either shocking or gratuitous. "Saving Private Ryan", "Full Metal Jacket," and just about all horror films are more gory and violent than "The Passion of the Christ." What stuns the viewer is not the level of violence but its object. In war and horror films, people expect combatants and victims to be bloodied. But even those with an anti-theistic bent recognize Jesus at least as an exceptionally good man. The film transports us from the comfortable confines of the art gallery to the gritty reality of the Crucifixion. We see Good suffer and we are inexplicably, simultaneously repelled and drawn to it. We ask, "Why did this have to happen?" And Jesus says, "For the forgiveness of sins" – in other words, for us.
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