Jesus and Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ
- List members --
I was chatting off-list with Bob Webb who suggested I
post my recent review of his book about Gibson's
passion film to the list (which appears on amazon).
It's a good book, well-presented, and for the most
part keeps both history and artistry in view.
Loren Rosson III
Jesus and Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ
(edited by Kathleen E. Corley and Robert L. Webb)
This is a good book for anyone interested in how Mel
Gibson's film relates to the Jesus of history, and the
editors generally take the right approach: "We should
not impose what we want Gibson to do with his movie
but rather seek to understand, appreciate, and
critique what he has done." Aside from one contributor
(Crossan), the twelve authors do a fairly good job of
The first part presents two overviews of the film
written by John Dominic Crossan and Mark Goodacre.
Differences in tone, reason, and sanity cannot be
overstated. Crossan's is a sanctimonious indictment
and hard to take seriously, with preposterous
overstatements found on every page: "If this film is
not anti-Semitic, no such film can ever be made." In
fact the film is no more anti-Semitic than the
gospels, and considerably less so than Matthew and
John. "Any Christian who accepts the Emmerich-Gibson
theology of vicarious atonement is trapped in support
of pornographic sadism." While the violence is extreme
and the gore a blood-bath, neither is gratuitous. The
subject matter demands them. Pornography encourages
the viewer to want more, and the film does precisely
the opposite. In effect Crossan serves as the foil
against which Goodacre radiates sound judgment. The
latter's essay is easily the book's finest:
well-organized, well-written, explaining why the film
can offer a powerful vision to Christians and
The second part is half the book and deals with
particular subjects: the flashbacks (Robert Webb), the
character of Judas (Scot McKnight), the figure of
Satan (Mark Allan Powell), Mary and the women
(Kathleen Corley), the Jewish leaders (Alan Segal),
the Romans (Helen Bond), the trials of Jesus (Glenna
Jackson), and the procession/crucifixion (Craig
Webb thinks the flashbacks are key to comprehending
Gibson's vision: "without them the film would be a
pointless gore-fest". I disagree. The flashbacks are
unnecessary and distractive given the film's focus.
And Jesus' passion isn't pointless; the context is
supplied by familiarity with the gospel stories. I
agree, however, with Webb's conclusion that Gibson's
use of the flashbacks is "problematic and inadequate",
not only because they insufficiently communicate the
significance of Jesus, but because the viewer's own
image of Jesus can provide all the framework one
needs. Gibson's snapshots are too brief and
superficial. In any case, Webb's individual
commentaries on the flashbacks are helpful.
McKnight explains why Judas' betrayal and suicide is
likely historical, while his demonization in the film
is mythological though dramatically effective. Powell
argues that the androgynous and alluring figure of
Satan, while not exactly true to the gospels (let
alone history), is a well-used and convincing
representation of evil. Corley corrects Gibson's
association of Mary Magdalene with the adulteress of
Jn 8, and opines that both Marys should have been in
the flashbacks with the disciples -- since
historically they were disciples too.
Segal's objections are fair and considered (unlike
those of Crossan) but misplaced. He believes the film
is anti-Semitic for portraying the Jewish leaders
under Satan's sway. Historically the priesthood had
very good reasons for having Jesus arrested: he was
stirring up crowds during passover, and he acted
against the temple. Messianic movements (of which
there were a variety) and threats against the temple
could easily get one killed in Jesus' day, and these
would certainly account for an historical passion more
than any mythological reason owing to Satanic
influence. Segal is obviously right. But Gibson's film
is Catholic myth according to Emmerich, not history
according to E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen.
Controversial as it is, Satan's power over the Jewish
leaders must be understood as foreordained in the
context of this myth: "They act as the chosen people
prepared by their whole history to carry out the
ironic rejection of God, even as they defend his name.
They persecute Jesus out of a righteousness given over
to Satan for the time being, so that the battle Christ
fights alone can be most intense: it is against his
own." (Glenn Arbery, film critic)
Bond explains why the film's portrayal of Pilate is a
blend of history, gospel apology, and artistic
imagination: the real Pilate would have been callously
indifferent to Jesus and killed him without second
thought. Jackson observes many historical problems
with the film's (and gospels') trial scenes. Evans
gives a superb analysis of the relationship between
the historical procession, the gospel route, and the
medieval stations of the cross before turning to the
crucifixion and what this terror entailed in the time
of Jesus. He notes in conclusion that the early
Christians would have been puzzled by Gibson's focus
on passion instead of resurrection -- since Jesus'
suffering and death was important as a prelude to the
more climactic vindication by God.
The third part wraps up with contributions from W.
Barnes Tatum, David Goa, and Robert Webb, who discuss
the artistry of the film. Finally, editors Webb and
Corley conclude that while Gibson's use of a
harmonizing trajectory with the four gospels can be
fairly expected (as in most Jesus films), his use of
Emmerich is problematic on levels of both history and
theology. That Emmerich is unreliable history is a
given. That her theology is problematic amounts to a
subjective claim which cannot be resolved by editorial
appeals to modern sensibilities such as: "In a world
where violence is seen as the answer to social and
political problems, and where violence is glorified in
various media, to suggest that God requires equally
extreme violence for the salvation of humankind, is,
to say the least, problematic." (Corley/Webb) This is
an inadequate response to the question of divine
retribution. Still, the editors have done an
invaluable job of providing a useful handbook for
those wanting to know where history ends and myth
begins in Gibson's film.
Do you Yahoo!?
Declare Yourself - Register online to vote today!
- Already on it
On 8/10/04 5:30 AM, "Bob Webb" <webb.bob@...> wrote:
> Mark and Rikk,
> You should probably do it soon. Volume 1 had alrady gone out of print, but I
> convinced Continuum to re-print it so that libraries would be able to
> purchase the complete run of the journal. I think they may not have
> reprinted enough.
> Bob Webb.
>>> our library doesn't yet take JSHJ (sorry, Bob! I'm
>>> making moves to rectify this).
>> Me too! Just this very day in fact...
> The XTalk Home Page is http://ntgateway.com/xtalk/
> To subscribe to Xtalk, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
> To unsubscribe, send an e-mail to: email@example.com
> List managers may be contacted directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
> Yahoo! Groups Links