Easter Sunday cover story for The Tennessean
Mel Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ is less a vehicle for religious debate this Easter than last and more a tool for Christians to appreciate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“This is the second time I’ve seen it,” said St. Francis Episcopal Church member Shannon Hoyt after viewing it on Good Friday. “I think the first time it was kind of like shell shock and it takes awhile to digest.
“Last week, I did some of the readings in church, and I could put a picture to the story and it makes it more real.”
Hoyt and other church members viewed the original film on Good Friday, as did congregations of a number of other local churches.
Gibson has released an edited, less graphic version called The Passion Recut. It had a brief run here March 11-17 at Rivergate Eight Cinema and Carmike Thoroughbred 20 Cinema in Franklin.
With the controversy over the movie’s violence and depiction of Jews waning, the film has become a study device for Christians to witness and talk about the 12 hours before Christ’s death.
When the film was released in 2004, Jewish organizations and the Anti-Defamation League voiced concerns that it portrayed Jews as the group responsible for Jesus’ death. Most Christian leaders these days are choosing to look at the message, not the controversy.
“Being Good Friday, it’s sort of the perfect way for us to engage,” said Father Chris Findlay, pastor of St. Francis. “We are such a visual culture and we are so media-driven. I think that what Mel Gibson did was help us re-engage what had gotten clouded by familiarity.”
The original movie earned more than $611 million when it was released, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time – and it was filmed in Aramaic and Latin.
In a video statement on the film’s Web site, http://www.thepassionofthechrist.com, Gibson says the edited version is intended to be more accessible to a younger and perhaps more squeamish audience.
“I have softened it somewhat. It’s still a hard film,” Gibson said.
As a lead-in to Easter Week, St. Matthew Catholic Church screened the original version for its congregation on Friday, March 18.
“For a lot of people in the group to actually see on film the suffering that Christ went through really brought home the central message of God’s love for us,” said Ron Deal, a deacon at St. Matthew.
“One of the people who attended is going through the process to enter the Catholic Church. Seeing the movie the first time last year, when it came out in the theaters, really had a huge impact on him.”
Gibson spent 12 years and $25 million of his own money making the movie. The story of Christ’s redemption did not go unnoticed by major studios that later scrambled to figure out how they had previously left an entire audience of the faithful out of their reckoning.
The movie is based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The rest is history-congregations buying blocks of tickets, men crying, others fainting and many having their faith renewed.
But what was to some a mystical experience was to others a needless bloodbath. Even the gentler The Passion Recut could not get a PG-13 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. The film is still rated R, which means no one under 17 can attend without an adult.
The original theater run drew a wide mix of Christians and others curious to see the movie that was making headlines for its graphic depiction of Christ’s death.
The new version may be a way to take the edge off a film that even many Christians thought too graphic.
Mike Mann, associate minister of Music and Worship at Donelson’s Two Rivers Baptist Church, said the impact would be powerful in either version. He urged parents to be responsible.
“The greatest advice is for the parents to see the movie first and let each parent make a decision about their kids,” Mann said. Two Rivers Baptist Church rented the Opryland Theater at Opry Mills for two days when the movie was originally released.
“Grown men weeping in a theater is a pretty good example of the emotional impact of the movie,” Mann said. “The truth is there.”
Pastor Dave Cauthen of Genesis Church in Spring Hill said that, from his experience, when the excitement of the film wanes, then often so does the questioning. Genesis Church’s congregation also viewed the film on Good Friday.
“I saw some things that were very wonderful in terms of being a theologian,” Cauthen said. “Anything that jars our emotions will cause questions. However, once the emotions are gone, the questions stop.”
ASCAP licensing manager Ed Starke, who said he was “renewed” by the movie when it came out, said it holds a particular power for those who know the story but have never seen it presented visually.
“I come from a long background in religion,” said Starke. “I am very well aware of, and have studied, the Roman scourge. Even on screen the gore really didn’t get to me, though it was pretty shocking. I think it could have gone further if you take the Scriptures for what it says.”
Starke, a father, said that even though the movie was powerful for him, he would rather children learn of Christ’s life first, not his death.
“For a 12-year old, I would rather he know more about other aspects of Christ like his healing, the lessons of love such as the feeding of the hungry with fishes and loaves rather than be too concerned at such an early stage about the sacrifice that Christ made,” Starke said.
The outcry that Jews were vilified in the film, Cauthen said, made little sense. “The ancient Jews in the time of Rome had no ability to carry out capital punishment. The Jews didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans actually carried it out. If we believe in this Jesus, that there was death and resurrection, here is what he said: ‘You can’t kill me. I lay my life down.’ “
Cauthen said he would probably use the movie as a vehicle for Good Friday until it no longer has an impact. “It’s like anything else, you try to not run it in the ground.”
“The understanding of Good Friday is that we watch this Passion until he dies and then we turn it off. We do not continue the story until Sunday. That’s very much the early church that said we need to experience the pain Friday and all day Saturday. Then when we come to gather on that Sunday morning there is a new word spoken and that is ‘He’s alive.’ “