[Mr. Stagingpoint was kind enough to allow me to make a post on his blog. All views expressed in this entry are those of bcp. Thanks, jrau.]
Having seen The Passion of the Christ recently, I feel compelled to verbalize my thoughts in writing. Yet I’ve found it difficult doing so, as it’s an experience that is hard to explain to those who have not experienced it first hand. If you don’t think you can read yet another person’s thoughts on the subject, now’s your chance to bail. I hope you give it a read …
I am glad I watched the movie and recommend it to others, though I recognize that those who view it as a stumbling block to their faith may chose not to see it. The movie told the story of Christ’s last hours in a way I will not soon, if ever, forget. It forced me to understand more completely the burden Christ had to bear for my sins.
The beliefs expressed by some Christians that this movie is idolatrous and biblically inconsistent are as frightening and saddening to me as I am sure my views are to them. After seeing the movie, all of the criticisms and controversy don’t seem applicable. The purpose of this movie was to tell the greatest love story in history and to help the viewer understand the role they played in Christ’s death. For me personally, it accomplished its purpose very well.
I Can Only Imagine
Trying to imagine the actual events of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life is something every Christian must do. How else could you knowingly accept Christ as your Savior, unless you have consciously thought about the penalty He paid for our sins?
When we imagine such an event, our minds formulate mental images based on a lifetime of earthly experiences, whether it be things we’ve heard, read, seen, or physically experienced. Trying to imagine God or Jesus is not idolatry. God sent his Son as a human to this earth, in part for us as humans to be able to know God more fully. Christ took on a “truly human nature so that he … [would be] like his brothers in every way except for sin” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 35). God intended us to see Christ’s humanity. We all have a mental image of Christ already formed in our minds. Is that a sin, or because it’s only a mental image is it okay? I not only believe it is okay, I think that type of reflection is healthy for our faith, when understood as being only an image of Christ.
Obviously we do not know his appearance exactly, though Scripture does not shy away from describing Him physically (e.g. Isa. 53:2 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”).
The second commandment is talking about worshiping a human created object, in place of, or alongside, God. Drama telling the story of Christ (who was fully human), is not inherently idolatry. In the case of this movie, it did nothing but further my understanding of what Christ did for me. When I think back on the movie, I don’t worship Jim Caviezel. Instead, all I can think about are the atrocities committed against Christ, and the reasons he endured them willingly. All throughout Christ’s ministry, he used human events, current situations, stories, parables, and objects around him to try to communicate His Father’s love.
Based on my understanding of the Gospels, the movie was accurate. Yes, there were supplemental things said or done in the movie as they may have happened. Whether those things came from the Catholic tradition or Mel Gibson’s understanding of the story, we were not present at the time of Christ so we cannot know every detail fully. However, those things in no way distracted from the main story that is found in the Gospels. They supplemented the Gospel story in a way that was realistic, without changing the story as told in Scripture.
And yes, it was a human’s interpretation of the story. When a pastor preaches a sermon based solely on Scripture, that sermon is an human interpretation of that passage. When a theologian writes a book, all of its conclusions and teachings are an human interpretation. When a denomination writes its doctrines, those are all human interpretation. The Heidelberg Catechism, as helpful and accurate as it is, is still human interpretation of Scripture.
Longing to Understand
All teaching we receive in this world, no matter how biblically accurate it is, will fall short of being a perfect explanation of God and His love. The Passion of the Christ is a visual way of telling the story of Christ. It is the telling of that portion of Scripture; it is a telling of the Word, done in a manner that encourages our minds to try to understand Christ’s death.
Due to our sinful nature, we will never be able to fully comprehend God, the sacrificing of his only Son, or the love He has for us. But using whatever means we have to share that story, to strive to understand that love for us, is something I believe we, as Christians, were created to do.
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Cor. 13:9-12
— brian pikkaart
I have intentionally avoided reading commentaries on The Passion for some of the reasons you refer to, directly and indirectly, in your post. I wanted to see the movie with a totally clean slate, which I was able to do this past weekend. Now that I have seen it, I am truly glad yours was the first commentary I read.
I think to criticize the movie based on its slight departure from the Protestant Bible (I don’t know if the Mary encounter on the way to Golgotha, e.g., is found in the Apocrypha) is to miss the point. Those arguable bits in no way detract from the majesty of Christ, His radical lifestyle, claims, and teachings, and His ultimate sacrifice.
I think if any criticism were warranted, it would be for things that take away from His ministry. There is simply nothing there in The Passion that does that. In contrast, Jesus Christ Superstar (written by a non-messianic Jew, AIUI) well warrants such criticism from Protestants. That movie leaves Jesus dead on the cross, which completely robs His sacrifice. If we do not believe in the resurrection, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” and “we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor. 15:14, 18)
But this isn’t the case with The Passion. This movie depicts Jesus’ humanity and His deity in equal measures… and I find those measures to be true and accurate. It is a beautiful and terrible rendition of just how much God loves us.
Great post, Brian! I really appreciate being able to have a dialogue with other believers about this.
You may or may not agree with this characterization, but it seems to me that you are being assailed on both the right and the left. The attack on the left comes mainly from secular critics who claim “anti-semitism” and “dogmatic” adherence to the Bible. Many Christians have ably addressed these issues. I am completely on your “side” in rejecting these criticisms as they seem to basically be assaults on Christianity rather than on the movie. The attack from the right comes from people like myself who essentially think that the movie is an un-Biblical response to modern cultural demands. Hardly anybody defends the right flank. Thanks for the time and sincerity.
A couple issues: First, kind of a quibble. You say that the Bible does not shy away from physical descriptions of Christ, citing Isaiah. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single other place in scripture that supports the point. Even Isaiah doesn’t give a description, but rather the absence of a destription, saying that there wasn’t any beauty or majesty that would attract us to Him. And I would submit that the movie, with Jim Caviezel, even gets that wrong.
My other issues are a bit more doctrinal. What do you do with the Heidelberg? The catechism is obviously not a prerequisite to saving faith in Christ, but Reformed Christians have long believed that it faithfully summerizes Biblical doctrine. Do you think it is incorrect on this point, or do you believe my interpretation is incorrect?
Finally, a nice loaded question. Do you think that the written Word is sufficient for telling the gospel story? If so, why is the movie a good thing?
Thanks for the reply, Mark. I must admit this topic has generated more theological discussions with me and my friends and family than I’ve had in a long time! I’ll include your comments below (indented), so it’s obvious what questions I’m answering.
Fair point. You’re correct that there is no verse stating his eye color, hair style, or sandal size. That sentence I wrote was meant to show that Jesus was a human, and is described as such, and that passage in Isaiah creates a mental image for everyone that reads it. I know the mental image we have is not actually what Jesus looked like, yet I do not believe that is idolatry. Neither do I believe transferring that image to paper, canvas, or film is automatically idolatry, unless it becomes an object that is worshiped in place of God.
What the Bible does describe, however, are Christ’s emotions and human qualities. For example, agonizing in the Garden to the point of sweating drops of blood, weeping after the death of Lazarus, his righteous anger in the temple, and his cry of forsakeness on the cross. Those do not describe his physical appearance, but they describe his human qualities, which one could argue is more valuable to us as they show us his essence as a human.
Were you to watch the movie, I’m not sure you’d make that statement. Within minutes of the movie’s opening, he is so beaten as to be unrecognizable. Jim Caviezel is definitely not portrayed as a heavenly hunk in the movie.
I believe the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully summarizes Biblical doctrine. I also believe my views on idolatry are consistent with what the Catechism states, as well as the Scripture references upon which those questions and answers are based.
When considering any issue in the Catechism, I believe we need to understand the context in which it was written. The authors were writing to a specific audience at a specific time in history. That does not mean the Catechism does not apply to us today, but it does mean we need to look at the principles they were trying to teach in light of the issues of their time, or the specific examples they used to apply those principles. The principles remain the same, but the specific applications of those principles are going to continually change.
What do we do with the fact that you hold the Catechism to be true, as do I, and yet we disagree on its meaning? Since my understanding of these issues is consistent with my church’s and denomination’s teachings, it’s probably safe to assume that the denominations to which we belong also disagree on the matter, while still holding the Catechism to be true.
The only conclusion I can reach is that human interpretation (or perhaps lack of understanding?) is the reason. Whether it’s my interpretation or someone else’s that is faulty, my guess is none of us will get it 100% correct this side of Heaven.
Yes, I believe the written Word is sufficient for telling all the facts we need about the gospel story to have a saving knowledge of Christ, and what he did to save us. The term “sufficient” immediately made me think you were referring to sola scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture. If so, I don’t believe that’s what Calvin was getting at with his teachings. After all, the Reformed tradition is also a very strong believer in general revelation, the belief that God reveals himself to us through his creation (e.g. Rom. 1:19-20).
Even Christ himself saw the need for something other than the written Word, and therefore instituted the sacrement of communion. It is a revelation of who Christ is, and the Reformers held it in such esteem as to feel it should be celebrated as often as the Word was preached. The early church also saw the need for writing the Catechism to help interpret and defend the written Word.
I think what you’re getting at (after all, it is a loaded question, right?!) is why do we need the movie if the gospel story is sufficiently told in the written Word. I’m sure there will be people seeing the movie that do not know the gospel story, and obviously there are people using the movie for evangelism. As a result, there are unbelievers asking questions about Christ and his crucifixion because of this movie. What a great opportunity to invite these people into our churches to hear and learn more about the written Word!
However, I did not attend the movie to learn the gospel story, as I feel I have a pretty good grasp on the facts of the story. Rather, I attended the movie to better understand the written Word. For example, how do we respond when we read Mark 15:24 (“And they crucified him.”)? Four short words. How do we better grasp what that means? I’ve heard sermons that have described a “typical” crucification in medical terms, but nothing has made those 4 words in Mark more real to me thus far than The Passion of the Christ.
I’m assuming you would allow the fact that even though we have the written Word, we still need the preaching and teaching of that Word? Yes, we can become a Christian by only reading the written Word, but to grow and better understand that Word, God provides other means to help us understand. Just as that preaching and teaching are not replacements for the reading of the Word, neither should this movie be seen as a replacement.
Another way I think about it is by looking at experiences we all have in life. The experiences we each have help us better understand our faith and the written Word, even though those experiences are not necessary to have a saving knowledge of Christ. (And just to make sure I’m clear, I do not think people need to see this movie to become a Christian, nor do all Christians need to see this movie.) These experiences could be things like visiting the Holy Land. People who have been there say the Bible was so much more real to them after going. Another experience might be visiting a worship service in another country. I know God is omnipresent, but to see people in another culture worshiping the same God as we worship, only in other ways and in another language surely has to help us understand how big our God really is. Another experience I’ve heard is when a couple has a baby. They say after having a child they had a much better understanding of unconditional love and get closer to understanding the meaning of God sacrificing his Son. And obviously we have smaller, day to day experiences that all help create the glasses through which we see this world and by which we understand the Word. None of those experiences help us fully understand, but they all help us better relate and understand.
So too, The Passion of the Christ was an experience that helped me better understand the written Word.
Brian, you’ve written a very clear review and follow-up. I had no idea you were so erudite! Ever considered starting a blog of your own? 😉
I’ve really appreciated this discussion. I was just reading today about idea of Christian colloquies on disputed issues becoming a thing of the past.
I’m glad to see that in this online forum (graciously provided by jrau) Christians can come together and discuss these issues in an effort to come as close as we can–this side of Heaven–to understanding Biblical truth.
I have to say that I still prefer a more literal reading of the Heidelberg and am more in agreement with Mark. But it has been enlightening and encouraging to witness this discussion and to see above all a passion among the Brethren for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. We may disagree on the implications to be drawn from Scripture, but I’m glad that the universal desire is to see the Son of Man lifted up.
Well done, fellas.