It isn’t often that I find myself speaking favorably about a modern movie, but there is a film being released this month that I believe is among the most powerful and important ever made. I’m talking about “The Passion of the Christ,” a dramatic recounting of our Savior’s final hours on earth, including His crucifixion and resurrection.
You’ve probably already heard something about this movie, as it has received a great deal of press (much of it negative) in recent months. I’ll address the controversy surrounding “The Passion of the Christ” in a moment, but first some general information. The film has been directed by one of the most prominent and well-known movie stars of our time, Mel Gibson (in addition to appearing in countless Hollywood blockbusters, Mr. Gibson directed and starred in the Oscar-winning Scottish epic “Braveheart”). According to NewMarket Films, the company releasing “The Passion of the Christ” here in the U.S., the script was “adapted from a composite account of the Passion assembled from the four biblical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
The movie is designed to provide an authentic representation of the events surrounding Christ’s death. All of the characters in the film speak the original languages heard at the time, including Aramaic and Latin. (In the early stages of production, Mr. Gibson intended to release the film without subtitles. However, at the urging of many who saw early screenings of “The Passion of the Christ,” English subtitles have been added.) In the U.S. and Canada, the movie is being released on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, which signifies the beginning of Lent.
I had the privilege of viewing a “rough cut” of the movie last summer during a writing trip to California, and again in September. I can say that, in addition to being faithful to the essentials of the biblical account, it is easily the most heart-wrenching, powerful portrayal of Christ’s suffering that I have ever seen. Shirley and I were deeply moved by the stark depiction of the brutality and humiliation that Jesus endured on our behalf. Other preview screenings have had a similar effect, leaving audience members either weeping openly or hushed in reverent silence.
Mel Gibson also traveled to Focus on the Family headquarters last year to show an early version of “The Passion of the Christ” to several members of our executive staff. After seeing the film, our ministry president, Don Hodel, and executive vice president, Del Tackett, (Shirley and I were out of town at the time) issued statements praising the movie for its historical accuracy and its powerful portrayal of Christ’s sacrifice. Gibson himself has said that, in making the movie, “I wanted to bring you there and I wanted to be true to the Gospels.”
Mr. Gibson’s earnest desire to accurately portray Christ’s suffering for humankind – and to share that pivotal moment in history with a mass audience – is tremendously refreshing to me. He has gone to great lengths to ensure that the movie will encourage, rather than offend, the millions of Christians around the world for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus hold such profound meaning. Indeed, over the past year, he has shown footage to numerous Christian and Jewish leaders around the country, not for the purpose of promotion, but to solicit their feedback.
When Mr. Gibson brought his movie to Focus headquarters last year, it was clear that he was genuinely interested in our opinions and respectful of our views. He could easily have sent one of his representatives here to show the film and request our endorsement. Rather, he appeared personally, without any fanfare, in order to address any questions and concerns we might have had.
A devout Catholic, Mel Gibson has repeatedly emphasized the fact that he felt called by God to bring “The Passion of the Christ” to the big screen. During one interview, he said, “I’m not a preacher, and I’m not a pastor. But I really feel my career was leading me to make this [movie]. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize … Everyone who worked on this movie was changed. There were agnostics and Muslims on set converting to Christianity.” When was the last time you heard a major Hollywood star make a statement of such magnitude?
Apparently, however, the idea of a movie that accurately portrays the death and resurrection of Christ and that “has the power to evangelize” is more than certain members of the liberal media establishment can stomach. As a result, “The Passion of the Christ,” throughout its production, has been the source of great controversy. More specifically, the movie – and Mel Gibson himself – have been mercilessly dogged by liberal commentators hurling unfair criticism and baseless allegations of anti-Semitism.
The reasoning proffered by many of these cultural elitists is that the movie’s characterization of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day and its depiction of the angry mob calling for His crucifixion could lead viewers to the conclusion that the Jews were exclusively responsible for killing Christ. “The Passion of the Christ,” they somberly intone, could therefore be a catalyst for renewed outbreaks of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world.
Despite repeated assurances from Mr. Gibson that his film does not seek to malign Jews – or any other group – the attacks have come fast and furious. That “The Passion of the Christ” endeavors to remain true to the Gospel accounts is no excuse in the minds of those who wish Mel Gibson and his movie would just go away.
Columnist James Carroll of the Boston Globe, a subsidiary of the New York Times, went so far as to suggest that “Even a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of Jew hatred.” Does Mr. Carroll really expect readers to believe that the Gospels – written by Jews about a Jewish Messiah and His Jewish disciples – are anti-Semitic? His assertion is so ridiculous and foolish as to be laughable.
Among Mel Gibson’s liberal critics, New York Times columnist Frank Rich has been one of the most vocal and vitriolic. In one particularly nasty diatribe, Rich characterized Gibson as a “Jew-baiter” and endeavored to malign the actor’s elderly father, who has absolutely no connection to the movie whatsoever. Mr. Rich suggested that Gibson was “sowing religious conflict” by not inviting a sufficient number of Jews to attend preview screenings of the movie. (As you may know, Mr. Rich has a long and illustrious record of disdain for everyone and everything that fails to live up to his “enlightened” liberal ideals. In recent years, he has referred to yours truly as “The Godzilla of the Right” and compared me to Ku Klux Klan member David Duke, endeavored to link conservative Christians with the Oklahoma City bombing and Promise Keepers with the militia movement, and blamed the Family Research Council for the death of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard.) Rich is rabidly anti-Christian in almost every context.
In my estimation, the liberal backlash against “The Passion of the Christ” is incredibly significant. Shaky charges of “anti-Semitism” are really just a smokescreen. I believe the real problem the liberal establishment has with this movie is that it has the audacity to portray Christ as He really was – not only as a historical figure, but as the Savior of mankind. That is an offense to the postmodern sensibilities of our morally relativistic culture. The fact that Mel Gibson actually hopes to use his movie as a vehicle for evangelism only adds fuel to the fire.
How ironic that when a movie producer takes artistic license with historical events, he is lionized as artistic, creative and brilliant, but when another takes special care to be true to the real-life story, he is vilified … The moral is that if you want the popular culture to laud your work on Christ, make sure it either depicts Him as a homosexual or as an everyday sinner with no particular redeeming value (literally). In our post-Christian culture, criticism of the blasphemous “The Last Temptation of Christ” is celebrated, and “The Passion [of the Christ]” is condemned.
Stated another way, criticism of “The Last Temptation of Christ” brought angry protests of “censorship” from Hollywood and the media, whereas objections to “The Passion of the Christ” are considered entirely valid. This is yet another example of a powerful double standard.
In one sense, I suppose we should not be surprised when the true story of Christ – whether depicted on film or declared from the pulpit – creates controversy. The Apostle Paul reminds us that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18). There is no denying that there is a spiritual element to the uproar surrounding “The Passion of the Christ,” as well.
Mel Gibson seemed to recognize this himself when, in a recent interview, he described the controversy over his movie as evidence of “big realms that are warring and battling.”
In another interview, he noted that one of his primary motivations in making the movie was precisely “to show that turmoil around [Jesus] politically and with religious leaders and the people, all because He is Who He is … This is not a Christian vs. Jewish thing. ‘[Jesus] came into the world, and it knew him not.’ Looking at Christ’s crucifixion, I look first at my own culpability in that.”
Indeed, many Jewish viewers who have seen the movie paint a picture that stands in stark contrast to the alarmist posturing of Frank Rich and his cronies. David Horowitz has noted that “there is no finger pointing at Jews in the film, and it is unsustainable to suggest that this will provoke Christians into violence against Jews.” Alan Sereboff, a Jewish screenwriter who has previously worked with Gibson’s company, said, “As a Jew I left the movie feeling a greater sense of friendship and closeness to my Christian brothers and sisters than I ever thought imaginable.” And noted movie critic and radio host Michael Medved has called “The Passion of the Christ” “by far the most moving, substantive, and artistically successful adaptation of biblical material ever attempted by Hollywood.”
Praise from Christian viewers has been equally effusive. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said of the movie: “I came away reassured. It is a moving film, and what it moves you to is tears, and thought … It leaves you indicting yourself: It leaves you wondering about what your part in that agonizing drama would have been back then, and what your part is today.” Billy Graham, who described himself as having been “moved to tears” by the film, said: “After watching “The Passion of the Christ,” I feel as if I have actually been there … The film is faithful to the Bible’s teaching that we are all responsible for Jesus’ death, because we have all sinned.”
WorldNetDaily columnist Joseph Farah echoed those sentiments and explained why the liberal media’s charges of “anti-Semitism” are without merit: “Followers of Jesus believe we are all responsible – all human beings, alive, dead or yet to be born – for crucifying Jesus … He bore our sins and they were nailed to that tree the day He died. We don’t blame anyone but ourselves. To do so would miss out on the grace He offered with His shed blood.”
Having shared a few of the details concerning “The Passion of the Christ,” may I now encourage you to take the time to go see the movie when it is released on the 25th of this month? As Christians, we often decry the immoral films that Hollywood routinely releases, and rightly so. However, in addition to avoiding movies that are immoral or otherwise disparaging of Christianity, we must do everything we can to support those rare films that, like “The Passion of the Christ,” are both edifying and uplifting.
For years, Hollywood executives have justified their constant barrage of sex-and-debauchery-soaked movies by saying, “We’re only releasing what the public wants to see!” Many movie industry executives refuse to admit that there is a viable audience for stories and characters that extol biblical virtues. “The Passion of the Christ” presents us with a powerful opportunity to prove them wrong.
In the competitive entertainment market, a movie’s opening weekend is widely considered to be the measure of success or failure. If a film fails to draw strong numbers during its first few days of release, it is generally considered a “flop.” Therefore, I want to encourage you to consider seeing “The Passion of the Christ” either on its opening day, or soon thereafter. (For information on advance ticket sales and group tickets, you can visit the official movie website at www.thepassionofthechrist.com.)
Don’t wait for the film to run its course in theaters or to be released on DVD. You have a couple of extra days to choose from, as “The Passion of the Christ” is being released on a Wednesday, whereas most films open on Fridays. If you can’t see the movie on opening day, I hope you’ll consider seeing it sometime between Thursday (the 26th) and Sunday (the 29th). If “The Passion of the Christ” does big business during this period, the entertainment industry might finally begin to get the message that audiences are hungry for movies that offer more than the typical Hollywood diet of blasphemy and obscenity.
On a related note, I need to mention two other movies released within the past year that were noteworthy for their positive portrayals of Christian characters and themes. The first, “The Gospel of John,” received acclaim from both Christian and secular critics for its excellent acting and production values. As the title suggests, it is a word-for-word recounting of John’s Gospel. It is still playing in select theaters as of this writing, but if you can’t find it in your area, you can order it on VHS or DVD from www.gospelofjohnthefilm.com.
The second film, “Luther,” starred Joseph Fiennes in a surprisingly fair and accurate portrayal of Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. You can visit www.lutherthemovie.com for additional information about the film. (Details concerning the future DVD release have not yet been announced.)
While both of these movies represent encouraging signs that all hope is not lost in Hollywood, and while they were both marginally successful in their own right, neither of them were the type of “blockbusters” that would make the decision-makers in Tinsel Town really sit up and take notice. Again, I’m convinced that if more Christians were willing to support films that respect their values, rather than simply vilifying the ones that don’t, we would see more movies like these produced.
Before closing, I want to offer a few words of clarification on two matters related to Mel Gibson’s film. First, although accurate to the biblical account, you need to know that “The Passion of the Christ” is excruciatingly violent in its depiction of our Savior’s scourging and crucifixion. As such, it is wholly inappropriate for young children.
In any other context, I could not in good conscience recommend a movie containing this degree of violent content. However, in this case, the violence is intended not to titillate or entertain, but to emphasize the reality of the unspeakable suffering that our Savior endured on our behalf. Christian recording artist Christy Nockels of Watermark, put the violent nature of the film in perspective by saying, “It is extremely graphic, but through each scene my heart kept taking me back to Isaiah 53:5: ‘By His stripes we are healed.'” Speaking personally, I was deeply affected by a single thought while watching the movie: I did this to Jesus.
Second, I’m aware that many of my readers may have some questions about Mel Gibson himself. On the one hand, he has appeared in a number of films containing content that many Christians would find offensive. On the other, his staunch adherence to Catholic beliefs and doctrines might be upsetting to those who come from a more evangelical and Protestant persuasion. Please know that, in discussing this project, I am not offering a blanket endorsement of either Mr. Gibson’s personal beliefs or his past work. I can only say that, when it comes to “The Passion of the Christ,” I believe it has the potential to dramatically impact Christian viewers and, even more importantly, change the lives of the many unsaved audience members who could potentially be drawn to it.
There are no specific references to unique Catholic doctrine in the film – it is a straightforward depiction of what both Protestants and Catholics agree is the single most important event in human history. The movie simply endeavors to show audiences, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “nothing … except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).
Whether you decide to see “The Passion of the Christ” or not, with Easter on the horizon, I hope that you will take some time in the coming weeks to reflect on Christ’s death and resurrection and to consider the inestimable significance that those events hold in the lives of those of us who claim Him as King. He paid the penalty for our sins so that we might be reconciled with our Father in Heaven. The prophet Isaiah captured the magnitude of that moment most eloquently:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.
– Isaiah 53:3-5
And now, 2,000 years after His earthly life – in the age of movies and satellites and the Internet – the Suffering Servant beckons to us still. To those who hear and respond to His call, He offers the promise of grace, forgiveness, restoration and a glorious eternity. That is Good News, indeed!
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and Chairman
Focus On The Family
P.S. Since I have been talking about the subject of movies this month, I thought it would be appropriate to mention Focus on the Family’s Plugged In magazine. This monthly publication discusses the content of a wide range of movies, TV shows, video games, secular and Christian music CDs, and other media related to youth culture. Its companion website, www.pluggedinonline.com, focuses primarily on current movies and also contains an archive of reviews for past movie and music releases. If you’re a parent, I believe you will find Plugged In to be an indispensable resource.