Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, which opens this week on Ash Wednesday, has already gotten a lot of ink. Most of the negative buzz has focused on whether the movie's violent depiction of Jesus' last hours feeds the view that Jews are responsible for his death. But it's not just Jews who are critical of the film. And not all of the discomfort centers on whether Gibson's movie is anti-Semitic. (That's an opinion many are reserving until they've actually seen the film.)
Some church leaders are also uncomfortable with the marketing blitz engineered by Gibson and his backers. The Passion has had numerous private screenings at religious conferences and church gatherings. And it has quickly become a media cause celebre--especially among conservative, evangelical Christians who ordinarily shun Hollywood films, but are now urging their congregants to rush out and see this R-rated one. "The movie brings everything to life--the reality, the purpose, the reason Christ came," the Rev. Kelvin Redmond, pastor of Body of Christ Church in North Raleigh, told The News & Observer last week. "This is a must-see movie for every Christian to become reacquainted with the Bible story."
Jack McKinney, co-pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh couldn't agree less.
"I won't see the film," he says. "I don't think there is anything new there for me to see. I'm not clear about Mel Gibson's motives in doing this movie. I don't want to impugn his motives. I just don't see a spiritual or religious benefit in encouraging my parishioners to see it." McKinney says concerns about the film's anti-Semitism are real because Christians "have a very poor understanding of how their own tradition has been interpreted for over 1500 years in a way that has resulted in violence."
But he's also worried about how the film depicts Christianity. "I think the church's fixation on the crucifixion over the life and teachings of Jesus is a regrettable part of our tradition," McKinney says. "His suffering and death are obviously part of the story. But over time in popular culture, it's become too dominant a part of the story." His sentiments are echoed by other progressive church leaders in the Triangle, who question the wisdom of allowing Gibson's portrayal of Christ's death to become the official word on the story.
"This is the gospel according to Mel,' says Father David McBriar, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham. "What he's done is take the traditional passion play and ratchet it up with Hollywood visuals." McBriar does plan to see Gibson's film. "I think media is critically important to the life of people,' he says. "There have been some great religious films made in the past." (His own favorite is Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew).
But McBriar is reserving judgment on whether a movie that focuses mainly on Jesus' death will advance his teachings. "What we forget is that in our tradition, we see the passion, death and resurrection as one event,' he says. "It seems to me that the death of Jesus was the result of the way he lived. The resurrection is God's answer to the question, 'Is a life like he lived worthwhile?' The answer is, 'Yes.' "
There's also the question of how Gibson's film will affect interfaith dialogue, which in the post-Sept. 11 climate has become a critical goal for many religious leaders.
"I think it's lousy timing,' says McKinney, of Pullen Memorial Baptist. "What the world needs now is a movie about our tradition that emphasizes its openness to all--the inclusiveness of Jesus. That would have been a much more helpful addition." (Look for Godfrey Cheshire's review of The Passion of the Christ in next week's Independent.)