Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part 3; The Passion of the Christ (Skinner)

Passion BeatingFor 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.

16 thoughts on “Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part 3; The Passion of the Christ (Skinner)

  1. Thank you Chris, in reply to your fourth concern, I’ve learn a great deal from my friend Larry Behrendt on this topic. I don’t doubt that he has a few blog posts on it over at his blog: Jewish Christian Intersections. I have not seen the film in many years, but I am told that the line from Matt 27:25 is stated in Aramaic but not translated in subtitles: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”

    This verse has been used by Christians to wound, displace, and murder millions of Jews (I wish this was an exaggeration). Gibson was informed of this traditional reading of Matt 27:25 in the early screenings. He decided to leave in the Aramaic statement, only choosing to remove the subtitles. I would not normally attack the filmmaker ad hominem, but Gibson has demonstrated his anti-Semitism in other ways as well.

    Larry’s point – and this continues to stick with me – is that the Christian story can be told easily without the damning statement of 27:25. Indeed there are three biblical precedents for it: Mark, Luke, and John. This is not to say that these other Gospels don’t have a history of anti-Judaism. Larry’s point (if I’m doing him justice) is that it is a verse only found in Matthew; thus we Christians have three biblical precedents for omitting this passage.


    1. Yes, you are right about that line. I signaled to my colleague today when that part came. In response to a complaint from the Anti-Defamation League, Gibson removed the subtitles, but kept the Aramaic in at the point. I was writing about this in a footnote just last week. I will look at Larry’s blog. If you want, have him weigh in over here as well.

  2. I often use these types of films to critique the popular tendency to blend the fours Gospels into a super-Gospel. And, I use the rejection of Tatian’s attempt to do just that as an illustration that the church has historically embraced the diversity of Gospel expressions. In other words, our desire to blend the accounts is a rejection of both the canon and historic Christianity.

    Per anti-Judaism, if you have not read Samuel Sandmel’s *Anti-Semitism in the New Testament* I highly recommend it.

  3. I think one mistake (encouraged by Gibson’s own publicity) that people make with the film is to read it simply as a film of the biblical passion narratives. That’s especially true of Protestant viewers. I suggest that it has to be read much more in continuity and disjunction with a long standing tradition of contemplating the suffering of Jesus which is particularly focused in the Stations of the Cross devotion. Veronica and all.

    1. Doug,

      Thanks for this. Yes. We are aware of this issue so we are having students read Catherine Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion and also exposing them to the Stations of the Cross. That is the required reading for the weekend. Thanks for weighing in. Anything else you think might be useful for reading would be welcome. Best, Chris

  4. Dr. LeDonne, it appears that Gibson’s portrayal shifts the emphasis of the interpretation of the Cross and sufferings of Jesus, at least in terms of Paul and Hebrews, from one centered on the shame/scandal aspect rather than that which, as it appears to me, is in concert with certain substitutionary views of the Atonement in Western Christian theology. The former fits more in the socioreligious context of that day. How do you see this dynamic?

  5. I taught this film years ago at a very conservative church. But I introduced with a 10-minute survey of some of the real horrors of anti-Semitism–not including the Holocaust. I did that not to attack the film but to help viewers include some of the concerns about the film in their experience of it. Surprisingly, it worked really well, in part because of an elderly man who was a Jewish follower of Jesus, well known to the group, who was visibly moved that I included this perspective. It was quite an emotional evening.

    It brings up the larger issue of what to do with imperfect brilliance? Yes, the torture scenes are over the top–but That Scene. You know the one I mean. Mary, running to Jesus, cut with her running to Him as a boy…”I am making all things new…”

    1. Yes. I mentioned to my class that even though I’m not a fan of this movie, that one scene in particular (Mary and young Jesus falling juxtaposed with Mary and Jesus dropping the cross) really tugs at me emotionally. I guess it’s the father in me. Thanks for sharing your perspectives!

      1. Have you looked at the edited version? The Blu-Ray copy I has includes a less violent version, but I haven’t had time to watch it yet. I also don’t know if it’s an “approved” version or a hack job for youth groups.

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