Blog Archive for 2/22/04 - 2/28/04
This is one of the most profound, moving lines in The Passion of the Christ. It's also one of the lines in the movie that doesn't come directly from the biblical gospels. Though both Matthew and Mark testify that those crucified with Jesus taunted him, we're not supplied with their exact words. Luke only gives the words when one of the criminals called out to Jesus to remember him. Mel Gibson and his co-writer, Benedict Fitzgerald filled in the biblical blanks here - brilliantly, I believe.
The criminal condemns Jesus as a "fool" for embracing his cross. In this way The Passion of the Christ summarizes the world's perspective on authentic Christianity. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the good news of the cross, it is "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23). Who would embrace the cross as the way of saving the world from sin? Only Christ the fool, the world says. And who would believe that the crucifixion of Jesus would bring salvation to the world? Only foolish Christians, the world says.
And so we know who we are in the eyes of the world - or who we should be if we uphold the core of Christian faith. Fools! Fools who believe in the paradoxical good news of Christ crucified. Fools who believe that we can't earn our own salvation through good works or good intentions. Fools who, like Jesus, embrace the cross as the way of eternal life. In the classic lines of Augustus Toplady's hymn:
Perhaps more than anything in our lifetime, The Passion of the Christ has helped us experience the scandal of the cross.
Before I explain what I mean, I want to add a qualifier. It is possible to be a faithful Christian and not like Mel Gibson's movie. Although the majority of Christians have been deeply moved by the film, a few have criticized it, either as being too gory or too Catholic or even as a violation of the Second Commandment (forbidding "graven images"). So I want to be clear that one can be scandalized by The Passion of the Christ while still embracing the true passion of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, Mel Gibson has helped us experience the true scandal of the cross. First of all, he has reminded us of how terrible crucifixion and the tortures that often accompanied it really were. The Romans had lots of "nice" ways of executing criminals. Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest of the low, when Rome needed an over-the-top deterrent. In fact crucifixion was so repugnant that civilized Romans rarely even spoke of it. (See the classic treatment by Martin Hengel, Crucifixion.) We Christians, on the contrary, have become so used to speaking about crucifixion that we tend to miss its horror. One cannot view The Passion of the Christ without experiencing, perhaps for the first time, the physical scandal of the cross. Jesus didn't die on some artistic religious symbol, but on one of the cruelest implements of torture and murder ever invented by depraved humanity. We can now understand why the message of the cross sounded so foolish to first-century Jewish and Greek listeners. They weren't crazy to think that a real God would have nothing to do with crucifixion, let alone suffer it.
The good news of the crucified Savior is still regarded as folly by many in today's world. As I have listened carefully to critics of The Passion of the Christ , some have limited their criticism to the movie alone. But others have gone on to disparage the core Christian belief that Christ, through his death on the cross, was bringing salvation to the world. Their view, simply put, is this: "I'm offended by the idea that God would demand the death of anyone to atone for sin. My God wouldn't do this. My God is a God of love, not torture." Those who articulate such a view aren't crazy, through I think they're wrong. Indeed, they are responding as people have done for centuries to the folly of the cross. They are scandalized, not merely by Mel Gibson's movie, but by Christian story of salvation - salvation that required death to atone for sin.
We who live in a Christian ghetto can too easily forget the folly of the cross. We can also trivialize the perplexing paradox that God became human in Jesus, "and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). "Even death on a cross!" This is indeed a stumbling block, in Greek, a skandalon. Jesus didn't only subject himself to death, but to one of the worst kinds of death imaginable. If you've seen The Passion of the Christ, this requires no further explanation.
Why do we Christians need to recover a sense of the scandal of the cross? For one thing, it helps us realize the depths to which God is willing to stoop in order to save us. This leads us to wonder, gratitude, and humble worship (Philippians 2:7-11). Moreover, it is only when we grasp the true meaning of the cross - including its scandal - that we'll be ready to communicate the full gospel of God to people who do not yet believe.
As Christians, we are called to proclaim the paradoxical good news of the cross to our neighbors, many of whom will find it both foolish and offensive. Our task is not to lessen the offense by watering down the message, but to find ways of communicating the message so that people will understand its truth. Moreover, we are to incarnate that message through our life of sacrificial love and service. Finally, when we realize the immense challenge of preaching a "foolish" gospel, then and only then will we rely fully on the Spirit of God, who alone opens hearts to receive the scandalous, paradoxical, prodigal love of God in Christ.
I saw The Passion of the Christ today for the second time. I had intended to write a follow-up review tonight, a sequel to my earlier "The Passion of the Christ: An In-Depth Review." But, for someone who usually has a lot to say, I find myself strangely reticent. For me, this is more a time to keep silence than a time to speak.
Part of my silence is a response to the movie itself. Even though this film provokes a torrent of thoughts and feelings within me, somehow it seems wrong to channel these into public speech at this moment. I need to think, to reflect, to pray, and simply to be silent.
And, in my silence, I also need to listen. I need to listen to the confusing cacophony of voices of those who have seen The Passion of the Christ and have responded in such utterly diverse ways. Has there ever been a film that has elicited such powerful, profound, and yet widely varied responses? I don't think so. In this sense at least, the The Passion of the Christ is rather like Jesus himself.
Most of the people I have talked to about the movie have been deeply moved. Yet their response hasn't been just to the film itself, but to the person and the action it conveys so graphically. These Christian viewers have been gripped by the relentless love of God in Christ, and by a new perception that this love has been given to them freely through the death of Jesus, a death for which they are themselves to blame. For them, any criticism of Mel Gibson's movie feels like a criticism of Jesus himself.
But I've also spoken with people, both Christians and others, who are confused by the movie. They can't quite make sense of what they saw. They're asking questions: probing, honest, searching questions which deserve thoughtful answers.
On a local talk radio show I listened to a rabbi who had seen the movie and came away deeply concerned that it would inflame anti-Semitism. From his perspective, The Passion of the Christ was thoroughly anti-Semitic. Although he expressed himself with strong emotion, this rabbi was obviously learned and wise. He was also one whose Jewish ancestors had been persecuted and killed by Christians. I tried to hear, not only his words, but his heart.
And then there are the secular reviewers. More vitriol has poured from their pens than anything from Jewish leaders. Yes, a few secular critics, like Roger Ebert, have given the movie a cautious thumbs up. But most of the others, whose reviews have appeared in major newspapers and magazines, have not only condemned the film, but have done so in language that is almost as graphically brutal as the violence in the movie they so despise. Consider, for example, these quotes from Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic:
I must confess that my first response to these vicious words was visceral. My stomach churned and my pulse raced. I wanted to rush into battle, my literary guns blazing, and decimate Mr. Wieseltier for his insulting attack upon, not only Mel Gibson, but most Christians. Yet I'm not going to do this. My own emotions after seeing the movie are still too raw. I'm not in a place to speak carefully and in a Christ-like manner. Now I need to be quiet. And I need to listen to Mr. Wieseltier, really to listen, to hear, not only his words, but the cry of his heart. Although I seriously doubt that, in the end, I'll agree with his critique, maybe there's something here that God wants me to understand.
A few weeks ago I wrote an appeal to Christians and Jews not to let The Passion of the Christ cause division between Christians and Jews. Now I would reiterate this appeal, but address it directly to Christians. My concern is also broader today, because the most hurtful attacks upon The Passion of the Christ are coming, not from Jews, but from secularists.
If, like me, you have been profoundly touched by The Passion of the Christ , take time for silence and for listening before you speak. Listen most of all to what the Lord might want you to hear. If a friend or a stranger speaks poorly of this movie, or even of the One it portrays, don't strike back in anger, as tempting as this might be. Instead, let's walk the second mile by listening sensitively. Let's turn the other cheek by seeking to understand those whose experience of this movie - indeed, of God -- is so different from our own. In our eagerness to defend both The Passion of the Christ and the real suffering of Jesus Christ, let's imitate the humility and self-giving love that we see so dramatically portrayed in the cross. For me, and perhaps for you too, a time of silence will help me to be more like Christ.
Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I experienced Lent as little more than a joke. "What are you giving up for Lent?" my friends would ask. "Homework," I'd say with a smirk, or "Obeying my parents." Lent was one of those peculiar practices demanded of Roman Catholics - another great reason to be Protestant, I figured.
In the last fifteen years I've discovered that Lent is in fact recognized by millions of Protestant Christians, in addition to Catholic and Orthodox believers. Lent (the word comes from the Middle English word for "spring") is a six-week season in the Christian year prior to Easter. In the ancient church it was a time for new converts to be instructed for baptism, and for believers caught in sin to focus on repentance. In time, all Christians came to see Lent as a season to be reminded of their need for penitence and to prepare spiritually for the celebration of Easter. Part of this preparation involved the Lenten "fast," giving up something special during the six weeks of Lent (but not on Sundays, in some traditions).
Many Protestants rejected the practice of Lent, pointing out, truly, that it was nowhere required in Scripture. They also wanted to avoid some of the excessive aspects of Catholic penitence that tended to obscure the gospel of grace. In time, Protestants saw Lent, at best, as something completely optional for believers, and, at worst, as a superfluous Catholic practice that true believers should avoid altogether.
Some segments of Protestantism did continue to recognize a season of preparation for Easter, however. Here the emphasis was not so much on penitence and fasting as on intentional devotion to God. Protestant churches sometimes added special Lenten Bible studies or prayer meetings so that their members would be primed for a deeper experience of Good Friday and Easter. Lent was a season to do something extra for God, not to give something up.
After ignoring Lent for the majority of my life, I've paid more attention to it during the last decade. Sometimes I've given up something (like watching television or eating sweets) in order to devote more time to Bible study and prayer. Sometimes I've added extra devotional reading to my regular spiritual disciplines. I can't claim to have had any mystical experiences during Lent, but I have found that it helps me to appreciate more deeply the meaning of the cross and the victory of the resurrection. Before I began honoring Lent, Good Friday and Easter always seemed to rush by before I could give them the attention they deserved. Now I find myself much readier to meditate upon the depth of Christ's sacrifice and to celebrate his victory over sin and death on Easter.
Lent is not a requirement for Christians. But millions of us - Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Independent - have found that recognizing the season of Lent enriches our worship and deepens our faith.
If you've never before taken Lent seriously, but the idea sounds intriguing, let me suggest one very simple practice that you might want to adopt.
No matter how it happens, I pray that the next six weeks will be for you a time of preparation, so that you might be ready for a truer, deeper, and richer experience of God's love on Good Friday and Easter.
For months I've heard evangelical Christians mention Ash Wednesday, almost always in the sentence: " The Passion of the Christ is being released on Ash Wednesday." I find this ironic because, until recently, most evangelical Christians never mentioned Ash Wednesday or gave it a second thought. But now, thanks to the effort of the Roman Catholic Mel Gibson, all of a sudden we're talking about Ash Wednesday as if it were an old friend.
I grew up with only a vague notion of Ash Wednesday. To me it was some Catholic holy day that I, as an evangelical Protestant, didn't have to worry about. During the spring of my first year of college, I was startled to see a woman who worked in my dining hall with a dark cross on her forehead. At first I wondered if it were a bizarre bruise. But then it dawned on me what I was seeing. Here was my introduction to Ash Wednesday piety. I felt impressed that this woman was willing to wear her ashes so publicly, even though it seemed rather odd to me. And, let me assure you, it never dawned on me that this would be something I might do myself.
Fast forward sixteen years. During my first year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church I learned that this church had a tradition of celebrating Ash Wednesday with a special worship service. It included the "imposition of ashes" on the foreheads of worshippers. I, as the pastor, was expected to be one of the chief imposers! So I decided it was time to learn about the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I wanted to be sure that the theological underpinnings of such a practice were biblically solid, and that it was something in which I could freely participate.
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (rather like Christmas). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter. (I'll say more about Lent in my next post.) In the earliest centuries, Christians who had fallen into persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented "in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape.
Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches that recognize this holiday. In my church ashes are placed on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
What I value most about our Ash Wednesday worship is the chance for me and my congregation to acknowledge together our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, we can freely confess our imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of Ash Wednesday is that it begins the season of Lent. This is also a foreign concept for many evangelical Christians. So in my next post I'll explain the meaning and practice of Lent, and why this can enrich your experience of God's grace in Christ.
In my last post I touched upon eight reasons for believing in the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. Today I'll add one final reason, which, ironically doesn't directly concern Jesus.
It does concern the disciples of Jesus and the way they're portrayed in the biblical gospels. The disciples start off well enough, leaving everything to follow Jesus (Mark 1:16-20). But throughout the rest of the story they are often seen as foolish, faithless, and even self-serving. For example:
If this isn't bad enough, Simon Peter, one of the leading disciples and the one whom early Christians understood to be the dominant leader of the church, outdoes the others by modeling how not to respond to Jesus.
If you haven't read through the gospels recently, you may suppose that I have simply highlighted the negative aspects of the description of the disciples. But, truly, there isn't much else there! The closest followers of Jesus - the male ones, at any rate - are mostly seen as bumbling, confused, and self-centered.
Now, let me ask you: Is this something you'd expect to find in the literature of a movement in which the disciples turned out to be the primary leaders? Do movements generally pass along stories of their founders in which they look foolish? On the contrary, most stories told by members of an organization about leaders of that organization tend to emphasize the leaders' strengths while minimizing or eliminating any evidence of their weaknesses.
It's popular in postmodern criticism of the gospels to see in them political power struggles. The Da Vinci Code has popularized this theory, holding that the biblical gospels were canonized because they were useful to augment the power of the Catholic Church. Yet, would any institution concerned primarily about its own power choose as its fundamental texts gospels that reflected so poorly on its founders?
The fact that the New Testament gospels tell true and embarrassing stories about the disciples demonstrates how reliable they are as historical sources in general, and as sources for Jesus in particular.
Let me close with a pastoral comment. The fact that Jesus' closest disciples had such a hard figuring him out and following him gives me hope. I've been a Christian for forty years and sometimes I feel like I'm just getting started in relationship with Jesus. My own discipleship is terribly flawed, and this can be discouraging to me. Yet, when I read about the buffoonery of the disciples, I'm encouraged. Jesus obviously isn't looking for perfection (or even close!), but for people who keep following him even when they mess up royally. Thank God!
Finally, after a week's worth of blogging on the question "How can we know anything about the real Jesus?", I get to the best evidence we have: the New Testament gospels.
Why are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John our most reliable sources for knowledge of the real Jesus? If you've been reading along, you know that I'm bracketing for the moment the whole question of the divine inspiration of these texts. Rather, I'm looking at them from the perspective of historical inquiry, and from this vantage point, the biblical gospels are the most trustworthy sources we have. Most scholars agree on this point. (A minority of scholars, many of whom are fellows in the notoriously skeptical Jesus Seminar, prefer The Gospel of Thomas. But their reasoning for preferring this gospel is circular. They like it as a historical source because it gives them the Jesus they have predetermined to like.)
Why are the biblical gospels reliable sources for information about the real Jesus?
1. They are the oldest of the gospels, written within 30 to 60 years after Jesus' death. Among all of the non-canonical gospels, only The Gospel of Thomas may have been written in this time period, though evidence for this dating is not strong.
2. The biblical gospels use older written sources and oral traditions about Jesus. Luke, for example, writing in the 70's or 80's, had access to much older information about Jesus (see Luke 1:1-2).
3. The authors of the gospels either knew Jesus personally (as is traditionally believed about Matthew and John) or they knew people who had known Jesus personally (as is traditionally believed about Mark, who is said to have known Peter).
4. Because we have four early gospels, we can evaluate their historicity comparatively. Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke actually used Mark as a source, which further verifies the reliability of Mark. (A minority of scholars believe that Mark and Luke used Matthew as a source.)
5. Many of the historical references in the New Testament gospels can be proved to be accurate. For example, where the gospels mention the political leaders of Palestine (Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Pontius Pilate, Emperor Augustus, Emperor Tiberius), they get the facts right.
6. The gospel writers had a great interest in preserving the truth about Jesus. Luke introduces his gospel by claiming to have studied older sources carefully so that he might write "an orderly account" of what happened to Jesus. He did this so that the reader might have certainty about Jesus' life and ministry. (See Luke 1:1-4.) Critics who accuse the gospel writers of playing fast and loose with the truth overlook the fact that these writers often put their own lives on the line for what they believed about Jesus.
7. The gospels underplay the miracle stories. Of course if you're not used to reading miracle stories, one of the first things that strikes you as you read the gospels is the prevalence of the supernatural. But if you read these stories carefully, you'll notice how matter-of-fact they are in the descriptions of Jesus' miracles. This doesn't prove that the miracles really happened, of course, but it does show that the gospel writers weren't exaggerating for dramatic effect.
I have saved one of the most persuasive arguments for the historical reliability of the gospels to the end. But this post is long enough. Tomorrow I present what I believe to be surprising but compelling evidence for the believability of the New Testament gospels. (Clue: This evidence doesn't have to do directly with Jesus.)