Despite critics concerns that the upcoming film The Passion may fuel tension between the Jewish and Christian communities, the faithful across the nation are hurrying to buy tickets by the thousands, to share with non-believers.
At the Prestonwood Southern Baptist Church in Texas, 7,500 top leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention had a sneak early viewing of the film. Afterwards, nearly all of them went to their respective churches around the nation, and bought out theatres and tickets to hand out not only to their congregations, but to their communities.
The United Methodist Church of Visilia, south of Fresno, Calif., bought out three showings of the film and is planning panel discussions after each showing. The church also is tying the film into a Lenten study of Jesus trial and death.
Faithbridge United Methodist Church in Houston is mailing out flyers and sending members to the films showings with business cards inviting viewers to visit the congregation for discussion of the film.
Its a very provocative film, and it would be hard for anyone who is not a follower of Jesus Christ to see the movie and just walk out and be done with it, says Ken Werlein, pastor of Faithbridge United Methodist Church, which bought hundreds of tickets in advance.
The churches also put together studies on the film and evangelistic tracks related to the film.
Cove United Methodist Church put together a four-week series of sermons, titled CSI: Jerusalem, taking an investigative look at Jesus trial and death. The church is promoting the series with mailings around the community inviting Passion viewers to visit the congregation for a better understanding of the films claims.
The National Council of Churches, which represents 36 denominations in the United States, also released a guide to the Passion, as a means to help viewer understand and grasp the message of the controversial film.
Similarly, the Southern Baptists held a convention to teach their pastors to do the same.
Without an invitation from churches, said Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. The graphic portrayal of Jesus' persecution and crucifixion will be a lost opportunity likely never to come again in our lifetimes."
Many have criticized the Passion for its gory details of violence and pain, and for the possibility of invoking anti-semetism, as did the Passion plays of the past.
My concern about it is the use of graphic violence and heart-wrenching emotional trauma to get people to follow Jesus, says Susan Bond, an associate professor at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., who teaches a course on Jesus in film. It seems to me enormously manipulative.
On the other hand, Christians have said the films realism, even if it may be violent, sets it apart from other films about Jesus.
It just aims right at the heart, said Lin Goodyear, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Visilia. Instead of knowing about Christ, they will know Christ.
So with what heart should Christians and non-Christians view the film?
Mel Gibson, the writer, producer, director and financier of the film, says he hopes the film will help give viewers a deeper understanding of what Christ had to endure to pay the price for mankind's sins. A number of Christian leaders that have previewed the film have remarked that they were greatly affected by it, and that the movie has a powerful spiritual impact.
"I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge," Gibson says, "and it does that. I think it pushes one over the edge so that they see the enormity of that sacrifice -- to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness."
Gibson said he went through a spiritual crisis twelve years ago, and hav since then researched and reflected upon the four books of the bible. As a result, he says, the film closely represents the Gospels portrayal of Jesus last hours.
"But at the same time it's hugely personal," Gibson said. "I saw other film versions and I couldn't understand them, I couldn't believe them. Once I started meditating on [Christ's] passion, really going deep into it in my own mind and heart, then I began to understand it, to believe that's the version I put on film."
Gibson says he hopes the film will help give viewers a deeper understanding of what Christ had to endure to pay the price for mankind's sins.
"I hope it makes people think," Gibson said. "I hope it makes them reflect. The movie is about faith, hope, love and forgiveness. If it stirs those things up in people, it will be a success. I hope it makes people ask questions, and maybe even makes them want to read 'the Book.'"
All in all, Gibson confessed that his hope for the movie was not to cause more dissension among peoples especially among the Jewish and Christian communities but to bring people together.
"I expected some criticism, but I wasn't expecting it to get so personal. It's been a real eye-opener," Gibson said. "My prayer life has grown a lot as a result of it. I pray for the people who are upset. I sincerely believe that their suspicions are wrong. This movie will bring people closer together, not incite violence and hatred. That was our experience in making it, and that has been the experience of the people who have seen it so far."