The Passion of the Christ – Part 2

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(March 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 3) 

THE ROAD TO ROME?

As little as twenty years ago it was the overwhelming consensus of Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists that those who adhered to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification were not saved. That did not mean that Catholic Christians did not exist, for it was recognized that within the Church of Rome existed regenerate souls who for various reasons had remained in the Catholic Church. But none who clearly understood and accepted the soteriology of Rome could be viewed as born again. Rome’s salvation is sacramental in nature. Salvation, Catholics teach, is by grace, through faith, based on the cross. But to this they add an elaborate system of works which are also necessary for salvation. Still even this is not enough, for final authority for eternal salvation lies in the hands of the Church. All of this, and more, is proof positive that Rome’s gospel is not God’s and therefore is another gospel (Galatians 1:6-9) and condemned by the Lord.

Following the Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion, Catholics and evangelicals soon found themselves on the same side of many issues: abortion, family, morals, euthanasia, etc. As these two groups mixed, politically and ethically, in what has been termed “an ecumenism of the trenches,” it became more and more difficult for evangelicals to view their Catholic friends (with whom they worked side-by-side on some moral issue) as unredeemed. At that point a shift in thinking took place for many, opening a door for recognizing Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ. Through this door came Chuck Colson, Father John Neuhaus and The Evangelicals and Catholics Together Document of 1992 (ECT). There for the first time in print, at least on a wide popular level, was the declaration and recognition that “devout” Roman Catholics and evangelicals were one in Christ. We have taken different roads to Christ, to be sure, but somehow we all have arrived at the same place—we are both the children of God. Of course not all accepted this new union and much squawking broke out.

Now here we are a mere twelve years after ECT broke like a bombshell on the Christian world. Today it is considered politically incorrect, insensitive, negative and judgmental to even imply that a practicing Roman Catholic is not saved. We may have separate disciplines and theology, but we are all one family in Christ. In addition, there has been a flight toward Rome by evangelicals. Not only have they embraced more and more Catholic theology, but many are taking the plunge—leaving their Protestant churches and converting to Rome. And through it all, Rome has not budged a bit. Sure, Vatican II allowed for some conciliatory actions by Catholics, and some practical changes, but Rome has not altered even one doctrine. Salvation is still found only in the Roman Catholic Church. At the Council of Trent in the seventeenth century, over 100 anathemas against “heretics” outside the Roman Catholic Church were issued. Not one of the anathemas has ever been retracted.

Now comes the most powerful Roman Catholic propaganda in years in the form of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. This is not an intellectual presentation, like ECT; instead Gibson bypasses the mind altogether and goes straight for the emotions. In Gibson’s foreword to the book The Passion he writes that the film “is not meant as a historical documentary…. I think of it as contemplative in the sense that one is compelled to remember… in a spiritual way, which cannot be articulated, only experienced….”

Christianity Today admits, “This movie was shaped from start to finish by a devout Roman Catholic and by an almost medieval Catholic vision.” [1] And Gibson is clear about his purpose: “The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar—which is the same thing.” [2]

Should conservative Christians not show some caution before joining hands with a man who is intentionally linking the cross of Calvary with the continual re-sacrificing of Christ in the Mass? Gibson’s intention is to immerse people in Roman Catholicism and bring them into the Church. I believe that, due to the power of this film and the lack of discernment by Christian leaders, he may well succeed.

A ROMAN CATHOLIC MOVIE

Just how Catholic is this film? Examine the evidence. While Gibson follows the general account found in the Gospels, he freely embellishes the movie through “dramatic license.” There are numerous such cases, most prominent perhaps being the “Satan” character who tempts Jesus throughout the film. Of course, this and dozens of other scenes are not found in the Gospels.

But even more alarming is that Gibson adds many details to his film found in the book Dolorous Passion of Our Lord written by Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a late nineteenth century nun, which contains the visions she claims to have received from God concerning the Passion of Christ. It should be mentioned at this point that the second major doctrine, after soteriology, dividing Catholics from Protestants is that of Scripture. Catholics are quite comfortable with the continuous nature of revelation—that God is revealing truth and insight through select individuals throughout the church age. Much Catholic dogma and practice is based on these visions and revelations. In addition, final authority in Rome does not rest in the Bible but in the Church. Protestants have historically rejected both of these tenets of Catholic bibliology. Gibson, in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Church, feels at liberty to add to Scriptures the vision of this Catholic nun. Surely this should not go unnoticed.

But in order to really understand the heart and soul of The Passion of the Christ you must have some comprehension of Roman Catholic methods, meditations and prayers that stem, not from the Bible, or even early Christianity, but from medieval Catholic mystics.

David Neff, while drawing vastly different conclusions than mine, says it well:

When Protestants talk about prayer, they usually mean talking to God about what is on their heart and asking Him to deal with life’s difficulties. When Catholics talk about prayer, they mean the same things, but they tend to include as well certain practices of contemplation and meditation…. Historian Chris Armstrong describes the medieval origin of cross-centered devotion, which invited the believer to meditate on each separate event of Jesus’ passion and each individual wound on His body…. These practices became the foundation for such widely practiced tradition as meditations on the Five Sorrowful Mysteries when saying the Rosary. The structure of Gibson’s film conforms exactly to the list of the Five Sorrowful Mysteries: The Agony of Jesus in the Garden, the Scourging of Jesus at the Pillar, The Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying the Cross, and the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus. And it reveals the way that this film is for Gibson a kind of prayer (emphasis mine). [3]

In the same issue of Christianity Today, church historian Chris Armstrong identifies the sources behind Catholic contemplative prayer—medieval mystics. It was the monks, Armstrong writes, especially the early Irish and British monks, “who sustained a special devotion to the cross of Christ and tried to imitate Christ’s sufferings with penitential disciplines, such as standing for long periods with arms outstretched…. Soon a new atonement theology came on the scene, one fit for the new emotional piety. Its author was Peter Abelard (d.1142/43), who stressed that the crucifixion provided not satisfaction for wrongs committed but rather the supreme example of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Abelard wanted to foster in the unbeliever emotions of horror and godly sorrow when confronted by this death.” [4] While others would carry out Abelard’s vision, it was St. Francis of Assisi who was so consumed with the passion of the Christ that he was supposedly rewarded with the stigmata (the bleeding wounds of Jesus) in 1224. Francis’ disciples would bring the humanity and suffering of Christ into the mainstream of devotion as the laity was taught to meditate on the crucifixion. Christians throughout the Middle Ages became absorbed in the passion events.

A Belgian abbot, Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129), “by an allegorical method of exegesis…found in the pages of Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and other books new and little known details of the ‘Secret Passion’ of Christ—the exact number of times He fell down en route to the cross,” etc. [5]

“Late 13th and 14th century authors went one step further with entire comprehensive biographies of Christ that contained details from outside of the Gospels.” [6] These books eventually influenced Ignatius Loyola who “wrote in his widely used Spiritual Exercises a set of directions on how to place oneself imaginatively in the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.” This same tradition led to such longstanding devotional practices as the passion play and the Stations of the Cross. And it was in this period that disturbingly graphic crucifixion paintings became much more common.

With this background information it should not be difficult for us to see that it is Medieval Roman Catholic tradition that taught the worshipper to focus on the suffering of the crucifixion, not the Bible. Prior to the second millennium A.D., Christians had little interest in the gruesome details of the Passion. And, of course, in Catholic theology Christ is still suffering for our sins at every celebration of the Mass. It is Roman Catholicism, not Scripture that fixates on the agony and torture of Christ’s death. Scripture does not gloss over the crucifixion but its emphasis is on the outcome, as Christ paid the price for sin and satisfied the holy wrath of God. The Passion of the Christ is a purely Catholic film, propagating Catholic theology and undue emphasis on the grisly details of Calvary. Someone has called it an animated crucifix.

To further emphasize my point, just check out the Catholic ministries such as “Catholic Passion Outreach” (http://www.evangelism.com/). There you will find great rejoicing over this movie. At that site you will find a number of downloadable materials promoting Catholic theology, including Rosary related prayers and suggestions for evangelism (i.e. bringing people to Catholicism). They state, “The Passion of the Christ offers an unprecedented cultural opportunity for you to spread, strengthen, and share the Catholic Faith….”

At this site, and at many others, you can order, A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ written by Catholic Exchange. In the introduction you get a clear picture of the purpose of the movie:

As someone involved in the distribution and marketing of the film, I noticed early on the fervor with which many Protestant communities were preparing to use the film for evangelistic purposes. Websites sprang up featuring downloadable materials about Jesus and the Gospels. Marketing companies began churning out posters and flyers promoting the film and their own faith communities. Tracts poured into circulation making the case for Christ as the key to peace and happiness in life.

Yet, for all the sophisticated evangelization strategies, the irony is that our protestant brothers and sisters cannot adequately speak to many of the issues and questions the film evokes because the film is so distinctly Marian, so – obviously Eucharistic, so quintessentially Catholicas is the New Testament itself. In terms of effecting conversions and motivating people to weed out sin from their lives – which is what meditating on the Passion of Christ is all about—our evangelical friends have been an inspiration. But can their theology adequately or honestly mine such cinematic gems as the Last Supper flashbacks? Though the founders of some of the prominent Protestant denominations believed in and adored the Blessed Sacrament, this fact has been lost today in huge portions of American Protestantism. And without an understanding of Mary as our model in true Christian faith, one cannot begin to understand her significant role in the film. Only a solid understanding of the Catholic Faith can help us grasp these essential elements that figure so prominently in both the Scriptural record and the apostolic Tradition.

The film quite accurately links the sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the Mass. In doing so, it faithfully depicts biblical and Catholic teaching. Yet the Eucharistic connections between the Passion and the Mass are not obvious to many Catholics today. Indeed, speaking out of my own experience as a clueless Catholic ten years ago, I can only say that it’s highly unlikely that such connections are obvious even to those who have been born and raised in the Church. This is not because the connections are not there, but because so many people have not received an education in the Faith that equips them to see those connections, which are quite real and are, in fact, delineated for us in the teaching of the Church. Therefore, we at CatholicExchange.com see a need for this book to provide answers to some of the many questions critical to a full understanding of authentic Christianity – questions The Passion of the Christ will most certainly raise. (emphases supplied/added)

EFFECT

One cannot help but wonder why conservative Protestants are now so drawn to Medieval Catholic mysticism. Because this theology is now in cinematic form, does that change the fact that it is unbiblical? Why have evangelicals not been unduly tempted by this kind of mysticism before but are now? What has changed, and will the net result be that more people are drawn to Rome than to Christ? Do we now believe that Gibson, representing Catholicism, has taught us a thing or two about prayer and worship? Before we go that far we might note that Catholics have been praying the Rosary, meditating on the Stations of the Cross, weeping at the pictures and icon of Christ, entering into His sufferings, and participating at His continuous death at the Mass for centuries. And yet these well-meaning souls are lost. No one is saved by such mystical and misguided methodologies.

CONCLUSION

Let this paper end where it began. My concern here has been that The Passion of the Christ is another giant step towards Rome. As millions who have never before been exposed to Catholic theology and meditative mysticism find themselves enthralled with Gibson’s film, will they not want more of the same? Once having tasted, will they not want to enter into Christ’s passion more often—as their Catholic friends do through the Rosary, the Mass, and other mystical experiences? I fear so. In the two articles I cited from Christianity Today which prove the Catholicity of this movie, the authors both end, if not in Rome, then very sympathetic. While Gibson is amazed that evangelicals have responded to this movie because it is “so Marian,” [7] Neff states, “Many traditional Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) will see this film and feel Gibson has sprinkled them with the saving blood just as the Israelite priests sprinkled the atoning blood on the altar.” [8] And Armstrong pulls together his historical documentation of Catholic mysticism with these words, “But you don’t have to be a charismatic to awaken your imagination and your sense in devotion to Christ. Those who feel a lack in that area could do worse than take Mel Gibson’s cue, and begin a time-traveled ‘spiritual research trip’ to the roots of cross-centered piety.” [9]

What these men are saying is that while they recognize the film is grounded in medieval Catholic mysticism and tradition, it might very well do us evangelicals some good to adopt some of these practices. By doing so they choose to ignore the fact that Gibson is reviving hopeless and damning ritual that may give the feeling of religion, but saves no one.


[1] David Neff, “The Passion of Mel Gibson,” Christianity Today, March 2004, p. 30.
[2] Terry Mattingly, “The Passion of Mel Gibson,” Scripps Howard News Service, January 21, 2004.
[3] Neff, pp. 34-35
[4] Chris Armstrong, “The Fountain Fill’d with Blood,” Christianity Today, March 2004, pp. 42-43.
[5] Ibid, p. 43.
[6] Ibid, p. 43.
[7] David Neff, “Mel, Mary, and Mothers,” Christianity Today, March 2004, p. 34.
[8] Neff, p. 35.
[9] Armstrong, p. 44.

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