The following comes from a Feb. 8 posting on the Daily Republic by Father Daniel Molyneaux.
American Sniper is a huge R-rated hit at the movies. What is the most successful R-rated film of all time? Answer: Another controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, making $371 million domestically. It may also be the most profitable major motion picture of all time, having a production cost of only $30 million.
Lent begins Feb. 18. The initial theatrical run for The Passion of the Christ was during Lent in 2004. DVD and Blu-ray sales of The Passion continue to be brisk each spring. I know people who watch the film on Good Friday every year.
The reactions of moviegoers during its initial theatrical release were remarkable. One would see people weeping uncontrollably, others appearing profoundly angry, still others had a look of peace upon their faces. All had watched the same movie, but each had their own unique and individual reaction.
The Passion of the Christ is the most unlikely, unusual and controversial blockbuster in the history of movies, even more controversial than American Sniper. Filmed in the obscure “dead” language of Aramaic (the language Palestinian Jews spoke during Jesus’ time), the movie relies entirely upon subtitles and powerful visual imagery to convey its message.
Filmgoers have never been so polarized by a movie.
Some regret seeing The Passion, but many describe it as a life-changing event. Viewers were so moved by the film that even violent crimes were openly confessed after showings. Many people reported a renewed religious fervor after seeing the movie. And yet, a German exchange student remarked to me, “Oh, it was awful! No one should have to be subjected to a film like that.”
In spite of its cruel and sadistic depiction of violence against Jesus, the film’s violent content is not the primary controversy surrounding this film. The heart of the controversy results from the movie’s primary emphasis.
Every other major film about Jesus has dealt with his life as a whole – his birth, ministry, teachings and miracles, not just the execution and resurrection. The Passion is the first film to focus entirely on Jesus’ death as a blood atonement for the world’s sins, which is the single most controversial aspect of Jesus’ story.
Surprisingly few people object to the life and teachings of Jesus. Jews, Muslims, even many agnostics, view Jesus as a “good” person, and his teachings as commendable. Many non-Muslims are surprised to learn that Jesus (Isa) is recognized as a prophet by Islam, that he is mentioned repeatedly in the Quran, that it affirms his virgin birth, miracles and even Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
When one comes to Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and death, this is where agreement about his identity and significance sharply diverge. Islam denies that Jesus was crucified. Most Jews reject that he was the Messiah and billions around the world reject that Jesus’ death paid the price for the sins of the world, or that he rose from the dead.
The truly controversial aspect of The Passion of the Christ is not violence or any other aspect of the film, but the controversial nature of Jesus himself. Whether one loves or despises the movie is primarily determined by one’s view of Jesus, and what was accomplished during the last moments of his life on the cross.
If one believes that Jesus’ suffering and death was a sacrificial act of a loving God to save humanity from evil and death, then one tends to experience a deep appreciation for the film, in spite of its many faults and offensive aspects. If, however, one comes to The Passion without this view, one is overcome by the grotesque and pointless torture of an innocent human being, haunted by the film’s cruel depiction of man’s inhumanity to man, the sadistic enjoyment Romans receive from making others suffer, and the horror of our own frail mortality.
Each viewer’s reaction to The Passion is determined by what he or she brings to the film and what one believes about Jesus, rather than by what is portrayed in the movie. More than 2 billion people worldwide profess faith in Jesus, who remains the most controversial, most significant and most hotly debated person in the history of the world.
The Rev. Daniel Molyneux is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Fairfield. His first novel, The Angel of Antioch, was published in January and is available from Amazon. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.