Thursday, March 24, 2005

re-releasing the passionate response to the passion

With Easter, movie theatres in various countries are re-screening Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. In May last year I wrote an article for Reality magazine on the movie, exploring various film and theology angles in the movie, including the place, or otherwise, of redemptive violence in Christian theology. It’s proving a popular read again, being no. 1 at the moment on Reality website. I got a fair bit of flack for it at the time in Letters to the Editor. Anyhow, it’s located here if you want to read it.

Posted by steve at 05:46 PM


  1. My dear Steve: Excellent article regarding The Passion! As a woman who has suffered abuse, your reading of the film gave me some new-found insight into my sisterhood of survivors. However, as a Jew who believes in the Messiah, I must illuminate the arguments about Anti-Semitism and the film from a slightly different angle.

    I went to see the film. I was rather convicted by the film, mostly because as a Jew I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to tell the story of Yeshua/Jesus, and not moved as much by the film itself. My problems with it lie in several areas:

    Mr. Gibson and a huge portion of the Christian community did not take into account the historical meaning of the genre of this film to Jews. The Passion Play is the artistic event that inspired laypeople to kill us every year, throughout the middle ages. Often, the church used it specifically as a tool to drum up hatred, portraying Jews as blood-thirsty, callous, inhuman monsters. Simply in his choice of genre, Mr. Gibson places himself in a precarious position with Jews. I obviously believe that you can tell the story of the crucifixion, but when it’s cut out of scripture as a seperate piece, with nothing to explain or contextualize it, it can be a very powerful and very dangerous tool against us Jews. This genre, and this film, frighten us. Is it time for death again? That might sound unthinkable, unimaginable, ridiculously silly. So did Auschwitz, 80 years ago, and yet I now believe it possible.

    Our narrative was also fondled in this telling: it was taken advantage of inappropriately without permission. The dialogue you mentioned, Steve, when Mary and Magdalene talk about being freed from slavery, is taken directly out of the Passover liturgy (thanks to the only Jewish actor in the film, who played Mary): “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The response, in Hebrew, is “Because tonight we are made free from being slaves in Egypt.” When that second line was translated for the English subtitles, it read something like: “Because tonight we are free.” The staggering depth of the original concept, of G-d’s ongoing history of salvation, has been dug out of the words. Also, most of the other Jewish men walking around were wearing prayer shawls (tallitot), yet Jesus and the disciples were not wearing them. They were not portrayed as what Jewish people would consider good Jews. This sets the other Jews apart from the disciples, who to a Christian audience could easily be seen as “bad Jews” because they’re wearing the wrong uniform. Maybe the shawls were thought to portray legalism. That possibility deeply grieves me.

    When I saw the film, I felt ashamed. I could taste the dishonor as I left the theatre, that we were once again picked over like a carcass that isn’t actually dead, and left in the cold to fend for ourselves.

    This might seem like nit-picking to many people. They may be right. But why are people so afraid of the Jewish nature of this story? This subtle sort of displacement of Jewish life from scripture, and its subsequent portrayal, is a major reason most Jews reject Jesus. The message we receive during historical reenactments in which we are left out is: in order to become a believer, you can have any identity you like other than a Jewish one. You were G-d’s people, now you’re not, so re-writing your history from the outside is actually righteous. You, as you are, do not belong in G-d’s kingdom. You can’t even belong in your own history. You are dead to us.

    This, of course, is anti-biblical, and not the message most Christians in today’s more tolerant Western world want to express. But it is expressed unwittingly, every time “historically accurate” accounts of the Gospels discount or fully ignore Jesus’ Jewishness.

    Every people must be allowed to put the Messiah into their context. I believe and preach that passionately. But one people is not allowed to do that anymore: mine. Others are afraid that, if Jews take up the story as “ours,” then we will hijack it back from everybody else as the “authentic people of the Gospel.” This is not, in my opinion, a valid fear. Judaism teaches us to be a light to the nations, not to greedily hoard G-d for ourselves. In any event, is it appropriate – is it the Gospel – to allow anyone to contextualize the story but those who lived the story?

    Steve, I hope this helps you better understand the claims of anti-semitism against the film. This is obviously not an attack aimed in your direction, but a compilation of discussions I have had with both Jews and Christians since the film, and I hope you will find it useful. Keep up the fa work on the blog. Hope to see you back here in California soon! (will you visit us again someday at Fuller? We loved having you here!) May your ministry continue to grow and be a place of superlative midwifery.

    Comment by Britta K — March 25, 2005 @ 8:13 am

  2. Steve, Lynne and kids
    I’m so encouraged as I read this blogg! I can hardly believe this is the same place where 4 folk walked out when a clown stood to tell her story! I’m encouraging others with this hope! The letter to Mel I will also be sharing around. Thanks for taking the time to put it down for the rest of us who’ve been too pressured to get round to it.
    May this Easter be a metamorphosis for you and may you be a catalyst for change in your community
    A colourful Easter to you all

    Comment by Olive — March 25, 2005 @ 11:04 am

  3. Britta
    Really appreciate this. If I were in my gospel and film class, I would point out the power of your comments in highlight “Genre” and “Viewer” worlds. Much of this history does not play out here in New Zealand, so thanks heaps for the insights.

    Comment by steve — March 25, 2005 @ 3:15 pm

  4. Thanks Olive, it is certainly quite a different place here at Opawa than it was when you were with us. So much of the emerging church scene focuses on the new, the innovative, and it’s been really nice to have God plant us here at Opawa and to see something 94 years old re-emerge, and to see people grow. Itis a living example of resurrection life.

    Comment by steve — March 25, 2005 @ 3:17 pm

  5. Steve. Thanks for re-posting this. I actually watched the movie for the first time last night. You’ll recall we talked a bit about it when it was first released in cinema’s. I stand by all my comments but was really struck yesterday by the lack of narrative context…the situating of the passion apart from the historical context, apart from positioning it in the context of God’s unfolding narrative…how would someone with no idea of this unfolding drama make and kind of ‘sense’ of what they are seeing, no sense of connection or meaning. I echo Britta’s point above and learned much from her comment. It worries me when we do the same thing in some popular approaches to ‘evangelism’

    Nice to read Olive’s comment too…again I echoe her given my reading of your blog and conversations over the year…God is @ work. Finally, I add my “amen” to Olives pray for you all.

    Comment by Paul Fromont — March 26, 2005 @ 9:55 am

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