I've seen relatively little criticism of Mel Gibson's new film from Christian quarters. By far most Christians are excited about the film, even using it as an opportunity to initiate conversations about spiritual things with friends who don't believe. The ones who don't want to see it are just intimidated by the violence they keep hearing about. I have seen a few worries raised about this film, sometimes being put quite strongly. Two pieces that have been brought to my attention come from sources I very much respect. One is on the website of the Presbyterian Church in America. I'm not a Presbyterian (I disagree quite strongly with their views on sacraments and baptism), but I very much respect the PCA. They tend to be one of the strongest advocates for Reformed views, which I tend to share with them, in our time. The other is from the website of Alpha & Omega Ministries, the organization James White works with. I appreciate his work for the same reasons. I have chosen to interact with these arguments mainly because I very much appreciate that Christians are thinking critically about this film but also because I'm fundamentally in agreement on the basics of the Christian faith with these people. I don't think all their conclusions are warranted, as I will explain, but I do think these arguments deserve to be aired, and in some cases I think they should affect how someone views the film. I also feel obliged to link to a very positive review by a Christian who emphasizes things not covered in most of what I've read. I happen to be acquainted with the reviewer through our both being on a music discussion list, but I don't really know him. I highly recommend his thoughts.
The arguments I'm considering seem to involve some mix of the following conclusions: Christians shouldn't see it, no one should see it, it was wrong for Gibson to make it at all, and it was wrong for Gibson to make it the way he did. Different arguments seem aimed at different conclusions (and from different people who have given these arguments).
The piece from Alpha & Omega included the following arguments. Some of Gibson's Catholic theology has been missed by Protestants who have assumed these elements of the film were just artistic license. According to the argument, this is not just about minor disagreements but about doctrines Protestants should find horrific, a focus on suffering for its own sake rather than seeing ourselves as the ones for whom and because of whose sin he suffered, a focus on the passion with such small concern for the resurrection that it might as well not have been there, and that there are only a few hints of the gospel message itself in the film with no clear sense of why Jesus died, why he had to die, and what our response should be. The conclusion of this piece is that it's going to be of no value to someone who doesn't already know the background but that someone who has the grid to impose on it will be benefited greatly.
The piece on the PCA website is more strongly against the film. The primary reason is that it violates the second commandment (of the ten commandments given to Moses, not the second of Jesus' two greatest commandments). It makes a graven image to be worshiped. This is a much more serious charge (one the first author dismisses without argument), and if it's true it deserves a more serious response. I'm not exactly sure what the author concludes in the end, but I'm quite sure that I don't think the conclusion is justified.
Let's look at each argument in turn.
First, I should say that I have not yet seen the film but have read lots of detailed reviews and heard many first-hand accounts of people who have seen it. What I offer here is not a response based on having seen the film but a response to the arguments.
1. Catholic theology objectionable to Protestants
As I said, I haven't seen the film, but almost all the reports I've heard contain nothing on this end that should be offensive to Protestants. Most Protestants, rightly in my view, resist seeing Mary as co-redemptrix in any important sense other than the fact that her role was to bear and raise the redeemer. Many Protestants, however, go too far in the other direction and ignore the plain biblical statements about how blessed Mary is. I believe Catholic theology wrongly gives her the role of a dispenser of grace rather than the receiver of it based on "full of grace", which is semantically ambiguous, but the context suggests the Protestant view. She is given the gift of bearing the Son. None of the bits of the film cited by the author seem to me to raise any flags on this issue at all. The very author whose article I'm responding to linked to this review to make his case, in which the author says:
He has made a film with some subtle Catholic overtones, but these should not upset Protestants. Mary has a prominent role in the film, but not inappropriately so. As she speaks to her Son on the cross she says something like, �You are flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart. I wish I could die with you.� During the crucifixion, there are flashbacks to the last supper, where Jesus says, �This is my body, broken for you� as He tears the bread.
Some may find subtle implications of Roman Catholic dogma in scenes like this. Wisely, Gibson has left the points subtle enough that all Christians can embrace what is presented.
These two examples don't even reflect theology that's particularly Catholic. Mary's saying that she wishes she could die with him stops short of her actually dying with him and says nothing about whether such a death would be effective or co-effective or whatever such thing being a co-redemptrix would be. As for the association between the last supper and Jesus' death, isn't that what it's about? The main disagreement between Protestants and Catholics on this matter is whether the bread and wine are literally Jesus' body and blood, not on whether there's an association between eating the bread and drinking the wine and the remembrance of his sacrifice. The other arguments for seeing theology in there objectionable to Protestants seem equally tenuous, based on the author's own assertions. How would Mary's seeing Jesus' blood as precious or suffering because he is be objectionable to Protestants?
2. Focus on suffering for its own sake rather than seeing ourselves as the ones for whom and because of whose sin he suffered
See the positive review I linked at the end of the first paragraph for more response to this issue, but I should say a couple things. First, saying this is a Catholic issue is a bit odd. After all, most Protestants do communion at least once a month (and the ones who care more about remembering Christ's sacrifice do it every week). They celebrate Easter once a year. Second, Gibson himself doesn't think his film is guilty of this. He stresses over and over again in the interviews he's done that it's all for us, that we're the ones he died for, that audience is as much to blame for his death as anyone else. So if it's a fault of the film it's due to negligence or problems with the audience. Third, the focus can't be on suffering for its own sake unless there's a clear statement that the suffering is intrinsically good. There may be a lack of clarity on what it's good for, but that doesn't mean it's intrinsically good. It just means you don't know what it's for. That would be an issue of not making the gospel clear enough, but it doesn't involve a denial of the gospel or a different gospel, as the objection makes it sound.
3. A focus on the passion with such small concern for the resurrection that it might as well not have been there
If this is a problem, then the gospel of Mark is guilty of it also. It basically ends with the resurrection, without explaining it or going on to say what happens later. Compared to the length of time focused on the passion narrative in Mark, the resurrection seems quite brief and of small moment, if all you care about is the length of time. (Late manuscripts have more added, but hardly any scholars think that material was originally part of the gospel. It was added because the abrupt ending was felt to have needed more, just as people endorsing this argument would say of Gibson's film. I'd prefer to go along with what the inspiration of the Holy Spirit says is a legitimate ending.) In both cases, it's the climax anyway. There's no question of the significance this ending had for Gibson. Without the resurrection at the end, it would have been a very different film. In comparison to that, a few more minutes would have added a lot less effect.
4. Only a few hints of the gospel message itself in the film with no clear sense of why Jesus died, why he had to die, and what our response should be
That's a fair point. I think it's something that Christians who want to use the film to start conversations about the gospel will need to bear in mind. Many Americans today are biblically illiterate, not knowing that the Bible has two testaments. They of course won't know who Judas Iscariot was, why the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus, why it was God's plan for Jesus to die all along, and many other things. But the movie Mel Gibson made is not a visual presentation of all the facts necessary for understanding the gospel. It's a depiction of the passion of Christ. He worked a little bit of background context in to make it more understandable, since it would have been next to worthless to the average unchurched American without that, but his goal wasn't to produce a product that would help people understand the basics of Christianity. It was to produce a picture of the basic event of Christianity, without which none of the theology and teachings make sense. The latter aren't all in the film, but that just means those using it in discussions with unbelieving friends will have more work to do than simply taking someone to the film. So what?
5. The film violates the second commandment
To evaluate this argument, we first need to see the second commandment:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10, ESV).
On one level I think there's a danger here for Christians. On another I think the complaint is just plain silly. The danger is that Christians can be tempted to worship anything that gets associated with holiness, righteousness, etc. Images used to help us understand or explain the gospel can themselves become more than that to us, as if they're part of the gospel. That would verge on idolatry. Even worse, we have to be very careful not to make Jesus into something he's not. It's so easy to do such a thing, but it would constitute false worship (though not idolatry per se, since worshiping Jesus while believing something false about him still is worshiping Jesus, just not necessarily legitimate worship for who he really is).
Is it wrong to make a graven image of Jesus? We're told not to make a graven image of God. Jesus clearly identifies himself with the Father (though he also distinguishes himself from the Father). I think it would be very bad to make an image of Jesus to be worshiped. I think that would violate the second commandment. Is that what Gibson did? Is he sitting around worshiping Jim Caviezel? Is that what he expects the average viewer of the film to do? Some may do that, but that's not what was going on in the mind of the film's creator. If this film was wrong on these grounds, then every film or play about Jesus would likewise be wrong. Every image of Jesus in Sunday school materials or in the famous artwork of history would be wrong. Not only that, but you couldn't even form images of him in your mind, since that would be forming an image of him. If it affects how you worship, according to this argument, then it's a graven image.
It will start to get really silly from there. When we do a passion play, do we need to have Jesus be played by the air in the room? Isn't that turning the air into a graven image? When we read the gospels, do we need to refrain entirely from forming an image of Jesus? One way to do it is not to imagine what was going on at all, but I think that violates the intent of the gospels. Why use descriptive imagery if you don't want people to imagine what it was like. Then should we imagine everyone else but just empty space for where Jesus was? The feeding of the 5000 would have these fish and loaves hanging out in mid-air with nothing to support them. This has four problems. First, it's inaccurate. Imagining Jesus as empty space is not imagining what went on. There was someone there. Second, it undermines Christianity's emphasis that Jesus really did come in the flesh. Third, it still succumbs to the objection that it makes the empty space (in this case in your mental image) an idol. Fourth, it's just ridiculously absurd for people to try to do this.
So I maintain that it's not making a graven image to portray Jesus by a human actor in a play or movie. What Mel Gibson did does not violate the second commandment. There is a danger of a viewer violating the first or second commandment, but that's the responsibility of the viewer. Anyone particularly suceptible to that temptation might want to avoid the film. I can't see this giving anyone else a reason not to see it.