A family with older children could do much worse during the Easter season than to watch together a “double feature” of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the recently released Risen. After the first has brought home to them the experience of Christ’s passion and death, with just a hint of the power of His resurrection, family members can share an outsider’s view of Christ’s return to his Disciples, His call to evangelization, and His promise to “always be with you.”
Each of these is an important movie in its own right. The Passion is, simply put, a masterpiece. That said, the manner in which these films tell their stories, and in which some have judged them, show the extent of our secularized culture’s distance from its Christian roots. Where The Passion assumes a Christian sensibility no longer dominant, Risen faces the task of drawing in an audience far more enamored of the cult of niceness that with Christian virtue.
When The Passion was first released, some criticized it for the brutality it depicts. One theologian claimed that an observer from Mars would get the impression that Christianity was a brutal religion that glorifies violence. Mr. Gibson’s reaction was perfect: “sure, if you’re from Mars.” But the reviewers had more to offer. In addition to visceral reactions against the film’s violence, some reviewers offered harsh criticism of Jim Caviezel’s supremely dignified portrayal of Jesus as limp and weak; some found The Passion’s Christ to be little more than a human punching bag. These reviews were worse than unfair, they were uncomprehending. And we should not allow the unprecedented success of the film to blind us to the troubling implications of that incomprehension. The point of Mr. Gibson’s Passion was not simply the suffering of Christ, but the fact that it is we who caused that suffering, and that the suffering was necessary to save us.
The Passion, to do its job of calling us to repent from our sins—the means by which we cause Christ to suffer every day—relies on our understanding who we are and where we come from. Increasingly, Americans and others from formerly Christian cultures have no idea whence they come. We delude ourselves into believing that we are largely self-created, or that the color of our skin and the “social constructs” of race, class, and gender keep us from becoming the sinless heroes we think we truly are. Only rarely do most of us consider our true origins—our creation in the image of God, marred by our propensity to choose sin—let alone the reality of our ultimate destinies. When The Passion was shown in theaters, many of us experienced the pain of guilt, some literally crying out. We were called to repentance by a frank depiction of what our sins, our attitudes of selfishness and resentment against our creator do, not merely to us, but to Him who gave us being and seeks our ultimate good. But those who were not open to such an experience saw mere brutality, hatred, or both. For Christians the brief scene at the end of the film, in which Christ breathes again, rising to go about the next stage of His work, brings forth relief, hope, and a call to spiritual action. For those without faith it seems merely the quaint ending to a violent fairy tale, wiping away the horror with the conviction that it was all just a dream.
Even on the small screen, The Passion’s depiction of our sinfulness is all-encompassing. It is an aid to faith and a powerful call to deepen and live that faith. But it cannot create that faith. Capturing an eternal moment, it relies for its impact on a state of mind our culture no longer supports, such that one wonders how long its power will last in our culture. One even wonders how long a film like it will be allowed to be made and shown in public, and whether it might soon be banned as violent and even degrading.
It would be wrong to say that a work like The Passion has a “weakness” in and of itself. But the cultural limitation of The Passion is its intrinsic incapacity to reach an audience not willing to be reached. Risen, while a very good film, is not a masterpiece. And perhaps the reason for this is that it takes seriously the limitation of films like The Passion. For the weakness of Risen is the price that many believe, with reason, must be paid in the attempt to reach a secular audience in the attempt to open their minds and hearts to transcendent truth. That weakness is less in what is added to the story of Christ’s resurrection than in what is taken away in the attempt to make that story speak to a secular world.
What is added in Risen is in fact moving and at times brilliant in its insight into the pagan mind. The main character, a fictional Roman military officer named Clavius, is played with marvelous restraint by Joseph Fiennes. Clavius is tasked by Pontius Pilate with finding the body of Jesus after Pilate had him crucified as a means of staving off rebellion. His investigation leads Clavius to search his own soul. He even prays to Yahweh as if he were the Roman god Mars, leaving money and a promise to give honors if the Jewish God helps him in his quest.
Eventually Clavius finds, not merely Christ’s body, but the living Christ, surrounded by his Disciples. He sees Christ comfort Thomas and show him His wounds. Soon after, Clavius abandons his Roman post, position, and aspirations, following the Disciples as they travel to Galilee, where they have been told they will next see Jesus. There is a beautiful scene in which we see Peter in all his struggling glory, bringing Clavius water, turning angry when Clavius mistakenly slashes his leg with a sword, then grudgingly allowing Clavius into his company. Soon Jesus returns, provides warmth, reassurance, and some guidance, then ascends into Heaven, leaving his Disciples frightened but joyful and determined to do His work.
Clavius is unable to cast off his Roman-ness sufficiently to immediately join the Disciples. But at the end of the film he knows what he has seen and that it “changes everything.” We know that he has chosen a new, higher path, though where it will lead him remains unclear. We are left with hope but, as is right, not resolution.
Risen is an excellent movie that did well at the box office despite lackluster support from the studio. It is entertaining as well as uplifting and the critics were much kinder to it than they were to The Passion. Still, most of the “mainstream” reviews sniff at its religious content (and how to avoid that while still being a movie about Christ? Why, trash Him, of course!). As often, the reviews seek out political incorrectness in casting, costuming, ethnic sympathies and whatever else is required by members of the borg that is our cultural ethos.
What Risen does manage to avoid is criticism for being too preachy. The question is whether this is a good thing. Thomas is not confronted for his doubt. Christ’s call to his Father to forgive us is neither shown nor remembered. Jesus heals, but does not call for repentance or make clear that the harder part is forgiving sin. Such elements would not require mere “preaching,” but would show the fact of Christ’s call for us to repent, to recognize and hate our sin, the better to love our Lord and our fellows.
Despite this important weakness, Risen is a very fine film, well worth watching, and encouraging others to watch. One hopes its director, Kevin Reynolds, and all those associated with it will return again to a genre that, after decades of neglect and derision finally seems to be making something of a comeback. The problem is that the comeback of films rooted in faith is so very niche-centered. Even Hollywood now recognizes that there is money to be made from religious moviegoers. One hopes, after the massive failure of insulting movies like Noah that they also recognize the limited financial advantage of insulting people’s faith, at least within this niche. But that is the problem. Our society has become so deeply hostile to religious themes, and especially Christianity’s intrinsic call for repentance from sin, that Christian art, like Christians in general, is in danger of becoming merely another niche market, akin to LGBT or ethnic art, with crossover appeal being a matter of luck or skillful excision of elements too far outside the mainstream. One can only pray that increased success within “our” niche may help spur greater openness to the full range of Christian themes and messages.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.