The first step in any good criticism is to ask what sort of thing is being criticized, what kind of thing, what genre, what type. In other words, before we can assess something intelligently, we must first determine what it is.
Most fundamentally, the film “The Passion of the Christ” is a liturgical artifact. It is a cinematic “Stations of the Cross” – which is itself a particular practice of liturgical piety, most commonly found among Roman Catholics (although by no means exclusively there). And as such, it belongs to the history and traditions of Christian pilgrimage.
In Christianity’s early centuries, many Christian pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem in order to walk in Jesus footsteps, and in particular to walk along his path to the cross, the Via Dolorosa (or “way of sorrow”). This kind of walking was (and is) understood as a practice of solidarity with Christ, of entering the story of the passion not only with one’s own imagination, but with one’s own body, too. It was (and is) a way to experience the story, to meditate on it and in it, and so to enter into Christ’s life and struggle. The great Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching with Martin Luther King, is said to have remarked that the marchers were “praying with our feet.” For Christian pilgrims, walking the Via Dolorosa was (and is) likewise a kind of walking prayer.
Now, needless to say, not all Christians could manage to make their way to Jerusalem. And so models of the Via Dolorosa began to spring up in other places, often built right in to cathedral architecture. Even today, if you walk into, say, a Roman Catholic church, you may well find seven renderings of “stops” or “stations” along the way of sorrow on one side of the church, and seven more on the other side. In such churches, the nave is thus transformed into a little Jerusalem, a pilgrimage site for pilgrims who cannot make the trip to the Holy Land.
To render the fourteen “stations” along the way, artists were recruited: sculptors, painters, engravers, wood-workers. Arguably, the twenty-first century’s signature art form is the motion picture – and in Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” we find the “Stations of the Cross” tradition translated into the form and rhetoric of cinema.
Once we realize that the film is fundamentally a “Stations of the Cross,” a spiritual practice of pilgrimage, several common criticisms of the film appear to miss the mark. For example, some have charged, “the film only emphasizes Jesus’ passion, and not his teachings or life or resurrection” – which is true, but that is quite appropriate to the tradition of the Stations of the Cross. This film is not a biography of Christ. Others have said, “the film contains material not found in the Bible” – which is also true, but that, too, is appropriate to the Stations. Indeed, several “stations” (for example, Veronica wiping Jesus’ face with a cloth) are found nowhere in the Bible. They are found in Christian tradition, which is to say, in the long history of Christian imaginative reflection on Christ’s suffering.
To say that “The Passion of the Christ” is a cinematic Stations of the Cross is to say that it is a spiritual practice of reflection on the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. It is not beyond criticism – indeed, it may and should be criticized, as I’ll do in a minute – but it should be criticized as the sort of thing it is: a cinematic pilgrimage to Golgotha, and so a practice of reflection on the meaning of the Christian cross.
The second answer to the question, “What kind of thing is this?” is that the film is a Christian passion play. Again, it can and should be criticized as such – but again, this fact should help us to refine our criticism, too. It is a dramatic interpretation – as is every Christian passion play – of the stories of Christ’s suffering and death. As such, it is a work of art. It contains extra-biblical details and scenes – but so do many passion plays. And for that matter, so do many “crucifixion paintings,” also often liturgical artifacts, in the history of Christian art – and so going to see this film is also a lot like going to the medieval rooms in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and beholding artists’ interpretations of these events.
Now, all that said, in the minute I have left, let me briefly assess the film. Liturgically and theologically, I find “The Passion of the Christ” very troubling in two respects: its anti-Judaism, and its atonement theology.
Anti-Judaism: The portrait of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, is unfortunate and intolerable. Gibson imagines extra-biblical scenes in which Pontius Pilate’s situation is portrayed as complicated and difficult, but Caiaphas appears as the blank face of evil. And yet the New Testament’s passion narratives provide Gibson (and all other passion play writers!) opportunities to complicate the portrait of Caiaphas, too: John 11, for example, gives us a human and understandable rationale for Jewish opposition to Jesus, namely, the fear that if Jesus be allowed to become wildly popular, the Romans will clamp down on the movement and the whole Jewish nation besides. Gibson’s portrait of Caiaphas – as an inexplicably bloodthirsty opponent, chillingly familiar from the history of Christian anti-Jewish passion plays – is amnesiac and irresponsible filmmaking.
Atonement theology: It does not bother me that the film is extremely violent. The passion narratives tell extremely violent stories. But I am deeply concerned about the way violence functions in the film, and the way it seems bound up with an atonement theology that I think is mistaken. Gibson seems to feel that the more Jesus suffers, the more of the world’s sin he carries, and so the more he loves his sheep. But his equation leads him to have Jesus undergo an unprecedented amount of violence, and demonstrate a superhuman capacity for endurance.
But Jesus is not superhuman! He is, in the words of Chalcedon, “fully human.” And moreover, the end result of this superhumanity (and superheroism) is that Jesus is portrayed as the one sufferer above all others. But this portrait, to my mind, is a reversal of the true meaning of the passion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not the one sufferer above all others – he is the sufferer with all others, not exceeding them, but joining them, even today, wherever agonies are borne among the human family.