20 Years Ago, The Passion of the Christ Scared a Generation of Christian Kids

Movies Features Mel Gibson
20 Years Ago, The Passion of the Christ Scared a Generation of Christian Kids

When I was young, teetering on the edge of sleep each night, I would test my love for God. My fists would clench beneath the thin sheet, my eyes would scrunch closed, my muscles went rigid, shaking with the effort of my focus. I would think about all the good things in my life and tell God I loved him, counting each declaration as it ticked past; 10 times, then 20, then 50. No one had asked me to do it, not precisely, but the need for all-encompassing contrition was as ingrained in the fabric of Christianity as the forgiveness promised in exchange. If “the wages of sin is death,” this was my own act of repentance; childlike, yet costly.

According to Mel Gibson, the severity of the human condition, as defined by Christian doctrine, was never adequately expressed from the pulpit. He felt that as a filmmaker it was his job to convey the totality of Christ’s suffering, accurately capturing his gory final moments. It was a decision born of his own suffering, his idea of God settling into clarity after he prayed. 

“Because of my experience I started to focus on the Passion of Jesus, which for me, growing up as a kid, had always been sanitized and not real, like a fairytale,” he explained.

From this place of desperation, The Passion of the Christ came together. The first scene opens with Jesus (as portrayed by a committed Jim Caviezel, attempting a performance beneath gallons of fake blood) praying in the garden of Gethsemane while being visited by Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), who skulks around our sweaty protagonist, peering out beneath a dark cape. This is how the relatively simple retelling begins, with broad beats over-emphasized with slow-motion; a warning of the gruesome endurance test which unfolds over the next few hours. 

The real legacy of Gibson’s passion project is how it was readily embraced by the Christian right, weaponized as a sharp, strange evangelistic tool. My own experience with The Passion of the Christ stretches back to the early 2010s, late into the age-old youth group tradition of the “lock in.” 

Lock ins are somewhat self-explanatory: A group of teenagers are locked into a church hall for a co-ed sleepover. Every so often the merriment would be interrupted by a mini-sermon and an altar call (a chance for attendants to publicly announce their faith). 

One year, at around 2 AM and in lieu of a sermon, they played the final half hour of The Passion of the Christ for a room of sleep-deprived tweens. My youth pastor stood at the front, providing a tearful commentary on Christ’s crucifixion, imploring us to commit our lives to God. Most of us sat dazed, the after-effects of our sugar highs wearing into dull headaches as we absorbed the blood and gore. A few people trudged up to the stage where they would at least have their backs to the images projected overhead.

Plenty of children from Christian homes had a similarly bizarre first encounter with this blood-soaked extravaganza. Conchúr, my friend from high school, remembers being eight years old and consigned to a Sunday school class where there were not enough teachers. 

“The choice was either ‘Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed’ [a VeggieTales installment] or The Passion of the Christ,” they said of their childhood viewing options. “Obviously, the appropriate choice was The Passion of the Christ.”

These viewers were the very people who had been sheltered from the extremities of the world by conservative institutions. Yet Gibson’s film was the fascinating exception to the evangelical rule: A grotesque piece of body horror that drew in a herd of young Christians. A demographic whose experience with cinema was confined to the narrow cultural corner of Narnia and The Prince of Egypt were suddenly thrust into uncharted terrain.

Upon its release and for the decades following, The Passion of the Christ became the highest-grossing R-rated movie in the U.S., taking in $370,782,930 domestically. This was partly explained by the aforementioned ideological embrace of the Christian right, and partly explained by the offscreen controversies and encounters that reverberated through the film’s press cycle. 

Caviezel has spread an array of unusual stories from the set, claiming to be struck by lightning in the midst of the crucifixion sequence and insisting that multiple actors converted to Christianity mid-shoot. But Caviezel’s questionable talking points pale in comparison to Gibson’s perpetual public missteps, which range from the absurd to the reprehensible. His history of antisemitism is notorious in Hollywood, a non-secret addressed with startling discretion by the industry elite. This over-the-top rendition of Jesus’ death feels like an ugly, inevitable chapter in Gibson’s public wrongdoings. 

Everyone from the Anti-Defamation League to South Park to Pope John Paul II (allegedly, and then not) chimed in on the movie, unintentionally drumming up a public frenzy around its depiction of violence, its historical accuracy, and its artistic value. Indeed, its impact stretched far beyond Christian circles. Many I talked to recall seeing it (or part of it) in school, as early as age 14 or 15. The image of Caviezel draped in body prosthetics and marching a wooden cross through crowds of angry extras was seared into developing minds and labeled as historically accurate. Culturally, The Passion of the Christ’s bland first hour is buried beneath the concluding 30 minutes, which dramatizes ancient torture methods in grizzly clarity.

As we look back after 20 years, we can see that what hides beneath The Passion of the Christ’s grand, protracted sense of self-importance is a deeply familiar clashing of male egos. Between Gibson, Caviezel and the church leaders who drummed up ticket sales, The Passion of the Christ serves solely as a chance for men to reaffirm their faith and perseverance in a public arena. For those of us who were exposed to it early on, the film served a more practical, didactic purpose—living in a similar space to unexpectedly violent drunk driving PSAs. Gibson may have not proven his directorial prowess, but he will live in infamy for scaring a generation of kids into evangelical submission.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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