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</script></div>{/googleAds}For some reason, I will always be amazed at the dupability of those longing to be deceived. Hosts of preconceived notions bend the will and intellect to withering reeds, biases brought to the table sour in the mouth, and prejudices and disbeliefs cloud the very eyes and heart. Such is what I see when I read through a number of reviews of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Many of them are written by well-known critics, champions of box office skewerings and cinematic coronation consultants.

Before viewing Passion myself, I read these reviews with jaundiced opinion, quite admittedly cynical and suspicious of their attacks on this movie. It had received so much publicity from Jewish groups, from non-Jewish groups; from press reporters and news anchors; from many who had not even seen the movie, and a few that had. Yet consistently I heard a message that made me angry and defensive. Aside from the obvious concerns with the movie's supposed anti-Semitism, the most common theme of all was the movie's - and Gibson's - obsession with pain and suffering, and how it reflected, not a Christian theological ideal, but the reconstructions of one man's quest to unequivocally declare that pain was salvation.

"Look at his body of work!" they cried. "Look at who the man is! He's hardly separated himself this film. He's clearly obsessed, a raving cleric of cinematic pain and pseudo-sexual sadomasochism, masked with the guise of medieval Christianity!" I wish I were joking, but these sentiments are clearly found in mainstream reviewers' opinions. They've done what no critics should do, and that is to critique the man rather than the movie. In doing so, they've destroyed the worth of their own subjective feelings. In a postmodern world, we call their behaviour "projection". But to put it more simply, they're afraid. And they see the ivory towers they've built for themselves being hammered by this cinematic mystery. Like heathens at medieval passion plays, they're dumbfounded, unable to do anything but quiver nervously before laughing it off as a lot of hocus-pocus.

Take Leon Wieseltier's perceptions:

"The only cinematic achievement of The Passion of the Christ is that it breaks new ground in the verisimilitude of filmed violence. The notion that there is something spiritually exalting about the viewing of it is quite horrifying. The viewing of The Passion of the Christ is a profoundly brutalizing experience. Children must be protected from it. (If I were a Christian, I would not raise a Christian child on this.) Torture has been depicted in film many times before, but almost always in a spirit of protest. This film makes no quarrel with the pain that it excitedly inflicts. It is a repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film, and it leaves you with the feeling that the man who made it hates life."

Perhaps Mr. Wieseltier is confused. Nowhere have I heard explicitly or implied that the violence and torture in The Passion is spiritually exalting. Sombering, yes. Spiritually exalting - well, one wonders what Mr. Wieseltier does in his spare time. I quibble with his insistence that the film (and by implication, Gibson) excitedly inflicts pain upon the viewer, or that it is a masochistic fantasy. I saw no indication that Gibson hates life; rather, that his love of Life is so great that he is willing to display the death, in all its pain and agony, that made that Life possible. But not being a Christian, Mr. Wieseltier can't be expected to know or understand this.

He continues.

"So the kindest thing that may be said of Gibson is that he is an extremely late medieval. He contemplates the details of pain ecstatically. But this is still too kind, because the morbidity of the Man of Sorrows, even in its most popular versions, was rarely as crude as what Gibson presents. Does Christian dolorousness, a serious reflection upon the fate of Jesus, really require these special effects, this moral and aesthetic barbarity? The Passion of the Christ is the work of a religious sensibility of remarkable coarseness. It is by turns grossly physical and grossly magical, childishly literalist, gladly credulous, comically masculine. Gibson's faith is finally pre-theological, the kind of conviction that abhors thought, superstitiously fascinated by Satan and "the other realm," a manic variety of Christian folk religion"

Here, Mr. Wieseltier assumes that his is the last word on popularity of the depiction of Christ in His passion. Too, he exhibits an exceptional arrogance in ascribing childishness to Gibson's film, and then claims it is antithetical to the Gospel. I wonder if he has heard the verse, "Unless ye become as little children..."? Perhaps Wieseltier missed Sunday school that day. That the Gospel is exceptionally anti-theological escapes this vain diatribe, and that it clearly invokes belief in the very "Christian folk religion" that he decries, leads me to believe that his viewing of The Passion of the Christ was already laden with some sort of post-apostate guilt. His misreading of both the text of the film and Gibson's intentions is unforgivable in his particular role (that anyone can truly know Gibson's full intentions and inspirations is harrowing arrogance at its height).

But enough of Mr. Wieseltier. If you care to read his entire uneducated screed, the link is at the top, with his name. I'd like to go on to one more prominent critic, Mr. David Edelstein, who's review I heard on Fresh Air on NPR (you can read the text of his review here). Edelstein at least focuses most of his ire on the movie rather than Mel, though he can't refrain from throwing his shots in when it fits his agenda. His first four paragraphs are dedicated to explaining how Gibson's other movies, from Braveheart to Payback, all contain a masochistic streak, which thus gives him ammunition for skewering Passion. It's a flawed conclusion at best, but this does not deter Mr. Edelstein. Example:

"Pilate, whom historians identify as a surpassingly cruel ruler responsible for crucifying many thousands to maintain his authority, is portrayed as a sorrowful, even-tempered man whose wife (Claudia Gerini) shows acts of loving kindness toward Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci). Pilate is shocked by the Jews' brutality and by the determination of the priest Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) to see this so-called blasphemer executed. While Pilate wrinkles his forehead, searching his tender conscience, sundry Jews lean into the camera and hiss or keen through rotted teeth."

It's unfortunate that Mr. Edelstein seems unaware of how the Gospel treats Pontius Pilate--that is, exactly how The Passion treats him. But no matter! What is it to this reviewer if Gibson was faithful to the text? If it violates some preconception of his, then it's "throw 'im to the dogs, boys!" Indeed, Scripture does note that Pilate's wife had a dream in which she was warned that Christ was a holy man. She does plead with him to spare Jesus' life, and Pontius does weigh the matter, even asking several times what Jesus had done to deserve death. But, since that doesn't match up with Mr. Edelstein's notions of a Roman governor (of whom I seriously doubt Edelstein is aware of more than in passing), it must be wrong. Allow me to rewrite that last sentence to more accurately represent what happened in the film.

"While Pilate ponders the meaning of truth and wonders how to avoid an uprising from either the Jewish leaders or the followers of Jesus, the crowd of Jews shouts and gathers in the courtyard."

See, Mr. Edelstein, it's not hard to be objective if you really try. And for your information, that IS what happens in the film. Mr. Edelstein has obviously placed his particular spin on the action on screen, and his review is poorer for his lousy interpretation. His next paragraph contains this gem, with which I actually agree: "This is the sort of passion play that makes people mad." Indeed. Mr. Edelstein, do you not know that Jesus himself said He was "a stone that makes men stumble, a rock to make them fall."? Jesus made lots of people mad, not the least of whom were self-important pharisees, whose modern day cultural equivalents might well fall into the category of "film reviewers". Not that Edelstein had a hand in Jesus' demise. No, far too sanctimonious to be guilty of any sin greater than a misplaced comma, Edelstein pompously announces: "What does this protracted exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christian faith? I'm asking; I don't know."

Excuse me while I ponder the significance of Edelstein's slip. Yes, it's clear you don't know what Christ's passion means. If you did, you wouldn't have informed the whole world what a blathering, uneducated idiot you are.

In truth though, I really wanted to make this a review of The Passion of the Christ, not from anyone else's lips, but from mine. I sat through it in the theatre, and I noted the impending sensation of ultimate sacrifice that I could see coming a mile away, yet somehow, in all my expectation, had failed to grasp its significance until the very end. Christ's suffering, seen in such intimate detail, is a clear reminder of the problem of sin and its bloody consequences. That I sin every day is not lost on me, yet each day I fail to recognize the sacrifice that makes my sin seem insignificant. It's a paradox of inordinate weight and yet, to most Christians, including myself, its weight is not the weight of a cross, but the weight of an apology. "I'm sorry," we say in our hearts, or to our brothers and sisters, but we rarely question the cost of that sorry.

What Gibson does is outline and then expound upon the very real sensations of pain and suffering, the physical equivalent of sin and torment away from God. Though mind-numbing it seems while watching, it is the nature of minds to process it even in the darkness. Plastic Jesus, the Jesus we've come to expect from Hollywood, leaves no residual image, no mark of scourging. Gibson's Christ is exactly the opposite. He stains the back of your car seat with criss-crossed markings of blood as you drive home from the theatre. He leaves bloody handprints on your doorknob as you enter your house. His crown of thorns is sitting on your pillows in your bed. His robe is your bedsheet.

And we are offended. Yes, very much so. Because we've been tailored to believe that Jesus wasn't quite human, that he didn't quite suffer the way humans suffer. He was God, it was manifest destiny, the road to the cross was paved with prophecy and foreknowledge. How could He have suffered so? Yet nowhere does the Testament declare his Godhood (except by intimation and context) - He was Human--indeed, The Human, the original Adam, the way Man was meant to be. And his bodily scourging is the very same one that we underwent in the Garden. His death is the same death that Mankind experienced, except that his was a sacrificial death. Jesus says, "I give myself willingly. No one makes me go." And there the differences between us and Him end. After that bloody death, we are able to connect with him once again, because he has experienced the pain and death of our original Death, and has overcome it.

We see Gibson's loving tribute to Jesus's sacrifice in the details that most people miss in the sound effects and stage blood. Christ teaching forgiveness. His breaking of bread. His trial in the garden. His overcoming of Temptation to quit. We see the Human as a Man whose body has been broken, but whose mind is utterly and wholly fixated on the grace and glory of the future. His resurrection is short but meaningful, showing his hand to all of us, doubting Thomases every one of us, revealing the truth of his Godhood as well as his flesh. Made whole, it's the promise of renewal in our own lives.


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