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.
"The Passion of the Christ" evokes more than individual response. Unlike reading, which is a solitary endeavor (or DVD watching, which can be), watching a film in a theater is a catalyst for communication. We may read alone, but we watch together. The sound surrounds us. We give up control. We cannot press pause, violating the narrative structure, to get up and get a drink. Viewers are in it together. When done well, film evokes immediate and passionate responses from its viewers. They talk about it. And for a generation of shy evangelists in the guise of everyday Christians, "The Passion of the Christ" provides a context in which to discuss their faith.
Certainly there were people who, at the historical crucifixion, were awed and dazzled by what they experienced. Ultimately, however, some walked away untransformed. Seeing is not enough. "The Passion of the Christ" will not do the work of evangelism – that takes people willing to explain the film and the story it represents. So much context is left out that it would be impossible for someone with little knowledge of the Bible to make sense of the story – opening the door for people who know to share. This is one of the best reasons to see, and invite others to see, the "Recut" version at the cinema – going to the movies is still a communal experience and is likely to result in conversation.
Mel Gibson has not met William Tyndale's fate, either literally or metaphorically. In defiance of the naysayers who thought the film would bomb, he has become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. I hope that his ability to awaken the Church to the power of film to tell important stories does not end when the DVD version of "The Passion of the Christ" makes its way to the final remainder bin at the video store. Even if "Recut" becomes a perennial release at Easter (and I pray that it does), when its theatrical run is over it will be replaced by other films. These films will also tell stories – some very persuasively – and all will support one kind of worldview or another.
Colossians 4:5-6 tells us, "Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person." The Church's ability to engage culture depends on its willingness to hear what that culture is saying. Before Christians can "respond," first they must "listen."
The cinema is telling us the stories of our culture. Some of these stories are dangerous and damaging, and Christians must prepare to give a good answer. Other tales embody Kingdom principles, sometimes unintentionally, or at least point in that direction. Pastors, lay leaders, and culturally-aware Christians need to learn to identify these movie moments, explain their effectiveness, and use them as inroads for discussions of the Gospel and the Christian life. If Christians achieve that goal, they ensure that the opportunities to use film as a framework for talking about Jesus extend throughout the year, and not just during seasonal cinematic runs of "The Passion of the Christ."
Marc T. Newman, PhD (email@example.com) is the president of MovieMinistry.com (www.movieministry.com) – an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
© 2005 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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