Pastoral Counsel concerning The Passion

A letter from Pastor Tillberg to her congregation, published in the church newsletter.

[1] I’ve just returned home from seeing Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. Here’s some pastoral counsel concerning the movie:

[2] 1. If you choose to see it, be warned, it is the most violent movie – with respect to visuals and audio – that I have ever seen.

[3] Granted, the violence is “real” in the sense that this is a story that happened. Yet, as I viewed the film, it was all but impossible to consider the implications of the story theologically and spiritually because I was so paralyzed by the utter brutality of the violence. Visuals and audio combine to heighten the brutality, perhaps even beyond what would be realistic. (Imagine a digitally mastered “thunk” of a nail being driven through flesh and bone.) Indeed, Gibson pushed it so far that in retrospect I am left wondering if a real human being subjected to the severity of beatings Gibson depicts would not have been dead or comatose long before reaching the place of crucifixion.

[4] 2. If you plan to see the movie, read your Bible first!

[5] Gibson’s movie follows the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life and is in Aramaic and Latin, not English. This gives the impression that Gibson is presenting a documentary-like account of the end of Jesus’ life. However, Gibson himself has stated emphatically “This is not a documentary,” and any student of the Bible will realize quickly that his portrayal is embellished with non-biblical lore and with “Gibsonian” interpretations and fantasies. It would be interesting to offer an award to the person who can list the most departures from the biblical text in Gibson’s movie, but I won’t. Just be forewarned that Gibson’s movie is hardly a case of “It is as it was!”

[6] 3. Remember that the essence of Christianity is in God’s love – not in the demand for punishment or sacrifice and certainly not in violence.

[7] I questioned my revulsion at the violence in this movie (was I soft on myself, unwilling to see the consequences of my own sin?) until it dawned on me again that Jesus himself preached against violence, hatred and killing. Indeed, this movie focuses on one episode of the Gospels – there’s a lot more to the context of Jesus’ life and teaching. Moreover, a Christian whose heart has been turned toward the love and mercy of God should indeed have a hard time stomaching the evil depicted in this film. We do well to remember the center of our faith is life and love.

[8] 4. Beware: You may never understand Good Friday or Easter the same way.

[9] This may not be a bad thing. There probably is more than just a kernel of truth to the criticism that American Christianity has gone soft, focusing more on what Jesus can do for us without serious examination of the costs of salvation or even the suffering that often comes in a struggle against sin. We tend to move blithely through Good Friday (many Christians may not even attend church that day!) and onto Easter (when the pews are packed!) when the “Good News” abounds, but without context or cost.

[10] Just as Gibson’s gruesome film reminds us that we need an ample dose of Easter with every Good Friday story, it also makes the point that too often and too easily our Easter celebrations risk complacency over the suffering and sacrifice of Good Friday. Seeing The Passion will make the cost of grace much more difficult to forget, at least this Lenten season!

[11] That said, I can’t say that I recommend the film. The violence, as I’ve said, is so extreme it all but destroys any devotional value.