Okay, I winced when the screen promised the greatest outreach opportunity in 2,000 years. As a pastor, I'd like to believe it; as a journalist, I'm skeptical. Two hours later, I was wondering if it might be true. Certainly, The Passion of the Christ is our greatest opportunity this year to share our faith, if we can get past the hype.
Mel Gibson's movie is already generating lots of buzz—some good, some bad—and you have no doubt seen the reports. Did the Pope endorse the film? Does the movie blame the Jews for killing Jesus? Beyond that, there's the issue of violence. The beating, the nailing, the bloodletting usually completed in about 10 minutes in most tellings of the Crucifixion is stretched to two hours. And though the depiction is truly masterful, it is painful. It is relentless. I should have known that when I saw the stacks of tissue boxes at the auditorium entrance at Willow Creek Community Church a couple of weeks ago. Gibson brought the film to the heartland—as he has to churches in Florida and California and Kansas and other non-traditional venues—hoping to generate a church leader-led groundswell. The Hollywood-NewYork establishment wouldn't get it, Gibson's church-promotion liasons said.
But the pastors did. More than 4,000 invited guests survived the security checks designed to keep traditional media out of the screening. They wept at the appropriate places and, if they were like me, looked away when the flogging was too real. Whatever the theologians may think of Gibson's interpretation, he got this right: Jesus suffered, and for once, unlike in our sanitized, Easter-cantata, ketchup-for-blood crucifixions, we suffered with him.
At the Chicago screening, Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels, who hosted the event, came on stage and gently led in prayer as the stunned crowd required several minutes to recover. Later, they gave Mel Gibson a standing ovation.
The grassroots approach is already having some effect. In anticipation of the February 25 debut (Ash Wednesday), some large churches in Texas and Kansas have rented out theaters for multiple screenings. First Family Church in Kansas City plans to hold prayer sessions after each showing. And USA Today reports presales of tickets for The Passion was the number one seller on Fandango, an online service, with 19 percent of sales last week. Gibson's promoter urged pastors at the Chicago preview to take their youth groups. They have posted a permission form online, which will be needed for those under age 17 to attend the R-rated film. There is no sex in this one, but it is gruesome. Gibson told the crowd he didn't feel children under age 10 should see it. In my humble opinion, there will be plenty of adults who can't handle the brutality. One Texas reviewer, Jody Dean of KTVY, said, even in urging his audience to see the film, that this is not a movie anyone will like—or love. "No one will eat popcorn during this movie." The reviewer said, "I wanted to vomit. It hits that hard."
Gibson, who invested $25 million of his own money to make the film, is to be credited with his presentation of Jesus as The Christ. He allowed Jesus to declare himself "The way, the truth, and the life," as in John 14:6; and to complete the verse: "No one comes to the Father except through me." (No wonder he didn't hold the premiere in Hollywood.) Gibson was a lapsed Catholic, away from his faith 17 years, when he had a spiritual renewal a decade ago. He began work on this project almost immediately, immersing himself in the Gospels and many religious writings. Although he doesn't use much of the terminology of evangelical Christianity, Gibson's faith commitment is apparent. In producing The Passion, he sought to be faithful to the Gospel accounts, he said. He consulted with a broad range of theologians during production, and has received endorsements from conservative and liberal scholars alike.