The Passion of the Christ vs. The Nativity Story

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, it was met with glee by Christians of all stripes. This, many thought, is the movie that will draw the masses to Jesus and fill up American churches once again. Churches, Christian schools, and well-to-do individuals bought up entire theaters’-worth of tickets to The Passion, giving virtually no one — believer or not — an excuse for not seeing the blockbuster film about Christ’s torture and death. “Results”were certainly not impressive, if existent at all. Churches continue to decline, and at the end of the day, the film caused more controversy than it did conversion.

This Christmas, New Line Cinema gave us The Nativity Story, a small-budget film about the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus. Few churches bought up blocks of tickets to this film, possibly because of the minimal “success” of the practice two years ago. Even still, The Nativity Story has made such a little splash among Christians, its distribution has been limited to one screen at most theaters and no screens at others.

But last night, I was moved much more by The Nativity Story than I was when I saw The Passion. Here’s why:

  • There’s no way to separate the birth of Jesus from the Jewish landscape in which it occurred. The Nativity Story is pregnant with expectation … for a Deliverer … for God to “set the world to rights” (as N.T. Wright puts it). This was the world into which Christ came — a world crying out for deliverance from itself. This is very much the world in which we live (though in and through Christ, we have hope), so I found myself caught up in the faithful expectation alongside Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and so on.
  • The Nativity Story was more properly set into the story of God than The Passion of the Christ. God was active in the lives of the Jewish people, through whom He was working to change the world. Israel, though faithful at times, was not the “light to the nations” God had envisioned, and humanity’s groaning alongside God’s great love and compassion demanded a new way to communion with the Creator. The Nativity Story is the story of the arrival of “God made into flesh,”as one of the Magi poignantly states upon seeing the baby Christ. This incarnation, climaxing with the obedience of the Suffering Servant on a Roman cross, is the central event of the Christian story, which is the continuing story of God. The Passion of the Christ attempts to let Christ’s suffering on the cross stand on its own, which it fails to do without the context of the previous mission of God. The Passion was a perfect example of Western Christianity’s obsession with substitutionary penal atonement — the legal trade of Christ’s life for ours by a wrathful God. A broader context to the cross is necessary.
  • The Nativity Story calls the Christian to obedience and action, while enticing the non-Christian to the greatest story imaginable. The Passion of the Christ, in its focus on the bloodbath that was crucifixion, leaves the Christian shell-shocked and guilty (and, to be fair, thankful for Christ’s sacrifice and obedience on the cross). The Passion holds little importance to the non-Christian person, and most likely comes off more like a grandiose case of divine child abuse than an act of love. After seeing The Nativity Story, I was compelled to pray for the obedience of Mary and Joseph, the hopeful expectation of the Jewish people, and the worshipful devotion of the Magi and shepherds.

Both movies are masterfully shot, accurate representations of the historicity of each event, and worthy of cinematographic honor. I am also in no way pitting the actual crucifixion against the birth of Jesus here, simply critiquing the respective representations on film. The Passion of the Christ conjures images of violence and needs further explanation. The Nativity Story conjures images of a coming kingdom and God’s restoration of the cosmos — truly “good news.”

Go see it. And bring a friend.

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