February 25, 2004

Protestants and the Passion

Today I've read two interesting articles that touch on a theme that's interesting to me, but that I know very little about: Mel Gibson's new movie on the Passion is devoutly Catholic in its sensibilities, but its biggest single audience will be made up of conservative evangelical Protestants.

The first article to make this point is a New York Times op-ed piece by Kenneth Woodward, who believes that "it is Christians, not Jews, who should be shocked by this film." Gibson's movie, he believes, attacks the "smoothly therapeutic" view of many conservative Protestants that the most important lesson of the New Testament is "what Jesus can do for me" and presents a vision of the Bible very different from the "inherently non-visual" view of evangelicalism. Moreover, he suggests that the film leaves out many of the elements of the Jesus story that contemporary Christians emphasize.

Jack Miles makes a similar point:

I refer to the astonishing fact that in their embrace of the Passion, Evangelical Protestants are celebrating a portrayal of Jesus that visually and theologically--in every way, perhaps, except in the wail, thunder, and thud of John Debney's deafening score--is flamboyantly, counter-Reformationally Roman. This film is awash in Catholic piety and Catholic imagery that the forebears of today's evangelicals would have found religiously and esthetically repugnant. As I write, the Passion is being embraced most warmly by Bible Belt churches where, down to this day, the faithful kneel before crosses without corpses. What has come over them?

Speaking as someone who's not the best-versed in contemporary conservative Christianity, I wished that one or both of these articles had delved a little deeper. I sometimes get the sense that there's a growing convergence between right-wing Catholics and right-wing Protestants, but I'm not sure if this extends to religious doctrine or if it's just a political alliance. I'd have liked to have read more about this question.

(If you're interested in ancient languages, read the beginning of Miles's article: he has a fascinating discussion of the use of Aramaic in the film.)

Update: In The New York Times Magazine, Stephen Prothero discusses this question in more detail, as does Paul Richard in The Washington Post. Plus, a New York Times piece by Clyde Haberman discusses the use of ancient languages in the movie, and The Detroit Free Press describes reaction to the film among Chaldeans. (last two links via Languagehat)

Posted by Ed at February 25, 2004 01:29 PM

Speaking as an American Baptist-turned-general Christian, Baptists at least believe the most important aspect to Jesus is the triumph of the resurrection over sin. (Well, technically, Baptists don't take sides on those kinds of theological questions, but most Baptists in fact believe that.) Catholicism tends to focus more on the Incarnation. That is why Baptists - and I guess evengelical churches as well - use an empty cross, representing the risen Jesus, whereas Catholics have a cross with a body, representing his life.

In modern society, I do think both groups tend to unite against secularism. There's also the point that most people simply don't understand the theology they theoretically believe as a member of a given denomination. Thus, I once came home for break and told my parents I was leaning toward a belief in justification by faith (which I described), only to be told (non-judgementally, I should add) I was apparently picking up Catholic ideas. I had a couple of friends who were Catholic theology majors who would talk about perfectly Catholic doctrines only to have other Catholics object.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at February 25, 2004 03:07 PM

I hope that the Protestants watching the film will see the Catholic Marian theology which Mel brings out. Mary feels the blow to Her Son's face and wakes up from sleeping with a jolt. Mary is called "Mother" by Peter as he begs for forgiveness. Mary senses where Jesus is and rubs her cheek on the floor over the dungeon of the High Priest as Jesus looks up. Mary comforts Magdalene. Mary comforts Her Son as He falls on the Way of the Cross (EVERYONE cries at her flashback to the boy Jesus who stumbles and is held by the Mother!)
Though the flashbacks of the Last Supper point out the "for you and for MANY" aspect of His transubstantiation (look it up), the scene is followed by Mary crying out to Jesus, "Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood!" which is a deep theological study of the Incarnation.
And though Jesus gives many the "converting gaze" during the Passion, it is Mary who the centurian is impressed with, Mary who he lets pass to the foot of the Cross, Mary who stands near as the centurion is showered (baptized?) by the blood and water from His pierced side, in effect Mary who is the catalyst of his conversion.
Two times her eyes are scrutinized at length by the camera: when she stares down that (excellent) man-woman devil (shudder), and when she stares AT YOU, eyes pained and pleading in the well-done Pieta scene. Even if you are not familiar with the Catholic theology of Mediatrix of All Graces or Co-Redemptrix, you get an idea that SHE is the big player, the partner, the only one in-the-know, in this memorable movie. Bravo, Mel!

Posted by: Marie at March 2, 2004 10:58 AM

Marie wrote:
"... 'Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood!' which is a deep theological study of the Incarnation."

I would stay really, really far away from characterizing anything about The Passion as a deep theological study of anything.

Furthermore, given that centuries of Marianism in theology, literature, and art failed to sell Protestants on the concept, I sincerely doubt that Gibson's movie will.

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