“The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” –Tertullian
Although some reviewers of The Passion of the Christ stuck gamely to the prefabbed “anti-Semitic” line that preceded its release by a year, many of the film’s harsher critics chose to touch on that issue only as an afterthought, if at all. In the absence of horned, hook-nosed Hebrew antagonists cackling with deicidal glee during Christ’s crucifixion, critics intent on giving Mel hell had to take different tacks.
Some have cried historical inaccuracy; others, scriptural infidelity. A third group has focused on allegedly deficient production values: uneven pace, thin characterization, turgid score, sloppy gaffing, what have you. The merits of these kinds of critiques rest comfortably within the bounds of filmmaking principles and, to some extent, personal taste.
But we have seen another, more nuanced line of attack pursued by Passion-detractors, one that strives to claim the theological high ground and beat devout director Gibson at his own evangelical game: the charge that the film is too violent, too “coarse,” too preoccupied with gouged eyeballs and sopping blood to be a licit portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. That the inspiring spiritual message of this great teacher — peace, love, and tolerance — is completely hidden behind the red mist.
The New York Times review lamented that the film’s focus on the “savagery” of Christ’s suffering “succeed[s] more in assaulting the spirit than uplifting it.” Andrew Sullivan held out hope that, in effect, the Crucifixion didn’t necessarily have to be all that bad for Jesus, and offered that the brutality in The Passion was more a product of Mel Gibson’s “psycho-sexual obsession with extreme violence” than a historically accurate rendering (and more to the point, a theologically accurate rendering) of what happened on the first Good Friday. And a writer at one independent Internet movie-review outfit, disappointed “as a Christian” with Gibson’s “gorefest,” asked plaintively, “Where is its spirituality?”
In one way or another all these criticisms miss a very fundamental point, and in so doing betray a tendency towards a modern incarnation of an ancient Gnostic heresy.
NOW, THE FINER POINTS of Gibson’s approach are certainly fair game for debate. How long should he have lingered on the scourging scene? How many gratuitous blows to Jesus’ head from anonymous Roman soldiers can the camera show before their dramatic effect is lost on the viewer? Was separating Jesus’ shoulder, in order to get the second nail in, pouring it on just a little too thick?
But those are questions of method, not of message. Gibson’s critics display their neo-Gnostic sensibilities not in questioning Gibson’s technique, but the theological premises he means to convey by it. Most importantly, that the primary mission of the God-man was not to teach or inspire but to suffer and die; and that his suffering was not only real and physical but more profound in every way than any human suffering before or since, being in some way proportionate to the sin expiated by it.
Those critics of the Passion — especially those self-identified as Christians — who lament its supposed fixation on Christ’s physical suffering rather than the nice, unbloody, purely spiritual significance of his life (“Where’s its spirituality?”) hearken back to the early Gnostic heresy of Docetism. The Docetists (from the Greek dokein, “to seem” or “to appear”) believed that Christ didn’t have a human body at all, but only appeared to. Consequently, he never really suffered physically during his Passion, instead putting on a grand act for those assembled at Calvary. (Some Docetists believed it wasn’t even Christ up there at all, but Simon of Cyrene gone in his place, or even Judas.) Their version of Jesus was more or less angelic; he came to earth to bring salvation not by his suffering and death, but to transmit by his teachings the saving knowledge of hidden spiritual mysteries.
Neither the Jewish nor the Greek mind of Jesus’ day could wrap itself around the concept of a God who truly became human; the very idea was scandalous both to Hebrew monotheism and Hellenic idealism. Docetism provided relief from the scandal. The Word didn’t really become flesh; he was just made to look as if he had. God didn’t really suffer unspeakably at the hands of his creatures; it was all a grand illusion put on for us by a divine Wizard of Oz.
That scandal is no less evident today. Passion critics who decry the “gorefest” on high-minded spiritual grounds are saying with the Docetists, “Pay no attention to the man up on the cross.”
AND WHAT OF THOSE like Sullivan who contend it’s a sign of depravity — “sadistic embellishment” — to take the depiction of Christ’s sufferings to such extreme heights (or depths)? Does he have a point when he argues that, say, an ordinary flogging and a typical, workaday crucifixion would have sufficed for the salvation of the world?
Well, God could have effected the redemption in any way of his choosing. And even if Jesus had to die, the Romans (or whatever people unto whom God chose to deliver his son) could have hanged Jesus without making so much as a mark on his face or spilling a drop of his blood. He didn’t have to be scourged, or crowned, or mocked.
“But the Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity” (Isaiah 53:10). In bearing unto himself, as Christians believe, the sins (and suffering for sin) of all mankind throughout all history, nothing less than the most extreme torture pushing the uttermost limits of human endurance would seem fitting. Christ’s presence on earth was not a purely angelic one, and his sufferings were not limited to psychological and spiritual angst.
I think that Mel Gibson, with every slow-motion moment of flying blood and flayed flesh, is providing viewers a profound meditation on the Christian belief that God truly became man, suffered, and died. And far from overdoing the torture, I believe he has only scratched the surface of conveying the true horrors Christ endured.