Should children watch “The Passion of the Christ”?

Posted on 02/22/13 25 Comments

Jesus being floggedI saw “The Passion of the Christ” twice. The first time was at a private screening at a church before it was released into the theatres. The second time was just after it was released in theatres. While it would be incorrect to say I “enjoyed” the film (in what sense would one “enjoy” watching two hours of torture and murder?), the first time I saw it I was riveted and deeply moved. As Roger Ebert observed in his fascinating review:

“For we altar boys, this [service during observance of the stations of the cross] was not necessarily a deep spiritual experience. Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ rose again, we were redeemed, and let’s hope we can get home in time to watch the Illinois basketball game on TV. What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of.”

As for Ebert, so for me: Gibson’s film illumined in a uniquely powerful way the blood and flesh reality of the death of Christ, if not the exact meaning of it. (For the most part, Gibson leaves the theological interpretation to the audience.)

The second time things were different. As we were sitting there waiting for the film to start a family came in and sat down in our row … including a child of about five. I pleaded with the father to remove his child. This was not an age appropriate film. For some perspective on just how inappropriate consider that Ebert described it as “the most violent film I have ever seen.” (And that’s spoken by somebody who has been a professional film critic since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.) But my pleas fell on deaf ears. The man just smiled broadly at me and replied “yes”. And for the next two hours he subjected his traumatized child to the unspeakable abuse unfolding on the screen.

That was an extreme example of a general fact: many people of particular religious conviction seem to believe that it is appropriate to expose children to extreme violence so long as that violence is given a particular kind of theological interpretation — e.g. specific dogmatic and/or narratival significance — within their tradition. Rarely is the exposure this extreme, the abuse this obvious. But the core assumption needs to be challenged. The fact that an extremely violent event is given a particular dogmatic and/or narratival interpretation in a particular religious tradition does not mean it is appropriate to expose children to that violence.

Christian subculture has an interesting way of dealing with the problem. Tell the stories in sanitized, age-appropriate versions. And thus we have horrifying narratives like Noah’s Ark and the destruction of Jericho transformed into skip-a-long-stories and sing-a-long-songs. (For a look at the incongruity of this see my article “Are cataclysmic natural disasters appropriate for the children’s choir?“)

I was prompted to write this article because I was approached the other day by a friend who asked whether Gibson’s film would be appropriate viewing for his ten year old child this Easter. To be sure, a ten year old who has already grappled with the dystopian future of “The Hunger Games” is world’s better than a five year old who trembled upon hearing “Franklin and the Thunderstorm” read at bedtime.  But this doesn’t mean the most violent film Roger Ebert has ever seen is appropriate viewing for that ten year old. To put it into context, I asked the parent if they would expose their child to the infamous ten minute torture-ear amputation scene in “Reservoir Dogs”. The predictable answer was an emphatic no. Okay then, what about two hours of torture and murder where the only difference is the theological interpretation laid on top of the unfolding carnage? Does the addition of the interpretation make this appropriate viewing for a child? Why would it?

  • Ray Ingles

    Sounds like what I said about it back then.

    • J_Riv

      Is ths bad link day, or is your server down?

      • Ray Ingles

        Power went out in our house yesterday. It’s back up now.

        • Kerk

          You just couldn’t resist adding that Christ didn’t actually suffer TOO much, could you?

          • Ray Ingles

            Um, I said others have suffered more. Not the same thing.

            • Kerk

              Vaguely the same. I’ve seen this line of thought a lot lately. I don’t even understand what it’s aimed at. Who cares if he didn’t suffer as much as some others did! It has nothing to do with his alleged role in Christianity. As if Christian apologists were pushing the idea that the degree of Christ’s suffering were proportional to the cumulative amount of sins committed by humanity before and after him.

              • Ray Ingles

                As if Christian apologists were pushing the idea that the degree of Christ’s suffering were proportional to the cumulative amount of sins committed by humanity before and after him.

                Um, well… some are.

                • Kerk

                  Hah! It’s actually a pretty enjoyable article! I’m rather sympathetic to the idea that God as a loving parent suffers for us eternally.

  • Bilbo

    I was upset by the anti-Semitism in the movie and was glad that it passed over the heads of most Christians. But I agree, way too much gruesome, gory violence for children to watch. But then, if children were exposed to a movie showing the slaughter of innocents at Jericho or during the Flood, I wonder what the result would be?

    • Louis

      Not the anti-semitism controversy again! What was so anti-Semitic about the film? The portrayal of the Pharisees or the Jewish crowd? Talk about anal retentive.

      • Bilbo

        Hi Louis,

        What was the New Testament’s explanation for the Temple Authorities wanting to arrest Jesus in secret?

        • Louis

          Hell, I don’t know. You’re going to have to educate me.

          • Bilbo

            Hmm…interesting. Someone who wants to defend “The Passion” as not being anti-Semitic, who doesn’t even read the New Testament, but doesn’t mind calling me anal retentive. I’ll keep that in mind. Meanwhile, I’ll educate you:

            Matthew (that’s the first book of the New Testament) 26:3-5, “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people.‘”

            Mark (that’s the second book of the New Testament) 14:1-2,
            It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people.‘”

            Luke (third book) 22:1-6, “Now the feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death; for they feared the people. Then Satgan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and engaged to give him money. So he agreed, and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of the multitude.‘”

            John (fourth book) 11:47-48, “So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let hm go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.'”

            John 12:19, “The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.‘”

            Okay, Louis, let’s see if you can answer the question now: What was the New Testament’s explanation for the Temple authorities wanting to arrest Jesus in secret?

            • Louis

              Stop asking me questions and make your case, if you can. I’m sure you find it as annoying as I do when somebody asks questions to which they know the answers. ( by the way I was only pulling your leg about the anal retentive thing)

              • Bilbo

                I am making my case. Sorry if you’re annoyed, but since you called me anal retentive, regardless of whether you meant it or not, I’ll have to insist on asking you questions. That’s the best way for educating people who really don’t want to be educated. Once again, what was the New Testament explanation for why the Temple authorities wanted to arrest Jesus in secret?

                • Louis

                  Hell, you really took it to heart. This is the blogosphere, dude. There will be blood!!! Anyway, I meant make it in a straightforward way. Give me an argument. I’m not going to submit to condescension, obviously.

                  • Bilbo

                    You can either answer my questions, or you can consider yourself a closed-minded bore, unable to think about anything deeper than your own personal prejudices. The choice is yours.

  • Tracy Oguni

    I was about 11 when I saw the passion of the Christ. My younger siblings (9 and 7 years old) watched it too.I wasn’t very moved. Frankly, I was bored. My uncle cried, so I tried to be moved by it, but none of us kids thought much of it. We also weren’t moved by The Titanic.

    I doubt it was because we didn’t understand it, because I’ve seen both movies several times since then and my reaction has been pretty much the same. It’s arresting and horrifying, but not terrifying. I don’t know if other children react in the same way, though. Maybe it was just something about us.

  • Erroll Treslan

    I pleaded with the father to remove his child. I applaud you. I probably would have bit my tongue. Much like I do when people take little kids to monster truck shows without the proper hearing protection. You’re a better man than me.

    • Randal Rauser

      Well I don’t know that I’d confront parents at a monster truck show. That’s one step away from mixed martial arts.

  • markpm

    Well, given that most children today watch movies like Hostel and Saw when they are between the ages of 6-10….

    The reason I know this is two-fold. When in university I worked in a video store (Rogers Video), and I constantly had parents come and rent movies like Saw and Hostel for their kids. I would mention that the content probably wasn’t appropriate but the parents never cared.

    I also did youth and children ministry for over a decade (and am still involved though in a much smaller capacity) and I would constantly overhear the discussions of the movies all the youth and children watched (often being directly told as well). Given that I have been in Chinese and Korean settings for the last twelve years, there are also many Asian horror/messed up movies these children have watched. Two that stand out for me being the Korean movie ‘Old Boy’ and the Japanese movie ‘Audition’, though there have been many others. I often wonder if I was age appropriate for those movies, let alone eight year old’s.

    I am not disagreeing with the post, I am just largely venting some frustration.

    • Randal Rauser

      Oh geez, don’t get me started on this. Just today my daughter told me her thirteen year old friend saw “The Human Centipede” (which I referred to in this post: This piece of garbage isn’t fit for self-respecting adults let alone a silly kid.

      Just this week a mother went to jail because she had strippers at her teen son’s birthday party. Sounds about right to me (the jail that is!). And goodness knows what will happen to a parent who smokes in the car with their child present (in some jurisdictions the penalty is steep indeed). But then what should be done to idiot parents who allow their children to watch torture porn? Perhaps we need a “nanny state’ after all.

      • J_Riv

        The anal-retentive among us will notice that there is a missing close parenthesis after the link in Randal’s comment. It ended up as part of the link itself, so in addition to not appearing it also breaks the link. You can right-click it, copy shortcut, and remove the trailing parenthesis, or you can just click here.
        Of course, I’m sure Randal will fix the link and make me look stupid. ;o)

        • Randal Rauser

          Thanks for providing the link.

  • RalphGordon

    Nope, its more of a parental guidance probably 14 and above. This was too realistically made aiming to deliver and make you feel the passion which what this movie made, I felt I can smell the blood just by watching it, goric above conventional, thumbs up for me. Let the children watch a lighter cartoon version probably and wait till they are old enough to understand.