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FIRST-PERSON: ‘The Passion’ & the Book

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–There is at once consternation and criticism, along with much anticipation and excitement regarding Mel Gibson’s retelling of the crucifixion of Christ in “The Passion of The Christ.”

Criticism abounds from different quarters, including those who reject the veracity of the four Gospels and those who attribute anti-Semitism to Gibson and anyone else who dares to affirm the culpability of the Jewish figures involved in the crucifixion of Christ as attested by those same Gospels.

There is also a pitched excitement, even fervor, among many who view the release of the movie as a unique opportunity to present the message of the crucified Christ to the world for which Jesus died.

I want to address the latter group who express such excitement about the movie and the opportunities The Passion of The Christ presents for evangelism. I have both a commendation and a concern with respect to the flurry of testimonials, endorsements and strategies to use the movie for such a noble purpose.

I begin with a commendation: As several leaders have suggested, Christians ought to make the most of the opportunity that the release of this movie presents. With all the publicity, news stories, debate, and the release of the film itself, people have the death of Jesus Christ on their minds.

Evangelicals should see this as an open door to share the Good News of eternal life by grace alone through faith alone in the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. As Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, said, “We must be ready with an answer of why Jesus did what He did.”

But I must also offer a word of caution. I am troubled by the way in which some people are speaking about the movie as it relates to the revelation of God in the Bible, the written Word of God. One viewer of The Passion of The Christ observed that some were crying out, “Have mercy on me, God, I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” after watching the movie. Another viewer reported, “I’ve read the Gospels thousands of times throughout my life, but this was the first time I’d actually stepped into them.”

Such statements are inconsistent with the claims of the Bible about itself. Could we really not know about the crucifixion and its implications for our lives before Gibson made this movie? Do we really gain something from the movie that is missing in the sacred text of the Bible? It is as if we are suggesting that the Bible alone, with the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit who inspired it, is simply not sufficient. Do we now need cinematic assistance to make the “living and active” Word (Hebrews 4:12) come to life?

The Passion of The Christ does include significant biblical quotations, and as much as it brings the Scriptures to the audience, it does indeed expose them to the Word of God. But the movie also is shaped by extra-biblical sources such as the visions of the mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, an 18th-century German nun.

It seems that some people are confusing the emotional and visceral responses they have to the graphic imagery of the movie with the Word of God itself. It sounds as though some think we actually possess an advantage over the generations of Christians who had no opportunity to view such a movie. It’s almost as if to say, “Those poor people only had the Scriptures.”

This is where the Apostle Peter has some very good advice for us. In 2 Peter 1:16-18, the apostle recounts his experience at the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. This was, no doubt, an amazing experience. Peter then informs the church that, as amazing as that experience was, “We have a prophetic word made more sure.”

More sure than what? For the reader of Scripture, it is surer than Peter’s eyewitness experience of the transfiguration, at which time Peter even heard the voice of God!

What is this “word made more sure”? It is nothing less than the Scripture, written by “holy men of God moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Peter, who did hear God’s voice audibly at the transfiguration, understood that most others would not share such an experience. He also understood that God had spoken a sure word in the text of the Bible, which would bring God’s revelation to all who would hear.

This is a startling claim, and we should not miss its significance for our understanding of a phenomenon like this movie. You see, The Passion of The Christ is simply a movie. It is, by many accounts, a marvelous work of art. But the images in the film that evoke such emotional responses should not be confused with God’s own Word about the crucifixion of the Son of God. Let’s not confuse our experience of the silver screen image of Jim Caviezel with the worship of the crucified Christ according to the Word of God.

That’s right: As amazing as the movie may be, the reading, hearing, meditation upon and preaching of the Scriptures is superior in every way to watching Gibson’s movie. If you think otherwise, then I have some serious questions about your understanding of the power and sufficiency of the God-breathed Scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15).

I hope we’ll heed Peter’s advice about The Passion of The Christ and exercise a bit of caution in the way we think about the movie. At the same time, I hope we’ll make the most of the opportunity afforded us by the movie to commend to this dying world the amazing love of Jesus Christ and eternal life that is found only in Him.
David P. Nelson is an associate professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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  • David P. Nelson