Thursday, May 06, 2004

Is Mel's movie impious?-3

2. Mariolatry

Moving onto criticisms of the movie itself, several objections take issue with the film as an exercise in Catholic propaganda. For example, it is said that The Passion plays up the Mater Dolorosa motif.

Before commenting on the specifics, a couple of general observations are in order. The Reformed critic runs the ironic risk of buying into a Roman Catholic reading of church history, according to which the Roman Catholic church is the trunk or the oak tree, of which Protestantism is just a crooked offshoot or mutant acorn.

There's all the difference in the world between blind tradition and critical tradition. Just as one can pick and choose from what is best in the history of art, music, and literature generally, one can be finicky about the best elements in ecclesiastical tradition. It's precisely because tradition is uninspired and fallible that we can be highly selective and choosy shoppers.

Not everything coming out of the Medieval Latin Church is an unclean thing. The pre-Reformation church was not conterminous with Trent. Calvin was quite happy to quote from Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux.

In addition, a distinction often blurred or obliterated in the debate is whether the movie should be boycotted or criticized. These are two quite different things. Many of the theological critics are of the opinion that because the movie is theologically flawed, no one should watch it. But the one doesn't follow from the other.

Many things that are the object of valid criticism are not necessarily to be shunned. Indeed, you can't criticize something unless you know something about it.

Even if the movie is primed by an undercoat of Mariolatry, the only reason that a critic can identify this motif is because he is bringing extra-cinematic knowledge into the movie-theater. If you didn't already know about the cult of Mary, would the Passion brainwash you with all the Marian dogmas about the Assumption, Immaculate Conception, and perpetual virginity (ante, in, et post partum) of Mary? Or her role as the Mother of God and Mother of the Church? Or her role as the Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix?

Who exactly is harmed by this? Catholic moviegoers already believe in it; Evangelical moviegoers already disbelieve it, and won't believe it just because of a few hints are dropped here and there in the course of the film; while the uninitiated won't know enough to pick up on these subtle clues. If you're a Mariolater going in, you'll be a Mariolater coming out. What has changed?

Have Calvinist critics of the film been converted to Roman Catholicism by seeing it or hearing about it? If they were sorely tempted they've done a marvelous job of suppressing the symptoms!

How can we witness to Roman Catholics or engage in apologetics if we're so afraid of defection within our ranks that we quiver and quake under a thorn-bush? There is a time and a place to avoid evil, but some evil is unavoidable, so we had better brace ourselves. Apologetics is a contact sport.

And in this regard, we join with our fellow Calvinists in shining a spotlight on all the damning dogmas of Roman Catholicism. But you can only shine a spotlight if you know where to point it.

3. The Mass

A related criticism is that the use of Latin rather than Greek is a subtle apologetic thrust for the Tridentine Mass. Now, it may be that using Latin dialogue is a plug for the Latin Mass. But, once again, unless the viewer already knows about the Tridentine Mass and its underlying theology, he is not going to get the idea of a bloodless resacrifice from watching a gory film about the Crucifixion.

However, the objection may be that a movie like The Passion softens up the audience to be more receptive to Romanism. And there's some truth to that. For some viewers, it will foster a favorable predisposition. Is it worth the risk? Just what are the possible perils?

1. An Evangelical converts to Catholicism. That would be a bad outcome. If, however, his faith was such a hothouse plant that it withers at first contact with the outside elements, then it wasn't much of a faith to begin with. Such a faith was just a default-setting in the absence of deep-rooted and time-tested faith.

2. An unbeliever converts to Catholicism. Even if we were to say, for the sake of argument, that all Catholics are damned, so are unbelievers, so it is hard to see how conversion from unbelief to Catholicism is, even under the most ungenerous construction of the consequences, a worst case scenario.

And let us not rule out the possibility that God has a remnant in the Roman Church. We, who know better, should coax them out of Babylon whenever the opportunity presents itself, but being a Roman Catholic isn't always worse than being an unbeliever.

3. A nominal Catholic becomes a devout Catholic. But assuming, for the sake of argument, that both identities are damnable, is that an unacceptable consequence?

Now it could be argued that a nominal Catholic is easier to win over to the Evangelical faith than a Catholic who is hardened in the errors of Rome. That is true. But this is all rather hypothetical. It assumes that he would be reachable before seeing the movie. This, in turn, assumes that he's is taken out of play after seeing the movie. Given that Roman Catholics outnumber Evangelicals by at least ten to one, many Catholics are already out of reach because there are not enough astute Evangelicals to reach them.

This entire line of criticism assumes an ideal situation in which a superior alternative is readily available, and where we can control the choices that people make, as well as the outcome of those choices. But, of course, such a rosy scenario does not obtain in a real-world situation. Calvinists, of all people, should resist the temptation to play God. We resign the results to his sovereign disposition over all men and events.

And although we don't wish to overgeneralize about this, social conditioning is a partial, although by no means infallible, indicator of who the Lord has chosen to save or not to save.

If, conversely, the Lord has chosen to save someone, then that individual can take a rather zigzag route. An unbeliever could convert to Catholicism, then get involved in Bible studies, network with Evangelical friends, and transition from the RCC to a Bible-based persuasion.

Indeed, it seems not to occur to some of the critics that their vehement opposition may precipitate the very thing they fear. Like it or not, many church members are going to see the film. When a pastor puts himself between The Passion and the parishioner, he forces a choice between himself and the movie.

The effect may be to drive some of his flock into the arms of Rome by driving a wedge between himself and the laity, or between himself and the youth. For if there's a wide discrepancy between what they hear from the pulpit and what they see on the screen, the shrill and lopsided denunciations are liable to backfire. Don't draw a line in the sand with your back to a cliff lest to take a tumble!

We're reminded of the split between the New Lights and the Old Lights, when the Old Lights—with the best of intentions—allowed the excesses of the Great Awakening to blind them to a heaven-sent revival. Let us guard against repeated that mistake.

It also betrays a profound lack of confidence in the laity. Of all people, a Calvinist ought to be in the best position to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Isn't one of a pastor's principal duties to teach his people some threshing-skills so that a layman is able to sift truth from error?

Suppose the film makes an unchurched viewer curious about the Gospels? So he goes back to the original and gets his theology straight from the horse's mouth (as it were). God is quite ingenious in using unpromising means to achieve his ends. That is an aspect of his sovereignty. The law of unintended consequences cuts in more than one direction.

4. Dramatic license

Another criticism is that, in addition to the canonical text, the screenplay incorporates material from Catholic contemplatives. Now the screenplay would no doubt be better if it stuck with the plain text of the canonical Gospels. And if there were nothing to be gained by going to see The Passion, then, of course, no one should see it. But a film can be more faithful in some respects, and less so in others. If The Passion gives us the most realistic depiction of our Lord's last hours before the other side of Golgotha, then doesn't the trade-off yield a payoff? We glean an insight into our Lord's redemptive work—an element of empathy—that we would not otherwise receive. As Gene Veith has pointed out, although the movie is too Catholic for some Evangelicals, it is too Evangelical for some Catholics.

A variant on the above criticism is that the screenplay both adds to and subtracts from the word of God, thus falling afoul of the inscriptional curse sanctions in Scripture. This objection is a category mistake. If the screenplay were based on a forgery, such as the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, then the charge might stick. But the film no more claims to be a verbatim reproduction of Scripture than the average sermon. Is an expository preacher accursed because his sermon is not a word-for-word recitation of the entire canon of Scripture?

A further criticism is that the Gospels don't describe the flogging in any detail. That is true, but irrelevant. Since Jesus was flogged, and we know what flogging entailed, from Josephus and others, what's wrong with unpacking a claim of Scripture? Doesn't an expository preacher ever spell out just what all a given statement of Scripture implies? Doesn't he ever draw a mental picture for the congregation of what was happening back then?

5. Emotionalism

The film has also been criticized because it accentuates his physical torment, and plays upon the feelings of the audience. Now it is true that an overemphasis on the physical suffering of Christ is a basic feature of Catholic spirituality. And this is misguided. We must never make our Lord an object of pity.

But as a criticism of the film, this raises other issues and alternatives. Catholic moviegoers are already infected by this overemphasis, so what harm can be done in their case? But because Evangelical theology does not suffer from the same imbalance, it is unclear how a dose of this will do injury to our personal piety.

For many of us who live in the age of anesthetics and painkillers, climate-controlled cars and homes and churches and offices, the bodily torment of Christ is a pious abstraction. To be brought in touch with what it looks like and feels like to be tortured to death should enrich our reading of the Passion narratives.

There is much more to the Passion of our Lord that the physical side. There is the anguish and alienation that came of calling upon himself the curse which we deserve (Gal 3:13). But if we put too much emphasis on the psychological side of our Lord's Passion, we run the risk of shifting the center of gravity from Golgotha to Gethsemane. We are no longer looking to the Cross, but the garden.

Mere emotion never saved anyone. But the Bible is a very passionate book. And if the Bible has no emotional resonance for me, then is it even real to me? If I never feel what I say I believe, isn't my faith just a dry and distant abstraction? Calvin himself was highly critical of a form of faith which flits about in the back of the brain rather than taking root in the heart of the believer (Institutes 3:2:36).

6. Theological omissions

Some critics attack the film for sins of theological omission as well as commission. The film, they say, fails to do justice to the Resurrection; it fails to teach the full panoply of Pauline soteriology.

All this is true, but how is that a cinematic failure? And even if it were, it that flaw sufficient to doom the whole enterprise? Is the Bach St. Matthew Passion not worth our while because it doesn't cover the same ground as his Christmas oratorio or Easter oratorio?

The real question we need to put to ourselves is why a non-Catholic should find it worthwhile see a Catholic movie like this one? Is it to hear a sermon on the extrinsic active and passive righteousness of Christ imputed by faith alone to the believer?

1. To begin with, this sort of abstract didacticism is not in the nature of narrative theology, much less the film medium. The critics are describing a Pauline construct. But even if Gibson made a verbatim adaptation of, let us say, the very first Gospel—Gospel of Mark—could the viewer extract this theological construct from the story of the Gospel?

2. If a Protestant goes to The Passion hoping to see this, or expecting that this is what he ought to see, then he will, of course, be sorely disappointed. But isn't that whole line of objection a red herring? Just as we don't go to Romans for the life of Christ, we don't go to the Gospels for Pauline theology.

The sensible reason for seeing The Passion is to witness a realistic depiction of our Lord's last hours this side of the cross. To gain a graphic sense of his outward ordeal.

The only relevant question is whether The Passion, in spite of its sins of theological omission and commission, succeeds at this level, and whether that is reason enough to see it.

7. Co-opting Evangelism.

A final line of attack seizes on certain extravagant claims about the evangelistic value of the film, and then debunks the entire enterprise on that basis alone. Again, though, this is not to judge the film for what it is, but for what some would make of it—for good or ill.

It isn't clear why I should all be bound by your predictions. Why must we prejudge the Passion one way or the other? Must it edify everyone to edify anyone? Must it be a vast evangelistic boon to be any good at all? Isn't one lost sheep worth rescuing? These all-or-nothing arguments are excessive on both sides of the debate. This is not forced option. We should avoid falling into the trap, in Bishop Butler's words, of damning the good because it isn't better. The Lord is able to bless and prosper the day of small beginnings. Let us, then, sit back and revel in his almighty providence.


On an editorial note, this paper was largely a collaborative effort between myself and Michael Sudduth. But owing to time constraints, Dr. Sudduth cannot be held responsible for the final draft.

1 comment:

  1. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.