The Passion of the Christ

Did I ever see Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, and if so did I not find it “unnecessarily disturbing”? Yes, I did, but no, I didn’t; nor did it “grate against my Orthodox sensibilities”, as you suggest. On the contrary, there seemed to me nothing particularly sectarian about the film; indeed I was somewhat surprised, and pleased, to find none of the humilitarian or sentimentalist faults common to a certain brand of Catholic piety. It was simply the Tradition, thoughtfully and prayerfully presented.

“Disturbing” it was, of course; the question is whether this element was excessive. I agree the film pulled no punches; no one with an ounce of compassion could see it without being repeatedly moved to tears at the horrific treatment of Christ, and one came away knowing in one’s very bones that the devil is no myth, but a powerful and palpable antagonist. And yet the ultimate effect in my experience was something wondrously positive, and this I take to be owing to the skill with which the divinity of Christ was shown as shimmering through even the moments of greatest brutality and suffering. The nourishing and avataric presence of the Blessed Virgin throughout Her Son’s ordeal contributed mightily to the same effect. You’re right of course that Orthodoxy tends to place its stress on the glory of the Christus Victor and not on His suffering, but somehow that very distinction breaks down in The Passion. Things “ring true”; every movement and every gesture of Christ and His Mother seem proportionate, and one sees existentially that it all makes perfect sense sub specie aeternitatis, the Lamb of God having been slain “from before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

Now I realize my perceptions and observations may be at least in part a function of my being a Christian, and that a Muslim like you, who “lives and moves and has his being” within a different spiritual universe, will have different concerns and perhaps different responses. To take what would perhaps be a parallel case, I don’t think it would be beneficial to my soul to take darshana before the images of Kali, even though Ramakrishna would have told me he found even the most frightening among them extremely “beautiful”. His practice of the Hindu tradition made it possible for him to understand and assimilate the symbolic dimensions of these forms of art in a way that’s simply not available to me as a non-Hindu. My experience in viewing The Passion should perhaps be taken with the same grain of salt by you and your co-religionists.

With regard to the differences between our traditions, there is yet another point that may be usefully mentioned. You have spoken of the “negative effect” the portrayal of Sayyidna Isa might have for certain people in your community, but frankly I think that it’s the positive impact the film might have that should concern you more. This is a somewhat ill-sounding formulation, I realize! But what I have in mind is the principle once articulated by Schuon when he said that “if the Buddha were suddenly to appear in the midst of us spiritual men”—he was speaking to Sufis at the time—”we would have no choice but to become Buddhists.” It seems to me anyone planning to see The Passion should understand in advance that the portrayal of Christ is extremely, almost magnetically, attractive, and this may not be something a person who is following a non-Christian path will wish to confront in so dramatic and compelling a fashion. It’s obviously just a film, and I don’t mean to exaggerate or overdraw my comparison. But it’s a very powerful film, perhaps the most powerful I’ve ever seen, and its potential for an “evangelical” impact on a given soul should be considered no less carefully than its potentially disequilibriating effect.

Perhaps I should add—though surely it goes without saying—that I’m talking of (and to) people, regardless of what religion they practice, who have a deep sense of the sacred, not to demythologizers. As luck would have it, shortly after the film came out, I found myself sitting next to John Dominique Crossan, the notorious “Jesus Seminar” scholar, who had been invited by my department for our annual New Testament lecture at USC. We happened to be staying at the same B & B near campus and ended up breakfasting at the same hour. When I came in he was talking about The Passion with three or four of the other guests, explaining in no uncertain terms how misleading it was, that it corresponded in no way to the real historical facts—according to Crossan, you know, the empty tomb can be explained by the “fact” that Jesus’s body was eaten by dogs!—and that no real scholar would dream of thinking otherwise. Of course I felt obliged to speak up in defense the film, and when I did so, and he realized I was a professor in the very department that had invited him to speak, he was simply dumbfounded—though perhaps not as dumbfounded as I continue to be by how many “experts” on religion seem tone-deaf to their subject.

I think of what Owen Barfield once told me: “The ideal scholar is the man who’s read everything lest he be less than ideal, but who’s understood nothing lest he be more than a scholar!”

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