For the past two class days (Wed/Fri), students in my “Jesus in Contemporary Culture” class have been watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This is the first of six movies we will be watching together throughout the semester. Since our class sessions are only 50 minutes long, there wasn’t enough time during our Wednesday session to reach the point in the movie where Jesus begins to suffer in earnest. However, today students were treated to nearly 40 minutes of in-your-face, extremely graphic, painstakingly slow suffering. The violence perpetrated against Jesus in this movie can only be described as over the top.
I haven’t seen this film in several years and a number of thoughts came to mind as I was watching today: (1) The presentation of Jesus’ suffering is rather unrealistic. Any human would have been long dead after the nearly 14-minute scourging Jesus receives in the film. At one point, Jesus is beaten to the ground, then stands up only to be beaten to the ground again. (2) The extremely graphic nature of Jesus’ suffering in the film is (intentionally) emotionally manipulative. In a class of 30 students, about half of the class had some visible reaction to how the beating was depicted–this includes male and female students. Several students were wiping tears from their eyes and at least one student kept her head down for the entire scene, refusing to watch the scourging. My colleague has described the violence as “heavy-handed.” I think that’s an apt description. (3) There is a definite cultural connection (at least here in the US) between the suffering of Jesus and popular presentations of masculinity we see in things like Fight Church and elsewhere, where the underlying assertion is that Jesus took his suffering “like a man” (and presumably Christian men should follow this example). This is a topic we’ll be looking at in two weeks. I don’t think either of us remembered that the scourging scene included Jesus being beaten to the ground, only to stand up and be beaten down once again. (4) This movie is dripping with anti-semitism / anti-Judaism. At every turn the bloodthirsty Jewish leaders are pushing for Jesus’ death while the largely sympathetic Roman characters are reluctant to make this happen.
I am interested to see where our discussion takes us after we finish watching the film next week. I am also interested in your insights. In particular, I would love to hear from those of you who either (1) have taught a course in which this film (or other Jesus films) were used; (2) have a background in film; or (3) can share further insights about the Passion that I may be overlooking.