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February 28, 2004
Column #1,174

                              "The Passion of the Christ"

     On Ash Wednesday Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" opened on an unprecedented 4,643 screens in America to packed crowds. If 300 people were in each one, 1.4 million people witnessed this epic film on its first day. 

     In Dallas, despite a cold rainy day, 6,000 people attended 21 screenings in one theater complex at 6:30 AM, 7:30 and 8:30 thanks to a $42,000 gift by Arch Bonemma. He donated 3,000 tickets to his megachurch, Prestonwood Baptist. Members had to bring an unchurched friend. He gave another 1,000 to Dallas Theological Seminary, and others to juniors and seniors at Christian schools, to homeless shelters, and business acquaintances.

     Six weeks ago, Dallas clergy were invited to a private screening, but many turned it down. Arch Bonemma, 50, and his son Jacob were invited to fill in. As they walked out, Arch said to his son, "I feel I have not sacrificed enough. I want to lead a life more worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus to be a better husband and father." 

     Jacob replied, "I agree. We ought to reach out to our community and give them this incredibly moving experience. We need to get as many people going as early as possible, to prove Hollywood wrong that no one will want to see it."

     That sort of Christian generosity generated $10 million of advance sales. I know a church that bought 10,500 tickets. A new church attended by Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, bought 300 tickets. Her reaction to the film?

     "To be honest, I've studied Scripture, but the crucifixion was more horrid than I imagined. Based on the Bible, the Gospel writers turned their faces away. Mel Gibson studied Roman crucifixions. It was so much more brutal than I would have thought....It has a message for the church. God wants to confront the church with the horrific nature of our sins. There are a lot of people who claim Jesus as Savior, but we tolerate sin in our lives. We play around with it. God demands holiness. It's time for the church to get right with God."

     While evangelicals thought the film would convert many of the unchurched, I'm doubtful. However, it will deepen the faith of believers like Mrs. Lotz and the Bonnemas.  

     Imam Yassir Fazuga, leader of a California mosque, said, "As an 'unchurched' person, I really do not think it has added any more knowledge to me about the character of Jesus. I really do not get the point of why the violence was the focal point of the movie."

     Frankly, that was not explained well. One needed to know the life of Christ to fully appreciate the film, plus Hebrews 9:14 and 26 that the blood of Christ "cleanse our consciences" of sin "by the sacrifice of himself." Darrell Bock, a theologian at Dallas Theological Seminary, says the film "is not designed to answer questions; it is designed to raise them."

     However, Bock is right that "it was an incredibly powerful film that visualizes one of the most important events of religious history. The gospels do not spend time detailing the nature of his suffering because in that time they'd have understood what crucifixion was."

     Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, charged that "The Passion" was anti-Semitic. I do not agree. Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin was rushed, and at night. Some said, "Where are the other members of the Council? This is a travesty." Caiaphas, the high priest, who persuaded a reluctant Pilate to order Jesus' death, was repugnant. But the Roman soldiers who laughed as they whipped him were more disgusting. Some Jews in the crowd were sympathetic to Jesus. Of course, Jesus, Mary and all the disciples were Jews.. In seeing "Schindler's List" we end up hating Nazis, not all Germans.

     Finally, when Pilate washed his hands saying "I am innocent of this man's blood," the crowd shouted in Aramaic, "Let his blood be on us and our children," but Mel Gibson removed a subtitle with those words. And Gibson's own hands drove the nail into Jesus' hand, symbolizing the Christian belief that the sins of all of us were responsible for his death.

     I was troubled by the very brief Resurrection scene. One hears the stone rolled away and a healed Jesus rises to walk into the sunlight. We don't see the joy of the disciples. But everyone I interviewed felt it was "brilliantly understated," as Fuller Seminary's Craig Detweiler put it.

     "By doing less, he allowed the audience to believe it more."

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