Back in 2003, I was not ready for The Passion of the Christ as a work of sacred cinema. It was worlds away from any biblical movie that we had ever seen. Unlike most prior biblical films, it wasn’t hokey, affected or surreal.

But I was also not ready for the theological vision of Christ’s suffering and death that spooled out on the small screen over Gibson ’s desk that June afternoon. No one was ready for The Passion — neither in the Church, nor in Hollywood, and certainly not in the community of film critics. Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregate movie-review site, has the top critics on record as giving the film a “Rotten” rating of 40%. That’s even lower than Tim Burton’s creepy failure Alice in Wonderland (51%) and Man of Steel, the lamest comic-book movie ever made (56%).

Probably because of the politics, the critics couldn’t really see The Passion in 2003. Today, all but the most anti-Christian critics would have to begrudgingly admit that the film has stood the test of time. What I wrote in a review the day after I saw the rough cut is established consensus today: “The Passion is a miracle.”

In terms of movies dealing with the sacred, The Passion of the Christ raised the bar almost too high. While the film should have become a new standard for faith-based films, it seems to have been too brilliant and ended up paralyzing religious filmmakers instead of becoming their template.

Lessons from the film about what makes for great sacred cinema have largely gone unlearned. Lessons like, you don’t make a great work of art by watering down the more esoteric points of Scripture or theology, but rather by pushing them. Or that great sacred art is characterized by the mysteries it offers and not in earnest truisms. Or that showing the intersection of grace and sin is probably going to require R-rated truths, which Christian artists should always prefer to G-rated lies. Finally, The Passion should have taught the Church of our era that great sacred art is first and foremost beautiful, but not necessarily pretty; it is profound not through didactic verbiage, but through imagery.

Part of the greatness of The Passion of the Christ is reflected in an astounding argument that broke out in Gibson’s office after the chosen few of us had screened the rough cut of the film.

There was an evangelical pastor in the room who had been brought in to also give feedback. He was nearly jumping out of his seat by the end of the piece. He addressed himself to Gibson in the chastening tone of someone speaking to a naughty child: “You must lose everything in this movie that isn’t in the Bible!” Gibson was taken aback. “What in my movie isn’t in the Bible?” The pastor waved his hand dismissively, “So many things! Like for example, the snake as Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane. That is unbiblical!”

I remember Gibson being perplexed and asking, “Don’t you think Satan was there?” The pastor replied, “It doesn’t matter what you or I think. You are not allowed to add anything that isn’t in the Bible.” I remember interjecting in the film’s defense that the presence of Satan in Gethsemane is certainly in the spirit of the Scriptures, to which the pastor blinked rapidly.

That kind of flourish, what the pastor thought unscriptural, but which I would call super-scriptural, is part of what makes The Passion so great. 

Full story at National Catholic Register.