I 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?