The Moral Dilemma of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ
This spring a movie will be released that will contain an excessive amount of graphic violence, an extended torture sequence, and an abundance of blasphemous charges directed against the living God. Due to these excesses, the film has earned an R-rating. Strangely enough, most evangelical Christians will applaud the movie, and many will attempt to use it as an evangelistic tool to bring people to Christ.
The movie is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Recently, the film has been the subject of intense controversy, largely due to allegations of anti-Semitism. Hardly anyone has complained about the excessive violence in the film.
In the past months, Gibson has held private screenings of the movie for pastors and religious leaders. Most have come away from these screenings noticeably touched by the film's realism and intensity. Some recount how the graphic display of the bloody horrors of crucifixion moved them to tears. Through Gibson's efforts, it appears that he has successfully garnered the overwhelming approval and support of the evangelical community. Currently, many churches are gearing up to take full advantage of the movie's release as an opportunity for evangelism.
I am happy for this support and look forward to seeing the movie. However, I am curious how some evangelicals will navigate the moral trap they will set for themselves by endorsing this film. What trap is this? It is the moral dilemma of supporting a film filled with excessive violence, torture, and blasphemy - a film so bloody it has earned an R-rating simply for its gory content.
When evangelical Christians want to keep other Christians from participating in something but can't quite muster up enough proof-texts to make their point, they pull out the old reliable "slippery slope" argument. That is, if one accepts a morally questionable premise or practice, then they are almost certain to slide over the edge of a moral precipice to certain doom below. Personally, I do not accept or teach the slippery slope argument. I find it dreary, unhelpful, and frankly, boring. Certainly there is great danger at the utmost heights, but one also obtains the best view there. But allow me to use the argument against those most likely to resort to it in other circumstances.
Christian leader, if you endorse The Passion as an evangelistic tool in spite of its R-rating, how will you keep your parishioners from attending other R-rated films? How can you justify the excessive violence, brutal torture sequences, and repeated blasphemies directed against God? Are not these things - violence, torture, blasphemy - inherently immoral? If such evil things can be used for a good end, how is your justification any different than the ends-justify-the-means argument you often denounce and decry? If you are able to excuse the violence, torture, and blasphemy for the sake of the evangelical possibilities, how can you then forbid these things in other movies? Finally, if we Christians see R-rated movies, how will we be distinguished from the rest of the world?
You may reply that the effective telling of The Passion warrants the excessive use of graphic violence (and I would agree). But if this is true for The Passion, why can't this also be true for other stories? And how much is too much? Where do we draw the line? The Passion not only has violence, but it contains an excessive amount of graphic violence. It not only has torture, but an extensive amount of torture. It not only has blasphemy, but the worst blasphemy of all - the betrayal, denial, and rejection of the living God in Christ.
There is no denying that one of the unique aspects of Gibson's rendition of the Jesus story is its graphic portrayal of the crucifixion. Jesus will be pictured as suffering immense physical anguish. His body will be battered, bruised, beaten, whipped, punctured, and speared. He will be crushed into a bloody pulp by the end of the movie. What is the line between this and gratuitous violence? The degree of violence in this movie will certainly be excessive. If the same level of violence was performed in another film, would you call it gratuitous, evil, and unredeemable? Or would you justify it in the same way you will justify it in The Passion?
If they are willing to admit it, many evangelicals, if they are to remain consistent in their stated convictions concerning movies, will have to reject The Passion. Those who believe that the morality of a story ultimately has to do with its details (Does it contain sex, violence, or profanity?) rather than with its overall message will be forced to sanction this film with an unclean conscious.
Don't get me wrong, I will be one of the first in line to see this movie. The difference between me and many evangelicals will be one of integrity. I will be able to view the film without any compromise of my convictions in regard to the use of immoral elements in the telling of a story. I do not believe that the rating of a movie is a reliable indicator of the value, morality, or quality of a film. I do believe that good movies may include scenes of violence, sex, and the use of profanity without compromising the overall message of the film. The bloody violence, torture, and blasphemy in The Passion - all immoral and ungodly acts in their own right - do not detract from the overall redemptive message of the movie. Since the rating of a movie is not significant to me in regard to the value of a movie, I will not suffer any pangs of conscience by purchasing a ticket. In other words, my actions on the day I view The Passion will be consistent with my actions and philosophy throughout the entire year. In contrast, many evangelicals will prove inconsistent to their convictions when they purchase a ticket to an R-rated movie full of bloody violence, extended torture sequences, and repeated blasphemies. In short, I won't be compromising my convictions when I view The Passion, but I think many Christians will.
My simple point directed primarily to Christian leaders is this: If you have preached against attendance at R-rated movies, or if you have declared that a movie is immoral if it contains violence, sex, or profanity, then you are inconsistent and lacking integrity if you endorse this film. If you constantly complain about the level of violence, disturbing images, or blasphemous actions in other films, then you should do the same for The Passion. You have a moral dilemma on your hands, whether you are willing to admit it or not. My hope is that this inconsistency would cause you to rethink your position.
Why have I belabored this point? It is simple to take a holier-than-thou stance and remain distant from popular culture. It is much harder to truly yet critically engage our culture. Christians who attempt to interact with their culture are more likely to be labeled as worldly or unbiblical than those who remain within the comfortable confines of the Christian ghetto - the place where cheap imitations of pop culture are offered stripped of embarrassing acts of violence, sex, or profanity. Those in the ghetto condemn so-called "non-Christian" movies as immoral simply because they are not made by and for Christians. Even the "evangelistic" movies supposedly made to win unbelievers to Christ must not contain anything truly offensive or objectionable, lest they offend the true audience - conservative Christians.
The morality of a story does not consist in the story's details, but in the overall message of a story. Too many Christians have a simplistic concept of morality that allows them to justify or condemn a movie based on how many times it does or does not contain acts of violence, sex, or profanity. This is an unhelpful, and even more importantly, an unbiblical standard of judgment. If the measure of a story's morality has to do with the amount of violence, sex, or profanity it contains, then the Bible is certainly an immoral book, for it is filled with these things!
In the pages of the Bible one will find adultery (2 Samuel 11), incest (Genesis 19:31-36), masochism and satanic worship (1 Kings 18:25-28), orgies (Exodus 32:3-6), prostitution (Genesis 38:12-26), rape (Genesis 34:2; 2 Samuel 13:6-14), and even gang rape (Judges 19:22-25). One will also find people burned alive (Numbers 16:35), cannibalized (2 Kings 6:28), decapitated (1 Samuel 17:5), disemboweled (Judges 3:21-22), dismembered (1 Samuel 15:32-33), stabbed (Judges 3:16-26), stoned (Numbers 15:36), and sacrificed (2 Kings 3:27). [For a more extensive list see Brian Godawa's Hollywood Worldviews, page 190.] Add to this the steamy sexuality of The Song of Songs or the graphic description of Israel's unfaithfulness, comparing her to an unfaithful whore (Ezekiel 16) who lusts after the enlarged members of her adulterous lovers (Ezekiel 23:19-21) and you begin to realize the extent of R-rated material in the Bible.
Obviously, the morality of a story does not consist in the story's details, but in the overall message of a story. All accounts of violence, sex, and blasphemy are not intrinsically immoral. To reject any story - whether it is The Passion or any other movie - simply because of a few immoral details is to reason in such a way that ultimately leads not simply to the rejection of most films, but also to the Bible itself. In short, the way many Christians use the Bible to endorse their rejection of movies is not biblical. Godawa's warning is helpful in this regard:
[W]e must be careful in our appeal to the Good Book when analyzing the morality of stories. For in its pages are detailed accounts and descriptions of every immoral act known to humanity. A cursory perusal of these depictions of vice is enough to make any concerned reader blush. But it only proves that sex and violence are not always literary taboo in Holy Writ. In fact, the acknowledgment of evil is treated as the necessary prerequisite to redemption. (Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews, p. 188)
The real reason that Christians are so easily offended is because we have forgotten that offense is at the heart of our faith. The cross is a scandal. It is an inhumane, bloody, torture device created to inflict the maximum amount of pain and humiliation. The horror of the cross was so great that it was not spoken about in polite civil circles within Greco-Roman society. And yet the church made this scandalous event the heart of its proclamation. The church boldly declared that the true power of God was demonstrated in the weakness of Christ on the cross. At no other time in human history was the fullness of God's love more evident than in the self-giving love of God in Christ.
We have conveniently removed the scandal from the cross. Indeed, most Protestant crosses don't even have a human body on them to remind us that the cross is the place of torture, misery, pain, and death. Our faith is sanitized, clean, moral, and comfortable. We want it to be family-friendly rather than R-rated (children under 17 must be accompanied by a guardian). We forget the filth of the garbage heap called Golgotha littered with human debris and filth, the profanity of the soldiers, the blasphemy of the crowds spurred on by the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, the abuse of power - both religious and secular. When we reduce Christianity to a sweet, nice religion for good people who never cuss, fight, or think of sex, we lose the bloody mess that is the cross, and in doing so, we lose Christ.
We are easily offended because we have removed the offense at the heart of the Christian proclamation. The Christian faith is R-rated. It is for real men and women who find grace, love, and truth in the midst of the bloody chaos of the violent world in which we live. It is not for people who seek to escape from violence, sex, and profanity, but for people who realize that all the violence in the world cannot overthrow the power of the cross, all the sex in the world cannot come close to revealing the depth of love demonstrated at the cross, and all the blasphemous human expressions in the world cannot speak more loudly than the silent suffering of the crucified king.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2004
Notice the "striking image"! What is noticeably absent? A body, blood, pain, etc. This calm "ThomasKinkadian" picture may be the only peaceful scene in the entire movie! Leave it to evangelicals to suggest that one of the most "striking images" in Gibson's movie is an empty cross against a peaceful, calm sky. Guaranteed not to offend!