The Disciple Newsletter
A Newsletter for the Serious Religious Christian
By H. Bruce Stokes, Ph.D.

The Passion of the Christ: Context and Perspective

I must admit a surreal sense as I sat in the theater, next to people eating popcorn and drinking cokes, while anticipating the experience of watching Jesus being tortured and crucified. But as I sat there I reflected that some, that day in Jerusalem, may have found the whole event little more than entertainment. It really has much to do with context and perspective. So may I add my perspective to seeing “the film”.

I came to the theater with mixed feelings. I am a Christian and a clergyman. I am an anthropologist whose Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California was directly related to the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. My own faith is informed and influenced by these two great Biblical faiths. I am aware of the Catholic views, and thespian history of the writer, producer and director of the film. I am therefore aware of several perspectives by which I could critically examine the film. Thus, I am able to identify with Christians who believe that this death is central to the forgiveness of our sins. I am aware of the history of many Christians blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death, and the anxiety this subject produces in good Jewish people, both secular and religious. I am aware of the historian’s doubt of the details and accuracy of the Gospel accounts. And I am aware that cinema can only tell the story in a manner that many aspects of the context must be dropped to maintain the focus of the narrative. So I came to the theater with a multiple perspectives and concerns and curiosity.

The movie is Biblically based but not Biblically literal. The events and scenes are theologically interpreted so that this Passion, according to Gibson, focuses on the suffering of Jesus with little context being established. This was okay for me. I have studied the Gospels most of my life, taught the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, and watched plays, films, and cantatas express this story. I came with a Christian context that would allow me to recognize the woman taken in adultery from John chapter seven. I understand the context of the Gethsemane prayer and kiss of Judas directly after the Last Supper. I know the “Sermon on the Mount” as it is brought into juxtaposition to the passion. I know that Peter, though denying his Lord, was a passionate and constant companion to Jesus for several years before this event. But not everyone knows that context, and in a post-Christian America, it is possible for someone to watch this movie and have no understanding of these things, and why they speak so strongly to Christians.

I was uncomfortable with the High Priest and the Sanhedrin being so uniformly behind this action. The Gospels do indicate that the High Priest believed Jesus statement was blasphemous. But we do not know from the Gospels if this was because he had evil motives or simply misunderstood the suffering aspect of the promised messiah, and saw in Jesus none of the aspects of the ruling and reigning King who was foretold. Even the disciples were unsure about these things. I had hoped to see Nicodemas, a member of the Sanhedrin who was a follower of Jesus or Joseph of Arimathea who was also among the religious elite. Certainly they were not in agreement with this action. I have been in Jewish and Christian meetings. Uniformity is something I have yet to experience. The pain of the religious elites rejection of Jesus might have been lessoned by a cameo from one or two of these Jewish sympathizers. It would have, to me, paralleled the reduction of the wine during the reciting of the plagues to remember that the Egyptians were suffering during the Passover. This is another context I brought to the theater from my experience at Passover Seders. Perhaps, some of the Jewish fears that they would be blamed might have been lessoned by such a scene. Religious Jew discussing with Religious Jew, who this Jesus was and what his death might mean. But this was not the context or the focus of the writer and director of the film. I brought it with me to the theater.

I was not moved by the violence and blood. Perhaps, this is because I have been through this story many times in other films. Perhaps, my experience with the coroner’s office and funeral industry for five years made pictures of torture less real that the real carnage I have witnessed. Perhaps it was my perspective that the death of Jesus, rather than the scourging brought my salvation. Context and perspective plays so much a part of this that I cannot tell. But I witnessed many in the theater crying as they considered that their sin caused this suffering. I honor that. But I also know that the man eating popcorn beside them was unaffected. It wasn’t the movie. It was the context and perspective they brought.

So, what is the point? Everyone who sees this film will have a perspective and context, or lack thereof. And that will give each of us a chance to experience the film from our own perspective. My hope is that we will listen, and listen, and listen to each other, Jew and Christian, believer and unbeliever, and seek to understand rather than to argue and condemn, or convert. Mel Gibson has done something good. He has told us his perspective. I have told you mine. Now, what is yours?

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