April 2004 – Truth is a strange thing. It can be exhilarating, as when a man discovers for the first time that the woman with whom he is in love, loves him. And truth can be exceedingly painful, as when a woman is told by a doctor that she has breast cancer.
What happens when truth is both of those things at the same time? The cross of Calvary is that paradox. It is exhilarating when we see in it the immutable love of God for a fallen race, and it is painful when we see the suffering revealed in those frightening, blood-stained timbers.
Mel Gibson’s epic masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, presents this truth in a film that is graphic and unrelenting in its violent depiction of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ.
Make no mistake: The Passion is an artistic masterpiece. It is at once hideous in its violence, and yet beautiful in its cinematography; it is grotesque in its presentations of the undisguised wickedness that resides in the human heart, and breathtaking in its portrayal of the Lord’s humanity and sacrifice; it makes the viewer recoil in revulsion at every stroke of the Roman rod and lash, and yet mesmerizes as we see Christ’s form, quivering in agony.
In a review in First Things, academics Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev call The Passion Gibson’s “artistic triumph” and “the best movie ever made about Jesus Christ.”
Of course, there have been numerous attempts at putting Christ on celluloid. Most of the time they are a fairly typical “documentary style” presentation of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. Hittinger and Lev call such films “perfectly safe viewing.”
Gibson’s Passion, however, is not safe viewing at all. “It is unnerving art,” they state, a “visual assault” on the viewer’s mind and emotions.
It is the scourging and crucifixion of Christ in all of its naked horror, but it does what no other film about Jesus has ever done: drive the image of the cross into the heart of the viewer with unmitigated force.
In fact, the film’s focus is so narrow as to hold us captive, keeping the cross before our eyes so that its impact cannot be escaped. We see no crying baby in a manger, no miracles or healings, and only the briefest of excursions into the teaching ministry of Jesus. The cross is all there is. Even as the film opens in the garden of Gethsemane, the shadow of the cross looms inescapably over the landscape.
Its spiritual violence will hopefully shock Christians in this country out of their complacency. The time is certainly ripe for that. American Christianity has become flabby and impotent.
In The New York Times, Kenneth L. Woodward comes to this same conclusion, following his description of “the creed of an easygoing American Christianity” that marks our culture. Quoting Protestant theologian H. Richard Neibuhr, Woodward defines the prevailing notion of the faith as: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” The Passion, said Woodward, “is a welcome repudiation of all that.”
In other words, without putting too much stock in a mere movie, The Passion provides a potent dose of the exhilarating and painful truth of the cross – a truth which we need now, more than ever.
Cross rules box office
As it opened, The Passion of the Christ gave every indication of being a stunning success at the box office. Despite being a movie in which dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic – two dead languages necessitating English subtitles – and having a well-deserved R-rating for its brutal violence, the film earned $125.2 million in its first five days playing at theaters.
That gave The Passion the biggest opening ever for a film debuting on a Wednesday, nipping the previous top spot holder, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which had garnered $124.1 million.