Reflection over the passion for “The Passion”

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

I had expected to receive some letters after I reviewed “The Passion of the Christ” and was less than enthusiastic about it. Newspapers around the nation that ran negative reviews found themselves bombarded by letter after letter from those who liked the film, saying the reviewer either didn’t “get” the film (if the letter was nice) or the reviewer was not a good enough Christian (if a Christian at all) who would be going to Hell.

Frankly, then, I was kind of disappointed when I only got one letter from someone who didn’t even give their name so we could use it as a letter to the editor. Mind you, I don’t greatly enjoy undue controversy, but I do enjoy when people use this newspaper as a forum to discuss things. Debates that have been sparked by articles and columns over the last two years in our letters to the editor section are some of my favorite memories of my work here.

Still, I was hoping for more comments, more thoughts on the issue. However, to be fair, I doubt many people go into a review expecting to be offended. They expect a review to express an opinion, unlike, say, a news story, which should remain unbiased. Therefore, when a review expresses an opinion, even one those people disagree with, they simply chalk it up to freedom of speech and move on to other things. Of course, it’s also possible that only one person read that review.

Still, what interests me most is how “The Passion of the Christ” has become a media sensation. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a huge audience of Christian moviegoers out there who hunger for something that speaks to their own personal experiences with faith. By and large, Hollywood does a terrible job conveying religious issues, probably because faith requires belief and all storytelling, to some degree, is based around lies. If anything, Mel Gibson should be commended for making a film which tries to deal with these issues head on.

Why, however, have the audiences that embraced “The Passion” utterly ignored other, worthy Christian films? I’m talking about films like “The Gospel of John” and “Luther,” which were worthy, independent efforts that didn’t have a tenth of the marketing budget of “The Passion.” “The Gospel of John,” in particular, shows the titular gospel word for word on screen. The writers literally turned the gospel into a screenplay, which was turned into a deeply affecting movie. I will admit that that movie’s Passion scenes are not nearly as intense as Gibson’s to watch, but they are as intense emotionally. Why didn’t Christians rally behind this film as they did behind “The Passion?” Why don’t Christians rally behind dozens of pieces of “family” entertainment that deserve larger audiences? I don’t know.

I do admit that some of the coverage of “The Passion” has been rather ridiculous. “The New York Times,” in particular, has attacked the film mercilessly without ever really talking about it as a film. They are reviewing Gibson (and Gibson’s hideously prejudiced father) instead of the film. Other reviewers are unfairly biased towards the film because they have been waiting for so long to see the story of Christ treated with the kind of respect it deserves. “San Francisco Gate” critic Mick LaSalle argues that movies have joined politics and religion as a subject that should remain off-limits in polite conversation because it is so easy to get angry at someone for not understanding why you think “Men in Black II” is the finest thing on celluloid.

Perhaps he is right.

What interests me most, however, is the response some critics have gotten from practicing Christians. I’m not denying that these people have every right to say whatever they want, whenever they want, but to suggest that the reviewer does not have a firm understanding of Christianity or to suggest that the reviewer hates Jesus (or something equally ridiculous) as some have done (and, I might point out, not to me-you people are wonderfully polite) stinks of idiocy. I am aware that many people view this film as a life-changing religious experience, but it remains a movie. For many of us, it will always JUST be a movie, with good points and flaws.

To some degree, “The Passion” was unreviewable. The early publicity had turned the film into something polarizing. You either got it or you were against Christians. Christians are terrified of persecution and they certainly could feel that way in the media (when was the last time you saw a realistic TV portrayal of a Christian? When Ned Flanders, who began as a stereotype, is the best Hollywood can do, Christians have every right to feel misrepresented). How many times have you seen a character in a movie, show or book who was “too religious,” but learns to “lighten up and have fun?”

However, when this fear of persecution leads to reverse persecution, nobody wins. To suggest that those who don’t get “The Passion” are bad Christians is ridiculous. I think it would behoove us all to remember the pastor who stood up after an early screening of “The Passion,” which he was invited to by Mel Gibson. According to “Entertainment Weekly,” that pastor reminded people in the audience that some would simply think “The Passion” was a bad film and that no one should be demonized for having that opinion.

I think those are words we can all agree with.

Todd VanDerWerff is our editor-in-chief. Verbally assault him at [email protected].