In the history of modern evangelical enthusiasms, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ seems to be joining WWJD bracelets and Promise Keepers' conferences as cultural markers. At first it seemed like it might just be a quirky art film: a film about Jesus' passion using only Aramaic and Latin—and with no subtitles.

But what started out as news of the weird has turned into a powerful and popular film that is likely to be a major milestone in cinematic history. Gibson has filmed the Passion with his trademark force—and for those whose ancient language skills are a bit rusty, he has added subtitles. In January, Gibson told CT that the film had already been scheduled to open on close to 3,500 screens—that places it squarely between Finding Nemo and Return of the King at their peak distribution last year.

Promoters have produced a Passion lapel pin and witnessing card. Endorsements have poured in from evangelical leaders like Focus on the Family president Donald Hodel and Harvest Crusades evangelist Greg Laurie. Public figures as diverse as Willow Creek Community Church's pastor Bill Hybels and bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs have hosted special screenings for pastors. Moving responses from ordinary believers and Christian celebrities have circulated widely on the Internet, urging believers to see the movie. And Tyndale House has reinforced the movie's influence by publishing The Passion, a coffee table book that integrates still photos from the filming with a harmony of the Passion accounts drawn from the New Living Translation. (Many illustrations for this issue of CT come from that book.)

This evangelical enthusiasm for The Passion of the Christ may seem a little surprising, in that the movie was shaped from ...

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