Christians will likely ignore the most biblically sound theme in Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," and they will likely embrace the most biblically faulty problems of the movie. Both offer insightful congregational leaders a teachable moment.
First is Jesus' complete rejection of violence, which Gibson accurately captures. Jesus speaks against the use of force at his arrest. In a flashback to the Sermon on the Mount, he urges his followers to love their enemies. During his brutal treatment on the way to the cross, Jesus refuses to retaliate against his adversaries. With both word and deed, Jesus practices non-violence.
Many Christians, especially conservative evangelicals, tend to overlook Jesus' utter rejection of the use of violence. Instead, they water down what Jesus taught about peacemaking and evade the way he showed us how to live.
If viewers leave the movie theaters talking about Jesus' rejection of force, then perhaps some good--albeit unintended--will come to our culture of violence from "The Passion."
More likely than not, however, most Christians will embrace the biblically faulty portions of the movie. They will think that the movie's depiction of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion corresponds to the biblical witness.
Contrary to the hype in Christian circles, Gibson's movie is not based on the Bible. Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler is wrong when he writes, "Without doubt, Gibson has based his movie on the New Testament accounts."
Segments of the movie do reflect fragments of the biblical accounts. Most of the movie, however, is based on extra-biblical material.
One example is the ghoulish figure that lurks throughout the movie, but is not found in any of the four Gospel accounts. The hairless pale figure first appears in the Garden of Gethsemane. From beneath the figure's robe, a serpent slithers towards Jesus, who is praying face-down on the ground. When Jesus stands, he crushes the head of the serpent with his foot.
The demonic-like figure watches the Roman soldiers sadistically beat Jesus and walks among the crowd as Jesus carries the cross. At one point, the evil figure and Mary, the mother of Jesus, engage in a face-off, a kind of contest of spiritual wills.
Another extra-biblical theme is the role of Mary. Contrary to the biblical witness, Mary appears at Jesus' trial. She mops up his massive blood loss at his beating by the Romans. She follows him to Calvary. Twice, when Jesus can no longer carry the cross, Jesus sees Mary and draws a supernatural strength from her to continue. In the first scene, a Roman soldier recognizes her uniqueness and wonders who she is.
Yet another extra-biblical clip shows a woman with a white cloth who gently presses it upon Jesus' bloody face when he has staggered to his knees. As he struggles on, she is left with a shroud, an imprint of his face.
Another is the graphic beating of Jesus, which is mentioned only briefly in the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Mark record only these words, "having scourged Jesus," Pilate delivered him to be crucified. Luke has no Roman beating. John says only that "Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged."
According to Gibson's version of events, however, two Roman soldiers simultaneously beat Jesus with two different types of whips, tearing chunks of flesh from his body. The lengthy brutality is so gratuitous that one wonders if Gibson worships an angry God who provides salvation through the baptism of blood, as if Jesus' blood has a magical power.
Additional material not in the Bible also courses through the movie, including the demonic children who torment Judas into hanging himself.
While his movie lacks the much-debated, overtly harsh anti-Semitism, it does bump the line repeatedly. Blaming the Jews is so embedded in contemporary folk Christianity that the movie may reinforce this false belief. It may trigger anti-Semitism among those with a predisposition toward anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, responsible clergy will condemn anti-Semitism and confess the historical truth that the roots of violence against Jews are deep within the Christian church.
Make no mistake about the movie's chilling and graphic content. Be assured that the sub-titles over lines spoken in Latin and Aramaic are more tolerable than one would expect.
But aside from its entertainment value, the movie ensures the advance of biblical illiteracy for years to come and the encroachment of flaky evangelism on those who need an authentic understanding of real faith.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. He viewed "The Passion of the Christ" at a pre-release screening for journalists Monday, Feb. 23.