New Testament scholar Bruce N. Fisk saw a rough cut of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in November 2003.
The Passion of the Christ is messy. From Jesus' violent arrest to his flogging and crucifixion, almost every scene is marked by callous cruelty and bloodshed. Jesus' bruised right eye swells shut. Deep lacerations criss-cross his flesh. It's very visceral and very difficult to watch. We've come a long way from the sanitized, dispassionate Jesus of so many Byzantine altar pieces (and we couldn't be further removed from the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian). Imagine, rather, a moving, breathing version of the Issenheim altarpiece, in all its graphic, grisly detail.How much blood and violence are necessary, I found myself wondering, for the crucifixion story to be authentic? Does Gibson's R-rated account rank among the most faithful Jesus films ever? Or is it simply riding the current wave of "reality" programming? Is it brutally honest, or just brutal? Scroll meets screenplay, or Stigmata meets Kill Bill? At the church of my childhood, we talked a lot about Christ's blood. Rarely did a week go by without someone asking to sing "Nothing but the Blood" or "There's power in the Blood" or "There is a fountain filled with Blood (drawn from Emmanuel 's veins)."When we weren't singing hymns, I would struggle to fill the silence with mental images of Jesus in pain, Jesus bleeding, Jesus pierced for my transgressions. It was almost as if the more pain Jesus felt, the more God's wrath was turned away. The more blood Christ shed, the more deeply I could "plunge beneath the flood." To me, it wasn't enough for his death to be vicarious; it also had to be slow, agonizing and messy. Roman crucifixions were indeed messy, nasty affairs. A single execution could drag on for days. Many victims didn't survive the flogging, and you'll know why if you see Gibson's film. I had to force myself to watch as a pair of blood-spattered soldiers scourged Jesus, back and front, minute after interminable minute. Watching it felt almost voyeuristic, perhaps because the grisly details of Jesus' flagellation and crucifixion receive such scant attention in each Gospel. Pilate "took Jesus and scourged him," we read. Soldiers "put on" the crown of thorns and "struck" him (John 19:1-3). Even more restrained are the hushed descriptions of Golgotha: "there they crucified him" (Luke 23:33).
Paul's cross language is similarly sparse: "we preach Christ crucified," he says (1 Cor 1:23; cf. Gal 3:1) and "he was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). As a whole, the New Testament offers lots about the meaning of Christ's death: it is sacrifice and example; it is moment of conquest and act of reconciliation and turning point in time (see, e.g., 2 Cor 5:19; Col 2:15; Heb 9:22, 28; 1 Pet 2:21-24; Rev 5:6; 7:14). But for all its significance for early Christians, the lurid details of Christ's death are stunningly absent. Was such punishment simply too familiar in its day to warrant commentary? Or too disgusting? Or too shameful? Gibson's preoccupation with Christ's shed blood and agony threatens to distract us from another crucial dimension of his death. Survey any Roman legion in the reign of Tiberius and they'll probably say that crucifixion was as much about shame as it was about pain. Ask Paul about the scandal at the heart of his Gospel and he'll point, not to whips and nails, but to the sheer embarrassment and absurd foolishness of a crucified savior. Hebrews says Christ "endured the cross, disregarding its shame" (Heb 12:2; cf. 6:6). So the cross was not only about cruelty but also about degradation and defilement, exclusion and ridicule, which is why, by the way, it proved such an obstacle to early Christian preaching.No one who screens Passion will ever be tempted to minimize the horrors of the cross. The Christian trinket industry may suffer. Good Friday services this year will feel different. What is not clear to me, however, is how well the film exposes the shame side of things. I suppose humiliation is harder than suffering to portray on film, and riskier. And we in the West don't really "get" shame. (Witness the popularity of shows like Jerry Springer, Cops, Girls Gone Wild and Howard Stern.) I don't know: maybe the film could stand a bit less blood and a bit more blushing; maybe fewer lashes and more disdain. As it stands, I'm not sure Passion gets the balance quite right. Veronica's ClothThe Passion of the Christ is also very Catholic. The storyline borrows bits from each of the four Gospels (with nods toward Matthew and John), but it is also steeped in church tradition and guided by images and symbols long cherished by Catholic worshipers. Jesus stumbles three times on his way to Golgotha, in keeping with the traditional Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The legendary Veronica of Station Six steps forward to wipe Jesus' bloodied face, only to find his image perfectly imprinted on her cloth. And Mary is highly visible and central to the story--a much stronger figure than the two-dimensional, inconsequential Mary of so much Protestant piety. John calls Mary his mother, if I heard correctly, even before Jesus suggests the idea (John 19:27), and Jesus, while praying, self-identifies as "the son of your handmaid" (cf. Psm 86:16; 116:16). At the cross, Mary murmurs "my son, let me die with you" and later cradles her son's dead body, Pietà-like, while gazing into the camera, as if to assure us that all will be well.