Thursday, April 15, 2004

Review of The Passion of the Christ by Helen-Ann Hartley

Thanks to Helen-Ann Hartley, Wilkinson Junior Research Fellow and Assistant Dean,
Worcester College, Oxford, for sending over her thoughts on The Passion of the Christ:

These thoughts are offered in response to a review in the Oxford Diocesan newspaper The Door (April 2004). The reviewer states that in his opinion, the film ‘can draw believers more deeply into the heart of their faith. And as an evangelistic tool for non-believers that will hopefully intrigue them and cause them to ask questions and further explore particularly the life of Christ under-emphasised here, I think it will do far more good than harm’. I disagree. The film is a deeply flawed account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus based upon a synthesis of the gospel accounts with material from extra-canonical sources, heavily influenced by the Stations of the Cross. As such it provides no narrative context for the truly harrowing scenes of torture and crucifixion other than the theme of substitutionary atonement. (Incidently, a quick study of the credits reveals the special effects people have worked on some major Hollywood horror films).

We have no real inkling of the activities surrounding the Passover, other than the full moon and Mary’s quotation of the first question from the Haggadah. The use of flashbacks provides minimal, contrived links with the life of Christ and we are told nothing of his programme of teaching and healing. Jesus as the pre-emptor of Western dining culture, producing a table as though it came straight out of IKEA? I don’t think so. Pilate is portrayed as a dithering and reflective character (presumably picking up on the Gospel references to him ‘wondering greatly’ – Mk. 15:5 for example) whereas in reality he was a brutal individual who would have had no hesitation in condemning yet another Jew to death; Herod is a camp buffoon direct from a production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’; the chief priests and elders are a brooding lot who stay in their full regalia throughout, presumably because we are meant to see them as the real villains, they even accompany Jesus up to Golgotha. Jesus’s words ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do’ are aimed at the chief priest and not, as in the Gospels, at the Roman soldiers casting lots. The Romans themselves are a mad bunch, almost animal-like in their relentless abuse of Jesus. Satan moves about the Jewish crowds and demonic children hound Judas to his death. The sense of total opposition between Jesus and the Jewish crowds (with a few exceptions) is pressed home. Gibson leaves in the line: ‘His blood be on us and our children’ (not subtitled) and in this perhaps the greatest distortion lies.

Aside from the debate over the supposed anti-semitism (or indeed whether it is even appropriate to use this term), it is not hard to see why many Jews have expressed great concern over the film. The film provides Christians with the opportunity to reflect on the suffering of Jesus but also more importantly, the chance to reflect on how the narratives of Jesus’ death have played a role in Jewish-Christian relations. The story of Jesus is surely about his life, death and resurrection and seeking to represent Jesus by showing us the last few hours of his life distorts the message. I wouldn’t see the film – read the book instead!

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