The Importance of The Passion
Some critics just don't get it.


I try to avoid commenting on those things I know nothing about, so I should start by stating that I have not yet seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. And yet, some of the commentary provoked by the film’s release is rather puzzling.

For instance, the Hollywood Reporter review:

The problem with focusing narrowly on the “passion” of Christ–meaning the suffering and ultimate redemption in the final moments of Jesus’ life–instead of his ministry, in which he preached love of God and mankind, is that the context for these events is lost. The Crucifixion was not only the culmination of several years of religious teachings but the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to die for the sins of mankind…. If only Gibson had chosen to highlight spiritual truth rather than physical realism.

Newsweek’s review was little better:

I have no doubt that Mel Gibson loves Jesus. From the evidence of “The Passion of the Christ,” however, what he seems to love as much is the cinematic depiction of flayed, severed, swollen, scarred flesh and rivulets of spilled blood, the crack of bashed bones and the groans of someone enduring the ultimate physical agony…. The film that has been getting rapturous advance raves from evangelical Christians turns out to be an R-rated inspirational movie no child can, or should, see. To these secular eyes at least, Gibson’s movie is more likely to inspire nightmares than devotion.

At least David Ansen, author of the Newsweek review, admitted he is a non-believer; this helps us to understand his bemusement. He concludes his review by admitting “Instead of being moved by Christ’s suffering, or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins. Others may well find a strong spirituality in ‘The Passion’–I can’t pretend to know what this movie looks like to a believer–but it was Gibson’s fury, not his faith, that left a deep, abiding aftertaste.”

And that, for Christians, is precisely the point. The Passion is supposed to be punishing; the death of Christ on the cross is, for Christians, supposed to leave “a deep, abiding aftertaste.” It is supposed to remind us of the intense physical pain which Christ suffered on our behalf, the price he paid for our sins. It is not simply that Christ became man and died, but that He died in an extraordinarily painful and gruesome fashion. That was the price necessary to redeem God’s prodigal children.

This physical realism is the spiritual truth. “We preach Christ crucified,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, unto the Greeks, foolishness.” A real sense of the suffering endured by Christ in the hours leading up to His death on the cross is the key to understanding the mystery of the Incarnation. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Gregory on the matter: “There would have been no advantage in His having been born for us unless we had profited by His Redemption.” The gulf we place between ourselves and God through sin is bridged only by that intense physical agony Gibson depicts and is taken to task for depicting.

The Hollywood Reporter also takes umbrage with the movie’s focus on this agony to the exclusion of Jesus message of “love of God and mankind.” But without this agony, Jesus would be no more than another prophet, perhaps no more than a provocative moral teacher in the manner of Confucius, Socrates, and Buddha. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the fundamental events of the Christian faith. The moral teachings that came before cannot be understood without reference to the Passion. But more than that, the Passion is the exemplar of what it means to love: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”

As a Catholic, I find it uncomfortable to talk about my faith. To speak about theological matters is fine; to discuss scholastic philosophy, easy enough. But to reveal something about my own religious experiences is difficult–so it should probably be done.

One of the most moving religious experiences I ever had occurred in San Antonio last Easter. On Good Friday, the (largely Hispanic) San Fernando cathedral holds a rather unique Passion play. A member of the congregation plays the part of Christ, and along the way from a city park to the cathedral, he carries a cross and is flogged by those playing the guards. At the conclusion, the cross is raised and the crucifixion staged. I have no doubt the scenes in The Passion of the Christ are grittier, bloodier, and more intense than those of the simple procession in San Antonio. But the message is the same: This is what the Son of God went through because of my sins.

Those unacquainted with the Gospel may find such graphic depictions disturbing, even “sadomasochistic,” as the New York Times puts it. But Christians ought to find them all the more disturbing. The Scandalum Crucis is something with which believers in every age are forced to struggle. To miss the scandal of the Cross is to miss the central meaning of the Passion, to glide blindly past the mystery of the Incarnation and remain ignorant of the central event of human history.

Kevin Cherry is an NRO contributor.