“The Passion of the Christ,” a US$30-million motion picture telling the story of the last 12 hours of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, has already provoked a worldwide discussion about those events and their significance. The film, co-written, produced, funded and directed by actor Mel Gibson, opens in North America on Feb. 25, with a release in Britain one month later. Other worldwide screenings are expected to follow.
The movie has stirred controversy over the way it depicts the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, men who agitated for His crucifixion. Some have derided the portrayal as anti-Semitic, while others, such as Rabbi Daniel Lapin, film critic Michael Medved and Gibson himself say the film harbors no such intent.
Several Seventh-day Adventist media ministry directors, as well as this reporter, were able to view the movie during a private, Feb. 16 screening at the 61st National Religious Broadcasters convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. We were part of an audience of nearly 3,000 people gathered in a convention center ballroom. As the two-hour film concluded near midnight, silence gripped the crowd as it filed out: apart from some praying silently at their seats, there was no conversation or noisemaking of any kind. The graphic, intense nature of the film and its impact precluded normal conversation for several minutes.
“During this private screening of ‘The Passion,’ we were overwhelmed with the impact, [and] not only on us,” said Pastor Lonnie Melashenko, speaker/director of The Voice of Prophecy, an Adventist radio and television ministry based in Simi Valley, California.
“It was a profoundly spiritual display, amazingly accurate. I would strongly encourage those involved in the Sow 1 Billion effort to get out to theaters and offer the leaflets advertising the Discover Bible studies” to those leaving showings of the film, he said.
Melashenko added, “This movie will provide many witnessing opportunities. It’s almost providential that it appears during the ‘Year of Evangelism’ for our church and the Sow 1 Billion campaign.”
Pastor John Lomacang, of the Thompsonville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Illinois, also attended the NRB convention and the private screening. He said the underlying message of the film impressed him most.
“The strongest point for me was that Jesus was bruised for our transgressions,” he said the morning after the screening. “If [Mel Gibson] was aiming at accurately depicting Jesus’ suffering, he succeeded.”
While he might have wanted to see a greater emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, Lomacang said such a turn “might have blotted out of our minds the suffering” of the Nazarene.
He also noted the film’s effect on its audience: “It was the most quiet exit from a film that I have ever experienced.”
Though the effect of the movie on audiences is expected to open up opportunities for evangelism, should Adventists dash out to cinemas? Not without considering the film’s origins, says Dr. Angel Manuel Rodríguez, director of the church’s Biblical Research Institute.
“Keep in mind that this is a Hollywood production,” Dr. Rodríguez, who has not yet seen the film, told ANN. “The producer may be sincere, but there are other issues. Also, [Gibson] has his own theological views,” he added.
However, he added, “there is nothing wrong with going to see a movie about Jesus. If it’s as loyal as it can be to the Gospel story, there’s nothing wrong with watching it. We will have to see how intense this movie is, how loyal it is to the biblical text.”
While Gibson, a “traditionalist” Roman Catholic who personally rejects many of the changes instituted by the Second Vatican Council, said he drew the story from the Gospel accounts, he also admits that the visions of two Catholic nuns, Anne Catherine Emmerich of France and Spain’s Mary of Agreda, influenced his script. In an interview with David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine, Gibson said “the film is so Marian,” in its treatment of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Such elements may be foreign to many viewers. Dr. Rodríguez says that overall, the film will “put Jesus back into the social consciousness of the Western world. All of a sudden people are talking about Jesus’ death and what it means.”
Dick Duerksen, director for spiritual development at Florida Hospital, also viewed the film at a private screening.
“I don’t think people should go see the film unless they believe that the Cross is the tipping point of eternity,” Duerksen told ANN. “They’re going to miss the whole thing.”
“What impressed me the most about the film is the sounds of the audience; 10 minutes into the film, the weeping began and throughout the rest of the film, there were many people weeping, wailing, confessing sins, asking for forgiveness, and praising God for His grace,” Duerksen added. “It was just overwhelming the way people responded.”
Anticipating that the film will “become a subject of conversation” at the Florida Hospital’s branches, Duerksen said tickets have been purchased for 50 of its chaplains, to prepare them for discussions with patients and others.