Posted by davekeller on April 26th, 2006
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ first came out in 2004 in a flurry of public discussion and controversy. The time for blogging about it or shaping public opinion about it have long since past. Still, it is bound to become an annual classic around Easter, where it will gradually bring in some first time viewers like me. When I reflect on the many people that had their faith reinvigorated or may have been introduced to Christ in a serious way for the first time, I can overlook that the story isn’t quite the way a Mormon film maker would want to show it. Only a Catholic, like Gibson, can tell the story with such dramatic force.
Reaching back to the archives, some influential Mormons and forums were generally favorable in their reception of the film. This included Dr. Robert Millet (a former BYU religion dean), Orson Scott Card (a science fiction author), Clark Goble (Mormon Metaphysics blogger), and the most influential LDS blog, Times&Seasons. A great obstacle for many Mormons, and a big reason I did not see it when it first came out, is its R-rating. LDS publications and general conferences addresses frequently discourage watching R-rated content and teach the underlying principles on why not to do so. We are warned about rationalizing or coming up with excuses. We are taught correct principles and are allowed to govern ourselves and our leaders hope that if we use sound judgment we will be even more restrictive in our viewing habits. While I made a liberal, conscientious decision to watch The Passion, I am in somewhat of an ethical dilemma in regards to being a bad example to my fellow Saints. One thing the movie did drive home to me is that since Christ paid the price for my sins, I can be forgiven for this indiscretion if I sincerely repent.
I will be comparing the movie to Mormon sources for telling the story of Christ’s last few days. The Lamb of God video suggests, rather than visualizes the violence like The Passion does. Mormon art also cleans up Christ’s image to allow him his greater dignity, even though the much read Jesus the Christ certainly doesn’t pull any punches in describing the suffering. My guess is that Mormons likely would feel Gibson’s portrayal was more violent than how they perceive it really happened. Typically we picture a significant part of the atonement occurring in the form of spiritual suffering made in Gethsemane. But the atonement could not have been made without a physical element to it, especially the death on the cross. Using Elder Talmage’s language, the atonement climaxed on the cross.
The film starts in Gethsemane and then portrays many concepts clearly found in the Bible accounts. Jesus prays for the strength to complete his mission and chides his apostles for falling asleep. Blood is literally, but briefly, sweat from Christ’s forehead. Judas arrives with soldiers, betraying Christ with a kiss. An ear is violently lopped off with a short sword that Christ afterwards heals. As an apologia for Peter, I think he unjustly gets a cowardly rap for denying Christ. Peter takes on soldiers and I think would willingly have died to defend Christ. When that mode of expression was suppressed by Jesus, a confused Peter can only worry about self-preservation.
Satan appears in the Garden and unleashes a snake that gets its head crushed by Christ, recalling the language foreshadowing Christ used in another garden. Creative flourishes like this often added insight, but sometimes brought in some mystical strangeness to the film. In the latter category, children turn into impish torturers of Judas and a crow punishes the blasphemous thief. Despite Gethsemane getting more attention than other portrayals, I wished more of the story would have been told. At one point in the Bible an angel appears to strengthen the agonized Savior. Bruce R. McConkie, in his most famous conference address speculated about the identity of this angel. Another apostle, Orson Whitney dreamed about events in Gethsemane and identified himself with the ancient apostles. He resolved, unlike them, to “not to sleep at my post.” And what would a comparison of ideas on Gethsemane be without the scriptures that brought about distinctive thought about what happened there: Mosiah 3:7 and D&C 19:16-19?
One catches some Catholic influences in the film. JesusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ blood that remained from his scourging and released by the spear thrust is treated respectfully, as if one were blessed by the experience of coming in contact with it. Jesus venerates his own cross. The march up Golgotha follows the 14 Stations of the Cross. The Sanhedrin consider the teaching of a literal communion, to be “worse” than the blasphemy of declaring himself divine and prophesying the destruction of the temple.
Gibson is so focused on the last hours of Christ’s life that the watcher has to supply his own concept of Jesus before and after the event. While Gibson ends with Jesus awakening in the tomb, Mormon coverage would make sure the resurrection receives more attention. Thinking about what happened in the time interval between his death and appearance outside his tomb has led to some of the loftiest revelations found in LDS scripture, that of the spirit world as in D&C 138.
There was some ways the unique Catholic perspective helped me appreciate Jesus. For example, we get to see events unfold through Mary’s eyes. I have previously contemplated the atonement from His Father’s eyes. On those occasions I wondered what it would be like to sacrifice an only begotten son, having all kinds of power to be able to intervene, but choosing not do so in order to bring about a greater good. I think I can identify more with Mary’s perspective as a tender parent who is powerless to stop the proceedings.