Saturday, February 21, 2004

Christianity Today Cover Story: The Passion of the Christ

The latest Christianity Today magazine not surprisingly has The Passion of the Christ as its cover story and has some interesting pieces:

The Passion of Mel Gibson
Why evangelicals are cheering a movie with profoundly Catholic sensibilities.
by David Neff

Mel, Mary, and Mothers
by David Neff

Christian History Corner: Why some Jews fear The Passion
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism.
By Collin Hansen

The first of these articles is interesting in drawing attention to features in the film that are apparently drawn from Anne Catherine Emmerich's The Dolorous Passion of our Lord. In earlier reports on The Passion, this book was often mentioned as a source for the film and it was one of the elements that caused some controversy in the critique of the early script by the so-called "ad hoc committee", especially in view of the depiction of Jews in Emmerich's visions. More recently, the book has been played down as a source for the film's script; the tendency has rather been for it to be claimed the book simply inspired Gibson. But Neff points to two elements derived from The Dolorous Passion. The first is Pilate's wife's provision of pieces of linen for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus and their use of the linen to wipe up the blood after Jesus has been scourged. The second is:
Another detail picked up from Dolorous Passion is just as dramatically powerful, but much more significant theologically. Emmerich writes that during Jesus' agony in the garden, Satan presented Jesus with a vision of all the sins of the human race. "Satan brought forward innumerable temptations, as he had formerly done in the desert, even daring to adduce various accusations against him." Satan, writes Emmerich, addressed Jesus "in words such as these: 'Takest thou even this sin upon thyself? Art thou willing to bear its penalty? Art thou prepared to satisfy for all these sins?'"

Gibson shows Jesus being tempted by a pale, hooded female figure, who whispers to him just such words, suggesting that bearing the sins of the world is too much for Jesus, that he should turn back. And from under the tempter's robe there slithers a snake. In a moment of metaphorical violence drawn straight from Genesis 3:15, Jesus crushes the serpent's head beneath his sandaled heel.
But the temptation theme is of course key in the Synoptic account, and the snake, the garden, the devil are common elements in Christian meditations based on Gethsemane. So it does not seem necessary that Gibson has derived his Gethsemane scene from Emmerich. The snake is a key (and obvious) symbol also in The Last Temptation of Christ and in the recent Jesus (Roger Young, 1999), the devil incarnates himself in Gethsemane as he had earlier at the Temptation, this time showing Jesus all that is to come in the future.

The female Satan figure is another feature in common between The Passion of the Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ. In the latter, the little girl leads Jesus through his last temptation while on the cross (though of course you only find out it's the devil at the end of the sequence, if you had not already guessed). This marked a contrast with Scorsese's source material, Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation in which the devil was manifested as a small boy.

Back again to the Neff article, note also these comments:
All of this—the sense of one's own sins being responsible for the Crucifixion, the sense of the enormous weight of the world's sins on the Savior's shoulders, the horror of the suffering that Christ endured, the way the story grew inside Gibson—accounts in part for the film's bruising bloodiness. The extremes of brutality are not simply a translation of Gibson's secular visual vocabulary from Lethal Weapon and We Were Soldiers into the sacred sphere.

"The enormity of blood sacrifice," as he put it, is important to Gibson. Unlike liberal Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) who deny the importance of the shedding of blood in the Atonement, Gibson grasps firmly the sacred symbol of blood and spatters the audience's sensibilities with it. Never one to run from a compelling symbol, Gibson presents the truth of Leviticus 17:11 in all its power: "The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life."
These offer an interesting commentary on the remarks both of Gerald Caron and John Dominic Crossan on the matter of blood and sacrifice.

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