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ISSUE 117 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 3/5/2004

hanson scrutinizes theology behind 'The Passion'

By Daniel Grupe
Staff Writer

Friday, March 5, 2004

What was your overall reaction to "The Passion?" There are things I really enjoyed about the film -- it's obviously the work of a very talented filmmaker, who has a clear vision about what he thinks the suffering and death of Jesus are all about. But, I left feeling kind of sick to my stomach and assaulted. There are other understandings of the Atonement that don't have a picture of this wrathful angry God who demands blood in order to save human beings. I think one of the most powerful messages of Jesus death is that God enters into human suffering and identifies with it. You get the sense from this film that Jesus is suffering for us, because of how bad we are, not suffering with us and going through the things we go through. For a film about what Jesus was willing to suffer for us, there was incredibly little grace. I also think that combining the representation of the Crucifixion as the way it definitely happened is problematic historically. One must recognize that the Gospels are not telling objective history to begin with.

What kind of historical problems are there in the film? Gibson takes to another level the way the Gospels tend to exonerate Pilate, making him actually a very sympathetic character, and he completely demonizes the Jewish leaders. Tha's problematic both historically and theologically. Pilate didn't agonize over killing a peasant Jew; he killed thousands of them. His dilemma over killing Jesus as Gibson portrays it in the movie doesn't make historical sense. There's no way that the Jews would have caused a riot against the Romans [as Pilate implies] for not crucifying one of their own people. Pilate's struggle makes for a compelling dramatic situation, but it doesn't make historical sense. Pilate then, in an anguished way, washes his hands of it and actually feels sorry for Jesus. All of that -- at least -- is historically inaccurate.

To me, more than being anti-Semitic, it seemed to portray all of the characters in a really poor light. Right, and I think that is what he intended to say, that everybody was deserving of the death that he suffered. I think people will come away thinking, "Geez, there are a lot of nasty, brutal people in the world," rather than, "The Jews killed Jesus!" I don't think it's going to lead to widespread anti-Semitism.

You mentioned earlier your qualms with the violent nature of the film. It's not only that the very language the film was told through was violence and bloodshed, it's also the picture of God that comes with that. Is God really this cold, angry, remote person who, apart from this sacrifice, would obliterate human existence? If we're going to take this picture of the death of Jesus as taking central significance, what sort of God comes with that?

Gibson brought in occasional elements of Jesus' life and teachings through well-placed flashbacks. What did you think of those? I love the scene where Jesus is interacting with his mom and they just really have a very human interaction. But overall, I didn't think that the flashbacks did anything to show why Jesus was being crucified. In telling the story of Jesus' death, I think you do need to get back to his life. On the one hand, it's appropriate that he focused on the last day of Jesus' life, because that was the point of the movie. But Jesus was crucified because he challenged the very structures on which the Romans' and Jews' power was based, and I think that needs to be brought out, even in a movie about his death.

Gibson took the creative liberty of adding a Satan character, who remains a constant presence through the film. How did you view this addition? I loved the symbolism of Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, crushing the serpent's head. But even that seemed out of place because it's an entirely different view of the Atonement, that we need rescuing from Satan's grip on us and that God sends Jesus to us to rescue us. There is a question of what Satan is doing there, because it doesn't fit with the overarching model of an angry God who needs to be placated for our sins.

Not to give away the ending, but Jesus doesn't actually stay dead. What did you think of the resurrection scene? It was interesting visually, but with Mel's conception of the death of Jesus there is no real reason for the resurrection. The bodily resurrection puts Jesus' death in line with Jewish apocalyptic tradition, which is about the idea that God is going to bring an end to human suffering and evil. It's really the affirmation or vindication of Jesus' whole life, not just his death. If Gibson had been able to connect his death with his life then the resurrection would have been a vindication of the whole.

Was Gibson reaching out with this movie to existing Christians or using it as a tool of conversion? I think Gibson wants people to have the same experience he did. He was lost, he was drugged out, he was living a self-indulgent life, he found Christ and it changed his life and he wanted to do that for other people. I don't think there's any question that he is trying to move people to embrace faith in Christ as a way to order their lives.

Why do you think Gibson picked this particular time to come out with his movie? On the one hand he's certainly open to the criticism that he's simply perpetuating violence as the language in which stories are told. How is this really any different from other violent films, except that God requires violence? I think he's a little tone deaf to the way the gospel should be presented in our culture. But he's a [Catholic] traditionalist, and a traditionalist wants to retell the story from the past and not acquiesce to pressures from the modern world to change features of the story that don't seem to fit with our modern sensibility. In some ways that is an admirable thing, but some of those modern sensibilities are good, and to me it feels off-pitch.

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