“The Passion of Christ”—A Movie Review

A movie review?? A movie review in the Standard Bearer? Really?? Why? Do not our churches strongly frown upon and condemn movie attendance? Not too many years ago most Reformed churches forbad movie attendance. (And that was at a time when the movie was relatively “tame.”) Today these churches have rather advocated that children of God strive to “redeem” both the dance and the movie. The result is that some movies featuring violence, sex, and the vilest profanities have been recommended for their “art.” One wonders if the churches have become so much more spiritually discerning that they can now do what their forefathers strongly condemned.

We have condemned all such movie attendance and dramatizations for several reasons. First, there is the question of attempting to take on the personality of another and pretending to do what the portrayed character has done. May an actor take on the character of one who has committed murder or adultery, doing it in such a realistic manner that the viewer considers it actually done? May one pretend to curse and swear without at the same time violating the third commandment? Or may one pretend to be Martin Luther and utter some of his heart-wrenching prayers? God approves sincere prayer—not pretense, for whatever the reason.

Even unbelievers are appalled by the filth, corruption, and evil examples portrayed on the screen. How much more so should the Christian, who still loves the law of God!

Yet a movie, soon to be released, has been attracting wide attention. It is to be released on February 25 (Ash Wednesday) and is called: “The Passion of the Christ.” Why it is worthy of note is especially that churches (among Reformed as well) are strongly recommending their people, especially the youth, to see it. Many well-known religious leaders have been said to weep as they saw the portrayal. It is said to be as close to the biblical gospel accounts as would seem possible. Even the original languages are used in the film. It is claimed to be in fact a wonderful evangelical tool. Church people can take their unbelieving neighbors to see it. It has already led some unbelievers to conversion—such is the claim. So perhaps the movie is one we can see and use too? Is this movie to be an exception to our usual condemnation of the drama in movies? We ought to consider some of this lest we also be led astray.

First, it should be understood that normally one who reviews either a book or movie should read it or see it himself. How else can he give a fair evaluation?

Secondly, this “reviewer” has no intention or desire to see the movie mentioned in the title. He has read sufficient reviews of others to come to some conclusions.

Thirdly, we must be aware that this movie, like many others, can have a tremendous effect on how we view certain things. The movie, so it is said, will have an “R” rating—not suitable for children (and perhaps many adults as well). Those who have seen the film speak of the way it has affected them emotionally. There is no doubt but that a capable director can do that for the audience.

What has been said about the movie? Paul Harvey, well-known conservative radio commentator, wrote:

…this was not simply a movie; it was an encounter, unlike anything I have ever experienced.

In addition to being a masterpiece of film-making and an artistic triumph, “The Passion” evoked more deep reflection, sorrow and emotional reaction within me than anything since my wedding, my ordination or the birth of my children. Frankly, I will never be the same. When the film concluded, this “invitation only” gathering of “movers and shakers” in Washington, DC were shaking indeed, but this time from sobbing. I am not sure there was a dry eye in the place. The crowd that had been glad-handing before the film was now eerily silent. No one could speak because words were woefully inadequate. We had experienced a kind of art that is a rarity in life, the kind that makes heaven touch earth.

David Limbaugh wrote another commentary:

During the filming, Gibson, devout Catholic, attended Mass every morning because “we had to be squeaky clean just working on this.” From Gibson’s perspective, this movie is not about Mel Gibson. It’s bigger than he is. “I’m not a preacher, and I’m not a pastor,” he said. “But I really feel my career was leading me to make this. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize.”

Even before the release of the movie, scheduled for March 2004, Gibson is getting his wish. “Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converted to Christianity … [and] people being healed of diseases.” Gibson wants people to understand through the movie, if they don’t already, the incalculable influence Christ has had on the world. And he grasps that Christ is controversial precisely because of WHO HE IS—GOD incarnate. “And that’s the point of my film really, to show all that turmoil around him politically and with religious leaders and the people, all because He is Who He is.”

A review in The West Michigan Christian, February 2004, by Dick Rolfe likewise very favorably reviews the film:

The cast is made up of a well-rounded ensemble of actors who are true to their characters and decidedly believable. Actor, James Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo, Frequency) who performs brilliantly as Jesus is a relatively unfamiliar face to movie audiences. Caviezel was totally given over to his character. His depiction of the range of emotions Jesus must have experienced during those agonizing twelve hours is riveting. Caviezel’s shoulder actually became dislocated while he was hanging on the cross during the hours it took to film the crucifixion. In what he describes as “an oddly poetic coincidence,” Caviezel was also struck by lightning during the filming, which took place on the outskirts of Rome, Italy….

The Passion of the Christ is a movie that every Christian adult must see. It is transforming to watch the words of the Gospels come to life before your eyes and your heart. It was difficult to separate myself from the spiritual meaning of this story….

Even the Pope, after seeing the film, is said to have remarked, “It is as it was.”

Newsweek magazine, February 16, 2004, has a cover story about the film. In a lengthy article the writer, Jon Meacham, writes about the film and his evaluation of it. It is clear that he writes first from the perspective of one who denies the infallibility of the Bible—and the Gospel accounts. He also claims that much of that presented in the movie is either not found in the Gospel accounts or are distortions of that. Of the film, he writes:

Shot in Italy, financed by Gibson, the $25 million film is tightly focused on Jesus’ final 12 hours. In the movie there are some flashbacks giving a hint—but only a hint—of context, with episodes touching Jesus’ childhood, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper. The characters speak Aramaic and Latin, and the movie is subtitled in English, which turns it into a kind of artifact, as though the action is unfolding at a slight remove. To tell his story, Gibson has amalgamated the four Gospel accounts and was reportedly inspired by the visions of two nuns: Mary of Agreda (1602-1665) of Spain and Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) of France; Emmerich experienced the stigmata on her head, hands, feet and chest—wounds imitating Jesus’. The two nuns were creatures of their time, offering mystical testimony that included allusions to the alleged blood guilt of the Jewish people.

The arrest, the scourging and the Crucifixion are depicted in harsh, explicit detail in the R-rated movie. One of Jesus’ eyes is swollen shut from his first beating as he is dragged from

Gethsemane; the Roman torture, the long path to Golgotha bearing the wooden cross, and the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet to the beams are filmed unsparingly. The effect of the violence is at first shocking, then numbing, and finally reaches a point where many viewers may spend as much time clinically wondering how any man could have survived such beatings as they do sympathizing with his plight. There are tender scenes with Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene. “It is accomplished,” Jesus says from the cross. His mother, watching her brutally tortured son die, murmurs, “Amen.”

The film, according to these accounts, does not do as other films about Jesus have done: portray Him as a homosexual, or some sort of pervert, or an adulterer. He is presented as One who has come to redeem mankind of sin.

Many who claim it is anti-Semitic raise their criticism of the film. The same claim has been made of the Gospel accounts themselves. But this criticism, for the Christian, is not the problem. The arguments showing that it is not anti-Semitic are quite convincing. The fact is obvious: He came to His own (Jews), who were supposed to be looking for the Messiah, and His own received Him not. But the sad fact is that the nature of all peoples is to reject Him. It was not because we first loved Him, but because He first loved us, that we are saved.

But we would have other very serious objections to the film. The first, of course, is the matter of the drama itself. I recall many years ago when I attended a Christian high school (where dramatic presentations at that time were not allowed), that one teacher defended the movie with its drama. But there was one exception, he insisted. It would be absolutely wrong to try to portray Christ. He is the perfect and sinless Son of God in our flesh. It would be presumptuous, to say the least, for any sinner to try to portray Him. He was right in saying that it is horribly wrong for any sinful man even to try to portray the perfect and sinless One. It is shocking that anyone would want to see such a portrayal of the sinless One by a sinful man.

No doubt the portrayal of this film is deliberately made very gory. One sees an individual severely beaten. He is treated horribly. He is nailed to the cross. No doubt such a presentation can move one emotionally. But it is too emotional, too dramatic, for children—therefore its rating: “R.” So it’s “evangelism,” but not for children or even squeamish adults.

But it is also a way to present heresy in a convincing manner.

There is, first, the blasphemy of portraying the Son of God in the flesh by way of a human actor. Who can ever assume the likeness, the holiness, the infinity, and the wisdom of the Son in the flesh? Though one strives to follow as much as possible the testimony of the Gospels, it is audacious, to say the least, that the actor should think himself capable of portraying our Savior through human drama. Besides, however terrible His physical suffering must have been (and it was very great), there is no way the horror of the wrath of God, the agony of hell, which He must bear, could be presented visibly. The greatest, the most awful, aspect of His suffering goes beyond human portrayal or even full comprehension.

Secondly, the director has, according to the reports, taken both the Gospel accounts and the testimony of two Roman Catholic “saints” in the portrayal he presents. That is, to say the least, disquieting.

Thirdly, all of the reports indicate that the portrayal is of Christ who dies for the sins of all—universal atonement. Surely that’s not what Christ taught in John 6and John 10 and elsewhere in the Gospels. If the presentation is as powerful as the reports indicate, what effect will this false doctrine have on those who behold? Will one hold to Scripture—or to this false presentation of Scripture?

Fourthly, one must recognize that this sort of drama will surely have a powerful effect on the feeling or emotion of the observer. When suffering is portrayed through drama, and it looks very real to the observer, how can he not be affected emotionally? But is this the way of proper evangelism? Are converts made on the basis of intense emotion?

Fifthly, the reports indicate not only that Muslims and agnostics have been converted already in viewing the film, but also that people have been healed of their illnesses as a result of viewing the movie. One cannot help but think of those Roman Catholic shrines where, presumably, other healings take place. Will this film be another Lourdes? How many will be impressed by the “conversions” and the “healings”? How many will even be persuaded to seek this film for such healings?

Finally, the film makes a mockery of the testimony of Scripture about the “weak means of preaching” (I Cor. 1:17). “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” And in verse 21, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”

But now we have presented something other than the “foolishness of preaching.” Mel Gibson is wiser than God. With dramatic presentations of the crucifixion, he will convince sinners. He will bring many to the cross of Christ. It is disturbing, to say the least.

Striking, too, is the account of the man portraying Christ. He was asked by one interviewer, “You got struck by lightning?” His answer:

Oh, yeah. We were shooting the Sermon on the Mount. About four seconds before it happened it was quiet, and then it was like someone slapped my ears. I had seven or eight seconds of, like, a pink, fuzzy color, and people started screaming. They said I had fire on the left side of my head and light around my body. All I can tell you is that I looked like I went to Don King’s hairstylist.

“Did it occur to you that if you’re playing Christ and you get struck by lightning, maybe….”

[Laughs, then, as if speaking to God:] “Didn’t like that take, huh?”

And this is what preachers and churches are recommending to their congregations? God grant that His people may flee such abomination and hold to the faithful preaching of the Word.