Friday, 12 March 2004

The Passion of the Christ

I’d read the reviews, heard about all the hype, read yards of stuff giving all the reasons for not going to see the film, and was prepared to give it a miss. That is, until local clergy were invited to a free viewing, and a number of us went. Some, fearing it would be too much of a horror movie, stayed away.

Those who went found the film moving, profound, and thought provoking. It may not be one you would advise your elderly, churchgoing granny to see, but for anyone used to adult movies, this is well worth seeing. In Passiontide, the pictures will fill our familiar hymns with deeper meaning, and add a new depth to the Stations of the Cross.

Once, rich visual imagery was available in England as an aid to prayer and meditation. The fourteenth century mystics saw prayer as starting with a meditation on the Passion, not by looking at texts, for the Latin scriptures were inaccessible to many people, but from the familiar picture set up at 10,000 altars and on rood screens throughout Europe. A contemplation of Christ’s sufferings, for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, was seen as both a road to conversion and the beginning of the life of prayer.

As painting and techniques improved, the crucifixion was depicted with increasing realism, culminating in works such as that by Grunewald.

But printed, vernacular Bibles and the Puritans destroyed much of this culture in Britain, leaving us with whitewashed church walls, and smashed stained glass. The ear, through the word of God, became the prime means of stirring the heart to devotion, and even music for a time was questioned. The result is that we have not understood the power and the place of devotional art.

But, with the rise of cinema and television, the visual arts can now reclaim their former place. With Mel Gibson’s film, the biblical epic has come of age. Raw reality and even savagery are displayed to an extent that makes previous biblical epic films look like chocolate-box illustrations. Yet “epic” is hardly the right word. There is little more than a following of the Stations of the Cross, given that the film only begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. As with any good meditation on the Stations, Mel Gibson introduces other scenes which comment on these final hours. And with these, and with the reactions of the bystanders, particularly Jesus’s mother, we are time and again taken away from the gruesome torturing of Jesus just at the point when it might appear unbearable.

The shifting of scene means that instead of being presented with unremitting gratuitous violence, we see something of the loving purposes of God, precisely at the point when we want to cry out “Why?”

Unless the film had brought us to this brink of feeling that it would be unbearable to go on, we might have come away thinking that this was just one more sanitised view that made the Christian faith just an interesting diversion for children. But this, with an “18” classification, is not a children’s film.

It is a very honest piece of propaganda for the Christian faith, the best that Mel Gibson could devise. In this I would see him as standing in the tradition of great religious artists of the past who have wanted to convey their faith through their art, and express their own Passion for Christ. It is precisely this which has made it difficult for the critics to know where to aim their arrows. The complaint that the film is anti-Semitic, for example, misses the point. Those who condemned Jesus are portrayed as very believable human beings in whom we should be able to identify our own failings. They are only as Jewish as the Virgin Mary. What is depicted is part of the history of Judea, and the history of the world.

There is a great deal to think about in the film. Don’t go alone, and allow yourselves plenty of time afterwards to reflect together on what you have seen.

Posted by Tom Ambrose on Friday, 12 March 2004 at 9:56am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

It's not just "Puritans" who don't care much for devotional art. Even High-Church Anglicans like myself might consider such imagery to be dangerously close to idolatry.

Posted by: Christopher Culver on Saturday, 13 March 2004 at 6:51pm GMT

I've been recovering from a nasty little Anglican site for a few days now, and reeling over how not-thinking Christians can be when I found this one which, now that I've looked at it, is actually what it calls itself. I read what you said about gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered being the treasured of the church and I have to Amen that. No matter what church you belong to we have tended to treat them like the trash of the church. But I want to add that the mind and the heart are also the treasures of our church, and those are what keep us vital, true THINKING ANGLICANS

Posted by: Christopher Gibson on Saturday, 13 March 2004 at 10:19pm GMT

I have just seen "The Passion of the Christ" for the second time. On my first viewing I was shocked by the violence, especially the flogging, yet realised the power of the film. The second time, I was swept away by the power of the imagry, and I agree that Mel Gibson has made a truly powerful work of art. Was it anti-semetic? I believe not, for the Jewish people were shown not only in a good and bad light, but also in shades of grey;just like the rest of humanity. I hope that I am a thinking Anglican priest,and realise that the strength of our church is proclaiming not only Christ crucified, but also the power of Easter, if we as a Church concentrated on this we may be renewed, we may even grow.

Posted by: rev lyn on Wednesday, 7 April 2004 at 9:07pm BST