February 23, 2004
I’m becoming concerned about The Passion.
Like most everyone else who pays any attention to cable television news, Internet news sites and cultural discussions, I’ve been drawn toward the ruckus raised surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Any number of issues attracts me on philosophical and logical levels. In the end, I find myself wanting to defend the film even though I have never seen it.
I still maintain that Gibson is being unfairly attacked as anti-Semitic simply because he seeks to produce a movie that is as accurate as possible to the telling of the Gospels. If you have a problem with the Jewish leaders sharing the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, your beef has to be with the Gospels – not Gibson. Even so, certain things about the response to the movie are starting to concern me.
This movie that purports to portray a seminal portion of the Gospel has taken evangelical Christians by storm. There is almost hysteria surrounding the response. I recall reading the following last week in the New York Daily News.
James Caviezel, who plays Christ, said he got an equally eerie sign six months before he auditioned when a stranger came up to him and said, "You'll be playing Jesus."
Caviezel noted his initials are J.C. and was 33 - the same age as Jesus when he was killed. He said he's had fans bow down before him, and shrugged off the hardships of playing the physically demanding part.
Caviezel has had people bow down before him? Has the movie superceded the message? Ash Wednesday the theaters will be full of evangelical Christians who hope to use the movie as a tool for evangelism. However, will there be any people there with them in need of evangelism? Is this an outreach by those attending or a celebration of the entry of the Gospel into the language of the pop culture?
I had the idea offered to me by a Christian filmmaker recently. He made the point that film is the language of the day. He maintained that in order for the Church to reach the masses in our current culture we must "speak their language."
On that same day I received a call from Paul Richard, an art critic for the Washington Post. He was asking about the history of Protestantism and art. He found it interesting that many Protestants have embraced art forms as religious tools when one of the conflicts in the Reformation revolved around the destruction of figures and works of art in the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted to know when it was that the churches of the Puritans and early American Protestants began to take a different view of art – to become more accepting of images with religious themes.
Of course, the conflict in the Reformation was not so much a reaction against art as it was a reaction against the use of art as objects of worship. The Reformers believed that the use of the statuettes of Roman Catholic saints for this purpose was akin to worshipping idols. They believed that the emphasis on adornment and visual art to give the message of the Bible was in conflict with the second commandment – "You shall not make for yourself a carved image . . ."
This commandment is a reminder that the God of the Bible is a God of language. It deals expressly with attempting to use physical forms in an attempt to make God physically tangible. This was the common practice of the cultures surrounding Israel. Just take a look at the gods of the Egyptians. Interestingly, Israel erred on the day the commandment was given. As Moses came down from the mount with the tablets of stone. Aaron the priest was creating an idol in the form of a calf and proclaiming "THIS is the God that brought you out of Egypt." God wanted his people to be different. He chose to reveal himself with words – specifically, The Word.
However, that is not to say that the use of art as a teaching tool is in and of itself wrong. Just because the Protestants of the Reformation sought to destroy a painting does not mean that their actions were correct. Paintings illustrating a Biblical event helped to teach the lesson – much like a visual aid today. Such paintings do not offer themselves as a replacement for the image of God, but a snap shot illustrating an aspect of his character.
There was a time when the Bible was not translated into the language spoken by the people. There was also much more illiteracy. Many of the paintings from the Roman Catholic tradition were actually tools serving as a "language" for the illiterate. Such a use of art was certainly not a violation of the second commandment. With the coming of the Reformation came the translation of the Bible into the common tongue and a new age of Biblical discovery took place.
So, what does this have to do with Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? What is my problem? Wouldn’t the lesson of the Reformation be that my filmmaking friend is correct – we need to use the language of the day?
I have nothing against using new methods to take the place of the paintings as long as they are consistent with Biblical doctrine. However, if these modern versions of the painting lead us back into the age of Biblical illiteracy, I have a big problem. While this column is not a judgement against The Passion of the Christ, it is a warning that Christians must not lose sight of how God reveals himself to us. It is not in miracles on Mel Gibson’s set. It is not in the work of art that many reviewers claim The Passion to be. It is not in the swaying audience of a Christian rock concert or the solemn liturgy of the sanctuary. It is where it has been – in The Word.
Would that evangelical Christians had as much passion for The Word as they have passion for The Passion! Oh the amazement I hear in people’s voices when they hear that I am not jumping on the promotion bandwagon. "What do you mean you are not promoting the film?" I try to explain it is hard promoting something I have never seen or completely understand. I have received E-mails expressing incredulity that I haven’t "caught the vision."
Sorry. I do hope that The Passion of the Christ is all that my friends have accepted it to be. Only I fear that in this media saturated culture, the Church will turn more and more to this "new language" at the expense of the clear exposition and understanding of Biblical teaching. Before long we will voluntarily return to the days before the Reformation where the Bible will – as a matter of choice – be lost to the Church. Our view of God will once again be narrowed by the interpretation of a mediating party. Gone will be that world of wonder that the Christian experiences when his or her eyes are opened by the Holy Spirit to see God revealed as he intended.
In this case, no matter how good the movie may be, it can never be as good as the Book.