Passion of the Christ revisited

This last week, I attended a work-related conference on the general subject of internet ministry. The highlight of the conference for me was a Saturday afternoon discussion titled “Lessons We Learned from The Passion.” It was basically an informal forum in which the two presenters discussed the film and the church’s response to it, and addressed questions from the audience. Since the discussion touched on a lot of the topics mentioned in a previous post here, I thought I’d summarize a few of the presenters’ observations.
The two presenters were Terry Mattingly (of, which extensively observed/critiqued media coverage of the film) and David Bruce (of Hollywood Jesus, an ongoing dialogue with postmodern youth and culture). When either of these guys talk about media and the church, I pay attention.
Without further ado, here are summaries of several of the points raised (as I understood them–corrections by others who attended the discussion are welcome):

  • David Bruce felt that the church did a good job of responding to and talking about The Passion–much better than it has done with past “big events” like 9/11. (According to Bruce, after 9/11, despite a temporary spike in churchgoers seeking answers, few churches specifically or meaningfully addressed the topic.) When the issue of the Barna research (which found that there was little increase in churchgoing or “conversion” in the wake of The Passion) came up, both presenters suggested that evangelism efforts around The Passion need to be seen as just one small step in an ongoing effort to be a culturally relevant church, and that trying too hard to estimate the success or failure of any particular step in that never-ending process can produce misleading results.
  • The hostility of many mainstream (“secular”) critics of The Passion was almost entirely ideological. Many critics were clearly motivated by a hatred of Mel Gibson or by offense at the idea of a literal telling of the Gospel story. Many critics railed about meta-film issues and controversies and in doing so missed the entire point of the film.
  • Mainstream critics were not the only ones blinded by ideology. Evangelical commentors, who generally praised the film, almost completely overlooked and ignored its omnipresent Mariology and Catholicism. The presence of these elements doesn’t necessarily “ruin” the film theologically for evangelicals, of course, but it’s interesting that leading evangelicals, historically hyper-sensitive when it comes to this sort of thing, scarcely mentioned the film’s blatant Catholicism.
  • Similarly, evangelical critics also broke with past tradition in not condemning the film’s extreme violence. Bruce suggested that this trend indicates that at least in the area of violence, evangelicals are demonstrating a willingness to interpret sinful behavior depicted in film within the context of the film itself. He noted that a similar phenomenon took place in the wake of Saving Private Ryan, when many Christian film critics embraced the film in spite of the violence and profane language in it. This trend indicates that evangelicals increasingly desire to move beyond the “count-the-swear-words-and-sex-scenes” style of media analysis; they’re paying more attention to message and story in film, and are putting less emphasis on specific visceral content than they have in the past.
  • Mattingly suggested that the harsh divide between enthusiastic supporters and detractors of the film can be traced back to the split between (culturally) liberal and conservative Catholics, not animosity between Christians and Jews. This is an issue that Mattingly has discussed in the past at and in his On Religion syndicated column.

Those are the points that most interested me, and I hope I’ve relayed them accurately. As for myself, I see a lot of merit in most of these ideas, although some of the specific contentions are beyond my immediate ability to confirm or debunk.
At any rate, it was a fascinating discussion, and the general mood was a positive one. There was a sense that evangelicals are at least trying to shake off some of their outdated ways of approaching film, media, and culture. There were plenty of warnings for and critiques of these efforts to achieve cultural relevance, but I left the discussion feeling optimistic about the ways that evangelicals are talking about God in this entertainment-driven post-postmodern world. What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Passion of the Christ revisited

  1. Bill

    I was interested in what you said about some evangelicals basically turning a blind eye to some of the more Papist–to borrow a good Reformation-era term–leanings of the film.
    Was there any discussion of the elements added to the film that are not in the gospel accounts? I haven’t seen the movie (surprise, surprise), but I’ve heard of a few scenes/images included in the film that are no where to be found in Scripture. One example would be Satan represented by an old woman, which is the kind of addition I had in mind.
    Was there any discussion or opinions on whether these additional elements effected the impact of the film?

  2. michele

    I haven’t seen the movie either…but I did attend the forum. I think the main items that was talked about which would be considered by Protestants to be additions were Catholic elements such as a focus on Mary. This was discussed in the context of surprise that evangelicals got so excited about the movie without much discussion of such elements. I don’t remember that there was a lot of discusson about other extrabiblical issues.
    Another issue that was interesting to me was something I don’t think I’ve heard before–that one of the main issues of the movie was intended to be the individual guilt of the movie’s viewers in Jesus’s death. Gibson hadn’t intended originally to show the resurrection at all, in order to bring home that point. This was talked about in the context of the Catholocism of the movie, and also allegations of anti-Semitism–according to Mattingly, the intent wasn’t to blame the Jews or anyone but Gibson himself and each viewer of the movie. Interesting…

  3. jrau

    Thanks for your comments, guys. Bill, from what I’ve seen, there has not been a lot of discussion in evangelical circles about how the “theological extras” impacted the films. Most reviews I’ve seen in the evangelical camp tend to fall into one of two categories: either they love the film and gloss over or ignore the Catholic elements, or they despise the film and laboriously cite every single Catholic element as yet another reason why Mel Gibson is the antichrist.
    I think serious discussion of The Passion as a film in and of itself is lacking in evangelical quarters, due to this tendency to praise or condemn it based entirely on its perceived spiritual merits or flaws. I’d love to see a good discussion by Christians about the film’s narrative and technical qualities–how it works as a film, and not as a spiritual statement. But of course, given the film’s subject matter, it’s hard to make an easy distinction.
    As for why evangelicals who praised the film also tended to gloss over the Catholic elements… I don’t know. My guess would be that one or both of these reasons account for it:
    1) a lot of evangelicals aren’t familiar enough with Catholic lore/theology to recognize those elements (i.e. the Stations of the Cross, Veronica, etc.). Some of them could be quite easily interpreted by an evangelical viewer as simple narrative license meant to “pad out” the otherwise pretty straightforward story.
    2) the core point of the movie–“Jesus suffered and died for your sins”–is so intensely, viscerally powerful that perceived “lesser issues” simply fall by the wayside. After watching 90 minutes of torture and crucifixion, it’s hard to get too excited about some of the “lesser” theological side-points.
    It’s a confusing issue, and it’s difficult to talk about the specifics without coming across as a nitpicker. Perhaps in a year or two, when the hoopla over the film has completely died down and there’s some historical perspective, we can take a more objective look at the film and discuss some of the theological particulars that got overlooked in the initial uproar.

  4. Bill

    Thanks for the info!
    I was just curious as to the general evangelical reaction to the differences with the Scriptural accounts and the Roman stories of the Passion.
    I hadn’t read any particular criticisms of that aspect of the film, and I found that interesting in light of other discussions Christians have on theological issues. I’m specifically thinking about issues such as eschatological beliefs or positions on creation. So often you encounter evangelicals who argue a strict (six, 24-hour days) view of creation or a strict pre-millennialism on the basis of what they insist is a “literal” reading of Genesis or Revelation. Yet when elements are added to the Scriptural accounts of Christ’s suffering and death, there doesn’t seem to have been a corresponding call to literalism by the broader evangelical community.
    I find that intriguing and perplexing. Perhaps it goes back to your comment, Andy. It does seem that any kind of criticism of the film seems to come off as a criticism of the gospel or of the evangelistic activity of the church universal.

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