• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Wednesday, February 08, 2006

    Book Review: Perspectives on the Passion of the Christ

    I mentioned a few weeks back that this book has been re-issued, under the slightly shorter title “On the Passion of the Christ”. I had never got around to reading the original. And as that’s now available for significantly less than the re-issue, and largely the same essays’ save a new intro by Paula Fredriksen I thought I’d go for the cheaper option.

    It is interesting that they have dropped the word “Perspectives” from the new book’s title. Certainly my main criticism of this book is that nearly all of the essayists, except perhaps Amy Jill Levine, strongly criticise the film, and the reasons for doing so are generally fairly similar. It’s not even like Levine offers unqualified praise for the movie – her essay is actually a fairly balanced discussion of the different viewpoints and why they are held. But she, at least, manages to understand why this film became so important for evangelicals.

    It’s difficult to see who is to blame for this lack of balance. The individual authors had their briefs, and could only really offer their own insights. On the other hand the editors will point out that they invited a broad spectrum of Christians to write, including two evangelicals, Ben Witherington III, and Jim Wallis. Unfortunately, neither of them actually like the movie either – whilst they are entitled to their views (and I agree with a lot of what they are saying), unfortunately they are hardly representative of their constituents, and it leaves the book as a whole looking painfully one sided.

    Whilst the scholarly reaction to the film, has been largely negative there have been some evangelical scholars who have praised the film. Perhaps those who commissioned the book should have sought more essays that would give the other side of the argument, and had the strength to chop some of the essays which give us little that isn’t raised elsewhere. (Perhaps the fact that this is a Miramax book had something to do with it.)

    The central plank of this book is the (in)famous Ad Hoc Scholars report, handed to Gibson by a group of nine scholars who had seen an early version of the script. seven of those scholars contribute their own chapters to this volume, and the report is included in full. Having heard so much about this report, it was good to finally read the report itself. It contains many interesting insights, and the appendices, which provide a great deal of content incredibly succinctly, are impressive. However, if the intention of the report was to influence Gibson for the good then the tone of the report seems far more likely to rub him up the wrong way. (And it did!)

    One of the other interesting chapters in this book was Deborah Caldwell’s “Selling Passion”. She provides an account of the run up to the film which is refreshingly different from not only all the other chapters in this book, but also those in other similar books.

    Whilst the two other collections of scholars’ essays on the film that I have read, are also generally negative about the film, both manage to gain a greater degree of balance. “Re-viewing the Passion” includes essays from those more versed in film to appreciate Gibson’s visual work and present the film in the context of “visual theology”. Robert K. Johnston, Darren J.N. Middleton, Gaye W. Ortiz and Peter T. Chattaway all have good credentials as writers on film, and it shows. For me this is the strongest element of the film and as a result this book is probably the most positive of the three whilst still highlighting the movie’s weak points.

    “Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ” is on the whole more critical, but makes two very smart moves. Firstly, the opening section of the book finds John Dominic Crossan and Mark Goodacre gives responses to the film as a whole. Crossan slates it, Goodacre is far more positive, albeit with a few reservations. The effect of this is that the following chapters are read through the filters of what Crossan and Goodacre say. The later chapter then is particularly significant as the remaining chapters generally offer criticism of the film – many of which have, thus, already been countered to some extent.

    The other strength of the book is that the middle section broadens the debate by focussing on different individuals, or episodes individuals within the story, so there are chapters on Mary, the Jewish leaders and the trials of Jesus. The effect of this is that the book has a far wider reach than “Perspectives on The Passion of the Christ”.

    In fact, this is the other major problem with this book. It is incredibly repetitive. By the time you have read all 18 chapters you have learnt by rote that history testifies that Pilate was brutish unlike the Passion, that the gospels were theologised history rather than eye-witness accounts, and that they would have spoken in Greek and not Latin. The effect is (somewhat ironically) that you too have been battered into submission.

    There are other minor praises and quibbles. It is interesting hearing Witherington and Wallis speak out against the majority in their communities. Adele Reinhartz’s expertise on Jesus films always brings an interesting perspective, and Stephen Prothero sets the film in the context of the varying cultural portraits of the American Jesus. Conversely, Steve Martin’s “”Script Notes”” are both out of place in a book such as this, and more reprehensibly, not really that funny. For a book that criticises Gibson’s star power in places this seems like a particularly strange move.

    The other area that could have better is the ordering of the book. For a work that is significantly linked to the Ad Hoc Scholars report – it would have made sense to place that book nearer the beginning. Similarly some of the other chapters that look at the context surrounding the film, such as Prothero’s, might have been best placed towards the start of the work.

    Overall, there are a few really good insights in the book, and the more popular criticisms are argued persuasively, but the book is marred by, at times, tedious repetition and a general lack of balance that make it less interesting than similar in-depth explorations of The Passion of the Christ.


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