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The Passion of the Christ

On Monday January 5, I joined pastors from across America at Saddleback Church in Orange County for a sneak preview of Mel Gibson’s new film, “The Passion of the Christ”. In short: I loved it.

I started crying about five minutes into the first scene, and didn’t stop long for the rest of the movie. Don’t get me wrong—the movie was not a downer. It was a moving, inspirational, worshipful experience for me. I found it to be—by a long shot—the most artistically effective and most historically accurate filmed retelling of the death of Christ that has ever been made. Those two elements—artistic achievement and historical accuracy—are often at odds, but somehow Gibson was able to achieve them both.

And in case you’re worrying that a historically accurate Bible movie will be, dare you say it, boring… let me just put those fears to rest. The film starts with a bang, right in the middle of the Garden of Gethsemane. In the first few moments, you see Jesus, played expertly by Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo) sweating drops of blood in agonized prayer, Judas accepting bribe money, soldiers approaching, an ill-advised fight by Peter… and it all happens on screen, as it must have in real life, with breathtaking swiftness. Starting in this way with no long expository lead-in, but instead in the middle of an action sequence, means the film grabs the viewer right off the bat and never let’s go. Plus, the camera is moving, the actors are vibrant, the dialogue swift, unlike so many biblical epics where the camera’s locked down and the actors s-l-ooowly enunciate long-winded speeches. None of that here!

In fact, I felt a little about this movie the way I felt about the Lord of the Rings trilogy: I marveled at how well the movie captured the way I had always envisioned so many of these scenes.

A choice everyone was so dubious about: Having the actors speak the original languages instead of English.  This seems now to be a stroke of genius, because avoids the standard Bible movie clichés of British Master Thespians overacting an English script (“Do a miracle for us, Jesus, if you really aww the Christ!!”) or American Movie Superstars clumsily delivering familiar lines (“Shirley, this man was thuh Son uv God!”)

Gibson subtitles the dialogue in English, which actually somehow gives the movie added punch. You’re effectively seeing the Scripture on screen, and watching a dramatic retelling of it at the same time. It’s like reading the Bible with the best imagination ever.

The screening was followed at Saddleback by a live interview with Mel Gibson facilitated by Lee Strobel, former Chicago Tribune reporter and best-selling author. Lee did a great job posing all the questions everyone was thinking. The question I was most interested in hearing answered: “Describe to us your own faith.”

Mel said he was raised Catholic, but for much of his life he didn’t really think too much about it. He said he got to a point where, in his words, he was “looking through a window fifteen stories up, thinking I didn’t want to go on with my life, but I didn’t want to end it because I didn’t know much about the other side.” He went on to say that at that point he turned his life to Christ “because I couldn’t run it anymore”.  He said, “the shortest way I know to put it is, I let the wounds of Christ heal my wounds.”

He said several cast members came to faith during the production. One interesting insight into the faith of Jim Caviezel: Mel said he was interviewing Jim for a role in another movie and explained, “Jim, I’ve got this surf movie I’m making…” Jim then said, “Well, surfing’s great, but let me tell what I’m really excited about in my life”. Mel said, “Then he whipped out a pamphlet all about Jesus!”

The film will be rated R, and is definitely not for those younger than 13. The violence is not as graphic as it could have been, but especially during the scenes of Romans scourging Jesus, it is stomach-churningly realistic.

Some have worried that the film encourages anti-Semitism, but I didn’t see any of that in the print I saw. In fact, it dramatizes in a way I have never seen before that not all of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) was in favor of these actions. While watching this, the thought occurred to me that hating Jews because of the crucifixion would be like hating Americans because Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an American. Of course that would be ridiculous because MLK lived in America, he was an American, and both his supporters and detractors were American. Similarly, Jesus was Jewish and lived in Judea, so naturally some of his followers as well as detractors would be Jewish. But the film goes further; it takes pains to show how many different elements of society conspired for a crucifixion. In fact, it shows, as does the Bible, that in a way we all put Jesus on the cross because we have all sinned. He died for all of us.

I encourage you to see this film!

René Schlaepfer, Teaching Pastor
Twin Lakes Church, Aptos, CA

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