Thursday, January 11, 2007

"The Passion of the Christ" & its Cultural & Ecumenical Effects (with P. Andrew Sandlin [Reformed] ) + Reply to James White's Trashing

[P. Andrew Sandlin's words will be in blue. This was originally posted on 29 February 2004]


The following is one of the most difficult things I have ever written (and writing comes very easy for me), because words are so utterly inadequate to describe the impact of this film. One could cite Holy Scripture, but Christians are already familiar with that, and the biblical passion is a different thing than the filmed version of it (i.e., one is real; the other is artistic depiction, which can be done in many kinds of ways). I'll try to do the best that I can do, given these limitations. I wanted to write "fresh" from seeing the movie . . .

One could talk about the now-familiar phenomenon of the silent audiences after it is over (so I will). I didn't look around too much because I was almost in front (I didn't want any distractions), but I did see many people sitting in stunned shock, teary-eyed, in a daze.

The two women about ten seats away from me in my row certainly broke down several times, but that wasn't all that different from my own reactions (I maintained general composure -- being a guy and all -- but I had to wipe my eyes three times so I could keep watching).

The most difficult scene to endure for me was the one where it shows the Blessed Virgin Mary comforting Jesus as a child, juxtaposed with His carrying of the cross and His mother watching in agony and yearning to comfort Him again. I don't think any mother in the world could get through that dry-eyed (and fathers are not all that different, when it comes down to it). It's enough to break your heart all by itself in a film otherwise far and away the most emotionally intense imaginable.

Driving home, about 15 minutes after it ended -- in a daze and moved beyond words, I happened to look over to a car at an intersection and I noticed a couple waiting at a red light, both with their heads tilted to the side and buried in their hands.

This is the way to do a biblically-based movie. It is absolutely realistic; it shows what it would have been like to be there at the time. It took over a hundred years for the movies to finally show the day of crucifixion as it was. We have long since known all the technical and physiological details of crucifixion, scourging (and those scenes in the movie are arguably more excruciating than even the crucifixion, apart from the unbelievably graphic "nails" sequences), the brutality of Roman soldiers, etc., from historical research.

But no one (for some odd reason) ever put it all together in one film, as Mel Gibson has done. The Passion, in its extraordinary realism, makes the similar scenes of Jesus of Nazareth (my favorite Christian movie up till now, and superb in its own right) look like a tea party in the park.

It is real and gory and gruesome and almost impossibly painful and gut-wrenching to watch, while at the same time the direction and cinematography and acting and editing and music are all first-rate (so that it is so much more than what a video recording of the same events might have looked like).

Here is art gloriously at the service of history and Christianity. The use of slow motion and flashbacks to related incidents; the devil figure, insinuations of demons (both outward and inner ones) the crushed-yet-accepting reactions of the Virgin Mary, the mocking soldiers and sneering Jewish leaders: all are brilliantly done.

What I felt as I watched it, is fairly simple to at least summarize, -- if not to fully describe -- how it feels "on the inside". I kept thinking to myself: "God loves us THIS much; He was willing to go through all THIS! What love, what love, what love, what mercy, what forgiveness; what an awesome, GOOD GOD we have! How unworthy WE are to deserve any of this . . . "

Those who know a bit of theology about what God had to do and what He chose to do, may know that both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that there could have been another way to accomplish redemption: God being God (with all power and knowledge). That only makes the impact of this film all the more profound: Jesus went through these unspeakable tortures for our sake.

He did it willingly. He knew what was to happen (many passages in Scripture). He chose to suffer for us and with us, because that is such a prominent characteristic of life for most human beings throughout history -- for the purpose of saving our souls (we who are absolutely unworthy of such salvation).

And beyond that, the biblically-literate person knows that our Lord Jesus had the load of the entirety of human sin on His shoulders as well. There is no way to adequately portray the unfathomable horror and ugliness and "cosmic catastrophe" of that, even in a remarkable film like this. It can't be described in words, either (even the Bible doesn't attempt to say all that much about it). It can scarcely be comprehended by our small human minds.

That's what I thought of and felt soul-deep while watching this film. You can read the well-known passages in the Scripture, such as "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). We Christians hear and read that all the time and casually process it into our brains, more or less abstractly.

But a film like this shows what the kind of love that the God-Man Jesus has for us, entails. We believe The Passion gives us a chance to SEE it and experience this love, right before our eyes and deep down into our hearts and souls.

And that is the beauty and power of dramatic presentations of the biblical events -- especially of the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They appeal to the whole person and make the Bible come to life. I've always been very moved by the better biblical films (sadly, there aren't many which don't have some phony or corny or "Hollywoodish" elements in them).

This one is perfect. I don't see how it could have been done any better. I'm no film expert, but I could easily see how someone might think this is among the best movies ever made, in any genre. After all, Gibson won the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture for Braveheart, so he is not without great skill as a filmmaker.

How one reacts, watching this, is not just the emotion and sympathy that any normal human being would feel, seeing a person tortured and mistreated for the better part of two hours; it is the realization of what redemption cost God. And the more we realize what it cost Him, the more we see how utterly lost in sin we all were before the spiritual power of regeneration was graciously applied to us by God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, as a result of what Jesus did for us on that dreadful, horrific Good Friday.

If this film doesn't move a person down to their bones and fingernails and the deepest recesses of their souls, -- both emotionally and (hopefully) spiritually -- then they are as un-alive as a rock. And no one who is not changed in some way for the better by watching this, has any inkling of the sublime events which it portrays.

To recognize that level of spiritual deadness in oneself (itself only by the grace of God) would be even more terrifying than watching what the sin of mankind caused Jesus to have to endure -- what this film enables us to SEE as we never have before; "Jesus died for you" -- , yet it would be the first step towards redemption and salvation (which is the entirety of what this film is about).

May all Christians unite in our prayers and efforts: that this extraordinary movie may bring about many changed lives, and more and more committed disciples of our Lord Jesus. This is our moment. The time is now. Let's stop our stupid and petty in-fighting (over these basic issues where we should all readily agree) and show the world what Christianity is really all about. The film is the first step: our behavior as Christians is the crucial second part of the witness. Please God, be with us; it's the least we can do to thank You for what You have done for us . . .


From his blog: Center for Cultural Leadership (used with permission)

[Introduction to this excerpt on my blog; 2-23-04: Bravo! and kudos to P. Andrew Sandlin, whose blog, Center for Cultural Leadership I link to on my sidebar. Writing on February 20th, about The Passion and its larger cultural and ecumenical implications, he states:]

Less noble, it seems to me, is the more than a little anti-Roman bigotry that has accompanied some of the criticism of the movie. As a proud Protestant, I stand against certain Roman Catholic distinctives (the papacy, synergistic soteriology, the sacerdotal mass), but I gratefully acknowledge the Roman Church's historic contribution to basic orthodox theology and to Christian culture. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are the three main sectors of Christendom, and we do no good by denying to any one of them its rightful place.

. . . In fact - and this is my chief point - the Christian groundswell created by Gibson's "Passion" is largely the result of - and will likely only enhance - today's New Ecumenicity at which all orthodox believers can be elated. As Thomas Oden observes in his fine work The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, the New Ecumenicity is far removed from the Old Ecumenical Movement, epitomized in the World Council of Churches in the 20th century. The old movement, now in decline and disarray, shed the bold tenets of Christian orthodoxy in favor of a vague religiosity, interpreted cultural relevance as capitulation to the depravities of secular culture (abortion, homosexuality, radical feminism, goddess worship, socialism), and bandwagoned with political Leftism in supporting Marxist regimes in the Third World.

In bold contrast, the New Ecumenicity champions without apology historic catholic orthodoxy and its creeds, resists the secularized ethics of the 20th century, and refuses to be held captive by a political ideology - from the Left or Right. The New Ecumenicity, pervasive not only among the evangelicals and conservative Protestants and in the free churches but now also gaining entrance into the mainline denominations and Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, poses a direct threat to the older, tired, toothless religious liberalism, as well as to the secular ideology of the cultural elites in Hollywood and elsewhere. It is an event in which I am proud to participate and to play a small role.

Gibson's "Passion" is a testament to this valid ecumenicity, and let us all pray that God uses it to further His Son's righteous Kingdom in the earth. Great days are ahead. Let us rejoice.

Hi Andrew,

I posted a quote of your comments about The Passion and the "New Ecumenicity" on my blog: Cor ad cor loquitur. I wanted to compliment you on an excellent expression of the sort of "non-liberal pablum" ecumenism I have favored for over 20 years now (both as a Protestant and as a Catholic). I was delighted to see this.

If you don't mind, I will cite you in the future on my blog, also. I hope you will come and visit and participate in our discussions, as time allows . . . We'll be having a large range of topics.

Do you know of any blogs that have good Protestant-Catholic discussion in the comments, along the lines of the ecumenism that you write about . . . vigorous yet amiable discussion between Protestants and Catholics? Seems like it should happen somewhere, if there truly are lots of folks out there who share our views on this. Thanks.

Keep up the great work.

Your brother in Christ,

Dave Armstrong (2-22-04, 10:07 PM)

Dear Dave,

Such a blessing to hear from you . . . We are agreed on many, many issues. The real enemy is not Rome or Geneva but secularism and Islam. I'm happy for you to cite my work. I am far from anti-Roman Catholic. I work with all orthodox Christians. My heart pants for the sort of catholicity you mention in your next-to-last paragraph.

Yours with deep respect,

Andrew (2-24-04, 2:14 PM)

Dear Andrew,

May I have your permission to cite your paper and private letter (including possibly also your reply to this) in a new web-paper I will be posting tonight (2-25) after I see The Passion? I replied last night also to a superb piece written by Kevin Johnson (which is on my blog under your post). I will be including that in my paper, and hope to make it a positive ecumenical effort centered on the cross and what we have in common.

I'm very fired up about this whole thing: the movie itself (I love movies and I love biblical and Christian movies), the distinct probability that it will cause revival in the lives of all kinds of Christians, and the great cultural and ecumenical potential. We may be on the verge of something quite special and spiritual on a number of fronts. Let's all pray that we Christians won't squander the opportunity we may have right now to do some substantive culture-transformation. At the risk of sounding too "Catholic" (but see Hebrews 12:1), I think Francis Schaeffer is smiling down upon us from heaven.

God bless,

Dave (2-25-04, 11:51 AM)

Dear David,

I finally got to visit your fine site. How refreshing to see a truly ecumenical site, a Roman Catholic who doesn't feel obliged to bash conservative Protestants (some of the "Hot Prots" could learn a lesson from you). Your list of recommended sites is a veritable Who's Who of Christian ecumenists who want to work with other believers to protect our culture from the present rot.

Kudos to you!

In Jesus,

Andrew (2-25-04, 8:07 AM)

Sure thing, Dave. [permission to use his words]

And like you I'm quite sure that Francis Schaeffer is smiling.

Andrew (2-25-04, 8:58 AM)

* * * * *

Random Thoughts

I was at [Reformed] Russ Reeves' blog, Tolle Blogge, where he said he wouldn't watch the movie because it violated the second commandment ("graven images"). Yet he has paintings of Jesus on his sidebar. I simply scratch my head and try to figure out the difference between a painting and a movie "image-wise." He also said that one can worship God idolatrously. Since idolatry by definition is worshiping something other than God, how is that possible, I wonder? I find this line of thought extremely odd . . .

* * * * *

If this movie made someone convert, it would not merely be an "emotional whim." People need to be moved, and to have their whole person jolted and awakened by something which reaches to their heart. Movies have a great power because they bring things to life. Actually, the movie Jesus of Nazareth played a pretty important role in my evangelical conversion in 1977. But a person is predisposed to go one way or another. Catholicism simply wasn't an option for me in those days. I knew very little about it (I barely knew anything about the Bible or Christian theology at all). So it may have "pushed me over the edge" but it wouldn't have been decisive in and of itself.

Likewise, if it pushes some people into Catholicism, chances are there were many other factors at play. But the push of the movie could be, I think, a genuine impulse from the Holy Spirit and not just the stereotypical "smells and bells" emotionalism of Catholicism (as parallel to the urge to do an altar call or a sinner's prayer of evangelicalism).

* * * * *

The "license" of a movie like this is to have dialogue that quite plausibly could have occurred, as long as it isn't contrary to what we have in the Bible. This would be roughly synonymous to Catholic apostolic tradition (but on a much lesser scale). This is permissible in the same way that non-historical elements of historical fiction are valid. Jesus and Paul and all the early Christians sat around and talked. They weren't just "walking Bibles." So I would contend that to do a realistic movie about these events, one must introduce dialogue that is not in the Bible, or else it sounds canned, phony, and "super-pious" in the worst sense of that term. As long as nothing is contrary to the Bible, that is fine. And yes (anticipating a Protestant retort), I think all Catholic doctrines can be found in the Bible or (at the very least) harmonized with it.

* * * * *

For heaven's sake, if you can't even see the importance of the suffering of Jesus . . . what can one say? It's like denying the centrality of the sun for heat and light purposes on a hot, clear day in summer. The cross is what it is all about. How could it ever NOT be, in Christianity? This is one thing I love about the Lutheran tradition: their high emphasis on the theology of the cross. That's the center: that is what it is about. And of course, our Catholic Mass reflects that. We ponder the cross every Sunday when we worship, and we believe that Jesus is truly, substantially present with us.

I would say that the biblical view is that there is usually no victory without suffering. That is how our lives are, isn't it? One could give a hundred examples. So when God became man He chose to live as we do. Suffering was part of what it meant to be human (at least a fallen human). God loved us so much that He willingly took on the suffering that we brought about through our rebellion. It is a very beautiful thing to ponder.

The whole system of animal sacrifice in the Old Covenant was meant to bring that point home, so that when Jesus died for us, His death had already been prefigured in Old Testament sacrifice and modes of thought. Hence, John the Baptist calls Him the "Lamb of God" from the beginning. And that aspect even continues in heaven, where John sees Jesus "as a Lamb slain" (Revelation 5:6). It's not over with. It is eternally present. Jesus is referred to as the Lamb in the book of Revelation 27 times, in 11 different chapters. But Jesus is also glorified. These things transcend time. He is glorified and suffering simultaneously because the Redemption is the central act and moment of salvation history, yet God as God is out of time. All this can be backed up with much Scripture.

Further Reflections on the Movie

The Passion will obviously be exceptionally powerful for any Christian to see. Given the very nature of the story and subject matter of this film, there is no place for any "comic relief" that usually is included in movies to "let up" on the audience [there was some emotional relief, at least, with the use of flashbacks -- I write after having now seen it]. I think for that reason, this will be one of the most jolting and intense films ever (even apart from the subject and "plot"). The only thing I compare it to in my mind is the first section of Saving Private Ryan, which portrays D-Day and what those poor men went through.

Mel Gibson has done all Christians (and all who see the movie) a great service by making the most important twelve hours in history come to life, as if we were there. I was greatly affected by Jesus of Nazareth (my favorite biblical movie) in 1977, and it played a role in my evangelical conversion. It made the story of Jesus seem "real" in a way that simply reading the Bible had never done for me up till that time (age 18). I believe this movie will have a similar effect on millions of people. It will be interesting to observe as a cultural phenomenon.


I just visited a Reformed site where the person says he won't go see The Passion because of the 2nd Commandment's prohibition against images of God. Here is what I wrote in the comments section:

Hi [name],

Two questions:

1. Would you whitewash the Sistine Chapel and call that a "net gain" for Christianity? I know this sounds "tweakish" But I am dead serious.

2. Doesn't Jesus becoming the eikon of the invisible God change things a bit? If God the Father wanted us to see Jesus as a human being with flesh and bones, why, then, is it unacceptable to "re-create" this live image with painting, statuary, and movies?

Perhaps the most dramatic rendering of the Passion I have experienced up till now was (ironically) an audio presentation by a group called Radix. Personally, I don't see how that is all that different from a visual portrayal. Both can elicit emotions (the audio certainly did with me). Why should the visual be more enticing to an alleged "temptation to idolatry" than the audio? For that matter, can a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ make Him an idol in the first place?

In other words, I think it becomes a reductio ad absurdum. The point of the second commandment is a prohibition of idolatry, not all images. We're Christians, not Muslims. They're the ones who want to be a-historical, with their scriptures floating down from heaven whole and entire. The Incarnation inexorably leads to both sacramentalism and images because it sanctifies both: God having become man.


Bret Bellamy wrote:

Whatever differences conservative Protestants may have with orthodox (non-rad-lib-revisionist) Catholics, the controversy from The Passion may well have the effect of the two realizing they do have a lot in common, including common enemies, and hopefully we will see closer and better relationships between the two as they stand together against common enemies (which includes the revisionists in both parts that do not believe in Jesus, the Bible, or historical orthodox Christianity.).
AMEN!!!!! How I long for that. If God can use a film to help achieve it, then it won't be the weirdest thing He's ever done. I think drama is an excellent medium for the propagation of the gospel and larger Christianity. I eagerly look forward to a profound religious experience when I watch the movie tomorrow afternoon. I relish this because I want more emotion and involvement of my "whole being" in my spirituality. That's what it often lacks for me. I'll be observing myself closely to see what happens inside of me, in my heart.

Maybe this is a divine "kick in the butt" to get us to recognize what is most important to all of us. If we can't get it through our thick skulls by reading Scripture and worshiping every Sunday and praying, then maybe an in-your-face presentation of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus will break through the concrete walls of our stubbornness. But I know one thing. Revival is not genuine unless it results in changed lives and changed cultures as a result of that. When it comes, there will be no doubt that it is here.

If revival doesn't come through still-relatively-harmless things like this, then I'm afraid persecution will be necessary. That has always caused revival. That's what turned the world upside down: not just Jesus dying but His followers being just as willing to do so, joyfully. How many of us are in that place?

[Beng:] It's interesting that Gibson used detail from Anne Catherine Emmerich.
It's certainly permissible from a Catholic standpoint, but we need to realize, too, that it is not on the level of public revelation, and not binding on Catholics. And our Protestant brethren need to realize we believe this, too: that we're not implying an equivalence of authority.


Many Protestants don't like crucifixes but they will see a moving portrayal of the same thing. I've always thought the rationale for a crucifix was self-evident and have marveled at the negative reactions to it. Maybe that's because I was raised Protestant and was never anti-Catholic. Perhaps a lot of former Catholics (and all anti-Catholics) don't like it simply because it is "so Catholic," as you say. It's an emotional and ultimately irrational reaction. But objectively considered, crucifixes are simply "visual Bible." If we read the end of all four Gospels, what possible objection can there be to a crucifix? But people manage to come up with one. It never ceases to amaze me.


"CM": As you mention, words cannot explain the emotion one feels, especially as a Christian. The one thing I think you failed to mention was that the symbolism was entirely Catholic and the film, I believe, was quite Marian.
There were a few reasons for that. First of all, I am always interested in speaking the language that my Protestant brothers and sisters can relate to, according to the dictates of Vatican II, ecumenism, and my emphasis of building bridges between the two camps (stressing things where we entirely agree) and working for greater mutual respect and understanding. So in the present context, I naturally tended to write in ways which did not sound specifically "Catholic." St. Paul urged us to "be all things to all people."

Secondly, I actually don't believe there is all that much in the film specifically "Catholic" at all. What is there is explicitly biblical, for the most part. We can all agree on this. It has been said a lot that Protestants don't emphasize the suffering of Christ as much as we do, and tend to go right to the Resurrection and Glorified Jesus (I heard a Protestant scholar from Fuller Seminary on a news show yesterday humbly concede this very point).

This is true, but I would contend that it is not intrinsic to Protestantism. I think it is a failure in practice and in emphasis that has come about probably largely due to over-reaction against Catholicism.

It's not inherent in Protestantism because Lutherans (the original Protestants) have a robust theology of the cross, and traditional or "Anglo-Catholic" high church Anglicans hold to many of the same beliefs and emphases that we do. Many individual Protestants of many stripes do not fall into this trap. I was never of this mindset when I was a low church evangelical Baptist-type Protestant -- who didn't care much for liturgy or sacramentalism -- (though I certainly understand these things better as a Catholic than I used to). We would put out our little sculpture of Michelangelo's Pieta during Easter season just as we do now. We understood this. It was common (biblical) sense.

I have a little semi-humorous response that I make when a Protestant asks me why I am concentrating on Jesus on the cross when He is in heaven now. I ask them, "then why do you reflect upon Jesus in a manger as a baby at Christmas?"

Failure in practice in Protestantism is the same as the failures in practice of Catholics; e.g., our abysmal lack of Bible knowledge and Bible study. That is not intrinsic to Catholicism, but it is, sadly, the way things are for many, many Catholics (for a variety of reasons), and Protestants understand this far better than we do. We can help each other and complement each other. Likewise, the ignorance of Church history among many Protestants . . .

That said, I do think there were arguably some particularly "Catholic" elements in the film (in some sense) and I will now note them. One was the wiping up of the blood of Jesus after the scourging. That is very "Catholic" because it constitutes a relic. But even here, this is a "biblical thing" at bottom, not a "Catholic thing," because the Bible reports how the bones of Elisha brought a dead man to life; the shadow of Peter healed people, and Paul's handkerchief did the same. Therefore, to the extent that Protestants would frown upon this, they are not being as "biblical" as we are. Ironic, isn't it? Opposition to this would be every bit as irrational and unbiblical as opposition to crucifixes or meditation upon Jesus' sufferings in the Rosary or in other ways. It so happens that we Catholics "get" this and many Protestants don't, but that doesn't make it intrinsically "Catholic" -- just "Catholic-practiced" and (mostly) "Protestant-ignored."

One might say that the big role for the Blessed Virgin Mary in the film was a "Catholic thing." I don't see how, because this is simply historical fact. We know from the Bible that she and John and a few other women were the only followers of Jesus present at the crucifixion. So it is not unreasonable to assume that she was present for some or all of the other proceedings (especially since it was all on one day and mostly in one area). Mainly it shows her following Jesus and suffering with Him, empathetically and maternally.

This is simply history (or reasonable assumptions about what probably occurred). It is no more "Catholic" (whatever one's Mariology might be) to show a mother concerned about her son being tortured and killed than it is to show John watching the whole thing, too, or for any of us "watching" vicariously through the medium of cinema. Reformed writer Jeffrey J. Meyers, writing on his blog, Corrigenda (2-25-04) confirmed that the movie (as perceived by a Protestant) was not overly-"Catholic":

Yes, Mary has a prominent place, and there's more than a little traditional Catholic imagery and symbolism used when she is portrayed. But as far as I could tell there was nothing explicitly Roman about any of this. The worst we get is the disciples referring to Mary as "Mother" at one point. This is, of course, extra-biblical and hardly likely. Besides seeing a bit more of Mary in the movie that we read of her in the Gospel stories about Jesus' suffering and death, there's nothing about her being a co-redeemer or mediatrix. No one prays to her. And Jesus hardly acknowledges her presence. Unless one comes with preconceptions there is no Mariolatry in this film.
The film presents a visual representation of the "Pieta": Mary holding her dead Son Jesus (as in Jesus of Nazareth which had a very moving similar scene -- that gets me every time -- , but with Mary wailing uncontrollably). Is this peculiarly "Catholic"? If it is, it is only insofar as Protestants wish to deny that it might have happened just like that, since Mary was at the cross, and loved her Son, and would want to hold Him even in death, as the natural impulse of any mother (or father) would dictate. So I just don't see it. That is not Catholic theology (i.e., no more Catholic than Protestant): it is simply being a normal human being and a mother.

What I did find very "Catholic" myself was the careful way in which Mel Gibson portrayed the Blessed Virgin Mary: she was (of course) extremely distraught and in agony, yet it was with a certain stoicism and acceptance that this was the way it had to be (and this interpretation was followed through in the "pieta" scene as well).

She knew her Son came to die and redeem the human race and she knew it early on -- arguably from Simeon's prophecy (Luke 2:35) but in all likelihood earlier, because she knew He was the Messiah (right from the angel at the Annunciation) and if she knew her Scripture she would have known that Messiah was to suffer and even die for us (e.g., Isaiah 53). Furthermore, Jesus talked about it quite a bit. The disciples may have been dense about that, but it doesn't follow that she was, too. She heard this and understood it. Views about the "ignorance" of Mary with regard to Christ's mission are unbiblical, implausible, and "liberal" in the same way that views about Jesus' "ignorance" are.

Therefore, Mary willingly accepts His passion and death. That doesn't mean she was overjoyed about it (any more than Jesus Himself was); only that she suffered in a way that excluded the total despair of a person who has lost all hope and sees no meaning whatsoever in some suffering or calamity. There is a huge emotional and existential difference between despair and a distraught state and utter, black despair without hope or meaning.

I believe Gibson was consciously aware of this and incorporated it into the film; otherwise Mary would have cried and carried on much more than she did (just as we viewers cried and carried on).

Lastly, here is what I thought was perhaps the most distinctively "Catholic" moment in the film (and no one I have yet read caught it). It's just my opinion and mere speculation, but see what you think: During the "pieta" scene, Mary looks straight at the camera for a long time and I agree that this could be read as her saying "why did you do this to my Son?," or "look what love my Son had for you."

But a detail I noticed was that her right hand was opened, either heavenward or towards the viewer (I'd have to see it again). That might be construed as Mary offering Jesus her Son up to the Father, much in the way that we participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass every Sunday. This is quite Catholic. My wife noted that it might also signify Mary saying, "come accept the salvation that my Son just made possible by His horrible suffering."

Mary in turn helped make that possible by bearing Jesus in the first place (being the Theotokos); thus participating in the Incarnation, without which there is no Redemption. Does that make Mary equal to God or Jesus, or make her role in salvation history at all equal or on the same level as the work of Jesus? No, no, and NO (with the highest emphasis). But it does make her a key human "player" in redemptive history. And that is very "Catholic" indeed, but also -- I firmly believe -- not contrary to biblical teaching, even if not explicitly spelled out in it.

But I admit that this is speculation based on one observation of a gesture in the movie. Take it for what it's worth. If Gibson ever confirms this, then my impression will have been justified.


Stanley Williams, a friend and filmmaker himself, wrote:

[T]ake the many "Stations of the Cross" that are illustrated for us. Most Protestants have never heard of the "Stations of the Cross". Finally, the film, if it is anything, is a visualization of Contemplation, whether that be the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary, or the result of a lifetime of Spiritual Exercises at the instruction of St. Ignatius. This is Catholic in practice, and only a few Protestants are discovering this in-depth Catholic[ism] too. Amazing stuff. But Protestants won't see it.

. . . the real turn on to me is the difference between how a Catholic filmmaker approaches a subject and how a Protestant filmmaker does it. The Catholic will use images while the Protestant will use words. Compare any of the Left Behind films with The Passion or Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. There was even a panel discussion between Catholic and Protestant film theorists at a conference in Hollywood last year, where even the Protestants agreed that Catholics, because Catholics are in tune with sacramentality (making visible what is happening spiritually) of our faith, make better filmmakers.

Fascinating stuff about Catholic filmmakers. There is a reason why Jesus of Nazareth remains the best treatment of Jesus' whole life. I remember thinking when I was a Protestant that when John the Baptist sprinkled people to baptize them in the Jordan River in that film, that this was a "Catholic" influence. Now I think it was simply a wrongheaded scene. If they were in a river, they would have been immersed; it is only for lack of plentiful water that sprinkling was adopted by the Church (as I understand it).

The other (quite moving) scene was Mary holding Jesus after He died and pitifully wailing and weeping (that beautiful, angelic face of Olivia Hussey): the "pieta" imagery. But as I argued today, even that is arguably not "intrinsically" or exclusively Catholic. It is considered such, I think (at least in my own former case) simply because of the connotations of Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel, historic Catholic Madonnas and other Christian art, etc. But it should not be deemed specifically Catholic at all. And even in those days (as very unsacramental Protestants) we had our little Pieta sculpture, so we certainly had no objection to it.

In any event, Catholics get these things right and Protestants fall short, generally-speaking. One might argue that this is because we enshrine them in our theology and outlook of sacramentalism, which flows from the Incarnation. Would that we would also learn from our Protestant brethren to do better at the things they excel at: such as Bible study (as I recently wrote about in This Rock). We can learn from each other.

So I do rejoice that this film is so "Catholic" (in the sense of the outlook of its maker), and its artistic excellence benefits therefrom, but I rejoice even more that it is so biblically-based that our Protestant brethren can appreciate it as much as we do, so that we can stand together in this case against the secular culture of death and nihilism (and ugliness).


* * * * *


[From his website, 2-25-04]

[White's words will be in purple]

OK, saw it.

Yes you did, but you have seen "with" and not "through" the eye, as William Blake would say.

. . . 1) When Jesus said "I AM" to the soldiers, they fell back upon the ground. Why on EARTH delete that even when Jesus says "I am"?

This seems to have been overlooked. Perhaps it is a sinister Catholic plot?

2) "It is accomplished" and "It is finished" are not, in the context of the atonement, the same things.

That's interesting, since in the KJV, John 19:28, using the same word, (teleo), reads, ". . . all things were now accomplished." They gave Jesus vinegar, and He said "it is finished" (19:30). It's not rocket science to see that it is the same thing. NEB and REB translate 19:30 as "accomplished." Strong's Concordance gives as one possible rendering for teleo (word # 5055): "accomplish," along with several other synonyms. Teleo is translated as "accomplish" in the KJV at Luke 12:50, 18:31, and 22:37. Much ado about nothing . . .

3) Jesus was wearing clothing when He came out of the grave. Not the way to end.

He wasn't wearing the same clothes He was buried in (see John 10:6-7), and the film doesn't show Him leaving the tomb, so this is a non sequitur.

4) The apostles addressed Mary as "Mother"?

Why not? After all, Jesus told John that she was his mother (Jn 19:27).

5) Mary had supernatural knowledge even prior to the coming of the Spirit?

Yes; it is called the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel came to her and told her she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear the son of the Most High (Lk 1:26-33). What do you call that? "Natural knowledge"? It is also written that Simeon was "inspired by the Spirit" to speak about Jesus to Mary (Lk 2:27; cf. 2:26). That's not "natural" either, and it is the same Holy Spirit.

6) Relics, relics, and more relics (straight out of Emmerich).

Straight out of the Bible too: Elisha's bones raised a man from the dead; Peter's shadow and Paul's handkerchief healed people, etc.

Stations of the cross,

Heaven forbid any Christian meditate on the cross. The Greeks thought it was foolishness. Funny that certain anti-Catholic Reformed Baptists would, too.

"St. Veronica," the whole nine yards.

I saw nothing whatever contrary to the Bible in the movie. I don't see you condemning the host of Protestant beliefs that can't be found in the Bible, such as altar calls and church buildings. The canon of Scripture is an extra-biblical tradition. Is that to be condemned too because it isn't in there?

7) We might well see the founding of the Roman Anti-defamation League as a result of this.

That, too? If anything, Pontius Pilate was portrayed too sympathetically.

8) What on EARTH was that hideous baby thing in the devil-woman's arms?

A demon who was mocking the nurturing love of a mother at the worst time in Jesus' life. What did you think it was? A Muppet?

9) Most, but not all, of the overt Roman Catholic elements were kept at the "subtle enough not to catch the mind of the evangelical, prominent enough to assure the Roman Catholic that all is well" level.

The Passion of Christ itself is often (oddly enough) an "overt Roman Catholic element" since Protestants of your sort have been minimizing it for hundreds of years. Why they do so, I have not the slightest inkling, as it is the central act of redemption in salvation history, and central in the New Testament. It's beyond strange that so many Protestants overlook such a crucially important aspect of Christianity and salvation.

10) The emotional element was not quite as strong as I expected, but then again, I have never gone into a film more primed to be watching it closely, so I am hardly a meaningful barometer. Besides, I'm Scottish.

Me, too. And I had to wipe my eyes three times. Even anti-Catholicism could not blind one to the exceptional power and profundity of this film.

11) Will I think of this film at the next Lord's Supper? Probably.


12) Will I envision Jesus as Jim Caviezel? No. Not for a moment. Not once during the film did I make that connection. That was Jim Caviezel up there, not my Lord.

No kidding? Likewise, your caricature of yourself on your blog is a painting, not you. You don't need to point that out; nor do you need to remind anyone that an actor is not Jesus. Most of us have the capacity to do that, thank you.

13) Will the emotions over-run commitment to the why of the cross, leaving people emotionally committed to whatever traditional lens through which they viewed the film? For many, yes.

Why do the two have to be opposed to each other? How could a Christian not be emotional, in seeing portrayed the biblical theme of God's unfathomable love for us?

14) Does the film open the door for proselytization of "evangelicals" by zealous Roman Catholics? Yes and no. Outside of the unbiblical and extraneous Marian elements, the issues are what they were before the film was released, and, sadly, evangelicals remain just as ignorant of the importance of sound doctrine regarding God's purposes in the atonement as they were before. This just opens up more opportunities either for that ignorance to be corrected, or, negatively, to be taken advantage of.

I have no idea what you're talking about. The movie had nothing about the four spiritual laws or TULIP. It presented the gospel in its original meaning: "Good News" (i.e., Jesus died for us so we can be saved and go to heaven and be reconciled to God).

15) Could an evangelical successfully "filter out" the extraneous stuff? I suppose so, but it would take a conscious effort.

One you obviously did not pull off . . .

So, to see or not to see? Tough call. It is culturally relevant. A person who has seen it is in better position to speak to its issues than one who has not. On the other hand, it is not nearly as accurate as we were told; it is truly a prize for Rome, and it may well bother many believers with its portrayal and presentation. If you go, don't go because of the herd mentality. Go realizing what you are seeing, or don't go at all.

Thanks for the advice. At least you are not an iconoclast. You watch movies to keep up to cultural speed. Good for you. Did you say anything at all good about the film? If so, I missed it. But you did say it was "random thoughts," so I look forward to unrandom coherent thoughts from you.

* * *

Someone wrote on my blog:

Dr. White is generally Calvinistic, so I assume he is against altar calls, which are common in Arminian-influenced Baptist churches. I think he did criticize this practice, if my memory serves me correctly.
I replied:

Yeah, I could see that, but if you read closely I was criticizing him for not condemning the many things in Protestantism (whether he holds to them personally or not) that are extra-biblical, including the very canon of Scripture.

Not everything that is "extrabiblical" is "unbiblical" or "anti-biblical." This is a distinction which is quickly lost on a certain kind of extreme sola Scriptura advocate such as Dr. White. So he wants a movie that quotes only the Bible? Well, that is his right. But it would make for a fairly lousy movie and relatively poor art, because Jesus and the apostles were not walking Bibles. 99.9999% of their words were NOT recorded in Holy Scripture.

A movie with real conversations between real people is not a book. Jesus or Paul could easily speak more words than the entire New Testament in just one long night of conversation. This is so self-evident it is embarrassing and silly to even have to point it out.

And of course many events not recorded in the Bible are quite plausible. So in the film His blood was soaked up after the terrible scourging and this isn't in the Bible, so therefore it is some terrible, blasphemous, (GASP!) "Catholic" thing? I don't see why, since people sought to touch the hem of his garment and were healed. Why should they not do this? This is GOD we are talking about. What would Dr. White do if he had been there when Jesus was carrying His cross? If he had wiped the forehead of his Lord, would he take that cloth and flush it down the toilet, as if it were of no significance whatsoever? This is utterly depressing . . .

No dialogue in this movie (and there wasn't much in the first place) or behavior, is inconsistent with what we know of the historical events in the Bible, or with the theology taught therein.

Dr. White has little inkling of the intrinsic sacramental, incarnational nature of Christianity. This is shown by his many ludicrous comments on the subject, which (if true) would mean that both Martin Luther and St. Augustine could not have been orthodox Christians (if Christians at all). I've written a paper about it:

"Man-Centered" Sacramentalism: The Remarkable Incoherence of Dr. James White: How Can Martin Luther and St. Augustine Be Christians According to His Definition?

Thankfully, White's truncated, Enlightenment-gutted Christianity is being called on the carpet (it's high time) by many of his far more historically-conscious fellow Reformeds, as inconsistent with legitimate Reformed heritage. But that is another topic . . .

* * * * *


Steve McCoy's review

Jeffrey Meyer's review

Jonathan Barlow's review

I saw scarcely little in Steve's review (and subsequent remarks on his blog) to demonstrate to me that the movie had all these horrendous, objectionable "Marian" elements in it.

So Mary felt she wanted to die with her Son, and this is some terrible thing? I am amazed that the self-evident emotions of a parent in such a situation can be turned into yet another opportunity to make some point about Mary which is completely unnecessary and groundless. Some Protestants see "Mary under every rock" when dealing with Anything Catholic the way John Birchers used to see Communists under every rock.

I watched the movie as a Catholic and I didn't see all this. I saw a story I was very familiar with already, with a mother who was agonizing over the torture and murder of her Son. The Son happens to be God in this case, but that doesn't have any effect on the emotions of a mother, that I can see. Mary said very little in the movie. Her dialogue could have easily fit on one sheet of paper.

I reiterate that nothing in the movie was contrary to the Bible in the sense of contradicting it or being doctrinally foreign. It had things that were not in the Bible, of course, but that is necessary in the same sense that fictitious dialogue in every movie based on a true story is necessary.

If a Catholic like myself and a Presbyterian like Pastor Meyers (and like Jonathan Barlow, whose excellent review I read, too) can agree that it was essentially a faithful and highly moving portrayal of the way things happened on that fateful day, why is it that another Protestant sees Mary everywhere in this film like a huge hat in front of a fan at a baseball game, obstructing his view of the field?

Those of you Reformed Protestants (whom I admire very much) who are confident in your belief-system don't have to proceed with such suspicion and knee-jerk defensiveness in watching The Passion anymore than I have to when watching superb Protestant movies such as Chariots of Fire or any number of other ones I have seen (I watched A Man Called Peter recently: that is a marvelous movie with many wonderful preaching scenes). It's not about the apostle Peter but about Peter Marshall, who was a chaplain in the US Senate. :-)

Let's rejoice in what we have in common, for heaven's sake, for a change, and be happy that we have before us a masterpiece of cinema, bringing the most important day in world history to life right before the eyes of thousands of nominal Christians (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike) or non-Christians, and make the most of it instead of using it to be the occasion for yet another unnecessary, stupid fight. There are doctrinal battles worth fighting. I certainly do so, and my Protestant brothers do also. But why quibble about how much Mary or other "Catholic" elements are featured in this film, when all trinitarian Christians are in virtually total agreement about Jesus: Whom the movie is about?

I think it is a matter of emphasis, prudence, and the possible squandering of an opportunity to reach the lost, if we Christians start fighting about this movie with our usual battles that the world is ultra-sick of hearing about already (along with many Christians who wish many unnecessary battles could be put out to pasture). Again, I fully agree that there are doctrines worth fighting for. I just wish it could be an in-house fight rather than the galactic battle of Light vs. Darkness, Good vs. Evil, etc., which anti-Catholics and anti-Protestants make it out to be.

I thank God for balanced, thoughtful, insightful (Protestant) reviews of the movie such as those of Pastor Meyers and Jonathan Barlow. Good job, and I tip my hat to you and wish you all God's blessings.


I think Colson and Packer would agree that we teach sola gratia. The latter is where Catholic and Protestant theology (rightly-understood) agree. We disagree on sola fide . . . [R.C. Sproul and others have] done their best to sabotage what I thought was an excellent and realistic and heartening expression of what we do have in common. It's absurd to write counter-documents based on how we differ, when the whole point of ECT [Evangelicals and Catholics Together] was to find common ground. It was never trying to pretend there were no differences from the beginning. That's what legitimate ecumenism does. But these guys thought, I guess, that it was a "liberal" sort of "ecumenism," where you pretend everyone is exactly alike and congratulate yourselves on how "tolerant" you are.

There is the whole debate about whether sanctification is separate from justification. I have often noted that, in a practical sense, both sides entirely agree, apart from the highly-abstract theology. Both parties believe we are saved by grace alone, and they both agree that the regenerated Christian must do good works. How these work in the fine points, and how they relate to each other, are huge discussions, but the bare-bones agreement exists. If a Christian does not do good works, the good Calvinist will question that they are regenerate in the first place, or among the elect, whereas the Cathoplic at some point will conclude he is in mortal sin and outside the good graces of God. So it works out, practically, the same way.

That's not to say that we have no differences, and should not fight for same, as a matter of principle and heartfelt belief. But there comes a point where it seems that we ought to be able to agree to let each other follow Christ, and to rejoice in the commonalities. This is why the anti-Catholics are so infuriating: they cause all sorts of division that needn't be. The devil wins in his strategy of "divide and conquer."

A guy like R.C. Sproul is most culpable for this sort of thing because he knows far better. But he is so stuck in his own mode of "either/or" thinking that he can't seem to realize that Catholics have not denied the Gospel. We merely apply it differently and differ on the fine points. That is no grounds to claim that we deny it outright.

It is a mystery with Sproul, and his stance bothers me more than almost anyone in Protestantism that I can think of. I guess it may be the case with him as it was with C.S. Lewis: prejudice simply won't allow an otherwise-brilliant person to cross that last hurdle. For Lewis it was conversion to Catholicism, and the "hostile" factor was his upbringing in severely anti-Catholic Protestant Belfast.

For Sproul, I think it is the Reformed environment and its distinctive thinking, which is so often (but not inevitably) tainted by an extreme and irrational anti-Catholicism. So it is unthinkable to him. Perhaps his fellow Reformeds such as Packer and Colson (and theologians such as G.C. Berkouwer) can eventually persuade him of a better way.

(2-14-04 and 2-17-04)

All Catholics who follow their Church's teachings regard Protestants as their fellow brothers in Christ, by virtue of their baptism and many common Christian beliefs (including the Nicene Creed).


One must make a distinction between the teaching of the Church and how that teaching is taught and passed on. The former is infallible and sublime; the latter is -- sadly -- atrocious in our time because of the liberal crisis in the Church, which has wreaked havoc on Catholic education.

Personally, I think even orthodox priests could do a far better job trying to motivate their parishioners to learn more about the faith and get excited about it. Of all that I have learned -- apologetics-wise -- in 13 years as a Catholic, virtually none was a direct result of attending Mass on Sundays. Of course (as you would expect), I think apologetics can play a key role in getting Catholics to be more "on fire," in the evangelical sense.

The Internet has been a tremendous blessing in this regard because the great majority of Catholic sites (at least in my experience) are orthodox. The liberals -- by and large -- don't care enough about their faith to want to spread it around to anyone else.


One has to distinguish between these two things:

1. The necessity of good works in the Christian life -- which is different from talking about justification only (all Protestants agree with Catholics here).

2. The placement of good works in the category of sanctification, rather than justification. (Reformed Protestant differ with Wesleyans)

Protestants rightly complain about Catholics caricaturing their views as antinomian and unconcerned with righteousness. We have a responsibility to portray their views correctly.

Catholics can be (understandably) as confused about the above distinctions as many Protestants are. An inarticulate, less-educated Protestant probably does just as bad expressing his faith as an inarticulate, less-educated Catholic does. There are nuances and complexities on both sides.


Neither Lutherans nor Arminians (and/or Wesleyans) nor Catholics are doctrinally Pelagian. Melanchthon was falsely accused of it by other Lutherans, and Arminians are accused of it by Calvinists. The Book of Concord falsely accuses Catholicism of Pelagianism, and Catholics have falsely accused the Lutherans. Many (but not all) Calvinists, of course, accuse Catholics of Pelagianism. All of this nonsense is wrong. And realizing that was a step that made the [Lutheran-Catholic] agreements possible, I believe.


Liberalism isn't brought on so much by Protestant distinctives (or shortcomings) but by denial of those things all Christians have in common. That's why it has infiltrated the Catholic Church as well. I feel far more affinity to a traditional Anglican or Lutheran or Reformed than I do with the sort of liberal Catholic who tears the Bible apart, plays around with christology, is wishy-washy on sexual morality, etc.

One can accept a sort of common minimalist orthodoxy (for the sake of ecumenism: a working model) based on the Nicene Creed and build upon that, and rejoice in agreement. C.S. Lewis taught the concept of "mere Christianity," but on the other hand, he said it was just the hallway of the great house of Christianity, and that to really do it right, you had to go into your particular room where the fullness of each Christian tradition resided. So we can meet in the hall and have great, close fellowship without denying that we all have our own rooms too, where we can fully be ourselves, kick up our feet and let our hair hang down, so to speak. That's how I see it, anyway. I agree with Lewis. This is the "new ecumenicity."


Bret Bellamy wrote:

In all the years I've known you Dave, you never proselytized me in any way. I did my own research and crossed the Tiber [from Anglicanism] by my own decision after much research, private pondering, and prayer. Neither you or any of my Catholic friends ever pressured me or proselytized me in any way to become Catholic.
Thanks, Bret. I'm probably the most low-key evangelist of all time. I was that way even as an evangelical. I don't like to "sell" anything for that matter. I may even go too far in that direction. I have always opposed putting people on the spot and making them squirm under some high-pressure "pitch." They have to come to such decisions of their own accord and it is the Holy Spirit, not men, who cause that to happen. All the apologist does is to remove roadblocks to one particular view. I often try to do this in the following manner:
This particular objection to Catholicism [or Christianity broadly-considered, or trinitarianism; whatever I am defending at the moment] is invalid because of x, y, z. If you decide NOT to become a Catholic [or to consider it non-Christian, etc.], THIS reason should NOT be one of the ones upon which you base that decision.
That's much different from proselytizing; it is simply answering honest questions.


How Jesus accomplished salvation was to die on the cross. The stripes on His back and the nails in His hands and feet felt the same, whether infused or imputed justification or TULIP is true. The disagreements are about Greek abstracts: the relationship of faith and works, and justification and sanctification, and God's sovereignty and our free will. None of that changes how God saved us: that was through the cross and the atonement of Jesus on our behalf.

(on a Reformed Blog: 2-28-04)

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