But no, the film ignores all of this, and it does so in favor of one thing and one thing only: physical suffering. The film is not merely marked by graphic depictions of physical pain, it is entirely and purely about it. This is not to say that its depictions are too intense, too gory, or excessive in the way that so many have claimed; instead, I would argue that its violence is too much because it squashes all else. The film has little to no story arc, little in the way of dramatic tension, and precious little insight beyond its insistence that this was indeed the most grueling bit of physical punishment ever put on a man. No story, no characters, just a cinematic sledgehammer built of out bloody flesh.
I see this not merely as a flaw from an artistic perspective, but also from a spiritual perspective. As a Christian, I obviously consider Christ’s death and resurrection the central event of human history, and it would be one thing if the film were actually about those two events and why they matter: But again, it cares little for theological or historical significance, at least when there’s more blood to be spilled. Gibson’s, erm, passion is for pain and pain alone.
More importantly, I would argue that the primary element–or at least the most common one–of most believers’ Christianity is not Christ’s pain, or even his death—but their individual relationship with the Son of God. By ignoring all but Jesus’ physical suffering, Gibson didn’t just give us a dramatically worthless character, he gave us a hollow, non-relational—but good’n bloody as hell!—Lord. ~Peter Suderman
I understand this objection, and as I suggested in an earlier post there are Orthodox arguments against the tremendous emphasis on physical suffering that The Passion has, but then these are the same arguments that the Orthodox would have against entire sections of Catholic spirituality from stigmata to the flagellants of medieval Europe, the spirituality of the Devotio Moderna with its emphasis on the imitation of Christ and the Penitentes of Chimayo in New Mexico with their reenactments of the Crucifixion (up until relatively recently they reenacted it with real nails and everything–talk about imitatio Christi!).
Because Gibson is unabashedly making a Passion play, where the passio is central to narrative and the peculiar spirituality of mortification and suffering that arose in the Latin west, it is inevitable that suffering is dominant. The title tells us what is coming, though we may not realise what it entails. Now, I am willing to find fault with the movie’s theology, but I can do so only because I don’t agree with the soteriology of the tradition to which Gibson belongs. Anselm’s idea of the Atonement imposes a kind of necessity on God that does not mesh with Orthodox patristic thought, but nonetheless Anselm’s conception is the one from which all Western Christians more or less derive their own understanding. Once you conceive of the sins of man as a debt to paid, rather than a debt cancelled, the penalty to be exacted will be great, and if you emphasise Christ’s suffering as the means of making good that debt He will suffer tremendously to fulfill the demands of justice. Understood this way, the immense violence done to the God-man reflects the artist’s conception of the profundity of the sins of men. This is, of course, not at all fascistic, as some loopier critics said at the time, but powerfully kenotic and a great example of the profound condescension and humiliation that God undertook for our sake.
If seen from inside that tradition, it is hard to see how Gibson could have made a substantially different movie. The bloodshed is copious, and can tend to overwhelm the audience, I agree, and was probably excessive even by the standards of his tradition, but it is far more intelligible in light of a tradition that celebrates a feast of Corpus Christi and venerates the Sacred Heart. No one would pretend that this is not a robustly Catholic film, regardless of the large crowds of Protestants who lined up to see it, and when this is granted what seems bizarre to many viewers of the film will seem far less so.
Mr. Suderman makes a pretty debatable claim when he says:
More importantly, I would argue that the primary element–or at least the most common one–of most believers’ Christianity is not Christ’s pain, or even his death—but their individual relationship with the Son of God.
Of course, Mr. Suderman has a point here. Most people do not typically meditate on Christ’s Passion or relate specifically to these events, except perhaps around Eastertide, but it is without a doubt the crucial turning point in salvation history that fulfills exactly the kind of personal communion and relationship with Christ and makes that relationship not just some spiritual buddy system but unites us to His death and thus to His Resurrection, whence comes our very salvation. If the movie is to have the integrity of conveying the message of the Gospel that Christ suffered and died for our sins, it had to focus on the redemptive suffering and death of Christ rather than making Him into an interesting fellow with Whom we can relate.