A movie of the Bible

When Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” was released, some Catholic critics objected that the vivid images of the film would supplant, in the meditations of Catholics, the images and impressions of Christ’s suffering that they might form on their own. Phil Lawler, for instance, declared that he was not planning to see the movie, because “the face of a particular actor, or the background of a particular scene, can become etched in the memory, making it difficult to imagine the person or the event in any other way.”

One might wonder how time has dealt with this objection. Does it remain true that those who have watched the movie cannot but see Jim Caviezel when they think of Christ? I doubt it.

The objection posits a conflict which unfortunately would not arise for most people. Would that the movie really did interfere with our prayer in that way! But only those who reflect on the Passion so intensely, that their own reflections have as much detail as a movie, would find that an actual movie could interfere with their meditations.

Most Catholics, I suspect, never arrive at that degree of detail. Their own reflections on scenes from the Bible tend to be abstract and unfocussed. That’s one reason why they welcomed Mel Gibson’s movie: it made it seem as if they were there. Finally, they could view the Passion as something that really happened.

Yet the habit of reading the Bible and imagining its scenes “as if in a movie” is a good one. Only what we regard as real fully engages us; and only historical events that we can distinctly imagine strike us as real.

St. Ignatius of Loyola in his “Spiritual Exercises” recommends actually imagining, as a first step, the backdrop to biblical scenes, to give them greater concreteness. This is not unlike fixing the “set” for a movie:

“Here it is to be noted that, in a visible contemplation or meditation -- as, for instance, when one contemplates Christ our Lord, who is visible -- the composition will be to see with the sight of the imagination the corporeal place where the thing is found which I want to contemplate. I say the corporeal place, as for instance, a Temple or Mountain where Jesus Christ or Our Lady is found, according to what I want to contemplate.”

St. Josemaria Escriva similarly recommends that, when reading the Bible, one should try to place oneself in the scene, as if one were a participant or witness:

“When you love someone, you want to know all about his life and character, so as to become like him. That is why we have to meditate on the life of Jesus, from His birth in a stable right up to His death and resurrection. In the early years of my life as a priest, I used to give people presents of copies of the Gospel and books about the life of Jesus. For we do need to know it well, to have it in our heart and mind, so that at any time, without any book, we can close our eyes and contemplate His life, watching it like a movie. In this way the words and actions of our Lord will come to mind in all the different circumstances of our life.”

His mention of love should lead us to recall how we deal with friends and relatives whom we love. We take pictures of them; we videotape what they do; we cherish souvenirs and mementos that bring us back to some particular time and place. The Gospels, so rich in concrete observation, were written in part with that intention, and in such an intention they should be read.

Why does John tell us that Jesus was drawing in the ground when they brought to Him the woman caught in adultery? Why are we told that Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus only when she heard the word, “Mary”? Why do we know that the infant Jesus was placed specifically in a manger? All of these details are details of love.

Not that this “viewing a Bible scene as if it were a movie” is a matter merely of the imagination. If our goal is to conceive of a Bible scene as real, then we must think about it as well, and continually pose to ourselves the questions, “What must it have been like for this to have happened in this way?” “Why did it happen in this way rather than some other way?”

As a brief example of what I mean, consider the resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden (Jn 20:11-18). Ask yourself, and try to answer, on the assumption that this really happened: Why does Mary look into the tomb while she is weeping? Why has one angel sat down at the place of the head, and the other at the place of the feet? Why does Mary keep referring to the corpse of Jesus as “my Lord”? (“They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have placed Him.”) What makes Mary turn around, while speaking in mid-sentence, so that she sees Jesus? What is the reason that Jesus refers to the disciples here (for the first time) as “My brothers”?

Each such question leads deeper into an interesting truth, and makes us, as readers of the Bible, sharers in the life of Christ.

Michael Pakaluk, a professor of philosophy, lives with his family in Cambridge, Mass.