Assessing Mel Gibson's Passion

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
2 Nov 2006

The Ekklesia book Consuming Passion, published by Darton, Longman and Todd, contains several chapters that look at the political, cultural and theological implications of Mel Gibson's merciless portrayal of the death of Jesus in his highly controversial film 'The Passion of the Christ'.

First, Ched Myers (well known for his ground-breaking book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Luke's Story of Jesus) looks at what is wrong with Gibson's portrayal - its absence of context in the struggle between a religion of life and a religion of death, matched by the claims of empire and the crucifixion of the 'little people' with whom Jesus identified in his prophetic ministry - and for which he was perceived as a threat that had to be done away.

Then Anne Richards (a theological adviser working for the Church of England) uses her background in literary studies to look at the narrative shape of the film. If it is horrific to us, she says, this is because it is a view of things from the perspective of hell (things controlled by the power of death). The Gospel, she suggests, invites us to review the world from the perspective of heaven (things coming alive in God).

Vic Thiessen (London Mennonite Centre) also makes reference to the film in unpacking the assumptions behind different Christian doctrines of atonement - especially in their treatment of victims and their understanding of retributive justice. Like other contributors to the book, Thiessen challenges the legitimation of violence and injustice which can be subsumed under this language and imagery.

Kevin Scully (Anglican priest and Rector of St Mathew’s Bethnal Green) touches fleetingly on Gibson in the context of the Cross as a devotional sign, symbol and sacrament - showing how popular piety (as well as cultural assimilation) can both challenge and reform theological speculation.

Overall, Consuming Passion opens up a different account of the meaning, effect and significance of Jesus’ death – as a concrete demonstration of the power of love overcoming the love of power, the divine absorption of sin and murder rather than the infliction of it, a refusal of scapegoating mechanisms in religion and politics (James Alison, following Girard), and a freeing of human beings from the power of redemptive violence in favour of a vision of restorative justice. This has transformative implications for personal, religious and political practice.

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