January 16, 2021

Stephen Prothero on “The Passion”

Stephen Prothero on “The Passion” in Opinion Journal:

Mr. Gibson’s idiosyncratic take on this medieval “Man of Sorrows” is plainly a product of American culture. It draws on the Bible, medieval passion plays and Roman Catholic Mariology, to be sure, but also on the macho brutality of the action-adventure movie (blood, gore, repeat) and the supernatural horror of the Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. In fact, all the tropes of the last genre–underground dungeon, shackles and chains, sadistic torturers, innocent maiden, stone-heavy architecture and supernatural terror–are in this film in spades. So is the tradition of the muscular Redeemer, sent to save us not only from our sins but also (in the words of the baseball evangelist Billy Sunday) from “flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.”

But don’t quit yet. This is extremely perceptive, and in all the evangelical, niche-market fury to accept The Passion as divinely inspired, we can be blind to the fact that the movie is an artistic product of a culture. American culture, Catholic culture, evangelical culture and Hollywood culture. That doesn’t destroy the movie. Or its good impact. Look at the next paragraph.

Still, “The Passion of the Christ” is above all else a rebuke to contemporary American culture. Like a Jewish leader in the film who spits in Jesus’ eye during trial before the Sanhedrin, Mr. Gibson spits here in the eye of America’s many and malleable Jesuses, insisting that Christianity’s founder be understood not as the good Guy next door but, as the Nicene Creed puts it, as “very God of very God.”

This, I think, is the great gift The Passion has to give. It is precisely the movie to influence a media influenced culture. It is, as someone said, “Sunday School for the Kill Bill generation.” More than a few American pastors will have to ask if they are preaching Christ, or some life management guru? Who knows? Maybe someone may discover why Paul said “I thank my God that I knew nothing among you except Christ Crucified.”

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