by R. Cort Kirkwood by R. Cort Kirkwood
“The Passion Of The Christ” is high art.
Unlike other movies of the religious and non-religious genre, this one is not entertainment. It isn’t a film you see to knock off a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. You experience this film, then ponder it, as you ponder the symbolism, characters and moral lessons in a great work of literature.
Except Mel Gibson’s “Passion” isn’t mere literature, and the history it retells, recalling Christian art through the centuries, is the principal reason it is a sublime piece. The film’s arresting cinematography, imagery and techniques set it apart from the classic attempts in such films as “Ben Hur” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
Then again, Gibson’s method of revealing the suffering of Jesus Christ has invited something beyond the usual film criticism: unalloyed hatred. “The Passion,” we are told, is “anti-Semitic” and tantamount to Nazi propaganda. It does not comport with the Gospels. It does not provide the “context” for the Crucifixion and does not dispense Jesus’s teachings. It’s a gore-fest, unworthy of the $7.50 we would plunk down for, say, “Kill Bill” of “Natural Born Killers,” two much more measured films on the violence meter.
All of which is nonsense. The critics dislike this film for an unspoken reason unrelated to, yet hidden, in what they have written, that reason having been written into the film. Its message is this: “I Am The Way, and The Truth And The Life.”
Of course, secular critics, whether politically or theologically liberal, don’t want to hear the Truth. Thus, the angst and hatred, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thus, their primal scream, echoing Satan in his Hell when Christ dies in “The Passion.”
Where the Critics Are Wrong
Before addressing “The Passion’s” message, better to dispense with the main objections. First and foremost is that the film is anti-Semitic because it depicts Jews as the bloodthirsty caricatures conjured up by Julius Streicher, the Nazi propagandist.
Poppycock. Only viewers schooled in anti-Semitic mythology, 99.99 percent of whom aren’t, would draw that conclusion. Indeed, it’s hard to see anti-Semitic images even when looking. They aren’t there. No one will walk out of this film an anti-Semite who didn't walk in one. The principal villains in the film are the Romans wielding the whips with sadistic abandon, pushing Our Lord to his death at Golgotha.
And yes, the film conforms to the Gospels. So seamless is Gibson’s tapestry that average viewers, many undoubtedly enthusiastic Christians but unschooled in Scripture, won’t know what he culled from extra-scriptural sources. On this point, the critics contradict themselves. They say Gibson departed from the Gospels (in depicting the savagery of the scourging, for instance) by consulting those sources. But then they argue that the Gospels are ahistorical, that Gibson should have consulted other sources. Whatever. The film depicts what most viewers, particularly Catholics, remember from their desultory reading of the Bible. As for “not providing the context” of the Crucifixion, so what? Even viewers who are only nominal Christians or atheists, who live in post-Christian America with everyone else, know the story behind “The Passion.” They don’t need “context.”
That truth raises another false criticism: that the film is too violent and does not show Jesus’s important teachings. Again, poppycock. The “violence” is over-hyped and unlike the typical Hollywood fare. The critics know that and lie in pretending otherwise. As for the teachings, flashbacks provide them. They show Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount and telling followers to love their enemies. Without words, Jesus imparts the lessons of mercy and forgiveness and condemns hypocrisy when he saves Mary Magdalene: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Jesus teaches his apostles at The Last Supper, and delivers the invocation every Catholic hears when he attends Mass: “This is My Body … this is My Blood.”
Finally, Gibson’s Jesus imparts Christianity’s central teaching: “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.”
The Real Problem
For Passion critics and haters, these last words are the genuine problem with the film. It isn’t that the film imparts too few of Jesus’s hard teachings. Rather, it imparts too many. It renders his most important teachings. It proclaims, unflinchingly, what non-Christians and tepid Christians do not want to hear: To enter Heaven, we must go through Jesus Christ.
And with Jesus, comes the Cross, another teaching too hard for the modern age: He suffered and died for our sins, and we too must suffer and shoulder His Cross. After all, our own sins fashioned it. This is Gibson’s point. His sins, our sins, put Christ on the Cross. Our sins brought down each stripe from the Roman flagellum, crowned Him with thorns and delivered each agonizing blow of hammer on nail. Real Christians believe every sin drives another nail into His hand, another nail into His foot, another lance into His side.
The modern liberal Christian or Jew, so attached to secular utopian fantasy, doesn’t want to hear about suffering and redemption. They don’t want to see it. They have no need, after all. For them, Jesus Christ is not a Redeemer but a utopian-socialist philosopher, urging not just love for the sinner but love for the sin. This film – Catholic and Marian, a recreation of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and The Stations of the Cross – shows them the Truth, something many men fear more than the Lie.
“Veritas? Quid est veritas?” Pilate asks Jesus. Beaten and manacled, the Truth stood before Pilate. The critics can’t bear it. They love the Lie, so they must hate “The Passion.”
Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.