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FIRST PERSON: Whose ‘Passion’ is it anyway?

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–“The Passion of the Christ” recently was re-released in an edited version. Sensitive that some scenes were too violent, Mel Gibson deleted six minutes of the most graphic scenes. In my opinion, he cut the wrong material.

Am I the only one who has a problem with the way Gibson presents Mary? Clearly, Gibson has woven into the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life a subtle parallel story about Mary’s role in redemption — a story I am hard pressed to find in the Bible.

For the record, the only biblical mention of Mary in connection with the crucifixion is found in John 19:25-27 where she stands at the foot of the cross just before Jesus dies. Mel Gibson, however, imagines Mary:

— locking her gaze on Satan as he mocks her.

— at the Praetorium observing the scourging of her son and later wiping up the blood and leaning down to connect with him in a dungeon below.

— having a conversation with the wife of Pontius Pilate.

— following and comforting Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem.

— sitting at the foot of the cross holding his lifeless body in her arms.

While allowing that Mary probably followed that morning’s series of events as best she could, the way she is depicted flies in the face of the biblical evidence. Unlike Gibson’s strong depiction of her, a more likely representation would have been to show Mary totally distraught over her son’s inevitable fate (see for example Luke 23:27). Gibson has said that he was faithful to the Bible, but if this was truly the case why did he not pay as close attention to the Bible with respect to her?

Clearly, Gibson has a theological message to deliver. Mary is the one with spiritual discernment, who alone sees Satan in the crowd and stands firm as he mocks her. Mary also has a mystical bond with her son, and connects with him through matter itself to the dungeon below. His pain and agony is her pain and agony.

Significantly, the scene where she interacts with Pilate’s wife hints at a future relationship between church and state. At the raising of the physical cross, Mary also rises to her feet simultaneously, letting the dirt fall from her hands. She is being lifted up alongside her son.

The repeated mention of Mary as “mother” to the disciples is telling. Does the Bible support such intimacy? To the contrary, Jesus downplayed His relationship to His family (Matthew 12:46-50). Moreover, John 19:27b notes that it was only John the disciple who took Mary in, and only after the crucifixion. For Gibson, however, when the dying Jesus says to John, “Behold, your mother,” (John 19:27a) he is not simply entrusting John with his mother’s physical welfare; he is recognizing her exclusive ministry of “motherhood,” a strong tenet of Marian devotion.

Finally, when the body of her dead son is taken down, Mary cradles Him mimicking Michelangelo’s Pieta. However, this contradicts the Bible, which states that Joseph of Arimathea took the body for immediate burial as the Sabbath was quickly dawning (Luke 23:50-54). Throughout the movie Gibson engages in something more than “creative license.” He gives to Mary many divine prerogatives, all of which ought to make us pause and reconsider.

Some will say that people have come to faith in Christ as a result of having seen the film. Such arguments are built on the flimsy ethic that good results justify any means. However, even if I am only half willing to concede the point, there is a crucial issue at stake. A central tenet of our Protestant faith is that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. I am embarrassed to even ask, but are we really prepared to undermine this core belief, and all for the sake of a movie?

More ominously, we have potentially compromised ourselves when more troublesome media makes its way to the silver screen. Gibson’s huge success is already sparking interest in the making of more “big budget” religious films. Religious leaders certainly can choose to ignore low cost films, but when movies such as Gibson’s are announced, the pressure to get on the promotional bandwagon will be tremendous. Will we be swept into the tide of religious fanfare at the cost of setting aside sound doctrine?

About Gibson specifically, given the devotion he openly gives to Mary, her portrayal in the Passion film may have laid the groundwork for future films from him. And if this is so, what kind of legs will evangelicals stand on? Having endorsed enthusiastically and without reservation “The Passion,” how will we be able to challenge anything later with any level of credibility?

The fact is, in this movie Jesus and Mary are like conjoined twins. They are integrally connected and there is no separating them. I know this is not the last word on this issue. I pray that many more words will follow leading to a sober assessment of our recent actions and statements in the aftermath of this movie phenomenon.
Rudolph D. González is vice president of student services at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the former director of the interfaith evangelism department of the North American Mission Board and the co-author of “Sharing the Good News with Roman Catholic Friends.”

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  • Rudolph D. González